Benjamin Franklin at 300

Next Tuesday marks the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, printer, postmaster, diplomat, statesman and inventor. Guests: HW Brands, author, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, Dickson, Allen, Anderson centennial professor, Department of History, University of Texas Page Talbott, associate director and chief curator of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary editor and an author of Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

Ever since I was 12 when my seventh-grade term paper was a paper on Benjamin Franklin I've always been very interested in the history of Ben Franklin, and next Tuesday marks the 300th birthday of the printer, postmaster, diplomat, statesman, inventor--you could go on forever with this list, and for the rest of the hour we're going to be looking back on the life and times of Franklin. And if you want to talk about Ben, give us a call. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com.

Let me introduce my guests. H.W. Brands is the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas in Austin. He's the author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin." He joins us from the studios of KUT in Austin.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. H.W. BRANDS (Author, "The First American"): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Let me congratulate your team again, if no one else has.

Dr. BRANDS: Well, a couple of people have, but thank you very much. We'll accept the congratulations anyway they come.

FLATOW: In that Rose Bowl. Page Talbott is the associate director and chief curator of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, a major exhibit that's now going on in Philadelphia before it moves around the country later this year. She's also editor and author of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," published this year by Yale University Press. She joins us from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. PAGE TALBOTT (Author, "Benjamin Franklin"): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. Page, exciting time to be in Philadelphia, I would imagine, when you're talking about Ben Franklin.

Ms. TALBOTT: It's all Ben all the time. We're very excited.

FLATOW: (Laughs) Is it really? Is he really--for the last 300 years?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, you know what? He really never has left. He's been popular for a lot of reasons for a long time. But this year is sure a big opportunity for us to revisit Franklin the man and to just look at his vast numbers of accomplishments.

FLATOW: What kinds of things would we see at the exhibit if we were to visit Philadelphia?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, we have an 8,000-square-foot exhibition that focuses on Franklin's entire life, and you'd see a wide range of artifacts ranging from the first almanac published in 1833 to his own copy of the US Constitution to his shaving mug--his shaving bowl, I should say--to his own electrical battery and electrostatic machine, as well as 40 different interactives that explain the nature of his printing and his experiments on board ship charting the Gulf Stream.

FLATOW: Right. Bill Brands, your book calls Franklin the first American. Why that terminology?

Dr. BRANDS: Well, for a couple of reasons. One is, I think, in terms of chronology, Franklin was the first to embrace an American identity at a time when most of the other people we've come to call the Founding Fathers were still thinking of themselves as Englishmen. As early as the beginning of 1774, Franklin was brought before the British Privy Council and, in a rather embarrassing ordeal, was essentially made to answer for what the British government considered to be the sins of the American Colonists. And as I read Franklin, at that point, he came to realize that he and his fellow Americans would have to embrace their American identity because the English would never allow them to be full-blown Englishmen.

Now there's another reason I call him the first American, and that is that he was, in his day, the pre-eminent--he was the most famous American. At a time when no one outside the American Colonies ever heard of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, people all over Europe had heard of Benjamin Franklin. He really was the most famous person of his generation. He was first in that regard.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And let me ask both of you, beginning with Page, though he did have a--not everything was totally positive, was it?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, Franklin was a human being, first and foremost, and so I think it's really important to recognize the fact that he had warts like the rest of us. He was a person who had a difficult family relationship in many ways with his older son, and he did not live with his wife for some 27 years. He also was a slaveholder early in his life, although at the end of his life he was very much of an abolitionist. So his is a complex personality, and I think we learn from his extraordinariness, but we also learn from his foibles.

FLATOW: Another way to look at, Bill Brands, as the first American. He had all kinds of complex properties.

Dr. BRANDS: Well, he certainly inspired envy in some of his contemporaries. And one of the intriguing things for me as a biographer is to figure out how much of the envy he actually earned and how much of it was just a projection of the emotions of other people. His relationship with John Adams was famously difficult, and Adams was one who was convinced that Franklin was getting far too much credit for the American Revolution, for everything else that was going on in his times. And if you look at it from Adams' point of view, it sort of makes sense. If you look at it from Franklin's point of view, it's easy to see that Adams was getting excessively worked up over rather minor things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. One other...

Ms. TALBOTT: It's a wonderful comparison, Ira. I'm really glad that Dr. Brands brought this up because the difference between Adams and Franklin sort of represents the difference between Boston and Philadelphia, in some ways. Adams really did feel that Franklin was much too French when he was over in France. And I think that it was because he was so French when he was over in France that he was so successful in his dealings there.

FLATOW: Yeah, bringing help for the Revolution.

Ms. TALBOTT: Right.

FLATOW: And one of the reasons he was so successful there was because of his famous kite-flying experiment, which was actually done in France before it was done here, wasn't it?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, certainly, there were experiments in relation to it. There was a experiment that Dalibard did with a sentry box there...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...and it was almost simultaneous with what was going on back here. But one of the reasons that Franklin was so famous, and being--the singular reason that he was most famous abroad was because of his experiments and his correspondence was vast going back and forth from America to Europe.

Dr. BRANDS: And it was precisely for that reason that Franklin was named to head the diplomatic mission to Paris. It was supposed to get--the French alliance was going to make American victory in the War for Independence possible, because the Continental Congress could have sent John Adams over and no one would know who he was. In fact, when Adams finally got there, he kept being confused with Samuel Adams and he was simply known around Paris as `the other Adams' at a time when everybody in France who paid any attention to world affairs or philosophy or science knew of Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin arrived in Paris at the end of 1776, it was--well, the best I can come up with, it was pretty much like when The Beatles arrived in New York in 1964. He was--you could almost liken him to the rock star of his day. In fact, his image was all over Paris. He remarked, only half jestingly, to a friend that he was more famous in Paris than the man in the moon.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Lisa in Cleveland, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LISA (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Excuse my cold today, if you will.

LISA: I was wondering what other inventions is Ben Franklin famous for, and how did he do this experiment without hurting himself? I'll hang up.

FLATOW: OK. How did he...

Ms. TALBOTT: I can sort of list some of those...

FLATOW: Yes, sure.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...inventions, and Bill can join in. He invented the swim fins, the bifocals. He invented the battery. He invented the Pennsylvanian stove, which we know as the Franklin stove. He was the man who first charted the Gulf Stream, and he applied a previous technology to coming up with his own version of an odometer for measuring the distance between post offices.

Dr. BRANDS: He also invented, or certainly made popular, the lightning rod, which many people in his day considered to be the most practical, the most cost-effective invention he'd come up with because it saved hundreds, perhaps thousands over time, of buildings from destruction.

FLATOW: Did he not also study ants and invented the harmonia(ph), if I remember. I'm going back to, like, seventh grade here.

Dr. BRANDS: Right, right.

Ms. TALBOTT: That's right. Well, he invented the armonica, which is a wonderful instrument. I mean, it sort of depends on your fancy. Do you like how it sounds, Ira?

FLATOW: You know, I'm not sure I've ever heard it.

Ms. TALBOTT: Oh, it's really beautiful. Come see our show and you'll get to hear it played there. It's based on the principle of people playing music on their wine glasses or water glasses.

FLATOW: Right, I've seen pictures of it.

Ms. TALBOTT: Right.

FLATOW: You have to wet the glass and...

Ms. TALBOTT: You have graduated bowls that are mounted on a metal rod...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...and then you use a treadle to pump it and then you use your finger dipped in water to play it. And it's really quite wonderful.

However, there was a problem with it, and that is that the chamber that housed the glasses was lead and the glass was lead. And so there are--some say that people got lead poisoning from playing it. But today's versions are not leaded, and they're really quite wonderful.

Dr. BRANDS: Well, the caller asked...

FLATOW: And to answer...

Dr. BRANDS: I'm sorry, the caller asked how Franklin...

FLATOW: No, I was going to bring that up. No, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Dr. BRANDS: OK. Yeah--how it was that Franklin didn't kill himself if his experiments, because these really do fall in the category of `Don't try this at home.' And as a matter of fact, Franklin nearly did kill himself once. He electrocuted himself in his laboratory. He was stunned, he was knocked unconscious briefly and he woke up. And when he did wake up, he was able to write down what it felt like and what the reaction was. And, in fact, somebody else who tried his kite experiment was killed. So it's a...

FLATOW: It was a Russian, right?

Dr. BRANDS: Yeah, I can't remember the nationality...

FLATOW: Yeah, it was a Russian.

Dr. BRANDS: ...but it did take place in Europe, and the unfortunate experimenter was killed. So Franklin was pretty convinced that this stuff up in the sky, lightning, was the same kind of electricity that he was working with in his laboratory, but even he had no idea how powerful that stuff was.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Jim in Spencer, Iowa. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): I was curious to know where Ben Franklin got his resources? Was he, you know, wealthy to begin with, or did he acquire these, you know, resources on his own?

FLATOW: A good question.

Ms. TALBOTT: Franklin...

Dr. BRANDS: Well, Franklin was...

Ms. TALBOTT: Go ahead.

Dr. BRANDS: Go ahead, Page.

Ms. TALBOTT: No.

Dr. BRANDS: OK. Well, what I was going to say was that Benjamin Franklin is often cited as the prototype of the American capitalist, and to some degree he was. He was a self-made man. He arrived in Philadelphia with a couple of dollars in his pocket and went from there to become not inordinately wealthy, but comfortably wealthy.

But unlike a lot of capitalists, Franklin always believed that whatever he made was simply to provide him the opportunity to do things that he really wanted to do. So he retired from the active practice of his printing business at the age of 42 to devote himself to what he called his philosophical research, namely his science experiments. And for the rest of his life, he was a silent partner in the printing business, but he never had to work himself for a living after that. And so he was able to fund his own research.

Now I happen to think it was one of the aspects of Franklin's genius to identify a field of scientific research where, with a relatively modest outlay of funds and with a relatively short amount of time bringing himself up to speed, he could make original contributions. Electricity, the field of electricity, was in that kind of nascent stage at that time. If he had tried to study biology or aspects of chemistry, he might not have been anywhere near so successful. But the fact of the matter was he could see where--with a fairly brief amount of time and with the resources he had at hand--he could purchase or develop the equipment that he needed, he could bring himself into familiarity with the research of other people and make a contribution, as he did within just a few years of starting his researches.

FLATOW: Page, if you want to add something to--just...

Ms. TALBOTT: Just that he's sort of the first franchise man. He used the power of horizontal integration...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...and, as Bill was saying, that he was the silent partner, and so he did receive income from these other printers with--for whom he provided funds to help set them up in business.

FLATOW: And he helped start the first post office, did he not?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, he was an early post person here in America. He was deputy postmaster, and that was a very important vehicle for helping him get his word out by way of delivering the Pennsylvania Gazette up and down the Eastern seaboard, all the way--from South Carolina all the way up to Massachusetts. And because he had control over the post office, he had control over distribution.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about...

Dr. BRANDS: And just about...

FLATOW: Let me just jump in and do a...

Dr. BRANDS: I'm sorry.

FLATOW: ...take care of some business so we can all...

Dr. BRANDS: All right.

FLATOW: ...keep the lights on.

Dr. BRANDS: Sure.

FLATOW: We're talking about Ben Franklin this hour on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Page--I'm sorry H.W. Brands--reading the wrong part of the paper--H.W. Brands, the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial professor, Department of History, University of Texas in Austin, author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" and Page Talbott, associate director and chief curator of the Ben Franklin Tercentenary. How come we don't just call it a tricentennial?

Ms. TALBOTT: Or Ben Franklin 300, how about that?

FLATOW: After it leaves Philadelphia, how--well, first of all, how long is it going to be in Philly and where does it go from there?

Ms. TALBOTT: It's going to be in Philadelphia until April 30th and then it travels to St. Louis and then Houston, Denver, Atlanta and finally to Paris.

FLATOW: All right.

Ms. TALBOTT: And it closes in 2008.

FLATOW: 2008, so, it's--well, of course, it would have to go to Paris, one would think.

Ms. TALBOTT: Of course, it would.

FLATOW: Of Ben Franklin--can you actually find anything new that hasn't been written or talked about about Ben Franklin? Is there more to be discovered or do you just try to turn the embers over a little bit?

Ms. TALBOTT: In the course of this project we've been able to learn a great deal about the material culture of Benjamin Franklin. In other words, what he had at home because since this is a exhibition we wanted to acquire artifacts that related to his life.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. TALBOTT: And so we have his buttons and his sword and his library chair and so forth. And my own particular interest is in Ben Franklin and his domestic life. And so, for the first time, we've really be able to get at something that people don't know about Franklin and that is that he loved to shop.

FLATOW: No kidding?

Ms. TALBOTT: Yup.

FLATOW: He didn't invent the first mall, did he?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, you know what? He would have loved the mall. He sent home from England a piece of pottery from every pottery manufactory in England just because he thought it was so cool.

FLATOW: OK.

Prof. BRANDS: I'll second what Page said regarding what we can find, what we uncovered these days about Franklin. In London the Benjamin--the house where Franklin lived in Craven Street for about 18 years has just has been--well, I think it's just opening maybe this month after a considerable refurbishing.

Ms. TALBOTT: On the birthday, in fact.

Prof. BRANDS: Right. OK, and to visit that house is to get a sense of the--call it the domestic universe that Franklin inhabited. Houses were different in those days. Here was one of the great men of the British Empire and he was living in a house that would be considered just tiny by modern standards. And there's another reason we look at Franklin and that is even if we don't unearth new information, the questions that we have of Benjamin Franklin are different than the questions that previous generations had. And so people are more willing, or maybe they consider it much more necessary to examine the domestic life of Franklin to see how it was that he got along with his illegitimate son, William, and how William got along with his illegitimate son, William Temple. The whole domestic side of the Franklin story takes--plays a larger role, I think, in biographies these days than it might have 40, 50 years ago.

FLATOW: Would he have considered himself, by today's standards, just an ordinary guy?

Prof. BRANDS: Oh, no. Franklin didn't consider himself ordinary at all, although he often had to down--Franklin recognized that he was one of the geniuses of his time. But he also realized that if he made too much of that he wouldn't get very far. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that he was one of the very youngest of a very large family. And as bright as he was, with a dozen older siblings, you know, they weren't going to cut him any slack just because he was smart. In fact, if anything they would probably beat him up because he was too smart. So Franklin learned fairly early on that he could accomplish a lot if he didn't insist on accomplishing it in the name and for the fame of Benjamin Franklin.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. TALBOTT: So he spoke with a lot of different voices under a lot of different pseudonyms and he gave other people the credit...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right, we're going...

Ms. TALBOTT: ...which was a very savvy way of going about things.

FLATOW: Yeah, very diplomatic. You can see diplomacy coming out there very early. So hang on there. We're going to have to take a short break and come back but we'll talk lots more about Ben Franklin with Page Talbott and Bill Brands and take your calls. So stay with us. We'll take a short break. Don't go away, we'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about Ben Franklin with my guests Page Talbott, author of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" published by Yale University Press, and Bill Brands who is author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin."

Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Pete in Little Rock. Hi, Pete.

PETE (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

PETE: Thanks for the opportunity. I've been struck by the fact that historians rely heavily on written correspondence of figures like Ben Franklin and I was wondering if you guys have a comment about the modern world and the fact that we all use e-mail and it all gets deleted and what are future historians are going to be using to do the same kind or research?

FLATOW: Interesting question. Page, any...

Prof. BRANDS: That's a really good...

Ms. TALBOTT: Go ahead, I'd love to hear your answer.

Prof. BRANDS: Sure, it's a really good question. It's already a problem when we get to the 20th century even before e-mail because public figures starting with, well, Franklin Roosevelt, but since I live in Austin I've done some research on Lyndon Johnson. If you go to the Johnson library in Austin, it's nearly impossible to find traces--written traces of Lyndon Johnson because he simply didn't write stuff down. Now for the longest time, it was impossible to figure out what Johnson was thinking, what Johnson was doing. Only in the last, well, several years now the library has released tape recordings of Johnson's telephone calls. Johnson did his political business by telephone and it just so happens that the White House, with Johnson's approval, recorded a lot of this stuff. But now that people are using e-mail and to the extent that e-mail gets erased, I really don't know what we're going to rely on. However, I happen to think--I do know that presidents, for example, and famous people tend to keep records of things. Now--but that brings up an important point. We can write history about famous people because famous people either keep their own correspondence or other people who receive the correspondence keep the correspondence of the famous people.

With Benjamin Franklin, though, I'll tell you it's really difficult to write much of substance about the first 30 years of Franklin's life. He wasn't yet famous and so nobody kept records about Benjamin Franklin. We have to rely on his own autobiography. Once he becomes famous, then people keep his letters and we can track him. It's going to be a real problem when we're trying to write the history of the beginning of the 21st century and I don't know exactly how we're going to solve it.

PETE: Yeah. I'd like to make a follow-up comment. I was just going to say that like Ken Burns' "Civil War" that was a historical even that was completely dependent on letters.

FLATOW: But he also had photographs, you know. I'm also reminded--of one historian was telling, you know, when you take digital pictures in cameras now you don't have the extra photos we used to take home from the drugstore. We'd keep them lying around. Now you just erase everything from the camera.

PETE: Yeah.

FLATOW: And they might be an interesting historical record, too. Thank--good call, Pete, thanks for calling.

PETE: Thank you.

Prof. BRANDS: For my part, one of the things I tell my students is if they want to become immortal, all they have to do is keep a diary. And I tell them to keep a written diary and keep it relatively faithfully, but just make sure that when they die they turn it over to the local historical society because if they do, then they will be immortal in the sense that historians 100 years from now, 200 years from now who are wanting to write the history of daily life of our times will turn to those sorts of sources because they're going to be so rare.

FLATOW: Really interesting. 1 (800) 989-8255. Would it fair--you know, Americans have the reputation of good old Yankee ingenuity and America being a country of tinkerers. Would it be fair to say that started with Franklin, that reputation and that idea that he was a tinkerer, that then permeated later on?

Ms. TALBOTT: One of the things that I liked about Franklin the most is his great curiosity and also his desire to find simple solutions to things. So I think that the answer to your question would be he's certainly the most famous of the early founding fathers to adopt the idea of tinkerer. You know, people associate him with these really wonderful inventions, particularly the lightening rod. But most of all he was not interested in science for science sake as, you know, a pure scientist. He really was just infinitely interested in everything around him. He received--he purchased a microscope in 1750 and he describes what he saw with words that are almost poetic. He describes the beauty and the delicacy and the frailty of the little pieces of moss that he's looking at. And I just get the sense that he was somebody who had his--this wonderful sense of wonder...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...that went on to becoming something that helped him improve the world around him.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. BRANDS: When I read Frank...

FLATOW: Well...

Prof. BRANDS: Excuse me. When I read Franklin and his assessment of the world around him, I'm struck that there seemed to be two influences that come together. One is that very practical, you call it the Yankee inventor, innovator who wants to see how to make peoples' lives better. His Philadelphia--the Pennsylvania fireplace, for example, is a good example of this.

But at the same time, just as Page says, there is this almost child-like wonder that he manages to retain until he's 80 years old. And every time he sees something new he wants to know what causes, what makes it work, what it all means. It's a remarkable combination that's not commonly found.

FLATOW: Of course, one of his contemporaries was sort of a tinkerer. I'm talking about Thomas Jefferson. If you go to Monticello, you look at his home and you see all these things that he's built in his home. Was there any--did they talk to each other? Did they have any sort of, you know, discussions about scientific knowledge or nature that we know of?

Ms. TALBOTT: Don't forget that Jefferson was much younger than Franklin. I mean, there are a lot of common denominators between them, but Franklin was more than a full generation older than Jefferson.

Prof. BRANDS: And I think that's one of the reasons that Jefferson got along much better with Franklin than John Adams did. Adams was several years--many years younger than Franklin but he was close enough that he--at least as I read it--he seemed to feel competitive with Franklin. Jefferson doesn't seem that way at all. Jefferson, in fact, famously after he was named American ambassador in Paris after Franklin left, he was often introduced around as the person who replaced Benjamin Franklin. He would say, `No one can replace Dr. Franklin. I'm merely his successor.'

FLATOW: But you don't know if he had any correspondence or any, you know, scientific...

Ms. TALBOTT: There's not much in the correspondence...

FLATOW: ...head-to-head or toe-to-toe.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...between them. They overlapped politically but clearly they were both interested in practical solutions to things.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. TALBOTT: And they were both involved in the construction of their houses and in coming up with useful articles for daily living.

FLATOW: And, of course, in those days Philadelphia was not, you know, was not that close to Virginia. It was...

Ms. TALBOTT: Right, right.

FLATOW: ...some sort of a ride to get there. The metro--never mind. 1 (800) 989-8255. Kim in East Lansing. Hi, Kim.

KIM (Caller): Hi, I wish you guys could have a spot of camomile with me. I have two quick questions. I just want to, well, thank SCIENCE FRIDAY and ask callers to speak more quickly so you guys can get to them. And are there works--I heard that Jefferson and Franklin have works that have not been published. Is there anyone--maybe you guys could collaborate and create an anthology of, you know, publishing the unfinished works. Are there--I mean, unpublished works by Franklin? And thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Ms. TALBOTT: Can I speak to that just briefly...

FLATOW: Sure.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...to let you know that there's a wonderful publication--publishing process going on by the Yale University and American Philosophical Society called The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. And they've been working hard for almost 50 years to publish the letters of Franklin and they're up to volume 38, 39 is going to be published soon. And they anticipate that it will be about 47 volumes long ultimately. So they're working as fast as they can to get all of these unpublished papers available.

FLATOW: I'm surprised there are so many. Wow.

Prof. BRANDS: Well, and there's one area where there is room for new discoveries. Because Franklin wrote so many pieces either anonymously or pseudonymously, it's--there's still some question about whether particular pieces were written by Franklin or somebody else and historians and the scholars can debate these issues.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And where did the idea for "Poor Richard's Almanac" come from?

Prof. BRANDS: From other almanacs that were making a lot of money at the time.

FLATOW: Oh, is that right? It was money-making?

Prof. BRANDS: Oh, yeah, and Franklin looked at these others. They were best-sellers and he realized, `Hey, I can do this. I can probably do it better than other people and I can sell lots of copies of the almanac and I can make some money.' And he did. He did it in typical Franklin fashion. He did it with tongue in cheek and a twinkle in his eye, and it became a favorite. Actually, it was never quite the best-selling almanac in America, but it was the one that had the greatest, I guess you could say, literary value. And in publishing the almanac, Franklin did something that he would do again and again in his life. He published it under someone else's name. The conceit was that this was Richard Saunders. This was the Poor Richard. And for that reason--and I think Franklin was probably deliberate in this--Poor Richard could say things that Benjamin Franklin couldn't say. Benjamin Franklin was this young businessman in Philadelphia who was trying to gain the respect of his colleagues and his contemporaries and who had to maintain a certain public appearance. But Richard Saunders could say just about anything. He could say the most outrageous things and Franklin could sort of maintain this fiction, `Well, that wasn't me that was speaking, that was Poor Richard.' And it served him very well over the years.

FLATOW: Yeah. The first blog--American blog.

Ms. TALBOTT: He was amazing how he could put his body into other persona. His first and best-known is Silence Dogood, a middle-aged woman who lived out in the country when he was a 16-year-old boy who lived in Boston.

FLATOW: Did he make any money on his stove?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, the stove wasn't very successful, I have to tell you. It was a good idea in principle because it was an attempt to avoid the fires that were taking place where fires in great huge fireplaces would get out of control. And also you had this big, cavernous space that was wasting a lot of energy. And so it was a box that was stuck into the fireplace and it worked when you kept it really well-stoked. But if the fire started to go out it got pretty smokey. And, in fact, his stove designs, which he continued to work on through his life, really never--never really worked.

Prof. BRANDS: But even if they had, in this case Franklin wouldn't have made much money because he refused to try to get a patent on it. And he--this is one case where he believed that whatever useful knowledge he could come up with ought to be the property of the public at large.

FLATOW: Was he involved in setting up the patenting process in the US?

Ms. TALBOTT: No, in fact, he didn't--he really didn't approve of it at all...

FLATOW: He didn't.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...as Bill said.

FLATOW: That's interesting. 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Les in Roblas(ph), Arizona. Hi, Les.

LES (Caller): Hi, good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LES: My question is in light of all of the interest in both physical and mental health now and concern with diet and things, I've heard that Franklin was a vegetarian. Did he offer any insight into any of that or did he have any ideas about that?

Ms. TALBOTT: He was briefly a vegetarian, wasn't he, Bill?

Prof. BRANDS: He was briefly a vegetarian. In fact, he fell off the wagon, if you want to call it that, when he got real hungry.

Ms. TALBOTT: Yeah, he did.

Prof. BRANDS: He was on a voyage...

FLATOW: Just another guy.

Prof. BRANDS: Well, he was running away from home, leaving Boston, heading for what he thought was going to be New York, which would be his new home. It turned out to be Philadelphia. But the ship was becalmed about halfway there. And so he ran out of provision. And he watched while everybody else was eating fish. They were throwing a line over the side and pulling up the cod and slicing up the cod and having a wonderful fried cod dinner. And Franklin got hungrier and hungrier. And part of his vegetarianism was--you could call it a moral version--where he felt that humans shouldn't eat other animals because they had done no harm to any other creatures. And then he was watching the cook slice open one of these fish and only--and then discovered, to his amazement, that inside the stomach of one of these fish was a smaller fish. Whereupon his hunger and his--I guess you could say--his reasonableness got the better of him and he says to himself--he's relating this in his autobiography--he says that--sort of speaking to the fish, `Well, if you eat other fish, I don't see why I shouldn't eat you.' And so, at that point, he decided enough of this vegetarianism and he chowed down on the cod.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Les.

LES: Thank you.

FLATOW: Another example of good old American, well, when you need to deal with practicality.

We're talking about Ben Franklin this hour on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Page Talbott, author of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" and Bill Brands, author of "The First America: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin." Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255.

Anybody on the scene today that would remind you of a Ben Franklin type of person?

Prof. BRANDS: I'm asked this question fairly often...

FLATOW: Yeah?

Prof. BRANDS: ...and the answer I come up with is maybe, but you probably wouldn't--well, you wouldn't find this person in the United States. And I think that's the striking thing. The--one of the reasons that Franklin was able to accomplish all that he did was that he was living and operating sort of on the margins of civilization. Boston, Philadelphia, as important as they were in the context of the American colonies, they were marginal to the British Empire, to the centers of civilization. If Franklin had been born in London or in Paris where institutions had already congealed he wouldn't have been able to accomplish what he did by way of, say, civic improvement in Philadelphia. He wouldn't have been able to get ahead the way he did in Boston and Philadelphia because all of the positions that he might have aspired to were already taken by people with more formal education, with better connections, with higher birth or that sort of thing. There might be a Franklin today but he's probably in, I don't know, Bangalore, India, or in--somewhere in Mexico or someplace in Brazil or China.

FLATOW: Would Philadelphia be considered, at that time when Franklin was at his peak, sort of the science center then of the colonies in the states?

Ms. TALBOTT: Well, there were several people who Franklin collaborated with like Kinnersly and Priestley...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. TALBOTT: ...I think Sing(ph) and so forth who were here in Philadelphia. Many of them were even part of his club called the Junto. But, of course, he also corresponded widely and did the kind of collaboration that we look at today as the best of scientific pursuits where people are sharing information freely, where they're not holding back and where they applaud each other's successes and try and build on what each other is learning.

FLATOW: What would you like--in about the minute we have left, what would you like people to remember most, take away from Ben's 300th birthday?

Prof. BRANDS: I would say that I think his striking example of someone who is able to keep an open mind on nearly all important issues through the entirety of his life. He became a revolutionary at the age of 70. He became an abolitionist at the age of 75. Here's somebody who rather than falling into the rut of convention or falling into the rut of his own congealed views, kept an open mind and was able to question just about everything that he knew right up until the very end of his life.

FLATOW: Page?

Ms. TALBOTT: I'd like to think that when people come through our exhibition, and when people read about Franklin that they will recognize attributes in themselves in his character and realize that within us there is the capacity to do extraordinary things just as Franklin did.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you both for taking time to talk with us on this upcoming anniversary of Ben Franklin's birthday. Thank you--300th birthday. Thank you both, very nice talking with you.

Ms. TALBOTT: A pleasure.

Prof. BRANDS: My pleasure.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Bill Brand of the Dickinson--the Dickson Allen and Anderson Centennial professor department of history at the University of Texas in Austin, author of "The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin" and published by Random House; Page Talbott, associate director and chief curator of the Ben Franklin Tercentenary--that's 300. She's also editor and author of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" published by Yale University Press. Thanks again for joining us.

And we're going to go out with some music played a glass harmonica, believe it or not. We've dug it up, been playing it for you today. Listen to it in the background.

(Credits)

FLATOW: Surf over to our Web site at ScienceFriday.com to leave e-mails, to get free curricula we use in teaching SCIENCE FRIDAY in your classroom. Just click on the teachers button. Also podcasting of SCIENCE FRIDAY and also you can download it on your audible.com player if you'd like to do it that way. You can also send us regular e-mail, yeah, the old classic way. Our address is Science Friday, 55 West 45th Street, 4th Floor, New York, New York 10036. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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