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Making Friends With Franklin

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

It was Franklin, more than anyone else, who advocated the free exchange of scientific ideas through correspondence. The “penny saved” philosopher of Poor Richard’s Almanack never sought a patent and never saw a penny for the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, or any of his other inventions. Rather, he made his findings and theories public, even before they were in finished form.

He wrote that “even short hints and imperfect experiments in any new branch of science, being communicated, have oftimes a good effect of exciting the ingenious to the subject.” His proposal for a scientific society (which became the American Philosophical Society) called for the members to “improve the common stock of knowledge.” He used his international reputation to introduce these American friends to European men of science.

By no means was Franklin counted as a friend only among his peers. John Adams reported from France that “there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen . . . who did not consider him a friend to human kind.” Indeed, during his time in Paris his image appeared on all manner of French products: snuffboxes, pocketknives, dishes, handkerchiefs, clocks, and watches. In 1779, he could say, in all modesty, “My face is now almost as well-known as that of the moon.”

It is still a well-known image, and it still appears in the unlikeliest places. A quick search of an Internet auction site turns up a Ben Franklin Smurf (holding a kite and a key), Ben Franklin salt and pepper shakers, and, most curiously, a Ben Franklin decanter for an after-shave called Wild Country.

It is not, however, a meaningless image, empty of everything but fame. Franklin still stands as a symbol for his fields of endeavor. Another Internet search shows his name attached to companies and organizations that advertise their “innovation,” and to awards for excellence in design and printing, book publishing, library science, and insurance sales.

He sometimes wrote of life and work, self-improvement and the improvement of society, as if they were all the same thing. This may be why his appeal is so enduring. As an inspirational figure, he does not ask us to be Ben Franklin, only the best version of ourselves.

“What you would seem to be,” he once said, “be really.”

A Bifocal View
Enduring Legacy
Introduction | Lesson 1 | Lesson 2 | Lesson 3 | Resources
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