How Oil Can Calm a Choppy Lake

According to Benjamin Franklin, he could calm a choppy lake with the touch of his cane and a little bit of oil. This might sound like a myth, but it’s actually true. By looking at the before and after images on this article, you can clearly see how adding a spoonful of oil can create a calm circle around a boat in choppy waters.

Why Does Oil Calm Water?

When oil is poured into water, its molecules spread out to form a layer that is one molecule thick. These molecules flip over onto their negatively charged heads and stand on top of positively charged water particles like magnets. This creates a film over the water’s surface that is only one molecule thick, making it possible to calculate the size of a single molecule of oil.

The layer of oil molecules on top of the water acts as a blocker for the wind’s traction, moving the layer of oil instead of creating waves. This is how adding oil can calm choppy waters.

Historical and Modern Applications

Benjamin Franklin used this trick to prank people and make himself appear like a choppy-water-calming God. Sailors would dump their cooking oil into the water during rough seas to help stop the waves and gain some reprieve. Some ships even carried casks of oil for this purpose.

Today, the science behind oil’s calming effect is used to create “invisible glass” by adding a one-layer thick film of oil or a smaller molecule like magnesium fluoride onto glass. This reduces reflection and glare, making it useful in modern society.

Glass used in phone and tablet screens, laptops and glasses has a layer on top that cancels out the reflection from the glass, resulting in a reduction in glare. Adding a spoonful of oil to calm a choppy lake is similar to how this glass works. This little factoid can be used for practical jokes or for making smartphone screens.


1. How does oil calm a lake?

When oil is poured onto a lake, it spreads across the surface and forms a thin layer. This layer of oil prevents the water molecules from creating waves by disrupting the surface tension. As a result, the lake appears calmer and smoother. The oil layer also helps to reduce evaporation, which can be beneficial in hot and dry climates.

2. Is it safe to pour oil into a lake?

No, it is not safe to pour oil into a lake. While a small amount of oil can calm the surface of the water, too much oil can have harmful effects on the environment. Oil spills can kill aquatic life, harm the food chain, and pollute the water. It is important to use alternative methods to calm a lake, such as mechanical aeration or planting aquatic vegetation.

3. Can oil be used to calm other bodies of water?

Yes, oil can be used to calm other bodies of water, such as ponds or swimming pools. However, it is important to use a small amount of oil and to ensure that the oil is safely disposed of afterwards. In addition, it is recommended to use oil only as a temporary solution and to address the root cause of the waves or turbulence.

4. Are there any other benefits to using oil to calm a lake?

One potential benefit to using oil to calm a lake is that it can help to improve the reflectivity of the water. When the surface of the water is calm and smooth, it can reflect sunlight and create a beautiful mirror effect. This can be especially stunning during sunrise or sunset. However, it is important to weigh the potential benefits against the risks and environmental impact of using oil.

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