~e; Beyond the Lightning

From human being <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Tue, 23 Jul 2002 16:57:14 -0500

  [text from the .US National Endowment for the Humanities website...]

Beyond the Lightning

By Caroline Kim

By the age of forty-two, when Benjamin Franklin retired from the
daily operations of his printing shop, he was a wealthy man. He had
arrived in Philadelphia twenty-five years earlier, little more than a
boy with a single Dutch dollar in his pocket; by 1748, he was one of
the wealthiest men in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. With the
curiosity and fierce will he had possessed from an early age, he
turned his attention to the science of electricity.

At the time, few people understood the phenomenon. "In Franklin's
day, electricity was much more of a puzzle than gravity had been a
century earlier in Newton's time," says scholar Dudley Herschbach.
"Everybody was familiar with things falling and all, but
electricity--it was just about rubbing something and getting some
sparks. Where did this come from? Very mysterious."

So-called "electricians" traveled about giving demonstrations of this
mysterious force to a fascinated public. One such show featured a boy
suspended from the ceiling by silken cords. Rubbing his feet with a
glass tube, sparks would be drawn from his face and hands to the
amazement of the crowd. In another, a group of people held hands and
received a collective shock from an electrostatic generator. These
parlor tricks were performed all over the world.

Franklin realized that friction did not create electricity, it moved
it from one body to another. The spark that resulted when the two
bodies were brought close together was electricity flowing through
the air. Taking it one step further, Franklin noticed that lightning
was similar to the charge he created in his laboratory.

"Both give off light of the same color and have a crooked direction,"
he wrote. "Lightning and this discharge both give off a noise like a
crack and both are conducted by metals. The electricity generated in
the laboratory is attracted to a pointed metal rod. Since they are
similar in every other way, will lightning, too, be attracted to an
iron rod? Let the experiment be made!"

What followed was the kite-flying experiment that made him famous.
"In an age of reason," says scholar I. Bernard Cohen, "his proof that
the lightning discharge is an ordinary, natural phenomenon and not a
manifestation of the powers of darkness, or the force of an angry
God, was seen as a tremendous blow for reason against superstition."

If solving the mystery of lightning were Franklin's only achievement,
he would still be known today. We continue to use the terminology he
coined: "plus" and "minus" to denote positive and negative states. He
invented the first primitive motor, or "self-moving wheel" and the
first "Electrical Battery," which, when charged, could store
electricity for use at a later time. But Franklin's influence on the
world around him, and around us, extends far beyond the realm of

He was the only one of the Founding Fathers to have his signature on
all three of the most important documents in early American
history--the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and
the Constitution of the United States. He mapped the Gulf Stream and
published the first American political cartoon. He invented the glass
armonica--a musical instrument for which Mozart and Beethoven both
composed. And without Franklin's skillful diplomacy in France, there
may never have been a United States of America.

Benjamin Franklin, a three-part series airing on PBS this fall, takes
on the herculean task of bringing to life the man biographer Carl Van
Doren called "a harmonious human multitude."

Its producer is Catherine Allan of KTCA National Productions in St.
Paul, Minneapolis. The idea came to her while she was working on the
Peabody Award-winning series Liberty! The American Revolution. "No
one had done a really thorough documentary series about his life and
achievements," says Allan, "especially his early life and the
pre-iconic Franklin, the pre-Founding Father Franklin, who had
already achieved so much."

Assembling the same team that worked on Liberty!--Ellen Hovde and
Muffie Meyer of Middlemarch Films and writer Ronald Blumer--they set
about researching the man about whom political scientist Michael
Zuckert once wrote, "Think of a combination of Jay Gatsby, Thomas
Edison, Norman Vincent Peale, Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Garrison
Keillor, and Carl Sagan and one begins to have some idea of who
Franklin was and how many typical American types he embodied in his
capacious frame." The production team was hooked.

"Franklin is the most human and the most interesting and the
brightest of the Founding Fathers," says Ellen Hovde, co-producer of
the series. "The first thing that strikes you is the sheer range of
the Renaissance man aspect," says Catherine Allan. "Not only that he
had many interests but that he was accomplished in his many
interests. And he was excellent in so many different areas that are
not necessarily related. He was a really good writer and he also had
an inquiring scientific mind. He knew how to read people and at the
same time he was a good political organizer and a very talented
scientist. Those aren't always qualities that go together."

To understand Franklin, one must go back to the period of the
Enlightenment, a time of universal optimism when it seemed that human
reason could solve every problem and surmount any difficulty.

"The basic assumption of the Enlightenment," says historian Gordon
Wood, "is that we're not born to be what we are--which was the
traditional view for centuries, for eons. And once you have that
insight, which is a modern insight, you can begin to change things.
Education becomes important. You can change what you were born,
presumably, to be. You can become something else."

Unlike George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, Franklin was not born
into the aristocracy. His father, Josiah, was a candle and soap
boiler; Franklin was the thirteenth of seventeen children and the
youngest son. Puritan Boston in the time of Franklin's youth--the
early 1700s--still retained the class systems the immigrants had
brought with them from Europe, but they were not as rigidly kept.
Life was a struggle for survival and there was too much work to be
done. "There was an upper crust," says Blumer, "but it was nothing
like England. There was much more mobility. Also, there was a great
shortage of laborers so that anybody who could do something useful
could earn money here."

Franklin saw opportunities everywhere. Taken out of school at the age
of ten due to lack of funds, he was apprenticed to his brother James
to learn the printing trade. He continued to study on his own,
teaching himself "everything from geometry to the art of winning
arguments using the Socratic method," according to Blumer.

Exposed to a greater wealth of books in the printing shop than the
religious tracts he was given as a child, he learned to perfect his
writing style by taking apart articles in the British Spectator and
rewriting them. "He would make little notes on pieces of paper--the
theme of a paragraph or the various points on a theme. He would put
it aside for a while, come back and then try to compose it. In a few
cases, he thought he even made a slight improvement over these
masters of English writing," says historian Ralph Lerner.

At the printing shop where his brother James published the New
England Courant, one of America's first newspapers, Franklin made his
first foray into the world of publishing by writing under the
pseudonym Silence Dogood, a fictional middleaged widow of strong
opinions. "Name a vice in which women exceed men. Drunkenness?
Swearing? And idleness--if you talk to us, you'll learn that a
woman's work is never done. As for ignorance, that's completely the
fault of men who prevent women from getting an education. Women are
taught to read and write their names and nothing else. We have the
God-given capacity for knowledge and understanding. What have we done
to forfeit the privilege of being taught?" He slipped the letters
under the door anonymously to keep James from becoming jealous. He
was sixteen years old.

"Benjamin was smarter than James, was better as a printer, even as an
apprentice, than James was," says H.W. Brands. "James would beat him,
as masters commonly beat their apprentices. Well, Ben didn't think
this was right." At seventeen, Franklin broke his apprenticeship
agreement and ran away, first to New York and then to Philadelphia.
Now his own man, and with more freedom in Philadelphia than in
Boston, Franklin began his ascent from obscurity. "Franklin from the
get-go understood that he was a modest man's son, but he had powers
that rich men's sons didn't have. He was smarter than they were, he
was more adroit than they were, he was stronger than they were," says
scholar Michael Zuckerman.

The film's opening episode, "The Way to Wealth," covers the first
forty-two years of his life. These were the years in which he became
an astute businessman, published the Pennsylvania Gazette, formed a
commercial self-help group called the Junto, wrote Poor Richard's
Almanack, and turned his attention to civic duties such as organizing
America's first police force, paving and lighting the streets of
Philadelphia, and founding the first lending library and the college
that became the University of Pennsylvania. Even before he turned his
attention to politics, Franklin accomplished more than most people do
in a lifetime.

It is easy to lose Franklin behind his list of achievements. Faced
with the challenge of bringing to life not only a complicated
personality but one who lived in the pre-photographic era,
Middlemarch Films uses a technique they discovered during the filming
of Liberty!--on-camera actors speak from original sources. "We wanted
to use this incredible archive of letters and so on [diary entries,
official reports, newspaper accounts] but it doesn't form itself like
dialog," says Muffie Meyer. "So this technique of having people speak
directly to the camera is more in the spirit of someone writing."
Hovde agrees. "You get a sense of character that you can't get any
other way. It's a very intimate way to present historical characters."

The documentary creates a rich narrative of not only Franklin's long
life but the century in which he lived. To give viewers a sense of
this world, background scenes depicting eighteenth-century London,
Paris, and Philadelphia were filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania, whose
eighteenth-century architecture remains intact. "The Paris that we
know today," says Meyer, "is a nineteenth-century city and looks
pretty much nothing like Paris looked then. In the main city of
Lithuania, Vilnius, we found things were almost exactly the same."

As for portraits and paintings of Franklin, there was an abundance to
choose from. "Franklin," says Catherine Allan, "was one of the most
painted and reproduced of the Founding Fathers." This was due to
Franklin's famed scientific experiments, but also to his concern with
his image. As a young man in Philadelphia, he admits in his
autobiography, he made sure his industriousness was seen by his
fellow townsmen." In order to build my credit and character as a
tradesman, I take care not only in reality to be industrious and
frugal, but to appear so in public. When I buy paper, I make sure to
be seen pushing it through the streets in a wheelbarrow. I'm soon
considered an industrious and thriving young man, and merchants who
import books or stationary choose me to sell it in my shop.
Everything goes . . . swimmingly."

Franklin's understanding of the importance of image continued to
serve him when he was sent to France during the American Revolution.
When he arrived, he was wearing a fur hat to keep his head warm; the
French went wild. "There was a vogue for things American in France at
this time," says H.W. Brands. "Many French intellectuals looked to
America as a new world, as a fresh world, as a world where human
nature was closer to its natural origins than the human nature one
found in the confines of Europe."

Franklin wrote home to his daughter Sally: "My picture is everywhere,
on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, busts. The numbers sold are
incredible. My portrait is a best-seller. You have prints and copies
of prints and copies of copies spread everywhere. Your father's face
is now as well known as the man in the moon."

Franklin's mission in France is covered in episode three, "The Oldest
Revolutionary," and reveals how delicate and difficult an operation
it was. He had to seek French aid but could not do so openly.
Ostensibly there as a private citizen, he had to use his social
skills to secure the most basic necessities for the Continental
Army--weapons, boots, ammunition, blankets. "Why did he go to France?
Why did we need French help?" says Blumer. "Because there was no
industry [in America]. You couldn't make gunpowder, you couldn't make
guns. There were no people who knew about fighting, there was
nothing. People suggested you fight the war with pikes. That was the
level of technology they had."

"He had incredible social skills," says Allan. "And the canniness,
the backroom politicking skills for handling that very delicate
situation of trying to ask the French, a monarchy, a Catholic
monarchy, for money to support a revolution against a king. I mean,
when you think about it, it makes no sense. Other than the fact that
they wanted to get back at England."

Franklin's diplomacy was aided by the joie de vivre he shared with
the French. Genuinely, he loved life," says Allan. "He enjoyed eating
and drinking and flirting and having fun and talking to people and
staying up late. All those kinds of social skills he had in abundance
and that was how diplomacy was conducted."

He shocked John Adams, who was in France for the same purpose. Adams
thought Franklin was putting aside American interests in his desire
for a good time. Adams wrote home: "The life of Dr. Franklin here in
France is one long party. He eats breakfast late in the morning, and
as soon as his breakfast is over, crowds of people come to his court.
Philosophers, academics, his literary friends, even women and
children, thrilled at the great honor of viewing his bald head,
listening to him telling stories about his simplicity. Well, by then,
it's the afternoon! Time to dress for dinner! Dr. Franklin never
turns down a dinner invitation. He seldom comes home before nine and
sometimes as late as midnight. I'd be happy to do all the work
myself--all I want is a few moments a day for him to sign letters or
get advice on what's to be done. He has time for everyone but me."

"You must remember that there was no foreign service, there was no
tradition," says scholar Claude-Anne Lopez. "This was one of his
chief inventions, so to say."

John Adams was also dismayed by Franklin's reputation as a flirt.
Franklin, at the time, was over seventy, bald, heavy, and afflicted
with gout--and the French were entranced by the way he charmed the
ladies. "You couldn't be a politician in France unless you had
relationships with influential women," says scholar Tom Fleming.
"They called them the salonnières. And these women ran these salons
where everybody who was anybody came. At one point, there was a salon
where three hundred women gathered around Franklin and they placed a
crown on his head. And don't think these women didn't go home and
tell their husbands, 'I think France should become the ally of
America.' They had influence. So he was always being a diplomat even
while he was charming the ladies of France."

Though the documentary goes beyond Franklin's achievements and tries
to convey the man's personality, it acknowledges the difficulty.
"He's a very elusive character," says Hovde. "He's incredibly bright,
he's a genius. And he's also very self-protective." Blumer says, "As
he says, 'let all men know thee but none know thee well.' He keeps
his cards very close to his chest and there are occasional little
cracks where you really see what's going on, but most of the time, he
presents this very placid, benign exterior. You can't really see into
his soul. We met a lot of people who said he didn't have a soul . . .
but, in fact, he's a real live human being."

The middle episode, "The Making of a Revolutionary," shows Franklin's
relationship with his son, William, perhaps the person who knew him
best. Born illegitimate, a product of a youthful flirtation, William
was raised by Franklin and his new wife, Deborah. Constantly by his
father's side, he was there during the famous kite experiment and
traveled with him to England, where Franklin was sent by the
Pennsylvania Assembly to represent their interests. Working
tirelessly on his son's behalf, Franklin had him appointed as the
Royal Governor of New Jersey. As relations broke down between England
and the colonies due to the Stamp and Tea Acts, it also created a
personal rift between Franklin and William. "When his own son refused
to join him in this revolution in which Franklin was risking his life
and his reputation and his property," says Fleming, "this seemed to
Franklin an absolutely unbelievable, unspeakable betrayal."

"I don't think there's any question that Benjamin Franklin was a
great statesman," says scholar Willard Randall. "And I have no
question that he was a brilliant inventor. I think he was a wonderful
journalist and writer. But I think he was very hard on family and
friends. And no different from an awful lot of leaders who are put in
the public eye and we expect them to be saints in private, as well as
giants in public. . . . Franklin destroys everything around him to
create something new. He destroys the old British order. He destroys
aristocracy. In the process of creating something new . . . he
destroyed what was closest to him, his relationship with the person
closer than anyone to him, his son." William was eventually jailed,
before fleeing to England. Franklin wrote about his son one more
time, to cut him out of his will.

Franklin was quintessentially American in his ability to reinvent
himself. "He's the ultimate believer in reason and evidence and
facts," says Allan. "That you don't make facts fit the theory, you
make the theory fit the facts.

And if the facts change, you have to change your theory." At the end
of his long life, Franklin visited a school and noticed that black
students were learning just as quickly as white students were. He
immediately became an abolitionist, one of the few Founding Fathers
to do so. He wrote, "Can the pleasure of sweetening our tea with
sugar grown by slaves make up for all the misery produced among our
fellow creatures, the butchery of the human species by this
detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men?"

"Franklin was far in advance of his time,"says biographer Esmond
Wright. "What makes him so compelling to study and so original is his
almost total freedom from the limits of his own environment." "He
speaks in a very modern voice and has a very modern sensibility,"
says Blumer. "The kind of mentality he represented is a very modern
mentality. The whole idea of understanding the power of the press as
propaganda, understanding image. All that's very modern."

The America that has been passed down to us--the "land of
opportunity," the haven for immigrants, for the soul who knows his
worth and is willing to work hard to reach his goals-- owes much to
the example of Franklin's life. "Much more than a rags-to-riches
story," says scholar Leo Lemay, Franklin's early years reflect "a
dream of possibility--not just of wealth or of prestige or of power,
but of the manifold possibilities that human existence can hold."

Caroline Kim is a writer in San Francisco. KTCA National Productions
has received $825,000 in Endowment support for the production of
Benjamin Franklin.

Humanities, July/August 2002

  the electromagnetic internetwork-list
  electromagnetism / infrastructure / civilization