Five Interesting Facts About Benjamin Franklin That You Probably Didn't Know
Printer. Scientist. Statesman. Wit. That's how we have come to know Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most colorful of America's Founding Fathers and the inventor of everything from the Franklin stove to bifocal glasses.
We know about the post offices, about the scientific escapades, and about American rebels needing to hang together so they wouldn't be hanged separately. Here are some fun and interesting facts about Ben Franklin that you probably didn't know.
1. He Wasn't the First to Prove That Lightning Was Electricity
Ben Franklin first became acquainted with the power of electricity in 1743 on a trip to Boston, where he attended a presentation by a Dr. Archibald Spencer, who was demonstrating what amounted to parlor tricks using electrical sparks. Franklin eventually became Spencer's agent, booking demonstrations for him, and by 1749 Franklin had become deeply immersed in the subject himself and noted a number of similarities between lightning and electrical sparks.
In an effort to prove that the two were one and the same, Franklin may indeed have taken advantage of a thunderstorm to launch a kite with a key attached to the string so that he could draw off an electrical charge from the lightning. Most likely this would have happened in June of 1752 -- if it took place at all. The evidence is spotty enough that the date is at best an educated guess on the part of historians.
A few years earlier, though, Ben Franklin had come up with another way of accomplishing the same thing. He outlined it in a letter to a friend who presented it to the Royal Society in London in 1750. The Society in turn published the work, which soon became the talk of Europe's scientific community.
Franklin's idea, in essence, was to build a lightning rod and attach it to the top of a steeple or tower in order to obtain the necessary juice. In his letter he suggested erecting a pointed iron pole of 20 to 30 feet and placing it in a sentry box where a man could draw off the charge. On May 10, 1752, using a 40-foot rod, a Frenchman by the name of Thomas-Francois Dalibard, working in the village of Marly just outside Paris, did precisely that. To Dalibard's credit, he expressed his indebtedness to Franklin for the idea and as a result Franklin became a hero among Europe's scientific elite. But as for proof, Dalibard most likely beat Franklin to the punch by at least a month.
2. He Owned Slaves
Yes, we know George Washington owned them, and that Thomas Jefferson did, too. (Jefferson, of course, had that whole Sally Hemings thing going on.) But Ben Franklin? Well, yes, Ben owned slaves, too, although as a Northerner living in a major city, he didn't own nearly as many as those Virginia planters did -- just a few to help out with the household chores, which was a common practice of the day. Since slavery was legal, he also accepted advertisements for slaves in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
Franklin's thinking about slavery -- and about black people -- changed over time. Early in his life Ben Franklin believed (as did many others) that blacks were inferior to whites and thought it preferable for America to be populated mostly with white Europeans. Gradually, however, he realized his prejudice was unwarranted and ended up condemning the practice of slavery as being economically untenable. He eventually eliminated the practice from his personal life as well. When his slave King ran away while Franklin was in England, Franklin did not pursue him, which he had the right to do. He later got rid of his slave Peter also, and by 1787 Franklin had become such an ardent abolitionist that he served as president of a Pennsylvania society devoted to that cause.
3. He Liked to Lounge Around Naked
No, he didn't go around setting up nudist camps just like he did post offices and fire departments, but Ben Franklin did place tremendous value on the body's exposure to fresh air. He was one of the first people to recognize that one caught a cold not from being out in cold weather but from being in confined spaces with people who were already infected. As such, Franklin was a great believer in throwing open the windows to a room, even in the wintertime, in order to provide the necessary circulation.
One unusual application of this idea was Franklin's fondness for taking what he called "air baths." On many a morning he would throw open the windows of his house, strip naked, and lounge around for about an hour so that he could simply enjoy feeling of fresh air against his skin. It's not recorded whether the benefit to Franklin was anything more than psychological -- or what the neighbors thought -- but it does show how Franklin was very much the scientist and innovator.
4. He Thought About Starting a Swimming School
Growing up in Boston (not in Philadelphia as many assume; he didn't actually reach Philadelphia until he was 17), Franklin spent many a day swimming on the banks of the Charles River. He became and expert in the sport and encouraged others to take it up as well, often by providing them personal instruction. As a youth he invented a set of flotation devices and, in an odd foreshadowing of his electrical experiments, once rigged up a kite to help propel him along in the water.
As a journeyman printer, Ben Franklin lived in London for a time, and while he was there, he demonstrated his skills to some of his friends and acquaintances by stripping down and swimming in the Thames. One of the friends who observed him had a bit of money and offered to bankroll Franklin if he would go around and teach others his natatory skills. Though Franklin seriously considered the offer, he ultimately decided that his best course of action was to return to America and carve out a life for himself there. It would nonetheless have been an interesting diversion, and one wonders how the course of history might have been changed if one of America's most influential founding fathers had been a citizen on the other side of the pond at the time of the American Revolution.
Hankerin' for More Franklin? Try These
5. He Never Finished His Autobiography
Of course in one sense no man ever finishes his autobiography ("After that I died and my funeral was glorious") but Benjamin Franklin's gives out much earlier than one would expect for a man who was so active throughout his life -- and for a work that many consider the paragon of the form.
Franklin began writing his autobiography in 1771, when he was 65 years old, ostensibly to lay out for his son William something about their family background. He tells William many stories about his early life in Boston including his indenture as a printer's apprentice to his brother James and about his eventual move to Philadelphia.
Beginning in 1784, Franklin added a second part to the autobiography which includes the famous systematic program for aquiring thirteen virtues -- temperance, industry, frugality and so on -- that he had developed as a young man. A third part, written about 1788, begins in the 1730's and recounts Ben Franklin's work as a postmaster, his accomplishments as an inventor, and his work in the Colonial militia. This part ends with his arrival in England in 1757 as a negotiator for the Colonies. A fourth part describes some of these negotiations -- and then suddenly stops.
There's no account of Ben Franklin's return to the Colonies, no talk of his sitting on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, nothing about the American Revolution, or the framing of the Constitution, or his stint as President (i.e., Governor) of Pennsylvania. That Franklin clearly intended to go further is evidenced by the presence of an outline that would have taken the work through his attendance at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Yet on the last 33 years of his life -- arguably some of his most significant years -- his autobiography is silent. Franklin simply ran out of time. He died on April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia at the age of 84 after having lived what nearly everyone would agree was a truly remarkable life.