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Making Friends With Franklin

A Bifocal View
Introduction - Making Connections - The Republic of Science - Scientist and Statesman
A Bifocal View - Franklin the Friend - Enduring Legacy

One way of looking at Franklin’s life is to see a range of interests almost too broad for one mind to encompass. Another way is to see a remarkable single-mindedness.

Franklin was forever questioning something. His scientific investigations were, as he put it, questions “into the nature of things.” In human affairs, he questioned what he called “arbitrary power,” whether the wielder of the power was his brother or King George III. Most importantly, he never stopped questioning himself: long after he was recognized as a genius, he continued to strive for self-improvement, which usually meant knowledge. On his diplomatic missions, he used the idle time of the transatlantic voyages to chart the Gulf Stream. In his very last days, he was still thinking like a scientist, even to a comical fault. When an old friend complained of becoming hard of hearing, Franklin advised that he try cupping his hand to his ear: “By an exact experiment I found that I could hear the tick of a watch at forty-five feet distance by this means, which was barely audible at twenty feet without it.”

Thinking like a scientist—recognizing problems, collecting data through observation, testing ideas—seems to have been his natural inclination. He couldn’t help noticing, for instance, that he felt warmer in dark clothing than in light, and he was not the type to let the question go at “Is it hot or is it just me?” On a sunny morning after a snowfall, he gathered patches of cloth of various colors, placed them on the surface of the snow, and went away for a few hours. When he returned, the light-colored patches were still resting lightly on the surface; the dark ones, by degree of their darkness, had sunk into melted depressions. Conclusion: dark colors absorb heat. Practical application: summer hats should be white in order to repel “that heat which gives headaches to many.”

Civic life in Franklin’s America presented as many opportunities for experiment as science did. Franklin established, or helped to establish, the first university and the first hospital in Pennsylvania, and the first lending library, the first scientific association, the first fire-insurance company, and the first street-cleaning system in America. He became president of the first abolitionist society in the world, on behalf of which he sent the first antislavery petition to Congress.

Perhaps it took a scientist’s rigorous practice of observation to perceive so many absences in society, and to find in the absences the need for these establishments. Perhaps a bit of the scientist shows through in his most important observation as a statesman. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on a sentence that read, “We find these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .”

Scientist and Statesman
Franklin the Friend
Introduction | Lesson 1 | Lesson 2 | Lesson 3 | Resources
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