Benjamin Franklin: An American Original

Richard Bell – University of Maryland

Franklin's genius is a puzzle. Born the tenth and youngest son of a decidedly humble family of puritan candle-makers in Boston in 1706, Franklin's rise to the front ranks of science, engineering, and invention was as unexpected as it was meteoric. Here is a man with only two years of proper schooling who later received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and St. Andrews as well as the eighteenth-century equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Physics.

Like his hero Isaac Newton, Franklin's great genius lay in optimizing, in tinkering, in improving, and in never being satisfied with the world as he knew it. In this talk we will examine many of Franklin's ideas to make life simpler, cheaper, and easier for himself and everyone else. It turns out that those ideas encompassed not only natural science and engineering—the kite experiments and the bifocals for which he is justly remembered—but also all sorts of public works, civic improvements, political trail-blazing, and fresh, new business ideas. His experimenter's instinct, his relentless drive to build a better world one small piece at a time, even encompassed innovations in medical device design, in music, in cookery, and in ventriloquism. Hardly the tortured genius, Franklin took a schoolboy's pleasure in everything he made. Experimenting was a constant source of beauty, pleasure, and amusement for him, even when things went wrong (which they did all the time).