We all know about Benjamin Franklin’s kite-flyin’, library-establishin’, Declaration-signin’, newspaper-printin’, lady-killin’ ways. But let’s celebrate some of his lesser-known but very cool contributions to society, on what would be his 312th birthday.
1. HE SWAM WITH THE FISHES.
As a youngster, Ben learned to swim in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River and became somewhat of an expert. On a Thames River boating trip with friends, a 19-year-old Franklin jumped into the river and swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars (around 3.5 miles), performing all sorts of water tricks along the way or, as he described it, “…many feats of activity, both upon and under the water, that surprised and pleased those to whom they were novelties.” Franklin’s Phelpsian feats earned him an honorary induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968.
He was such an excellent swimmer, one of the careers he considered (and seemingly one of the few he did not choose) was running a swimming school of his own. Of course, he also invented his own swim fins.
2. HE PRINTED BENJAMINS, BEFORE THEY WERE BENJAMINS.
Many people know that Ben Franklin owned a printing company and the Pennsylvania Gazette. But it may be new knowledge that his company also printed all of the paper money for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Beginning in 1929, his face would grace the front of the $100 bill and people would call them “Benjamins” in his honor.
3. HE DEVELOPED AN ELECTRIC VOCABULARY.
Because the things Franklin was doing in his experiments with electricity were so new, he had to make words up for them as he went along. One scholar suggests that Franklin may have been the first to use as many as 25 electrical terms including battery, brushed, charged, conductor, and even electrician.
4. HE WAS NO DEBTOR.
Franklin was terrified of debt and viewed it as similar to slavery because he believed that, through the acquisition of debt, man essentially sold his own freedom. He was so anti-debt that he often spoke (seriously) about forming an international organization called The Society of the Free and Easy for virtuous individuals who, among other things, were free of debt and, therefore, easy in spirit.
5. HE WAS ALWAYS PUTTING OUT FIRES.
In addition to being a famously calming voice of reason and a frequent mediator at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin organized the first volunteer fire company in 1736: The Union Fire Company (nicknamed Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade). Among his many writings are articles on fire prevention, stressing that an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He was more eloquent than Smokey Bear.
6. HE INVENTED A TON OF COOL STUFF, INCLUDING THE ROCKING CHAIR AND THE ODOMETER.
Of course, you probably know that Franklin is responsible for the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove. But in 1761, Franklin also invented the glass harmonica (or “armonica,” as he called it). It became quite popular during Franklin’s time and armonica-specific pieces were composed by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel.
Some of Franklin’s other inventions include:
• The library stepstool, a chair whose seat could be lifted and folded down to make a short ladder.
• A mechanical arm for reaching books on high shelves. (Book retrieval—clearly a focus of Franklinian innovation.)
• The rocking chair—a chair that rocks.
• The writing chair—a chair with an arm on one side to provide a writing surface. (Activities one can do while seated were also a focus.)
• The odometer—used in Franklin’s time to measure distance along colonial roads used by the postal service.
• A pulley system that enabled him to lock and unlock his bedroom door from his bed.
• The flexible urinary catheter.
7. HE WAS PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AMERICA’S FIRST HOSPITAL.
Established in 1751 by Ben and Dr. Thomas Bond, Pennsylvania Hospital was built “… to care for the sick-poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia” (those sound like some wild streets). While the hospital was Bond’s brainchild, Franklin’s support and advocacy got the project off the ground. He galvanized the Pennsylvania Assembly and helped raise the necessary funds. It appears that Franklin was more proud of this accomplishment than most (even all those outrageous swimming tricks); he said later of the hospital’s establishment, “I do not remember any of my political maneuvers, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure.”
8. HE HAD SEVERAL PSEUDONYMS.
Franklin was prolifically pseudonymous and his pseudonyms were pretty wonderful:
• Richard Saunders. Richard Saunders is Franklin’s most well-known pseudonym; it’s the one he used for his wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac, which ran annually from 1732 to 1758. Poor Richard was partially based on one of Jonathan Swift’s pseudonyms, Isaac Bickerstaff – Saunders and Bickerstaff shared a love of learning and astrology. The Richard character brought a comic frame to what was otherwise a serious resource in the almanac and, over the years of publication, the fun but likely unnecessary character gradually disappeared.
• Silence Dogood. When Ben was 16 years old, he desperately wanted to write for his brother James’s newspaper, The New England Courant, but James was something of a bully and wouldn’t allow it. So, Ben contributed to the paper as a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood whose witty and satirical letters covered a range of topics from courtship to education. A total of 15 Dogood letters were published, resulting in the amusement of Courant readers, several marriage proposals for the pretend Mrs. Dogood, and, ultimately, a rise in the ire of James Franklin.
• Anthony Afterwit. Mr. Afterwit, a gentleman, wrote humorous letters about married life that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s own Pennsylvania Gazette.
• Polly Baker. Polly Baker was a pseudonym Franklin used to examine colonial society’s unequal treatment of women. She was pretend punished by society for having pretend children out of pretend wedlock while the fathers of the pretend children went pretend unpunished.
• Alice Addertongue. Alice is another middle-aged widow who wrote what amounts to a gossip column for Franklin’s Gazette in the form of scandalous stories about prominent members of society.
• Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful. These pseudonyms were used by Franklin to settle a personal dispute; they wrote letters mocking Franklin’s former employer, Samuel Keimer, who had stolen some of Franklin’s publishing ideas. Shortface and Careful’s letters were published in The American Weekly Mercury, a publication by a Keimer rival.
• Busy Body. Also published in The American Weekly Mercury, Miss Body’s letters were basically gossip stories about local businessmen.
• Benevolous. Benevolous wrote letters to British newspapers while Franklin was in London. The primary focus of the letters was to correct negative statements made about Americans in the British press.
9. HE WAS A TRAVELING FOOL.
During Franklin’s life, the average person never traveled more than 20 miles from their home. Franklin, on the other hand, crossed the Atlantic Ocean eight times (the first time at age 18 and the last time at age 79) and spent 27 years of his life overseas.
10. HE THOUGHT GETTING TOGETHER WITH HIS BUDDIES TO DRINK BEER AND CHAT WAS A FANTASTIC WAY TO IGNITE SOCIAL ACTION (AS IT TURNS OUT, HE WAS RIGHT).
Franklin formed a group that he called the Junto. The group’s purpose was to gather and debate philosophical questions on topics from ethics to business. Initially composed of 12 members, the group brought together people from different backgrounds (among the originals were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk, a glazier, a cobbler, and a bartender) and gathered in a tavern on Friday nights. In his autobiography, Franklin described the group as a “…club for mutual improvement.” But the group discussions resulted in not only self-improvement, but societal improvement: The Junto has been credited as the breeding ground for some of Franklin’s greatest achievements, including the establishment of the first library, the first volunteer fire departments, the first public hospital, and even the University of Pennsylvania. Makes your Friday night pub trivia team seem like a bunch of underachievers, doesn’t it?