- Historic Sites
“What Good Is a New-born Baby?”
OF BALLOONS, THE FIRST AIR-MAIL LETTERS, AND THE EVER-ENTERPRISING FRANKLIN FAMILY
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
NOT ALL FRENCHMEN WERE ENTHUSIASTS
The small unmanned balloon, only twelve feet in diameter, that the French physicist J. A. C. Charles launched on August 27, 1783, was inflated by the gas from a thousand pounds of sulfuric acid poured on five hundred pounds of iron filings. This massively inefficient task took over three days. Franklin, who joined an estimated fifty thousand people to watch, reported to Banks that “a Note secur’d from the Weather had been affix’d to the Globe signifying the Time & Place of its Departure, and praying those who might happen to find it, to send an account of its State to certain Persons at Paris.” As it turned out, the balloon fell in the small village of Gonesse about twelve miles away. The country people, not having a shred of Franklin’s scientific curiosity or the Parisians’ enthusiasm, “were frightned, conceiv’d from its bounding a little, when it touched the Ground, that there was some living Animal in it, and attack’d it with Stones and Knives, so that it was much mangled. …” Indeed, they thrust their pitchforks into it and tied it to the tail of a horse, which dragged it off ignominiously. Franklin did not make clear who finally read the note or how word of its fate got back to Professor Charles but reported in his postscript only that “it is now brought to Town and will be repaired.” In the interim the more sophisticated multitude in Paris went their separate ways, “all well satisfied and delighted with the Success of the Experiment, and amusing one another with discourses of the various uses it may possibly be apply’d to, among which many were very extravagant.” Franklin went home to consider how it might pave the way to some “Discoveries in Natural Philosophy of which at present we have no Conception.”
“THE FIRST THRO’ THE AIR”
When Franklin went to Paris in 1776, he took with him sevenyear-old Benjamin Bâche, son of his only daughter, Sarah, and sixteen-year-old William Temple Franklin, the illegitimate son of his own illegitimate son William. The latter had estranged himself from his loving but bitter father when, as royal governor of New Jersey, he had espoused the Loyalist cause. Old Franklin had seen this coming during the years prior to the Revolution when he, William, and Temple lived in England, and Franklin, “from a long and thorough consideration of the subject,” came to hold the opinion “that the parliament has no right to make any law whatever, binding on the colonies. … I know your sentiments differ from mine on these subjects,” he continued in this letter written to William in 1773. “You are a thorough government man. …” He was right. In America William was sent to jail for his position, condemned as “a virulent enemy of this country.” Exchanged in 1778, he ended up back in London like many other American Loyalists, including Dr. John Jeffries, who had served as a surgeon general in the British army. Temple remained with his grandfather after his father’s imprisonment and served as his unofficial clerk in Paris. Although Franklin doted on him, Temple was something of a fop, parading around Paris in fancy clothes and presenting Franklin with an illegitimate great-grandson (ah, tradition!), but the latest love child did not survive his first year. Temple remained on good terms with his handsome and worldly father, visiting him in London and maintaining a steady correspondence with him. It was therefore not surprising that when William Franklin learned of the proposed flight from Dover to Calais to be made by his friend Dr. Jeffries, he asked him to carry with him a letter to his son. “I dare say,” he wrote Temple on December 16, 1784, “you will like to be one of the first who gets a Letter across the British Channel by this kind of aerial Conveyance.” Old Ben, perhaps a bit confused when writing to his friend James Bowdoin in 1786, claimed that “my Acquaintance with Dr. Jeffries began by his bringing me a Letter in France, the first thro’ the Air from England.” Although the grandpère clearly was stealing the glory from the petit fils , it is the latter’s letter (right) that survives to this day as the world’s first air-mail message; it reposes in the archives of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.