Today is the birthday (1706) of Benjamin Franklin, one of the so-called Founding Fathers of the United States, a renowned polymath – author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He facilitated many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and a university.
Franklin earned the title of “The First American” for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity, first as an author and spokesman in London for several colonies. As the first United States ambassador to France, he exemplified the emerging American nation (famous for his “natural” appearance by arriving at the French court for the first time showing his natural hair and not in a powdered wig). Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment.
Franklin became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies. With two partners he published the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a newspaper that was known for its revolutionary sentiments and criticisms of British policies. He became wealthy publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack and The Pennsylvania Gazette.
He played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and was elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society. Franklin became a national hero in America when as agent for several colonies he spearheaded the effort to have Parliament in London repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. His efforts to secure support for the American Revolution by shipments of crucial munitions proved vital for the war effort.
For many years he was the British postmaster for the colonies, which enabled him to set up the first national communications network. He was active in community affairs, colonial and state politics, as well as national and international affairs. From 1785 to 1788, he served as governor of Pennsylvania. Toward the end of his life, he freed his own slaves and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.
His colorful life and legacy of scientific and political achievement have seen Franklin honored on coinage and the $100 bill; warships; the names of many towns; counties; educational institutions; corporations; and, more than two centuries after his death, countless cultural references.
It’s impossible in a short post to run through all that Franklin accomplished, so I am going to pick a few of my favorites. I’ll begin with his invention of the mechanical glass harmonica. The use of a crystal wine glass to produce a ringing tone by rubbing a wet finger around the rim is documented back to Renaissance times. The Irish musician Richard Pockrich is typically credited as the first to play an instrument composed of glass vessels filled with differing amounts of water to produce different tones. In the 1740s, he performed in London but his career was cut short by a fire in his room, which killed him and destroyed his apparatus. Edward Delaval, extended Pockrich’s experiments by creating a set of glasses that were better tuned and easier to play. During the same decade, Christoph Willibald Gluck also attracted attention playing a similar instrument in England.
Franklin invented a radically new arrangement of the glasses in 1761 after seeing Edmund Delaval play in Cambridge in England in May of 1761. Franklin worked with London glassblower Charles James to build one, and it had its world premiere in early 1762, played by Marianne Davies. In Franklin’s treadle-operated version, 37 bowls were mounted horizontally on an iron spindle. The whole spindle turned by means of a foot pedal. The sound was produced by touching the rims of the bowls with water moistened fingers. Rims were painted different colors according to the pitch of the note: A (dark blue), B (purple), C (red), D (orange), E (yellow), F (green), G (blue), and accidentals were marked in white. With the Franklin design, it is possible to play ten glasses simultaneously if desired, a technique that is very difficult if not impossible to execute using upright goblets.
Mozart, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and more than 100 other composers composed works for the glass harmonica. Some pieces survive in the repertoire through transcriptions for more conventional instruments. Camille Saint-Saëns used this instrument in his The Carnival of the Animals (in movements 7 and 14). Donizetti originally specified the instrument in Lucia di Lammermoor as a haunting accompaniment to the heroine’s “mad scenes”, though before the premiere he was required by the producers to rewrite the part for two flutes. Here’s Mozart’s Adagio in C Major for glass harmonica (K617a).
Many storybooks tell of Franklin flying a kite with a key attached in a storm to attract lightning to prove it is electrical in nature. Such an experiment was carried out in May 1752 at Marly-la-Ville in northern France by Thomas-François Dalibard. An attempt to replicate the experiment killed Georg Wilhelm Richmann in Saint Petersburg in August 1753, thought to be the victim of ball lightning. Franklin himself is said to have conducted the experiment in June 1752, supposedly on the top of the spire on Christ Church in Philadelphia. However, doubts have been expressed about whether the experiment was actually performed.
According to the canonical tale, Franklin realized the dangers of using conductive rods and instead used a kite. According to the legend, Franklin kept the string of the kite dry at his end to insulate him while the rest of the string was allowed to get wet in the rain to provide conductivity. A house key was attached to the string and connected to a Leyden jar (a primitive capacitor), which Franklin assumed would accumulate electricity from the lightning. The kite wasn’t struck by visible lightning (had it done so, Franklin would almost certainly have been killed) but Franklin did notice that the strings of the kite were repelling each other and deduced that the Leyden jar was being charged. Franklin reportedly received a mild shock by moving his hand near the key afterwards, because as he had estimated, lightning had negatively charged the key and the Leyden jar, proving the electric nature of lightning.
Fearing that the test would fail, or that he would be ridiculed, Franklin took only his son to witness the experiment, and then published the accounts of the test in third person. The standard account of Franklin’s experiment was disputed following an investigation and experiments based on contemporaneous records by science historian Tom Tucker, the results of which were published in 2003. According to Tucker, Franklin never performed the experiment, and the kite as described is incapable of performing its alleged role. Further doubt about the standard account has been cast by an investigation by the television series MythBusters. The team found evidence that Franklin would have received a fatal current through his heart had the event actually occurred. Nevertheless, they confirmed that certain aspects of the experiment were feasible – specifically, the ability of a kite with sufficiently damp string to receive and send to the ground the electrical energy delivered by a lightning strike.
Franklin was purportedly the master of the pithy aphorism. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise,” for example, is found in the 1735 edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanack, and is typical in that its attribution to Franklin is only partially accurate. Yes, he printed the saying; no, he did not create it. The earliest known record of a proverb that approximates to Franklin’s comes from The Book of St. Albans, printed in 1486:
As the olde englysshe prouerbe sayth in this wyse. Who soo woll ryse erly shall be holy helthy & zely.
The Middle English word zely comes down to us now as “silly,” and could mean “foolish” in the 15th century. But it could also mean “fortunate.” “Holy helthy & zely” probably meant “wise, healthy and fortunate” and in some form came down to Franklin. It can be found in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina in 1639:
Earely to bed and earely to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Later U.S. commentators have had some fun at Franklin’s expense. In 1928, Carl Sandburg suggested that ‘Early to bed and early to rise and you never meet any prominent people’. In the New Yorker, February 1939, James Thurber turned it round:
Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.
In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, dated 1789, Franklin wrote:
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
The fact that Franklin doubted the permanence of the Constitution is interesting in itself; but we should also note that the notion of the certainty of only “death and taxes” did not originate with Franklin. It comes from Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil (1726):
Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believ’d.
I like this saying attributed to Franklin a lot:
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
But he never said it. Likewise I once had a T-shirt with this saying attributed to Franklin:
Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
Franklin never said this either, but he did say this about wine:
We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana, as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!
Franklin has a great deal to say about food, and, in particular, promoted native American cultigens in Europe where they were largely disapproved of. Both potatoes and tomatoes were considered by some to be poisonous. He is credited, also, with introducing tofu, rhubarb, and kale into the U.S. (in the latter 2 cases sending seeds from Scotland). Here’s a defense of American cuisine from a 2 January 1766 letter:
Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin – But if Indian corn were so disagreeable and indigestible as the Stamp Act, does he imagine that we can get nothing else for breakfast? – Did he never hear that we have oatmeal in plenty, for water gruel or burgoo; as good wheat, rye and barley as the world affords, to make frumenty; or toast and ale; that there is every where plenty of milk, butter, and cheese; that rice is one of our staple commodities; that for tea, we have sage and bawm in our gardens, the young leaves of the sweet hickery or walnut, and above all, the buds of our pine, infinitely preferably to any tea from the Indies … Let the gentleman do us the honor of a visit in America, and I will engage to breakfast him every day in the month with a fresh variety.
Lots to choose from here, but I pick succotash. The word succotash may come from Narragansett sohquttahhash meaning “broken corn kernels,” or misckquatash meaning “boiled corn kernels.” In any event, it is a common dish in the U.S. South. The primary ingredients are freshly hulled corn kernels and either lima beans or other shell beans. The two together are high in amino acids. Add squash and you have complete protein. There’s hundreds of versions of succotash. Here’s how I was taught to make it in coastal North Carolina. I’ll leave you to worry about quantities and such. This recipe uses fresh ingredients, but a lot of contemporary cooks use canned vegetables and simply mix them and heat them through. Occasionally a Southern cook will bake succotash with a pastry top.
Using a sharp knife scrape the whole kernels from corn cobs. Add an equal quantity of lima beans. Seed and dice some tomato and bell pepper (green or red or both), and add them to the mix. Place the vegetables in a large pot, cover with water, and simmer. Length of cooking time is cook’s choice. I prefer the vegetables to be al dente, but my Southern friends used to boil them to death.
Succotash is normally served warm as a side dish, but you can also serve it chilled, dressed with a little vinegar, as a salad.