The Remarkable Genius of Benjamin Franklin

Caroline Winterer – Stanford University

Benjamin Franklin was truly a genius, recognized as such at home and abroad, in his own time and still today. George Washington referred to him as “that great philosopher.” Thomas Jefferson called him “the greatest man of the age and country in which he lived.” John Adams said of him, “Franklin had a great genius, original, and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvements in the fine arts and the mechanical arts”. The lightning rod was the most spectacular. After that invention, the world began to look upon natural phenomena in a different light, recognizing man’s ability to understand and control them through science and invention. But for Franklin it was only one of many. Another of his original creations, bifocal eyeglasses, was very simple and came to him without any previous experimentation. One contemporary claimed Franklin invented them so he could watch the girls across the room while still keeping his eyes on the one next to him. A third original invention of Franklin’s is daylight saving time, which gives extra hours of daylight to enjoy in the evening.

A stickler for economy, Franklin’s dictum “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” urged his fellow countrymen to work during daylight and sleep after dark, saving money on candles. He calculated that if all the families of Paris who caroused until late at night and then slept until noon would arise with the sun six hours earlier, 64 million pounds of candle wax would be saved in six months’ time. In fact, both Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for an instrument invented by Franklin, the glass armonica. In Europe, Franklin’s fame for the armonica rivaled the reputation he had achieved for his electrical experiments and lightning rod. Franklin never patented any of his inventions, saying, “I never made, nor proposed to make, the least profit by any of them.” It was a matter of principle with him that, as he had benefited from past inventions and discoveries, present and future generations should be able to benefit freely from his inventions. Among his other inventions were an improved printing press, a flexible catheter, an extension arm for grasping items beyond one’s reach, his famous stove and room heater, a modified odometer, a three-wheel clock that displayed seconds, minutes and hours, an improved oil lamp, flippers to aid swimming, and even a sea anchor.