News

The Wit and Wisdom of Ben Franklin: Part II

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | August 25, 2012

“To get the bad customs of a country changed, and new ones, though better, introduced, it is necessary first to remove the prejudices of the people, enlighten their ignorance, and convince them that their interests will be promoted by the proposed changes; and this is not the work of a day.”
Ben Franklin

I continue to be grateful to Dave and Linda Maracle for giving me James C. Humes’ book The Wit and Wisdom of Ben Franklin (1995).  Last week we looked at a few select excerpts from Humes’ work.  Today we will look at a few more.

“Franklin was a printer by vocation,” Humes observes.  “His avocation, however, was science.  He had started out as a printer and quickly moved into publishing – first as the owner of the Pennsylvania Gazette and then the almanac.  By his mid-forties he had made enough money to retire from printing and turn to his first love – science.”

Humes continues, “If curiosity is a quality of youth, Franklin never aged.  Life for him was a continuing laboratory in which he sought the answers of life.”  Here are a few of his inventions.

  • Bifocals.  Although the word bifocals did not appear in print until the 1890’s, Franklin did invent them.  Franklin, however, used the term “double spectacles.”  He wrote of telling French lens makers to have “the glasses cut and half of each lens in the same circle.  By this means – as I wear my spectacles constantly – I have only to move my eyes up and down, as I want to see distinctly far or near.”
  • Daylight Savings Time.  As publisher of America’s favorite almanac, Franklin printed in calendars the times of the sun rising and setting.  Since farmers worked from sunrise to sundown, why, asked Franklin, should city shops and offices be closed in the early morning hours of the summer?  Accordingly he proposed “Daylight Savings Time.”  It could not be adopted until a century and a half later in 1918 during World War I.
  • Electricity in Lightning.  Franklin did not discover electricity but he did prove that electricity existed in lightning.  The tale of Franklin with kite and key is part of our American legend.  His experiment, however, was highly dangerous.  A Belgian scientist some years earlier had been electrocuted by the same test.  And from that kite experiment he went on to invent the lightning rod.

I had no idea he invented penal reform, matched giving, street lighting, disaster relief, and even the catheter.  The list could go on and on.

One interesting story about Franklin pertains to his preference for a national symbol.  Despite his efforts, the nation chartered under the new constitution chose the bald eagle as its symbol on coins and dollars.  Franklin was dismayed; he had lobbied hard for his choice – the turkey.

To Franklin, the eagle was a cousin of the vulture, a “bad” bird whose way of life was stealing, plundering, and killing.  “The humble turkey,” said Franklin, “minds his own business, respecting the rights of others.”  Furthermore, argued Franklin, “the turkey is a unique American creature.”

A young man who sought an appointment with Franklin failed to show up at the scheduled time at the printer’s shop.  The next day he saw Franklin and offered him an elaborate explanation involving an ailing aunt.  Franklin dismissed him, saying, “A man who is good at making an excuse is seldom good at anything else.” 

In 1777, Ben Franklin resigned as the U.S. Minister to France to return to Philadelphia.  Months later, Thomas Jefferson, the new American envoy, was met in Versailles by Count Vergennes, the French Prime Minister. 

Vergennes said, “Monsieur Jefferson, have you come to replace Dr. Franklin?”  Jefferson answered, “No one could ever replace Benjamin Franklin.  I am only succeeding him.”

Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at 84 years of age.  But few accolades could adequately capture the legacy of this great Pennsylvanian.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
Responses can be emailed to president@vfcc.edu
Official page:  Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer