The First Scientific American

Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius


By Joyce Chaplin

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Famous, fascinating Benjamin Franklin — he would be neither without his accomplishments in science. Joyce Chaplin’s authoritative biography considers all of Franklin’s work in the sciences, showing how, during the rise and fall of the first British empire, science became central to public culture and therefore to Franklin’s success. Having demonstrated in his earliest experiments and observations that he could master nature, Franklin showed the world that he was uniquely suited to solve problems in every realm. In the famous adage, Franklin “snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from the tyrants” — in that order. The famous kite and other experiments with electricity were only part of Franklin’s accomplishments. He charted the Gulf Stream, made important observations on meteorology, and used the burgeoning science of “political arithmetic” to make unprecedented statements about America’s power. Even as he stepped onto the world stage as an illustrious statesman and diplomat in the years leading up to the American Revolution, his fascination with nature was unrelenting. Franklin was the first American whose “genius” for science qualified him as a genius in political affairs. It is only through understanding Franklin’s full engagement with the sciences that we can understand this great Founding Father and the world he shaped.


Praise for The First Scientific American
"For those with only vague notions about [Franklin's] role as a founding father and particularly his importance as a scientist, her emphasis can be eye-opening."
Publishers Weekly
"In describing Franklin's scientific path, Chaplin . . . captures the impact of Franklin's gifts on the development of his country's intellectual infrastructure . . . This is a well-written, extensively footnoted, and finely illustrated biography. Because of the focus on Franklin's scientific life, it will add a new perspective to the body of myths that surrounds the great man in this tercentennial year of his birth."
Library Journal
"Chaplin describes in detail Franklin's other achievements, including charting the Gulf Stream and describing the aurora borealis, and argues that if not for his foray into U.S. politics, Franklin might have a body of scientific discoveries the likes of that accomplished by Isaac Newton."
Science News
"[W]onderfully fresh look at this truly remarkable man. . . . Chaplin's book is exhaustively researched and superbly narrated. Her vivid descriptions of the intricacies of life as a colonial tradesman in the 1750s paint a world that the reader can almost step into."
New Scientist
"The key to understanding the genius of Franklin is through his science, and Joyce Chaplin provides a brilliant and thoroughly-researched account. She shows his mind at work, and it's fascinating to behold."
"Joyce Chaplin's book is as electrifying as her subject. For those alarmed by the current rift between scientists and our political leaders, Franklin's life reminds us that a much more enlightened relationship is possible."
—CHRIS MOONEY, author of The Republican War on Science
"In this admirably researched and crafted book, Joyce Chaplin explores the incredible variety and scope of Franklin's scientific pursuits. With engaging verve, insight, and wit, she shows why Franklin was among the most esteemed scientists of his time and why that greatly enhanced his diplomatic efforts, so vital to success of the American Revolution."
—DUDLEY HERSCHBACH, Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science, Harvard University and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemisty
"Benjamin Franklin—printer, scientist, revolutionary, statesman, by turns charming, ruthless, intellectually curious, and self-promotionally ambitious. Chaplin convincingly integrates all the facets of the multiply talented man into a compelling portrait, restoring the man behind the icon to full vitality. Her book is a tour de force, captivating in content and a delight to read."
—DANIEL J. KEVLES, Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale University and co-author of Inventing America
"This is a brilliant and compelling book that restores science to its rightful centrality in Benjamin Franklin's thought and career, and that makes us think anew about the changing nature of scientific genius."
—LINDA COLLEY, Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University
"The First Scientific American shows how Benjamin Franklin became a statesman because of his science and offers a fresh perspective on one of America's founding fathers in a brilliant analysis of the seesaw between science and politics two centuries ago. Joyce Chaplin takes us back to an era when science was in society's mainstream, when there were no specialists. She has written an engaging, literate portrait of Franklin that changes traditional perceptions of this remarkable genius. This is an important, ground-breaking work which places the history of early American science on a new footing."
—BRIAN FAGAN, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of California, and author of Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World
"This delightful portrait of Benjamin Franklin is unlike any recent study of the original American 'genius.' In contrast to other biographers, the historian Joyce Chaplin rightfully portrays Franklin first and foremost as a man of science, curious not only about electricity but about ocean currents, winds, and maps—indeed, about virtually all the phenomena of heaven and earth. In convincing detail, she demonstrates how the ambitious printer and natural philosopher from Philadelphia parlayed his scientific fame into an internationally acclaimed career as a gentleman and statesman."
—RONALD L. NUMBERS, Hilldale and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"A Brother's a Treasure"
Poor Richard

Chapter 1
FAMOUS, fascinating Benjamin Franklin—he would be neither without his accomplishments in natural science. Yet science, his life's central feature, is also its most mysterious aspect, the one least understood now and a part of a world we have lost. In his lifetime, science illuminated him with a brilliant electrical flash. We seem to have been blinded by that light. Not so Franklin's contemporaries, who saw at its burning center something, and someone: a unique and remarkable man—the first scientific American.
By the end of his life, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of the most recognized people in the Western Hemisphere. The youngest son of a Boston candle- and soap-maker, Franklin won fame through printing, writing, politics, and especially the sciences. Once he was famous, his likeness proliferated in nearly every medium imaginable. Franklin could admire himself printed on paper, carved in marble, transferred onto china, modeled in wax, fired in clay, painted onto canvas, cast in metal, and, perhaps most appropriately, electrically burned into silk. In 1779, he chuckled to his daughter that his face had become "as well known as that of the moon."1
He had become an international "pop" icon in his own lifetime. Only one other individual who worked in the sciences has ever achieved this status: Albert Einstein. So here they are, the pair of celebrities in modern science, the Founding Father who invented the lightning rod and the Swiss physicist who claimed that E = mc2. Indeed, each man's array of icons is uncannily like the other's, showing just how extensively they entered homes, lives, and consciousnesses. Choose your poison: take snuff from a box topped with Franklin's face or drink coffee from a mug bearing Einstein's image. Decorate your interior with a mezzotint of the "Master Electrician" or a thumbtacked poster of the master of relativity. Wear your hero with a cameo brooch of the eighteenth-century American or a T-shirt of the twentieth-century European.
Why have only Franklin and Einstein attained this status? Other people who labored at science enjoyed celebrity (Marie Curie adorns posters, too), though none to the same degree, not even the man who started it all, Isaac Newton. Newton was the first modern figure in the sciences who had a cult following. His acolytes claimed that in his ability to divine the secrets of the cosmos, he seemed second only to God. Newton cultivated his image by making sure that his work was printed and reprinted and that he himself was painted and commemorated. And he exercised political power through a position at the Royal Mint. But he largely avoided public life.
Franklin was not so shy. He recognized Newton's achievements in the sciences and followed suit, if on a smaller scale. But he then parlayed his fame in natural science into a reputation for political influence, until he managed to shoot past his role model and become as recognized as the moon. A lull would follow before Einstein would occupy a similar cultural position; he would become internationally celebrated for an uncanny gift in science and was therefore believed to have extraordinary wisdom that might help to solve the problems of the day.
A commonplace explanation for Franklin's fame and Einstein's eminence is that each man was a genius. A genius is above the norm, whatever his or her field, so much so that he or she appears to have been born, not made—possessed of an innate gift. Such is the genius's intelligence that, though perhaps strongest in one area, it cannot be contained and instead spills over into others. By these standards, Franklin was a genius, and so was Einstein, hence the huge presence of each man in his own day and in ours. Geniuses transcend geography and time—their brilliance illuminates all. Of course Franklin and Einstein became icons.
But there is no "of course" in this story. The word genius itself has a history and a recent one. Before the eighteenth century, no one used the term in the way we do now. In earlier eras, it implied a specific disposition or aptitude, not an inherent and universal quality of mind. No one was a genius, though one might possess a particular genius or be ingenious in a given field. But during the eighteenth century, the old idea of genius as an aptitude faded. Genius became a noun applied to humans. It emerged just in time to describe Franklin, an early example. In fact, the shifting meanings of the word revealed themselves over the course of his career. In 1729, Franklin himself used genius in its older sense—"different Men have Genius's adapted to Variety of different Arts and Manufactures"; by 1771, he was described as "the distinguish'd genius of America."2
So Franklin and Einstein were categorized as geniuses, but why were they iconic geniuses? In this regard, historical context matters. Both men worked in areas of physics that were, for their times, astonishingly new. Each man redefined the very fabric of material reality, Franklin by using electricity to reexamine the nature of matter and Einstein by using mathematics to redefine time and space. Each man worked, moreover, during a period of tremendous transformation in the human order. Franklin lived during the rise and fall of the first British empire, Einstein during the collapse of Europe into war and genocide. In consequence, each man would be strongly associated with a conflict that had global dimensions—Franklin with the Seven Years' War and its aftermath, the American Revolution, and Einstein with World War II. At each historical moment—the end of the eighteenth century, the beginning of the twentieth—onlookers wanted and needed to see someone wise enough to make sense of all that was happening in their world.
Franklin was celebrated for another reason as well. Science, too, has a history, and Franklin was born at a critical moment in that history. People have always struggled to understand the natural world. But only at the end of the seventeenth century did some Europeans begin to think that their ways of explaining nature were uniquely truthful. Men of science, including Newton, argued that their means of comprehending nature, particularly their experiments, were definitive. Much contested at the time (and since), this idea of science nevertheless stuck.
Franklin had an important place in this story, but it is now a surprisingly misunderstood one. Consider the following illustration. It is probably what most people think of when they see or hear the words "Benjamin Franklin" and "science": a stout colonial character flies a kite in a Philadelphia thunderstorm. This image, which Nathaniel Currier and James Ives produced in 1876, even has a caption to explain that "Franklin's Experiment" demonstrated "the identity of Lightning and Electricity," from which "he invented the Lightning Rod."
The illustration is charming, but it is wrong in many ways. Indeed, its very caption is inaccurate. Franklin's kite experiment did not identify lighting with electricity. An earlier experiment of his had already done so—the kite verified the finding. And Franklin was trying to gauge whether clouds were electrified and, if so, whether with a positive or a negative charge. He wanted to determine the presence of a particular kind of matter, electricity, within nature and to use it to investigate the characteristics of other kinds of matter. He was doing far more than playing with a kite, and it reduces his efforts considerably to describe them as resulting only in a clever device, the lightning rod.
American science—Child's play. Engraving by Currier and Ives, Franklin's Experiment, June 1752 (1876). LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
The characters in the illustration, moreover, are not quite right. In this and many of the kite pictures that include Franklin's son, William, the younger Franklin is depicted as a child, even though he was in his twenties at the time of the kite experiment. That he was often portrayed as a child may reflect a post-eighteenth-century suspicion that the only thing more ridiculous than a grown man flying a kite in the rain is two grown men doing so. Nor is it very helpful to think of Franklin as firmly planted in America, let alone as quintessentially American. That notion gives too local a view of him. Certainly, he was born, lived, and did his important electrical experiments in America. But he lived almost a third of his life abroad, in Europe. He published his account of his experiments in London, and the first important verification of the experiments came from Paris. Franklin was not situated in one place—he ended up everywhere, on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout his life, he looked to Europe (or went to Europe) for his education, books, ideas, and friends. Franklin deliberately chose to work in natural science—a decision intended to make himself part of a cosmopolitan, enlightened culture, one that impressed him at an early age as encompassing everything America did not.
Yet we still retain an image of Franklin that is suspiciously like the Currier and Ives illustration. He is currently celebrated as an American statesman or a Founder, a politician who happened to do a little science on the side. But that description puts the cart before the horse. Franklin was not a statesman who did science. He became a statesman because he had done science. And he was able to do so because, in the eighteenth century, science became part of public culture. That was how someone who excelled in the sciences could become a public figure or even a celebrity. Franklin's contemporaries recognized that this had been his route to prominence. A famous tag proposed that Franklin had snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from the tyrants—in that order.
At some point, each of these two accomplishments—the study of electricity and the defiance of tyrants—attracted the attention of distinct sets of historians. That division of labor may explain why we now misunderstand Franklin. A very small group of specialists has seriously examined Franklin's work in science. But most people who are interested in eighteenth-century science tend to look at Europe and therefore miss Franklin; most people who are interested in Benjamin Franklin tend to look at America and therefore miss the science. The fuller biographies of Franklin, which offer catalogs of his life, do list all his accomplishments, but they do not make sense of the connections between the public life and the life in science. Moreover, most biographies of Franklin stress his American qualities, even though his devotion to science made it clear that he identified with a cosmopolitan culture that stretched across the Atlantic Ocean and united the hemispheres.3
So rather astonishingly, there has never been a biography that examines Franklin's scientific pursuits as an intrinsic part of his life's story—as an important guide to his early education, his career as a printer, his entry into political life, his triumphs and failures, his celebrity throughout Europe, and his later fame as an American Revolutionary. Science did indeed become part of public knowledge in the eighteenth century, and Benjamin Franklin is the ultimate proof of that. His life had the shape and texture that it did because of his abiding curiosity about nature and his interest in science.
And what a vast, unsettling, breathtaking enterprise science was in the eighteenth century—no wonder Franklin found it irresistible. Eighteenth-century science was enormous in scope. In Franklin's era, the term science meant simply "wisdom." Only at the end of the century would it begin to specify knowledge about nature, and only at that point, toward the end of Franklin's life, would people begin to use the term scientific in the way we do now. The best way to describe Franklin's pursuits is in the plural, as the sciences. These pursuits were not specialized practices cut off from other aspects of learning or indeed everyday life. They took up all manner of questions, including topics we would now assign to medicine, engineering, travel writing, or even ethnography.4
Science was welcoming. Everyone who could do so read about the sciences. Experiments and demonstrations were public events. Members of the clergy preached the new philosophy of nature. Newspapers, even provincial ones, regularly published accounts of experiments, new technologies, and medical news. Much more of science was in the mainstream. Someone like Franklin, who pursued science, did not even think of himself as particularly different from anyone else. The word scientist would not be coined until well into the nineteenth century, when a few people finally did earn a living through specialized scientific work. The eighteenth century's so-called men of science did not specialize in this way. They had other occupations or careers. They were clergymen, members of Parliament, farmers, tax administrators, ships' captains, noblewomen, and even printers.5
Science was demanding and even dangerous. People were not flocking to the sciences because they were easily pursued. Experiments involved complex equipment, terminology, and logic: "Take two Vials," Franklin instructed in 1753, "charge one of them with Lightning from the Iron Rod, and give the other an equal Charge by the electric Glass Globe thro' the prime Conductor." Does this sound easy—or safe? In fact, the pursuit of science had a casualty rate. Some of the pioneers of ballooning died quite horribly. Seafaring explorers also died; others returned in such poor health that they nearly succumbed, which happened to Franklin twice. Electrical and chemical experimenters were stunned, burned, blinded, or killed.6
But science was exciting. It explored the world and opened up hidden worlds. In the forty years before the American Revolution, the number of North American plants introduced to Britain doubled—in large part due to the handiwork of one of Franklin's friends, John Bartram. Franklin witnessed the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, the first meaningful calculations of the distance between earth and sun, the early definitions of oxygen, and the first manned aerial flight. He himself made a signal contribution when he defined electricity, for the first time, as a particular form of matter.
This science was, however, different. In fact, we would not recognize a great deal of its practices or central assumptions. Franklin believed that nude air baths hastened bodily circulation. He thought that water would pile up on one side of the Atlantic and then seek its level by flowing back across to the other side. He argued that a human body should be heated evenly, lest ill health result, particularly colds. He maintained that overeating slowed mental functioning. Many histories of early America try to make us feel as if "we are there." Meet eighteenth-century Americans, we are told—hear their racking coughs, see their ships tossed by Atlantic tempests, feel the warmth from their roaring fires, and smell their sizzling fried fish or their hot apple pie. But this approach gives a false sense of identification. Clearly, Franklin's ideas about health, weather, heat, and nutrition—about matter itself—were not like ours. We understand Franklin best when we comprehend what he thought he was sensing, not when we pretend we can sense what he did. Nor should we compare his sciences to our science. True, some of his beliefs and practices seem uncannily familiar, but others seem bizarre. To Franklin, however, they all made sense in relation to each other.
Science was argumentative. Nothing was settled—things were being decided—and that is what made it so exciting. The fruitful indecision pertained, above all, to knowledge. What was knowledge? Could it be distinguished from mere opinion or supported by facts or numbers? What kind of knowledge could be established about the natural world? What knowledge did the mind have? What knowledge might sensuously flow into and through the body? And who possessed knowledge? Which parts of it should have been public? Which parts should have been secret, open only to a few? Who had the power to define knowledge—the elite or ordinary working people?
Finally, science was powerful. People used it to argue for universal truths. They based their decisions about religion and law on science. They created important naturalistic metaphors. Franklin adopted one of these in the form of the concept of circulation, which he used to explore natural phenomena (weather, heat, electricity, ocean currents) but which he then also deployed to explain social phenomena—the circulation of money, news, letters, people, and ideas.
Science is knowledge of things; politics is power over people. During the eighteenth century, the two enterprises overlapped in fascinating ways. Franklin entered both realms but flourished especially in the territory they held in common. A man of science, he became a political leader—indeed, the personification of a nation with an unprecedented history. A single book could not do justice to either one of these enormous topics, either Franklin's science or his political career. Instead, this book examines the most important ways in which Franklin made his pursuits in the sciences and in public affairs inform and support each other.
Benjamin Franklin was the first scientific American. He was the first person born in the Americas who became internationally celebrated (not just known and respected) for work in physical science. Put it another way. Franklin, an American, was the first person to be internationally celebrated for work in the physical sciences. A mere colonial of ordinary birth managed to achieve this stature. Several stories are embedded here, about America, about science, and about Benjamin Franklin. And ultimately, they are—conveniently, marvelously—all the same story.

Chapter 2
WHERE TO BEGIN? The question stumped even Franklin. In 1771, when he set out to write his autobiography, he considered two beginnings. The outline for his memoir began with "My writing." But the narrative itself began with "my Ancestors," the humble working folk whose "Poverty and Obscurity" Franklin had escaped precisely because of his writing. And just as the story of his life had two possible beginnings, so did the life itself. The first two things Franklin ever wanted to do were to go to sea or to go to college, to become either a sailor or a learned divine. Head or hands—mental exertion or manual labor—these were his options. In the end, he combined them, which was possible during his lifetime because old boundaries between the unwritten knowledge of manual trades and the knowledge contained in books had begun to blur.1
Even the two starts that Franklin proposed for his life simplify the story. Though highly self-disciplined as an adult, he meandered during his youth. At various points, Franklin contemplated careers as a puritan minister, a Boston chandler, a sea captain, a philosopher of metaphysics, a swimming master to the London gentry, and a Philadelphia merchant. Then he chose to become a printer.
Printing proved to be the activity—and the medium—that connected all the options Franklin had considered in his youth. Printing united head with hands. It required both manual labor and careful thought about words and their meanings. It allowed Franklin to write for an audience under his own name and under many pseudonyms. He would become one character by becoming a printer, but he inhabited many more characters precisely because print could represent them. (At that time, character meant one of the lead letters or other symbols used to set type, but it also signified a certain kind of person or personality.) To see all the people Franklin might have become is to understand the one person that he did become, as a printer, a published author, and a philosopher of nature.
WORK, BOOKS, AND THE SEA—Boston would be known for many things, but these were the three aspects of that puritan port city that strongly marked Franklin's start in life.
As far as most people in Europe were concerned, Boston was on the edge of nowhere. The original puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had wanted it that way. They had fled to a New England where they could practice their faith far from English authorities. Franklin's maternal grandfather was one of the earliest colonists of Massachusetts; his father emigrated slightly later, in 1683. In remembering his pious ancestors in his autobiography, Franklin noted their early conversion to Protestantism and their consequent persecution during the Catholic reign of Queen Mary. They hid their banned English Bible "under and within the Frame of a Joint Stool" so that if the authorities approached while they read the scriptures cradled in the upturned stool, they could quickly flip everything over and "the Bible remain'd conceal'd." Not for the last time would a Franklin invent a clever device, but Benjamin's English ancestors preferred, he stressed, "to enjoy their Mode of Religion with Freedom" and so emigrated to New England, the edge of nowhere.2
Most English people took little interest in their colonial cousins or in the ocean they had crossed. Indeed, they did not even think of the vast water as a single body. Until the latter part of the eighteenth century, the ocean we now call the Atlantic carried several names, including Atlantic but also Western Ocean or North Sea. The North Sea was considered an ocean unto itself—what we now refer to as the South Atlantic was then commonly referred to as the Ethiopian Sea. Europe was always the point of geographic orientation: the different parts of the Atlantic designated western and southern boundaries to the world of Europeans. Although Europeans had colonized the Western and Southern Hemispheres, they thought of those regions as forbiddingly remote.3


On Sale
Aug 2, 2007
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

Joyce Chaplin

About the Author

Joyce E. Chaplin is Professor of History at Harvard University. She is the author of two academic books: An Anxious Pursuit and Subject Matter. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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