History of Science, cont. Ben Franklin

Benjamin, born at Boston, twenty-one years after his father’s emigration, was the youngest of ten sons, all of whom were eventually apprenticed to trades. The father was a man of sound judgment who encouraged sensible conversation in his home. Uncle Benjamin, who did not emigrate till much later, showed interest in his precocious namesake. Both he and the maternal grandfather expressed in verse dislike of war and intolerance, the one with considerable literary skill, the other with a good deal of decent plainness and manly freedom, as his grandson said.

Benjamin was intended as a tithe to the Church, but the plan was abandoned because of lack of means to send him to college. After one year at the Latin Grammar School, and one year at an arithmetic and writing school, for better or worse, his education of that sort ceased; and at the age of ten he began to assist in his father’s occupation, now that of tallow-chandler and soap-boiler. He wished to go to sea, and gave indications of leadership and enterprise. His father took him to visit the shops of joiners, bricklayers, turners, braziers, cutlers, and other artisans, thus stimulating in him a delight in handicraft. Finally, because of a bookish turn he had been exhibiting, the boy was bound apprentice to his brother James, who about 1720 began to publish the New England Courant, the fourth newspaper to be established in America.

Among the books early read by Benjamin Franklin were The Pilgrim’s Progress, certain historical collections, a book on navigation, works of Protestant[Pg 116] controversy, Plutarch’s Lives, filled with the spirit of Greek freedom, Dr. Mather’s Bonifacius, and Defoe’s Essay on Projects. The last two seemed to give him a way of thinking, to adopt Franklin’s phraseology, that had an influence on some of the principal events of his life. Defoe, an ardent nonconformist, educated in one of the Academies (established on Milton’s model) and especially trained in English and current history, advocated among other projects a military academy, an academy for improving the vernacular, and an academy for women. He thought it barbarous that a civilized and Christian country should deny the advantages of learning to women. They should be brought to read books and especially history. Defoe could not think that God Almighty had made women so glorious, with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men, and all to be only stewards of our houses, cooks, and slaves.

Benjamin still had a hankering for the sea, but he recognized in the printing-office and access to books other means of escape from the narrowness of the Boston of 1720. Between him and another bookish boy, John Collins, arose an argument in reference to the education of women. The argument took the form of correspondence. Josiah Franklin’s judicious criticism led Benjamin to undertake the well-known plan of developing his literary style.

Passing over his reading of the Spectator, however, it is remarkable how soon his mind sought out and assimilated its appropriate nourishment, Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding, which began the modern epoch in psychology; the Port Royal Logic,[Pg 117] prepared by that brilliant group of noble Catholics about Pascal; the works of Locke’s disciple Collins, whose Discourse on Freethinking appeared in 1713; the ethical writings (1708-1713) of Shaftesbury, who defended liberty and justice, and detested all persecution. A few pages of translation of Xenophon’s Memorabilia gave him a hint as to Socrates’ manner of discussion, and he made it his own, and avoided dogmatism.

Franklin rapidly became expert as a printer, and early contributed articles to the paper. His brother, however, to whom he had been bound apprentice for a period of nine years, humiliated and beat him. Benjamin thought that the harsh and tyrannical treatment he received at this time was the means of impressing him with that aversion to arbitrary power that stuck to him through his whole life. He had a strong desire to escape from his bondage, and, after five years of servitude, found the opportunity. James Franklin, on account of some offensive utterances in the New England Courant, was summoned before the Council and sent to jail for one month, during which time Benjamin, in charge of the paper, took the side of his brother and made bold to give the rulers some rubs. Later, James was forbidden to publish the paper without submitting to the supervision of the Secretary oProvince. To evade the difficulty the New England Courant was published in Benjamin’s name, James announcing his own retirement. In fear that this subterfuge might be challenged, he gave Benjamin a discharge of his indentures, but at the same time signed with him a new secret contract. Fresh quarrels arose between the[Pg 118] brothers, however, and Benjamin, knowing that the editor dared not plead before court the second contract, took upon himself to assert his freedom, a step which he later regretted as not dictated by the highest principle.

Unable to find other employment in Boston, condemned by his father’s judgment in the matter of the contract, somewhat under public criticism also for his satirical vein and heterodoxy, Franklin determined to try his fortunes elsewhere. Thus, at the age of seventeen he made his escape from Boston.

Unable to find work in New York, he arrived after some difficulties in Philadelphia in October, 1723. He had brought no recommendations from Boston; his supply of money was reduced to one Dutch dollar and a shilling in copper. But he that hath a Trade hath an Estate (as Poor Richard says). His capital was his industry, his skill as a printer, his good-will, his shrewd powers of observation, his knowledge of books, and ability to write. Franklin, recognized as a promising young man by the Governor, Sir William Keith, as previously by Governor Burnet of New York, had a growing sense of personal freedom and self-reliance.

But increased freedom for those who deserve it means increased responsibility; for it implies the possibility of error. Franklin, intent above all on the wise conduct of life, was deeply perturbed in his nineteenth and twentieth years by a premature engagement, in which his ever-passionate nature had involved him, by his failure to pay over money collected for a friend, and by the unsettled state of his religious and ethical beliefs. Encouraged by Keith[Pg 119] to purchase the equipment for an independent printing-office, Franklin, though unable to gain his father’s support for the project, went to London (for the ostensible purpose of selecting the stock) at the close of the year 1724.

He remained in London a year and a half, working in two of the leading printing establishments of the metropolis, where his skill and reliability were soon prized. He found the English artisans of that time great guzzlers of beer, and influenced some of his co-workers to adopt his own more abstinent and hygienic habits of eating and drinking. About this time a book, Religion of Nature Delineated, by William Wollaston (great-grandfather of the scientist Wollaston) so roused Franklin’s opposition that he wrote a reply, which he printed in pamphlet form before leaving London in 1726, and the composition of which he afterwards regretted.

He returned to Philadelphia in the employ of a Quaker merchant, on whose death he resumed work as printer under his former employer. He was given control of the office, undertook to make his own type, contrived a copper-plate press, the first in America, and printed paper money for New Jersey. The substance of some lectures in defense of Christianity, in courses endowed by the will of Robert Boyle, made Franklin a Deist. At the same time his views on moral questions were clarified, and he came to recognize that truth, sincerity, and integrity were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life. What he had attained by his own independent thought rendered him ultimately more careful rather than more reckless. He now set value on his own character, and resolved to preserve it.

[Pg 120]

In 1727, still only twenty-one, he drew together a number of young men in a sort of club, called the “Junto,” for mutual benefit in business and for the discussion of morals, politics, and natural philosophy. They professed tolerance, benevolence, love of truth. They discussed the effect on business of the issue of paper money, various natural phenomena, and kept a sharp look-out for any encroachment on the rights of the people. It is not unnatural to find that in a year or two (1729), after Franklin and a friend had established a printing business of their own and acquired the Pennsylvania Gazette, the young politician championed the cause of the Massachusetts Assembly against the claims first put forward by Governor Burnet, and that he used spirited language referring to America as a nation and clime foreign to England.

In 1730 Franklin bought out his partner, and in the same year published dialogues in the Socratic manner in reference to virtue and pleasure, which show a rapid development in his general views. About the same time he married, restored the money that had long been owing, and formulated his ethical code and religious creed. He began in 1732 the Poor Richard Almanacks, said to offer in their homely wisdom the best course in existence in practical morals.

As early as 1729 Franklin had published a pamphlet on Paper Currency. It was a well-reasoned discussion on the relation of the issue of paper currency to rate of interest, land values, manufactures, population, and wages. The want of money discouraged laboring and handicraftsmen. One must con[Pg 121]sider the nature and value of money in general. This essay accomplished its purpose in the Assembly. It was the first of those contributions which, arising from Franklin’s consideration of the social and industrial circumstances of the times, gained for him recognition as the first American economist. It was in the same spirit that in 1751 he discussed the question of population after the passage of the British Act forbidding the erection or the operation of iron or steel mills in the colonies. Science for Franklin was no extraneous interest; he was all of a piece, and it was as a citizen of Philadelphia he wrote those essays that commanded the attention of Adam Smith, Malthus, and Turgot.

In 1731 he was instrumental in founding the first of those public libraries, which (along with a free press) have made American tradesmen and farmers as intelligent, in Franklin’s judgment, as most gentlemen from other countries, and contributed to the spirit with which they defended their liberties. The diffusion of knowledge became so general in the colonies that in 1766 Franklin was able to tell the English legislators that the seeds of liberty were universally found there and that nothing could eradicate them. Franklin became clerk of the General Assembly and postmaster, improved the paving and lighting of the city streets, and established the first fire brigade and the first police force in America. Then in 1743 in the same spirit of public beneficence Franklin put forth his Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge among the British Plantations in America. It outlines his plan for the establishment of the American Philosophical Society.[Pg 122] Correspondence had already been established with the Royal Society of London. It is not difficult to see in Franklin the same spirit that had animated Hartlib, Boyle, Petty,[2] Wilkins, and their friends one hundred years before. In fact, Franklin was the embodiment of that union of scientific ideas and practical skill in the industries that with them was merely a pious wish.

In this same year of 1743 an eclipse of the moon, which could not be seen at Philadelphia on account of a northeast storm, was yet visible at Boston, where the storm came, as Franklin learned from his brother, about an hour after the time of observation. Franklin, who knew something of fireplaces, explained the matter thus: “When I have a fire in my chimney, there is a current of air constantly flowing from the door to the chimney, but the beginning of the motion was at the chimney.” So in a mill-race, water stopped by a gate is like air in a calm. When the gate is raised, the water moves forward, but the motion, so to speak, runs backward. Thus the principle was established in meteorology that northeast storms arise to the southwest.

No doubt Franklin was not oblivious of the practical value of this discovery, for, as Sir Humphry Davy remarked, he in no instance exhibited that false dignity, by which philosophy is kept aloof from common applications. In fact, Franklin was rather apologetic in reference to the magic squares and[Pg 123] circles, with which he sometimes amused his leisure, as a sort of ingenious trifling. At the very time that the question of the propagation of storms arose in his mind he had contrived the Pennsylvania fireplace, which was to achieve cheap, adequate, and uniform heating for American homes. His aspiration was for a free people, well sheltered, well fed, well clad, well instructed.


I don’t know about you, but two or three things about this caught my attention.  I will share them later.  Care to go first?

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