Tag Archives: Benjamin Franklin

Transportation in the Early U.S.

Today, most of us spend our lives moving around on paved streets and roads, and we tend to view our world as a series of locations connected by lines on a map. But the earliest European settlers in North America encountered a vast, amorphous wilderness. In this wilderness there existed no roads, nor any convenient means of transporting objects and people from place to place.

The very first roads in the US were bison paths. These were useful for human purposes, because they tended to link water sources and followed the most level routes. Similar to these were the network of Indian trails, which also followed paths of least resistance. With the help of Indians, early American colonists were able to improve these trails, widening them to accommodate wagons.

During the colonial period, mail was an extremely important means of communication. The first highway in America, the Boston Post Road, dates to 1673. It took a post rider two weeks on this unpaved road to deliver the mail from New York City to Boston. Deputy postmaster Benjamin Franklin personally toured the 500 miles of the Boston Post Road to mark the route with milestones. Eventually, all the major cities in the thirteen colonies were connected by a system of post roads.

In the late 1700s, the introduction of stagecoach passenger and mail service made road improvements necessary. By the time of the Revolutionary War, larger colonies were actively building roads, especially the type known as “corduroy” roads, constructed of wooden planks.

But after the war, federal and state governments quit building roads, and private companies took over. Land companies bought right-of-ways and cleared land to build wagon trails. The first hard-surface road in America was constructed by a private company, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turn Pike Company. It was a 62-mile toll road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania that was made of broken stones and gravel, built in 1794.

During the next forty years, private companies built many more “turn pikes,” so called because of the toll gates, known as “pikes,” at which travelers were required to stop and pay a fee. These fees went to cover the cost of road maintenance. About 3,000 miles of these roads were built in the early 1800s.

But as the 19th century progressed, interest in road construction began to wane. Toll fees could no longer cover the costs of road maintenance. The cheapest and most common means of transporting men and materials was by water. To facilitate east-west traffic, a system of canals was built. The 1840s saw the brief appearance of both the steamboat and the fast clipper ship. These technological advances caused road building to fall out of favor for a time.

America’s westward expansion was conducted mostly by horse-drawn wagon train along a few main routes. These famous pioneer trails included the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail and others. By the mid-1800s stagecoach passenger travel had also become commonplace; each stagecoach company developed its own preferred route to the west coast. All these “roads” were actually just crude pathways of dust and mud.

Disputes over routing helped to delay the development of overland mail service until 1857, when Congress passed an act offering mail contracts to private companies. The first contract went to Butterfield’s Southern Overland Mail; they chose the 2,795-mile Oxbow Route from St. Louis to San Francisco, with stages at ten-mile intervals. Mail service took nearly a month. The famous Pony Express offered an expensive, yet high-speed alternative – mail service in less than a week! – until the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete in 1861.

The years following the Civil War saw the development of transcontinental railroad service, and for the remainder of the century domestic land travel in America was dominated by trains.

Most cities at that time had only crude, dirt streets filled with garbage and animal waste. While urban residents  struggled with congested, dirty, smelly city streets, rural America had to make the best of rutted, muddy or dusty earthen paths. Travel time to transport livestock or ripened crops to the nearest railhead was critical for farmers, but in favorable weather, a horse and buggy could travel only about five miles per hour along such roads.

Then in the 1890s a new invention helped to shift the nation’s focus back to the need for paved roads. That invention was the bicycle. Thousands of people got caught up in the bicycle craze of the 1890s. But because of the bad condition of most city streets, bicycle enthusiasts were forced to crowd onto the few paved surfaces that existed. Cyclists organized what was called the “Good Roads” movement, petitioning state and local governments for all-weather hard-surfaced roads and streets.

At the same time, the federal government also began to recognize the need for road improvements; after the institution of free rural postal delivery, the US Post Office was in dire need of better roads along its postal routes.

Finally, at the very end of the century, the invention of the automobile would usher in a new era of unprecedented road construction and change the landscape forever.

(Kaszynski 11-23)

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Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

Most of us grew up with a general idea that Benjamin Franklin “discovered” electricity. As adults we realize that can’t be entirely true. So just what does Benjamin Franklin have to do with electricity? And what’s with the kite?

In Franklin’s day, electricity was understood no better than it had been in ancient times. Entertainers and pranksters used static electricity to shock people for laughs, and that was about it.

In 1747, Franklin received from a fellow tinkerer a device for generating static electricity. Entranced by the object, Franklin commissioned a local glassblower and silversmith to make more such gadgets. He used them to collect electric charges and conduct experiments.

His first great discovery was that the generation of a positive charge is accompanied by the generation of an equal negative charge. This concept, known as the law of conservation of charge, was a major scientific breakthrough. Before Franklin’s discovery, scientists believed that electricity involved two independently-created fluids, known as vitreous and resinous; Franklin’s findings instead demonstrated the single-fluid theory of electricity.

Franklin’s single-fluid theory and his law of conservation of charge have now withstood over 250 years of practical application.

Franklin needed to invent some new terms in order to explain his findings to the scientific community. In a letter to a colleague he wrote: “We say B is electrised positively; A negatively: or rather B is electrised plus and A minus… These terms we may use until your philosophers give us better.” In fact, no better terms were needed; we use Franklin’s to this day. His other neologisms include neutral, condense, and conductor.

Franklin experimented with capturing and storing electrical charges using a device called a Leyden jar, which was a primitive form of capacitor. These experiments led to his invention of a new device, also still in use today, which he named the electrical battery.

Another important Franklin discovery was the fact that metal points draw electrical charges more readily than do blunt pieces of metal. This led to his most famous experiment and one of his most indispensable inventions.

More background is needed here. In Franklin’s day, lightning was feared as one of the most destructive of natural forces. Scientists did not understand the phenomenon; it was generally explained as a supernatural occurrence, an expression of God’s wrath. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas had declared that the sound of church bells would repel lightning strikes; 500 years later, church bells were still being rung at the approach of a thunderstorm.

This was a singularly bad idea. During one 35-year period in Germany, 386 churches were struck and more than 100 bell ringers killed. In Venice, lightning struck a church where gunpowder was being stored, and three thousand people lost their lives.

Franklin believed it was time to try another solution.

In November of 1749 he recorded in his journal the strange similarities he had noticed between lightning and electrical sparks. Both gave off the same color of light; both were swift and had the same crooked shape, and made the same type of noise; both were conducted by metals, could kill animals, and were accompanied by a sulfurous smell.

Since there were so many similarities between lightning and electricity, might there not be yet another similarity? Might not lightning, like electricity, be drawn to a metal point?

If this supposition were true, then it might be possible to tame one of the greatest natural dangers known to mankind.

This is what he set out to prove by his famous experiment.Using a silk kite with a sharp wire attached to the top and a metal key suspended near the end of the string, he was able to draw off sparks from a passing storm cloud. It is remarkable that he did not kill himself in the process. But by this means he proved that lightning could indeed be deliberately drawn off by the use of a lightning rod.

Few scientific discoveries have provided such an immediate practical benefit to humanity. By proving that electricity and lightning were the same thing, Franklin transformed a deadly supernatural force into a scientific phenomenon that could be controlled. Within the year, lightning rods were being installed all over Europe and the colonies, and Franklin was suddenly a famous man.

(Isaacson 133-145)

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The Courtship of Benjamin Franklin

One afternoon in the fall of 1723, Miss Deborah Read of Philadelphia happened to be standing in her doorway when she spied a tall and slightly disheveled young stranger straggling up the street, nibbling on a puffy roll from a baker’s shop.

Benjamin Franklin had arrived in Philadelphia at the age of 17, having secretly booked passage under cover of the story that he “had an intrigue with a girl of bad character.” In truth, he had simply run away from Boston and the restrictions of his childhood home.

Soon Franklin was renting a room from Miss Read’s father, and courting the lady herself. Deborah was plain, but domestically-inclined and comfortable; Benjamin was handsome, genial, and a promising young tradesman.

Yet he was planning a trip to London. Deborah’s mother insisted that a marriage be postponed.

The trip didn’t work out exactly as planned. Franklin ended up being detained for almost two years, during which time he wrote to Deborah only once, and did indeed indulge in the occasional “intrigue with a girl of bad character.”

Eventually Franklin returned to Philadelphia, where he settled down and began to establish himself. By his mid-20s he was a successful newspaper publisher. Possessed of a considerable sexual appetite, in a culture that definitely frowned on bachelorhood, Franklin naturally enough began to look for a wife. At first he aimed at finding a woman with a dowry attached, but he soon learned that young printers were not in enough demand for dowries to be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Deborah, possibly discouraged after having received only one short letter from Franklin while he was in London, had married a charming but unreliable potter. They soon became estranged; she moved back in with her mother, and he absconded with a slave and took off for the West Indies, never to be heard from again. This left her in an awkward position, since bigamy was punishable by thirty-nine lashes and life imprisonment.

Deborah’s mother, now a widow, had been making a living by selling homemade medicines. She had her advertising bills printed by the most prosperous printer in town, none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Thus Franklin resumed his acquaintance with the family and became a regular visitor, advising the family on business matters. He and Deborah renewed their affection for one another, and in the fall of 1730 they began living together as man and wife, seven years after she first spotted him from her doorway.

Franklin brought with him to the marriage an illegitimate infant son named William, of whom he had sole custody. The identity of William’s mother remains a mystery.

The marriage of Deborah Read and Benjamin Franklin was never sanctioned by an official ceremony; a common-law arrangement was necessary to protect them from charges of bigamy in case the absconding potter ever reappeared. While the union of these two very practical people may have seemed less than romantically charged, nevertheless they lived together in affection and mutual satisfaction for another forty-four years, until her death.

(Isaacson 37-77)

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Benjamin Franklin, Printer

At age 17, Benjamin Franklin ran away from his home in Boston, where he was employed as an apprentice in his brother’s print shop, and sailed for New York.

While aboard ship, he made the acquaintance of New York’s only publisher, who having no job for him, suggested he go instead to Philadelphia and seek work with his son, who ran a print shop and newspaper there.

On arriving in Philadelphia, however, Franklin was told the man had no work for him, so he contacted the city’s only other printer, Samuel Keimer, and was given a job.

Franklin was already an accomplished writer by this time, and his work attracted the attention of Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith. The governor promised to set young Franklin up with his own print shop, and to pay for a voyage to London so that Franklin could purchase equipment and make contacts.

It was only after Franklin had arrived in London that he learned that Keith had not followed through on his promises. The young printer found himself stuck in London. He obtained a position at a prestigious London printing house, and worked there for almost two years, until he met a Philadelphia shopkeeper who promised him a job and offered to pay his passage home.

Once back in Philadelphia, he worked happily enough as a shopkeeper for a couple of months, until his mentor suddenly took ill and died. In his will, the man forgave Franklin’s debt for the ocean voyage, but did not leave him the shop. So Franklin went back to his former boss, Keimer, patched things up and got his old job back.

At that time there was no foundry in America for casting type, so Franklin used Keimer’s letters to make his own molds, and became the first person in America to manufacture type.

Unhappy with his treatment at Keimer’s shop, Franklin and a co-worker soon left to open their own competing shop; the friend put up the money and Franklin contributed his substantial talents and diligence. But the partner turned out to be more interested in drinking than in the publishing business, so Franklin bought him out and finally had a shop of his own.

A year later, Keimer fled from his debtors to Barbados; on the way out of town, he sold his failing newspaper to Franklin, who became the proud publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, just eleven years after first becoming an apprentice in his brother’s shop.

Isaacson writes, “In his long life he would have many other careers: scientist, politician, statesman, diplomat. But henceforth he always identified himself the way he would do sixty years later in the opening words of his last will and testament: ‘I, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer.'”

(Isaacson 35-64)

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The Smallpox Debates

Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James started America’s first fiercely independent, antiestablishment newspaper, the Boston Courant, in 1721. At that time, defying authority in Boston meant going against the Puritan clergy in general, and the Mathers family in particular. James took an antiestablishment stand with the Courant‘s very first edition, arguing against Cotton Mather in one of the hottest debates around.

Unfortunately, he took the wrong side.

Smallpox had periodically devastated Massachusetts ever since its founding; a 1677 outbreak wiped out 12 percent of the population. During the 1702 epidemic, three of Cotton Mather’s children were stricken, but survived. Mather, who had trained as a physician before becoming a preacher, began studying the disease.

He was introduced to the practice of inoculation by his black slave, who had a scar from being inoculated in Africa. It turned out that in parts of Africa, inoculation was already a standard procedure. When a new wave of the disease hit Boston in 1721, Mather (having greatly evolved since the days of the Salem witch trials) wrote a letter to Boston’s ten practicing physicians, detailing the process of inoculating, and urging them to adopt the practice.

Most of the doctors rejected the idea, and so, as a matter of principle, did Franklin’s newspaper. With little justification other than to take a stand against the Puritan establishment, the Courant’s first edition contained two essays attacking Mather’s proposal. This began an escalating public dispute that sold papers for weeks, and got the Courant off to a very healthy start.

(Isaacson 22-24)

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Benjamin Franklin’s Early Education

As the tenth son of a pious Puritan, Benjamin Franklin was to have studied for the ministry, as his father’s tithe to the Lord. At age 8 he was sent to Boston Latin School to prepare for enrollment at Harvard. He excelled in his studies at the school; yet his father changed his mind after a year, deciding against a formal education for young Benjamin. In his writings, Franklin claimed that the decision was due to the expense of the thing, but the more likely reason is that Josiah Franklin realized his skeptical, puckish, irreverent son was not suited to be a parson.

Historians have fantasized about what could have happened had Benjamin Franklin attended Harvard. Some have argued that a formal education would have removed those qualities that we find so attractive about Franklin: his spontaneity, freshness, irreverence, and his intuitive literary style. Yet this need not have happened; at the time Harvard administrators were struggling mightily against a student culture that was already marked by much drinking and partying, and of the thirty-nine students who would have made up Franklin’s class, less then half ended up as clergy.

In any case, Franklin’s father chose to allow the boy, who had already expressed a disgust at the family trade of tallow-rendering, to select his own trade. He took him on long walks through Boston to visit various types of craftsmen; the passing familiarity with different trades thus acquired helped form Franklin into a lifelong dabbler, which was of great use to him as an inventor.

Benjamin ended up becoming apprenticed, at age 12, to his older brother James, who had recently set up shop as a printer. The print trade was a natural fit for the boy, who was already a devoted reader. It gave him access to books, which he would sneak from various booksellers’ apprentices, borrowing them in the evening and often staying up all night to read them before smuggling them back to their places first thing in the morning. Books were his most important early influences; his childhood favorites included John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good, and Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects.

The ideas formed under these early influences would continue to resurface throughout Franklin’s life:

  • From Bunyan’s book Franklin adopted a refreshingly sparse and clean prose style, as well as a firm belief in the concept of Progress, both individual and corporate, as the fruit of human struggle against adversity.
  • Plutarch’s work also contributed to this idea, and to Franklin’s gradual move away from Calvinism, with its emphasis on the essential depravity of man and the predestination of his soul, toward the deism that he would share with most of the great minds of the Enlightenment period.
  • From Mather’s tract Franklin took one of the aspects of Puritanism that he would retain throughout life, its focus on the performance of practical good works for the benefit of the community.
  • Along the same lines, Defoe’s book proposed ideas for many community projects of the type Franklin would later start up in Philadelphia: fire insurance associations, pension societies, welfare schemes and the like.

It was from Defoe that Franklin also obtained the progressive notion of equal education and rights for women; early experiences debating in favor of this idea convinced Franklin that a disputatious personal style was less likely to bring people around to his point of view than the convivial, Socratic approach which later became his trademark.

(Isaacson 18-27)

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“Old Style” Calendar

Until 1752, Britain and her colonies were still using the Julian calendar. Under this system, March 25 was considered the first day of the new year. Benjamin Franklin’s birth date was then recorded as January 6, 1705, and George Washington’s February 11, 1731 (Old Style).

When the calendar was changed to reflect the Georgian system, which is the one we still use, dates were altered by eleven days, making Franklin’s birthday, as we know it, January 17, 1706 and Washington’s February 22, 1732.

(Isaacson 15ff)

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