Jan. 17, 2013
One of my pool pals was telling me about his forthcoming trip to Japan. I’ve never been there, but I was excited for him. I mentioned, in passing, that Japan is the only industrial country in the world that is losing population. My friend jumped on that statement. “It’s a good thing, too. Every country should cut its population in half.” Now, my friend is a well-to-do biotech executive. He’s going to Japan to work with their Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Shinya Yamanaka. And my friend noted approvingly that Dr. Yamanaka’s work with stem cells “doesn’t raise ethical issues.” That’s a roundabout way of saying Yamanaka isn’t killing embryonic humans. Thank God.
But my swimming buddy’s attitude toward population should not have surprised me. He is well-educated and a successful professional—traveling China, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore on an almost monthly basis. The educated classes in America, and in the international arena, are almost all anti-population.
Too bad. One of America’s greatest scientists, Benjamin Franklin, was born this day in 1706. Ben was the 15th of 16 children of a poor Boston candlemaker. Very early in his life, he was apprenticed to his older brother, a printer. When Ben became distracted by his reading and arrived late at the print shop, his brother would box his ears. Franklin wrote satirical articles that ridiculed the solemn leaders of that still-Puritan influenced colony. He got into an early controversy when he attacked the great Rev. Cotton Mather for Mather’s advocacy of inoculation for smallpox. Young Ben was wrong on that one. The learned Mather was a member of Britain’s Royal Society and had read deeply on prevention of smallpox.
Franklin soon ran off to Philadelphia. He arrived almost penniless. His future wife, Deborah, laughed at the threadbare youth walking past her door, with only a loaf of bread under his arm. It wouldn’t be Franklin’s last laugh in the City of Brotherly Love.
He soon became a leading figure in colonial America’s largest city. He was not only a hard worker and a creative writer, he liked to be known as a hard worker. In his autobiography, he tells the delightful story of how he deliberately left the wheel on his printer’s barrow ungreased. That’s so Philadelphians would hear him squeaking through the streets before dawn every morning.
The list of his practical ideas and inventions staggers the mind. He urged on his neighbors to provide street lighting. Once the streets were lighted, everyone could better see the filth that needed cleaning up. Franklin pushed for that, too. And subscription libraries, volunteer fire companies, and even a university. Franklin’s friends formed the Junto, an association of ambitious young men whose goal was self-advancement through community service.
Franklin studied simple, everyday needs. Americans (and Europeans) then spent an inordinate amount of time simply staying warm. Franklin developed a stove that brought the heat into center of the room.
The Franklin stove alone would have made Ben a fortune—if he had sought a patent for it. But he didn’t. He gave the idea away freely.
He later wrote that he saw too many inventors wasting their time and talents fighting bitter patent battles. Ben might have had to go to thirteen colonial capitals and maybe London, too, to lock up his patent rights. He preferred to give his inventions away. And, with typical self-mockery, he allowed that he was not unaware of what this did for his reputation.
Franklin’s discoveries in electricity made him a worldwide sensation. The experiment with the kite and key proved that lightning was electricity, just a more powerful form of that phenomenon people knew from the Leyden jar experiments. Franklin gave it plus and minus charges. Franklin’s speculations about its nature truly revolutionized the world’s understanding. He deserves to be in the front rank of scientists. For this achievement, he was granted an honorary doctorate by Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.
Yet, Doctor Franklin is one of the few Founding Fathers we feel comfortable calling “Ben.”
His famous Poor Richard’s Almanac contains hundreds of witty aphorisms, many of which are still in use today. It was this publication, and his role as royal postmaster for the colonies, that made Ben Franklin a wealthy man.
Franklin was well enough off to retire from his printing business in his forties and dedicate himself entirely to public service. He provided supplies and weapons for British Gen. Braddock’s army as it marched to the Pennsylvania frontier during the French & Indian War. It was then that Franklin met young Col. George Washington, the commander of Virginia’s colonial militia.
Franklin spent nearly twenty years in London as a representative of first the Pennsylvania colony, and later New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Georgia. Still, Franklin had no vote in the British Parliament.
He tried to dissuade that Parliament from imposing its Stamp Act on the North American colonies.
Parliament would not be budged. Finally, Franklin became embroiled in a bitter controversy. One of his agents in America had intercepted and sent to Franklin the letters of Massachusetts’ royal governor, Thomas Hutchison. In those letters, the governor urged the King’s ministers to crack down hard on Samuel Adams and other patriot leaders in the Bay Colony. Franklin was suspected of leaking these incriminating documents in London.
Franklin was summoned before the Privy Council and made to stand while the Crown’s Attorney General verbally abused him, for more than an hour. That incident may have convinced Franklin there was no hope of reconciliation between the Americans and the British.
Soon, Dr. Franklin was back in Philadelphia, attending the Second Continental Congress. There, he was appointed to the committee to draw up a Declaration of Independence. He even consoled his young friend Thomas Jefferson, the principal author, when congressmen “mutilated” the Virginia delegate’s draft.
Congress sent Franklin back across the ocean. This time, he was America’s minister to France.
Franklin’s presence in France caused a sensation. The renowned scientist’s face, he told his daughter in a letter home, “more familiar than the man in the moon.” King Louis XVI even oafishly put Franklin’s face at the bottom of a chamber pot for one of the great ladies of Versailles.
Franklin enjoyed spectacular success in France. He negotiated the Treaty of Amity and Commerce that enabled the United States to form an alliance that would win our independence. Franklin was unevenly yoked with the hard-working John Adams. The younger man seemed always to resent Franklin’s fame and the easy way he had with the French. Adams’s own tenure in Paris was a near-disaster. Franklin generously said he was a good man, always an honest man who always sought the best for America. “But in some things, in some way, he is out of his mind.” That’s about right.
My favorite story from Franklin’s Paris years occurred just as he was about to leave. Crippled by gout, the great scientist nonetheless wanted to be on hand for the first manned balloon flight. Tens of thousands went out to Versailles to see the Montgolfier brothers set off the flame that would heat the air in their gaily-colored balloon. People gasped to see the ascent. Some women fainted.
Then, someone spied the 79-year old Dr. Franklin taking it all in from his carriage. It’s a wonder, to be sure, the questioner said, “but of what practical use is it?” Ben Franklin was the man to ask. He was the most practical man in the world.
Smiling, Ben answered: “Of what practical use is a newborn baby?” So, for my globetrotting, population controlling pool pal, I would answer: Of what practical use are newborns? Oh, and by the way, I can take off my swim fins now, another practical device credited to Ben Franklin. Happy Birthday to Ben Franklin, 15th of 17 children. And I thank God for him.