Chaplin — The First Scientific American

Chaplin, Joyce E., The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius, Basic Books, NY, 2006. 421 pp.

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Not too long ago, I reviewed Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687-1851 describing the impact of Newton’s Principia on the development of public science and technology. That book briefly mentioned the fact that Benjamin Franklin’s influence was dramatically exhanced by the fact that he studied electricity … a subject of great fascination in the mid-18th century in Europe.

Scientific American‘s podcast recently interviewed the author of a new biography of Benjamin Franklin, which looks at his life from the perspective of his science. Harvard professor Joyce Chaplin has written a wonderful book for anyone wondering how science (natural philosophy), politics, and personality blended in the amazing life (and subsequent myths) of Ben Franklin. Note: the book has no association with the famous magazine.

Ben was the first celebrity natural philosopher, as iconized in his day as Einstein is in ours. Unlike Newton, born in the 17th century and averse to public engagement, Franklin was born of humble circumstances in the early 18th century (1706) — an era that saw the first real participation of the general public in the questions of “how the world works.” As an apprentice printer, he was geared from a young age to read and generate his own printed material. His fascination with the world seemed endless and he wrote about what he learned and saw in many different formats. So it was Franklin, rather than Newton, who was to epitomize 18th century “genius” for both an English-speaking public and a Continental Europe that was struggling to deal with the new knowledge unleashed by Newton and the steam mechanics. Franklin could bridge that gap between an elite body of natural philosophers, and the practical businessmen and tradesmen who needed to build things, buy things, and trade things. This diversity of experience and origin seemed to have served the man well. He could get his hands dirty with experimentation (with fireplaces, lightning rods, and seawater temperature), yet his hard-won prosperity and social climbing meant that his words and experiments were taken very seriously at the highest levels of philosophical inquiry. As an example, Franklin was appointed to the committee which examined the claims of Anton Mesmer by the French king.

Chaplin has a distinct claim for Franklin, counter to our modern impression:

Science is knowledge of things; politics is power over people. During the eighteenth century, the two enterprises overlapped in fascinating ways. Franklin entered both realms but flourished especially in the territory they held in common. A man of science, he became a political leader — indeed, the personification of a nation with a unprecedenteed history. A single book could not do justice to either one of these enormous topics, either Franklin’s science or his political career. Instead, this book examines the most important ways in which Franklin made his pursuits in the sciences and in public affairs inform and support each other.

Benjamin Franklin was the first scientific American. He was the first person born in the Americas who became internationally celebrated (not just known and respected) for work in physical science. Put it another way. Franklin, an American, was the first person to be internationally celebrated for work in the physical sciences. A mere colonial of ordinary birth managed to achieve this stature. Several stories are embedded here, about America, about science, and about Benjamin Franklin. And ultimately, they are — conveniently, marvelously — all the same story.

How Franklin was able to convert his scientific reputation into a career as international statesman and Founding Father is fascinating. Franklin was curious, clever, and ambitious from the outset. A humble birth in a large Boston family, and an abruptly terminated formal education led to an apprentice with his brother as a printer. Running away to Philadelphia he befriended a man who sent him to London to acquire a press. Abandoned there he returned to the printer’s art to survive, returning to Philadelphia to begin a printing business and participate in administrative activity and in communal intellectual activity. By his thirties, he was a prosperous businessman, retired from printing, and able to devote at least part of his time to intellectual and experimental pursuits. His initial foray into science, with a publication on the Pennsylvania fireplaces was followed by more elaborate work on electricity, for which he is famous.

Finding himself in London as an agent for several colonies, he continued to expand his research and theorizing, culminating in his publication in 1751 of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which was immediately translated into French and triggered a wave of experimentatl replications across Europe. In 1754, the Royal Society awarded Franklin the Copley Medal — a signal honour for someone neither a member nor a native. Franklin as a young man had lived in hope of an introduction, or at least a sight, of Sir Isaac Newton. Now he was acclaimed as a pre-eminent scientist by the most prominent and elite natural philosophy society in the English-speaking world.

World events were to intrude, however. After many years in London, and much effort to convey to the British elite and public the colonial views on taxation, trade, and development, he was caught in a controversy over his postmaster responsibilities. Returning to Philadelphia as a leading philosopher, he was drawn into the events of the War of Independence. Travelling to France, he acted as ambassador for the fledgling country, and played a part in both gaining French support for America and for arranging the terms of peace. Returning to the colonies he again was drawn into the discussions about the structure of the new country and the drafting of the U.S. constitution.

Chaplin manages to weave Franklin’s philosophical and scientific inquiries into the broader sweep of his life. Despite a schedule which left little time for science, Franklin relished keeping up with discoveries by others, and his contributions on many aspects of natural and political philosophy are substantial. His careful cultivation of the friends and the businesses that would advance his interests was methodical — “making haste slowly” as his pseudonymous Poor Richard’s Almanack proclaimed. He set himself between the worlds of tradesmen and gentlemen at a time when that was very difficult, adopting one role or the other as the situation warrented. With his prominent role in the political restructuring of the British Empire, his homespun demeanour was inspiration to some and dire threat to others.

The author does a very good job of summarizing the vast literature on Franklin’s science and life. From what I could see in the End Notes of the topics with which I’m familiar, she’s given many additional solid references for any reader interested in the historical and philosphical details. In this, she has been greatly aided by a gigantic body of scholarship on Franklin. What comes across most in The First Scientific American is just how much fun those historians have been having. Franklin became famous at a time when the first breaks in the bonds of European social tradition and class were starting to appear. Whether electrocuting friends at riverside picnics, dropping in on Adam Smith in Scotland, arranging for American apple pies for friends in London, helping draft the Declaration of Independence, pondering the Gulf Stream during voyages across the Atlantic, or irritating the King of France with his wild popularity in Paris, Ben crammed a lot of life into an unusually long life.

Despite Chaplin’s best efforts as a Harvard prof to frown upon the compromises and un-PC elements of Ben Franklin’s life, and to caution us that our vision of him as a great “modern” is partly flawed … it’s hard to imagine that any modern American, or any scientist around the world for that matter, would hesitate for a moment to take old Ben Franklin into home or lab and begin a conversation. We would all expect him to be full of questions, full of interest, full of ideas, and full of good humour. Based on The First Scientific American, I think these fantasies are likely well-grounded.

It is a testament to both his accomplishments and the subsequent elevation of his life, that Franklin is a profoundly appealing character to us still, celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of his birth. For what is evident in his writing is the impact of the Enlightenment on ordinary lives. Franklin was an enthusiast for the settlement of America, and for the evident “political arithmetick” that would shift the centre of economic and political power from Britain to America. The political, philosophical, and religious changes that were necessary for that transformation were often on his mind, and just as often reflect upon in print — sometimes pseudonymously. And Franklin saw firsthand the constant growth in understanding that led to our modern sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. He was able to dabble in all these fields, and quiz the early giants of these sciences … through personal visits, letters, books, and prestigious society memberships. In science and politics, he lived his life at the thick of things … and would no doubt be gratified to see what his efforts in America came to. Ben Franklin dreamed big and the United States subsequently filled out entirely the scope and scale of his dream.

Interestingly enough, after Franklin’s death, his genius for science and technology was underplayed … and apart from his experiment with the kite in the thunderstorm (a parallel to the George Washington “cherry tree” meme) it was Franklin’s role in the War of Independence which was placed in the foreground. Signer of the Declaration of Independence, of the Treaty of Paris, of the Treaty of Alliance with France, and of the U.S. Constitution, it would be hard to understate his importance in the birth of the United States. Consider that he was 70 when he began the diplomatic marathon necessary to acquire French support after 1776, then on to reconciliation with Great Britain (1783), and the great experiment in government that was the U.S. Constitution. The coda of his life was extraordinary by itself.

With the winter holidays approaching, it’s a good time to consider how The First Scientific American might fit into your book-buying plans. If a well-written biography of Benjamin Franklin (of manageable size) immediately grabs your interest, then this title would make a great companion during the gap between Christmas and New Year’s. And if you have a child between 15 and 25 that has any budding interest in science (while your tastes lean more perhaps to history, politics, and economics) … this is a book that you both can read and find endless pleasure in discussing. Franklin’s life will stick with you, for the rest of your life. For younger teens, a word of warning. While there’s nothing salacious or inappropriate in the book, Franklin did have periodic conflicts with his family, his friends, his colleagues, and political establishments generally … this is an adult biography in the sense that it doesn’t gloss over how Franklin could be ruthless and ambitious as circumstances demanded. Snatched lightning from the skies, and sceptres from tyrants. And bruised plenty of toes in the process. So for younger kids, it may well be a book that you’d read together, to ponder how the specifics of a person’s life alter the grander accomplishments we learn in grade school.

The First Scientific American is a book that succeeds in bringing together the history of science, the Enlightenment, and colonial America through the life of its very illustrious participant.

Oh … and if in London, don’t miss the newly opened Ben Franklin House documenting the man’s scientific and political work at his Craven Street address in the years before the War of Independence!

Table of Contents

One Genius 1
Two Head and Hands 9
Three Man of Letters 39
Four Experiments and Observations 73
Five The Franklin Paradox 116
Six Distance 160
Seven Wrecked 201
Eight The Science of War 240
Nine Final Accounts 293
Ten Afterlife 336

3 thoughts on “Chaplin — The First Scientific American”

  1. A good companion to this book would be Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, which dealt with Franklin’s comtemporaries, the Lunar Society in Lancashire, with whom Franklin visited and corresponded. Like Franklin, these people, including Josiah Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin, (Charles’s grandfather and forerunner), tended to combine entrepreneurship, radical politics, religious speculation, and science.

  2. I thank you & my students thank you – Franklin comes up in about three hours & while I will still know nothing about science, at least I can point to your review & the book for those who want to know more.

    I love the Puritans but it is like throwing open the windows in the room when we get to Franklin.

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