A look at the real Ben Franklin, his genius and wit.
In my research of pre-revolutionary American for my novel Lightning Strikes the Colonies I did an extensive study on a man I think is the most amazing man in American history, Benjamin Franklin. His birthday is January 17th, and I would like to take a moment to tell you about this incredible man.
How many, when they picture Franklin, think of the character on the Quaker Oaks box, or perhaps the itching on the 100 dollar bill? For many, the image of Franklin involves a kite, key, and bolt of lightning. But these images don’t do him justice. Did you know he was over 6 feet tall? And since he worked out every day with his printing press he had a very strong upper body. In a time when the average height was 5’5” he was considered quite tall. In fact he rounded his shoulders and slumped to act more humble.
His accomplishments are particularly remarkable when considered colonial North America lacked the cultural and commercial institutions to nourish original ideas. He dedicated himself to the improvement of everyday life for the widest number of people and, in so doing, made an indelible mark on the American landscape.
Here’s a little known fact, when he was eleven he developed swimming fins and pad and in 1978 was recognized by the international Swimmers Hall of Fame as the first American to do so. Here’s another interesting note he also did a little wind surfing– he would fasten a kite on his arm and have the kite pull him. Today we use a surf board, but perhaps his mode of wind surfing was the precursor to that sport?
When I think of Franlink, I think of him as if he had three distinct different careers – first printer, writer and newspaper man – second as a scientist/inventor and - third as the statesman and patriot that he is most remembered for.
As a printer did you know he amassed a fortune by developing a media network in the colonies, and of course with his Poor Richard’s almanac selling over 10,000 copies a year. By today calculations, that would equate to over 1 million copies today. He established his media network by backing individuals in outposts/post offices and furnishing them with a printing press and supplies for which he would take a % of the profits. When there were only 27 papers in 13 colonies he had an ownership stake in two thirds of them. Also he was the postmaster for Pennsylvania which helped with distribution of his paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette and of course, his almanac business. It is said that Franklin established a style of journalism that became the foundation for modern American news coverage. Today, when all major news, no matter what media, are controlled by seven global corporations, Franklin truly believed in a non-partisan voice, even if he created both side in an argument himself.
I love what he did in his first published almanac - When he started he had competition with another almanac printer so in one of his first edition he wrote that he was sorry to say that the other gentleman was dead! This cause quite a stir with the other printer, so Franklin wrote in the next edition, "although the man professes he was still alive, you could not prove it by me as by his writing he must surely have died a long time ago.”
I really love an article he wrote in 1751 under the persona ‘Americus,’ as it really shows his great humor and wit. He sent a satirical message to Britain over their sending of convicts to populate the colonies. His suggestion was to export rattlesnakes in trade. “There might be some difficulties in the scheme, but no worse than went with the transporting of felons to America. Rattle-snakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent to us by our mother country. However, she will have the advantage of us. She will reap equal benefits without equal risk of the inconveniences and dangers. For the rattle-snake gives warning before he attempts his mischief; which the convict does not.”
Another one of Franklin’s cleverest essays was the hoax he played on London in 1773. Franklin tried to show England how unjust taxes were on the colonies. When he wrote An Edict of the King of Prussia, he literally made a mockery of the British Empire’s tax acts.
The edict used the same false arguments Britain claimed on the American colonies. The King of Prussia stated, “Whereas it is well known to the entire world, that the first settlements made in the Island of Britain were by colonies of the people subjects to Prussia’s renowned ducal ancestors, and they have never been emancipated there from." It demanded a tax on all paper goods, like the Stamp Act and required all manufacturing of iron works be halted, as the Iron Act did in the colonies. There was even a statement that said all convicts from Prussia would be sent to England. It caused a horrendous uproar in Parliament—the Prime Minster was ready to march on Munich as Franklin laughed and said, “How comfortable the shoe, when it is on the other foot?”
Franklin gained tremendous acclaim through his organization of the Junto, originally called the Leather Apron Club. It was a small group of young men who engaged in business and debated morality, politics, and philosophy. Their motto was: doing well by doing good. The way they looked at applying solutions to civil problems was they could make profit as a result of their solution, all the better.
Through his work with the club, Ben Franklin is credited with initiating a paid city night watch, volunteer fire department, subscription library (Library Company of Philadelphia), the first hospital, and first non-religious college Pennsylvania Academy, known today as the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society, which promoted scientific and intellectual dialogue and, to this day, is one of the nation's premiere scholarly associations. His club met every Friday evening and as they debated they would also drink they fill – in fact Franklin wrote over 8 or 9 drinking songs. Franklin not only created a musical instrument, the Armorica, he was also a composer, making him the first American rock star!
A keen observer of nature throughout his life, Franklin by the age of 42 had amassed enough personal wealth from his printing business that he was able to retire and pursue his love of scientific research full time, his second career - Scientist and Inventor.
As a Scientist he studied heat dissipation in homes and invented the iron furnace stove, a small contraption with a sliding door which burns wood on a grate, thus allowing people to cook food and heat their homes more efficiently at the same time, called the Pennsylvania fireplace – know as the Franklin stove.
For measuring the distance between towns and cities to get the mail faster he invented a simple odometer. When he was bothered with changing between distance and magnifying glasses, he invented what we today call bifocals.
However, the 18th century considered electricity to be Franklin's most remarkable area of investigation and discovery. He tested his hypothesis that lightning bolts are actually powerful electrical currents and that lightning and electricity were one and the same. Not only did this astound scientists of the day, the church had a field day stating he was a blasphemer, as up until that time people felt lightning was God’s punishment for the wicked.
His discovery work led to the invention of the lightning rod which had the dramatic effect of preventing structures from igniting and burning as the result of being struck by lightning. By the way, he established the first fire insurance in America, and for taking out a policy against fire from lightning, he would erect a lightning rod to the building that was being insured.
He didn’t patent any of his inventions, stating in his autobiography, he wanted to give to the people. However little know facts I uncovered indicate he questioned patenting but was told a colonist from America (a secondhand citizen) would never gain a patent from the King.
At 65 he wrote his autobiography and it is interesting to note he was the archetype of the capitalist American Dream. It was one of the most popular books of its time selling worldwide. He stated through hard work and diligence one could rise to the top in this country. Wish we could heed these words today, with everyone trying to get ahead without hard work.
The truth is, he is celebrated less for his scientific achievements than for his signature on the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and helping in writing the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
I leave you with one saying he wrote after signing the constitution that I have always loved, “Remember the Constitution does not guarantee happiness only the pursuit of it."