“What Good Is a New-born Baby?”


Seventy-seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin was at the top of his form in the fall of 1783. Minister to the court of France since 1776, this revered figure from the new young country had scored widely in France. Finally, in September, 1783, he had signed the definitive treaty of peace between America and England, bringing the Revolution to its formal end. The crowned heads of Europe saluted him; the diplomats admired him; the ladies adored him.


Right in the midst of these triumphs a new invention had burst upon the Parisian scene. Like a delighted schoolboy Franklin was among the first to extol the wondrous balloon and to investigate its possibilities. He was, after all, himself responsible for a number of equally fascinating discoveries. “He could make an experiment with less apparatus … than any other philosopher we ever saw,” Lord Brougham, the famous reformer, said of Franklin. “With an old key, a silk thread, some sealing wax and a sheet of paper he discovered the identity of lightning and electricity.” Small wonder that Franklin watched with unconcealed admiration these early balloon ascensions in Paris. Some, he noted, were propelled upward by nothing more than the heated air from the burning of “Faggots and Sheaves of Straw,” the Montgolfier brothers’ method. Others were lifted aloft by “the inflammable Air [hydrogen] that is produced by pouring Oil of Vitriol upon Filings of Iron,” the method of Professor J. A. C. Charles.

The next part of the story, of course, is famous: Doctor Franklin is among the excited crowd watching the first balloon ascension from the Champ de Mars, August 27, 1783, and someone poses the inevitable conservative question—what good is it? Watching the balloon rise magically into the sky, the man who has busied himself with every novelty—with meteorology, inoculation, bifocals, lightning rods, postal service, hydrodynamics, even a sensible new stove—turns and replies: “What good is a newborn baby?” The epigram ricochets throughout Paris and the world.

But Franklin did more than watch and quip. As soon as possible after first watching an ascension he was at his desk writing his detailed observations to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London, of which Franklin had been a member since 1756. “I thought it my Duty, Sir, to send an early Account of this extraordinary Fact, to the Society which does me the honour to reckon me among its Members. …” Duty it may have been, but as Franklin kept bombarding his English friend with the highlights of each additional French feat, Sir Joseph must have been hard pressed to continue to honor his first reply that “most agreeable are the hopes you give me of Continueng to Communicate this most interesting Subject.”


The day after the first manned flight, which took place on November ao and was launched not far from his house in Passy, Franklin followed his usual precise account to Banks with a gibe at English scientific reticence. “I am sorry this Experiment is totally neglected in England where mechanic Genius is so strong. … Your Philosophy seems to be too bashful. In this Country we are not so much afraid of being laught at. If we do a foolish thing, we are the first to laugh at it ourselves, and are almost as much pleased with a Bon Mot or a good Chanson , that ridicules well the Disappointment of a Project, as we might have been with its Success. It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new Experiment which apparently increases the Power of Man over Matter, till we can see to what Use that Power may be applied. When we have learnt to manage it, we may hope sometime or other to find Uses for it, as Men have done for Magnetism and Electricity of which the first Experiments were mere Matters of Amusement.”

Poor Banks! Although Franklin’s letters to him are now valued sources of information on the birth of ballooning, he must have been vastly relieved the following year when London was finally treated to an ascension—even though it was an Italian secretary to the Neapolitan ambassador who rose to—and on—the occasion.

While the fascinated French were caught up in an all-out balloon craze—“Come for tea and balloons,” read one invitation to Franklin—his busy mind was leaping ahead to the possibilities offered by the new invention. Having so recently been involved in the affairs of war, he envisioned “elevating an Engineer to take a View of an Enemy’s Army, Works, &c., conveying Intelligence into, or out of a besieged Town, giving Signals to distant Places, or the like.” He re.ported he had heard suggestions for using balloons for sight-seeing and procuring ice; and because of the acute pain he suffered from a bladder stone, he noted humorously that a balloon “being the easiest of all Voitures … would be extremely convenient to me, now that my Malady forbids the Use of the old ones over a Pavement.”