Meet Dr Franklin

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Despite his casual attitude toward sexual morality, Franklin was far from being a playboy. The old Doctor, an irrepressible activist and dogooder, embodied in his own career the blend of practicality and idealism that has characterized Americans ever since. Convinced from early youth of the values of self-improvement and self-education, Franklin on his return to Philadelphia from his first trip to England organized the Junto, a society half debating, half social, attesting both to the sponsor’s belief in the potentialities of continued adult education and to his craving for intellectual companionship not provided in his own home. Then came the subscription library, still flourishing in Philadelphia. Franklin’s plans for a Pennsylvania academy, drawn up in 1743, reached fruition a decade later and were a positive outgrowth of his conviction that an English rather than a classical education was more suitable to modern man and that most colleges stuffed the heads of students with irrelevant book-knowledge. Then, too, the task of organizing a Pennsylvania hospital—hospitalization being defended by him as more economical than home care—drew upon his seemingly inexhaustible fund of energy. So did his organization of a local fire company, and his program for a tax-supported permanent police watch, and for lighting, paving, sweeping, draining, and de-icing the streets of Philadelphia. Convinced of the virtues of thrift and industry, Franklin could be expected to take a dim view of poor relief, and questioned “whether the laws peculiar to England which compel the rich to maintain the poor have not given the latter a dependence that very much lessens the care of providing against the wants of old age.” Truly, this revolutionary, if he returned to us today, might well be aghast at the largess of the modern welfare state with its indifference to the work ethos. That the oldest of American revolutionaries should be committed to controlled, orderly change takes on larger significance when one seeks explanations as to why the American Revolution did not pursue the violent, even chaotic, course of the French. …

A man of the Enlightenment, Franklin had faith in the power and beneficence of science. In moments snatched from public affairs during the latter 1740’s and early 50’s—moments when public alarms interrupted his research at the most creative instant—he plunged into scientific experimentation. While his lightning kite and rod quickly made him an, international celebrity, Franklin was no mere dilettante gadgeteer. His conception of electricity as a flow with negative and positive force promoted further theoretical development in the theory of electromagnetism. His pamphlet on electricity, published originally in 1751, went through ten editions, including revisions, in four languages before the American Revolution. Honors from British scientists were heaped upon him; and when he arrived in England in 1757 and again in 1764 and in France in 1776, he came each time with an enlarged international reputation as a scientist whom Chatham compared in Parliament to “our Boyle” and “our Newton.”

Pathbreaking as Franklin’s work on electricity proved to be, his range of scientific interest extended far beyond theoretical physics. He pioneered in locating the Gulf Stream, in discovering that northeast storms come from the southwest, in making measurements of heat absorption with regard to color, and in investigating the conductivity of different substances with regard to heat. A variety of inventions attested to his utilitarian bent—the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the flexible metal catheter, bifocal glasses, the glass harmonica, the smokeless chimney. Indefatigable in his expenditure of his spare time on useful ends, he made observations on the nature of communication between insects, contributed importantly to our knowledge of the causes of the common cold, advocated scientific ventilation, and even tried on a number of occasions electric shock treatment to combat palsy.

To the last Franklin stoutly defended scientific experimentation that promised no immediate practical consequences. Watching the first balloon ascension in Paris, he parried the question, “What good is it?” with a characteristic retort, “What good is a newborn baby?”

Committed as he was to discovering truth through scientific inquiry, Franklin could be expected to be impatient with formal theology. While not denigrating faith, he regretted that it had not been “more productive of good works than I have generally seen it.” He suggested that, Chinese style, laymen leave praying to the men who were paid to pray for them. At the age of twenty-two he articulated a simple creed, positing a deistic Christian God with infinite power that He would abstain from wielding in arbitrary fashion. His deistic views remained unchanged when, a month before his death, Ezra Stiles asked him his opinion of the divinity of Jesus. Confessing doubts, Franklin refused to dogmatize or to busy himself with the problem at so late a date, since, he remarked, “I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”