A new look at an American life

Published Aug. 23, 2005
“Benjamin Franklin An American Life” by Walter Isaacson, published in 2003, stands next to Carl Van Doren’s “Benjamin Franklin,” published in 1938, long the definitive biography, as a masterly look at a masterly man. Isaacson introduces Franklin as a many-layered persona created through the autobiography, the almanac and self-deprecating humor.
“Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us,” writes Isaacson while arguing his case for the need for a new biography of this man who excelled at so many things. Franklin was an accomplished writer while still in his teens, secretly submitting his Silence Dogood letters to the paper run by his overbearing older brother; he gained fame and made his fortune with his printing business and Poor Richard’s Almanack, allowing him to retire from business in his early 40s; he was a practical scientist, postulating many ideas we accept as common knowledge; and he was the wise sage of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack for 25 years, starting in 1732, which Isaacson calls America’s first great humor classic. Franklin’s Poor Richard, following in the footsteps of the Silence Dogood letters, came across as a simple country person poking fun at the foibles of the high and mighty.
Franklin is most famous for his almanac, the kite in the storm, his stove and bifocals, but a few examples demonstrate the multitude of interests that captured his attention. Bored dinner guests would create music by rubbing wet fingers on glass rims, so Franklin in 1761 designed a musical mechanism called the glass armonica. Moistened fingers rubbed 37 graduated glass bowls that turned on a spindle by means of a foot pedal. Marie Antoinette took lessons on the armonica, and Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for it. One of only nine in the world is played by Dean Shostak at Colonial Williamsburg.
Health: Franklin, wrote as the voice of Gout, chiding himself for his sedentary life and rich diet: “If your situation in life is a sedentary one, your amusements, your recreation, at least, should be active. … you eat an inordinate breakfast, four dishes of tea with cream, and one or two buttered toasts, with slices of hung beef …” Franklin said colds could be prevented by regular exercise, which he measured by the degree of warmth produced, not duration, and he speculated that colds may possibly be spread by contagion rather than cold air. To the surgeon Benjamin Rush he wrote, “People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in close rooms, coaches, etc., and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other’s transpiration.” Franklin noticed that tradesmen who used lead, such as printers, were prone to a severe illness called dry belly ache and was one of the first to understand lead poisoning.
A whaling captain cousin told Franklin about the course of the Gulf Stream, so Franklin, returning to America from London in 1775 with his grandson Temple, took temperature readings a few times a day and published maps of the pelagic river. His maps and temperature measurements are on the NASA website, http://www.nasa.gov, which also describes the expedition, overshadowed by the moon landing, of the submarine Ben Franklin that descended in July 1969 to the depth of 1,200 feet to study the Gulf Stream.
Franklin established the distinction between insulators and conductors, electrical grounding, and the concepts of capacitors and batteries, and he was hero to French scientists. Van Doren wrote, “He found electricity a curiosity and left it a science.”
Franklin loved swimming as a child and made wooden paddles and flippers. He designed gas globes for street lamps with vents and chimneys and designed the style common today of four flat panes rather than a globe. He determined that rising air heated in the south created low-pressure systems that drew winds from the north after learning that storms move from southwest to northeast even though the wind blew northeast to southwest.
Franklin was a senior statesmen and diplomat, participating in the making of America’s two great documents, yet to the end he called himself B. Franklin, printer.

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