By Michael Milne
In his time, Franklin was one of the most noted scientists in the world. In 1753, he was the first non-native of Great Britain to win the prestigious Copley Medal, awarded by the Royal Society of London for scientific achievement, due to his experiments with electricity. In an era when communications traveled by slow boat and horseback, Franklin’s reputation spread lightning fast.
We all know about the kite and the key, but let’s give huzzahs where huzzahs are due to Franklin’s other bright ideas that are taking flight in the 21st century.
Franklin is often given sole credit for many ideas, including the invention of the first fire department. In fact, many of these advancements came out of a group he organized called the “Junto,” where he “formed most of my ingenious acquaintances into a club for mutual improvement.” Naturally, they met at a tavern to engage in their discourse. Out of these “spirit”-fueled meetings sprouted ideas for the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia, followed up by the first fire insurance company, the first hospital, improved street lighting and more.
In 1751, when Franklin presented the proposal for a hospital (first discussed in the aforementioned Junto) to the Pennsylvania Assembly, he met with resistance, largely due to the cost of the venture, estimated at 4,000 pounds. Franklin devised an ingenious plan to gain support:
He induced the assembly to agree to contribute 2,000 pounds as long as the local citizenry pitched in with the remaining half. This “matching funds” strategy worked spectacularly. The citizen’s portion was oversubscribed, and the assembly granted the charter to establish Pennsylvania Hospital, which is still in existence in historic Philadelphia.
Companies like Airbnb and Uber are often lauded as being leaders in the sharing economy. Franklin and his Junto compatriots were “sharing” over 200 years ago when they established a sharing library. Bookshops in Colonial America were virtually nonexistent, so new tomes had to be ordered from England. Instead, Junto members pooled their individual collections of books at meetings, and each member could borrow books to read at home.
This model eventually morphed into a subscription library, which spread throughout the colonies and led to an increase in overall scholarship. It is the basis of the public library system we know today.
Franklin implemented open-source technology before people even knew what it was. Despite being a prolific inventor, Franklin didn’t patent his devices, preferring that society benefit from his ideas. Take the example of the highly efficient Franklin stove, which the governor urged him to patent. Franklin’s response: “From a principle that has ever weighed with me in such occasions, that as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”
Going green before it was cool, Franklin was the 18th-century version of a “watt watcher.” While living in London, he fine-tuned the energy-saving Franklin stove, and during the winter he was in bed by 4:30 p.m., the better to cut down on candle usage. The London home is Franklin’s only surviving residence. Now a museum, it was recently restored to its 1750s-era color, appropriately named “Franklin’s Green.”
Franklin would get quite a charge out of Elon Musk C97 W97 and Tesla’s electric automobile since Franklin was the first person to use the term “battery” for electrically charged power. Franklin borrowed a phrase the military applied to a group of armaments. Given his well-known interest in electricity and energy efficiency, coupled with the Penn connection, Franklin today would no doubt have served as a Tesla adviser.
Franklin’s talents transcended technology. He was the first American to invent a musical instrument (the glass armonica), and his role in domestic and global politics is well documented. But his international influence can still come as a surprise. During a recent trip to Bucharest, Romania, I chanced upon the Romanian Athenaeum, the neoclassical, 19th-century concert hall that is one of the city’s most prominent buildings. It’s located on Strada Benjamin Franklin. His name is etched in stone on the dome, alongside such luminaries as Virgil, Michelangelo and Beethoven.
Perhaps one day Messrs. Jobs, Zuckerberg, Brin, Musk and other Silicon Valley legends may be so honored on a public building halfway around the world. But once again, they’ll be following in Franklin’s footsteps. In the meantime, raise your glass and give Penn’s founder, the great innovator Benjamin Franklin, a hearty “Huzzah!”
Michael Milne WG86 is co-author with his wife Larissa of Philadelphia Liberty Trail: Trace the Path of America’s Heritage, the historic travel guide that takes a revolutionary approach to the founding of America.