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Ben Franklin—facts and fallacies

J.A. Leo Lemay, H.F. duPont Winterthur Professor of English Literature
4:59 p.m., June 16, 2005--Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday isn’t until Jan.17, but the official celebrations will begin in October when an actor dressed as a 17-year-old Franklin steps off a ship in Philadelphia harbor and heads for the city’s historic section.

From then on, it’ll be Franklinmania, with exhibits, concerts, lectures, even “a penny saved” restaurant menus and "Ben's Birthday" hotel packages.

J.A. Leo LeMay, H.F. duPont Winterthur Professor of English Literature at UD, is one of the nation’s leading Franklin scholars. His work has been cited in three recent, bestselling Franklin biographies. The first two volumes of his own seven-volume Franklin biography are slated for publication next fall.

LeMay, who spent decades researching Franklin for his biography, has been called the dean of Franklin scholars. His work is cited in best-selling books on Franklin by Walter Issacson, Gordon Wood and Edmund Morgan. Reviewers call his Benjamin Franklin: Writings the most complete one-volume collection of Franklin ever published. The William & Mary Quarterly dubbed him “the pioneering scholar of early American literature.”

In 1997, Lemay posted a web site at [www.English.udel.edu/lemay/franklin] as research tool for scholars. By providing a detailed account of Franklin’s activities, Lemay’s web site reveals insights into the mind of one of America’s greatest statesmen, philosophers and scientists.

Brush up on Franklin in advance of his 300th birthday with help from Lemay by perusing a list of facts and fallacies about the inventor-publisher-postmaster who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Mozart and Beethoven composed music for an instrument Franklin invented. True. Both composed music for Franklin’s armonica, a simple instrument that was played by touching the edge of spinning glass with dampened fingers.

Ben Franklin was the first to discover that lightning is electricity when he experimented with his kite. False. It was his theory, but Franklin wasn’t the first to prove it. He proposed that lightning was electricity in an anonymous publication in 1748. Three years later, he published instructions on how his theory might be proven. Some French experimenters followed them and proved the theory in May 1752. Transatlantic communication being what it was in the 18th Century, Franklin thought he was the first to prove his theory when he carried out his kite experiment in June 1752.

Franklin invented the lightning rod. True. In the don’t’-try-this-at-home category, Franklin showed that it is possible to drive lightning’s electrical charge into the ground when he carried out his famous kite experiment. Franklin was safely ensconced in a shed when he attracted lightning with a key tied to a kite. He watched the lightning raise the hairs on the hemp kite string as it traveled downward into the Earth. LeMay said Franklin couldn’t resist reaching out to touch the hemp and, as you’d expect, he got a slight shock.

Franklin was a lefty. False. He was right-handed. The confusion may have started when he wrote a delightful skit about unequal treatment and signed it, “The Left Hand.”

Franklin was a notorious womanizer. False. Although Franklin was an inveterate flirt, and he sired an illegitimate child before his 1730 wedding to Deborah Reed Rogers, there is no evidence that he had any affairs during his marriage.

Ben was a vegetarian. False. Evidence suggests young Franklin was adverse to killing animals for food. He also figured vegetables cost less than meat, so he could spend more of his earnings on books. His diet wasn’t completely meat and fish free, though.

Franklin designed the first street light. False. Franklin oversaw the installation of streetlights in Philadelphia, and he designed a better streetlight, but several other cities had streetlights first.

Franklin invented the odometer. False. There’s no mileage in this one. LeMay says Franklin didn’t do it, and he probably never even used the word, because a similar device of his day was called a way-wiser.

He invented “swimmies.” True. Franklin, a champion swimmer who often swam a few miles in the Thames when he lived in London, made crude wooden floatation devices to help others learn to swim. He also windsurfed on the pond at Boston Commons, holding a kite aloft to propel himself across the water.

He invented the best stove in the colonies. True, and it’s still being purchased today. The Franklin stove was the most efficient stove in the world when Franklin started selling it in 1742.

He invented daylight-saving time. False. He did write a spoof suggesting a shift in time when he was living in France, but it was pure Franklin-lite.

He designed the first fireman’s coat. False. Early Philadelphia firemen wore whatever was handy.

A tree was named after him. True. The Franklinia alatamaha, a flowering shrub, has white flowers in the summer and early autumn and a striking display of purple foliage in late autumn. A row of them may be found in Mentors’ Circle near Hullihen and Memorial halls on the campus.

Franklin was the first to say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” False. Many of the proverbs and sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack had their origins as far back as Plato. Franklin rewrote them and improved them. An example: He revamped “God restoreth health, and the physician hath the thanks,” to “God heals, and the doctor takes the fee.”

Franklin was a penny-pincher. False. He was thrifty because he wanted to save money to buy books, but he was no cheapskate. “If he were interested in money, he wouldn’t have retired at 42,’’ Le May said.

Franklin was the first to predict that major storms traveled across several states and could be tracked. False, but his theory that storms and hurricanes moved up from the south, although the winds in the storms blew from the northeast, is regarded as the genesis of scientific weather forecasting.

Franklin founded the Free Library of Philadelphia in 1731, making it the nation’s first public library. False. Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, but it wasn’t free. It was a subscription library. Members pooled their money to buy books and paid an annual fee to buy more books each year. The first person granted permission to use the library for free was botanist John Bartram.

Franklin happened to be in Paris to witness the world’s first known hot-air balloon flight in 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers became the first humans ever known to fly.
False, but Franklin was fascinated by the hot-air flight reports, and he witnessed two later manned flights in 1783. When an observer asked him, “What use is it?” Franklin replied, “What use is a newborn baby?”

Ben founded the first volunteer fire department in 1736, Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company. False again. Boston and other cities already had volunteer departments when he founded Philadelphia’s fire company in 1736. His was the first in the City of Brotherly Love.

Without Ben, baby boomers wouldn’t have bifocals. True. Necessity really is the mother of invention. Franklin, who was both near-sighted and far-sighted, became frustrated that he had to constantly switch his pairs of glasses. He had the lenses of two pairs of spectacles cut in half and put half of each lens in one frame.

Franklin coined some electrical terms we still use today. True. Ben gave us “battery,” “positive,” “negative’’ and “charge.”

Franklin invented the first medical catheter. Not exactly true. Europeans were already using a catheter when Franklin constructed one for his brother John, who was extremely ill. Franklin’s catheter, the first to be used in America, was a modification of the European version.

Franklin founded the first fire insurance company. False, but he founded the first one in Philadelphia in 1751, and it still exists.

One of Ben’s many hats was that of a postmaster. True. Being appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 was a boon for a newspaper publisher because post offices were news centers in colonial towns.

LeMay sums up Franklin this way: “He tried hard, and he meant to do good. He wanted to improve himself, others and the world he lived in.”

Article by Kathy Canavan
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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