Benjamin Franklinís Science:  In Public and in Private

Joyce E. Chaplin
History Department, Harvard University, Cambridge MA



Editor's note:  The following is a direct transcript of Prof. Chaplin's talk. A short biography and brief descriptions of the illustrations follow the text.


In Franklinís day, science was done quite differently than it is now.  Today, we have scientists, people who earn a living by doing specialized work in the natural sciences.  Their work is most commonly funded by universities, by corporations, and by the government.  But during Benjamin Franklinís lifetime, none of these things were in place.  There were no scientistsóthe word was not even coined until the nineteenth century.  Universities were not, for the most part, important centers of scientific investigation during the eighteenth century.  Large corporations did not exist.  And state sponsored science did not yet have the extent and contours that it does today. 


Instead, science was done through a variety of public and private efforts that no longer exist.  Franklin and his scientific contemporaries were private individuals who worked in science for a variety of reasons.  Some wealthy people, mostly male but some female, were able to gain an education in science, to purchase necessary equipment for observation or experiment, and to publish their findings.  Other people, and again mostly men, observed natural phenomena as part of their workóthey did not have the wealth to work on science exclusively, but did so as they did their other work.  So, for example, sailors studied and reported on oceans and weather as they did the labor essential during the age of sail.  Some organizations were created to encourage private personsí investigations of nature.  The Royal Society of London, established in 1662, for instance, was a proprietary organization that assessed scientific work and, if it deemed it worthy, published it in its Philosophical Transactions.  [illus 1]  The British monarch was patron of the Royal Society, but did not have formal control over it in the manner that the United States government has over the National Science Foundation, for instance. 


Yet alongside the private efforts that went into eighteenth-century science, there was some public support of scientific work.  This usually meant state sponsorship of expeditions, as when France sponsored ventures to Peru and to Lapland in order to measure the earth at the pole and around the equator, to establish as a fact that the earthís spinning on its axis flattened the earth, which was therefore fatter around its middle. 


Most of this state-sponsored work on science was, however, absent from the colonies where Franklin lived.  The wealthy individuals who might do science on their own were scarce on the ground in British America.  Learned societies like the Royal Society did not yet exist in the colonies.  And the British state sponsored expeditions to send Britons to study exotic phenomena in places like America, not for Americans to study anything at all.  Yet Franklin somehow managed to become one of the best-known scientific experimenters of the eighteenth century.  He did so by inventively cobbling together whatever scraps of public and private enthusiasm for science that he could find around him in Philadelphia. 


Itís clear that Franklin was one of those people who, at least initially, did science alongside his regular work, in his case, work as a printer.  The printed word had always fascinated him and, by the time he settled in Philadelphia after 1726, as a young man of twenty, he read everything he could get his hands on, and then made canny decisions about which of it he could reprint or else import and sell in his bookshop.  In this way, he did two things:  he educated himself in science and he created a reading public that might share his interest. 


Franklin is of course famous for helping to create a reading club, the Junto, in which he and other young men could pool their funds and acquire a larger library than any one of them could have enjoyed individually.  In a sense, the Junto was a provincial version of the Royal Society of London, a private organization that nevertheless had patrons who belonged to the ruling elite, including members of the Penn family, the proprietors of the colony.  The Junto would also have an impact on civic life in Philadelphia.  This was apparent when the club was transformed, after 1731, into the Library Company of Philadelphia.  That organization, which still exists, was able to amass a greater number of books and to offer them to a larger number of readers [illus. 2].  But many of the books on science that interested Franklin were expensive, beyond the means of his friends in the Junto or even the funds of the Library Company. 


For access to such works, Franklin turned to a powerful friend, James Logan, one of Pennsylvaniaís wealthiest residents.  After a noted political career, Logan retired from politics and amassed what was for the time a huge library (over 2,000 volumes), that ranged over a remarkable array of topics, which was very useful for his young friend.  It is very likely that Loganís library, and Loganís conversation, offered Franklin his first serious exposure to several questions in science.  The two men seemed to have shared an interest in optics, for instance. 


Out of his vast reading, Franklin selected some topics that he could use in his publications.  He was always on the lookout for material for his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, which he began to print under his name in1729.  In the newspaper, for example, Franklin featured many small items on political arithmetic, which covered questions in the fields we would now call demography and epidemiology.  Franklin was more ambitious in his almanacs, Poor Richard (which he began to publish in 1732) and Poor Richard Improved, improved, that is, by twelve additional pages per almanac after 1748.  The almanacs would make Franklin rich, and they also provided him an important venue for some of his reading in science.


The title page of Poor Richard [illus. 3] makes it immediately clear that Franklin had to have a grasp of astronomy and meteorology in order to produce his almanac.  If other almanac makers simply reproduced rote information about the weather, Franklin was distinctive in making his own astronomical observations, in order to predict shifts in the seasons, and in taking a serious interest in why the weather had the patterns that it did.  He would eventually publish serious work on the nature of storms that moved up the east coast of North America as well as on phenomena like waterspouts.  His work on weather and oceanic phenomena is a reminder that, while Franklin is often seen as making his greatest contributions to the field eventually called physics, he made equally important ones to the fields that would eventually form the earth sciences


By the 1750s, Franklin used Poor Richard Improved to offer little essays on topics in science that he thought might interest his readers.  He encouraged them to do their own, simple astronomical observations, as when he reported that there would be a transit of the planet Mercury across the sun in the spring of 1753.  He gave a table that related his calculations of the timing of the transit, and told his readers how to observe the transit themselves. 


Franklin also coached readers in topics for which they would need to use specialized equipment.  He gave what was, for the North American colonies, an early description of the construction and use of a microscope.  [illus 4]  To produce this piece, Franklin had probably raided James Loganís library; much of Franklinís text came from a popular English work on microscopyóFranklin didnít own a copy of the work, but Logan did.  In this way, Franklin had taken information from a private library and published it, made it a matter of public knowledge for people in the mid-Atlantic region of British America.  He was an important popularizer of scientific information in early America, and his almanacs were important vehicles for making science part of public knowledge.  They had a considerable audience; Poor Richard Improved eventually had an annual circulation of 10,000 copies. 


By this stage in his life, while in his late forties, Franklin became a producer of scientific knowledge, not just a consumer or publisher of it.  It was at this point that he took up experimentation with electricity.  For this, he relied on the resources of the Library Company, the semi-public institution that he had helped to create, on two private donors, and on the use of space in a public building in Philadelphia. 


The Library Company had, for some time, been acquiring scientific instruments and had begun to sponsor lectures in science.  In 1738, for example, the company had acquired an air-pump, equipment used to generate a vacuum that Robert Boyle experiments in the late seventeenth century had made famous.  Two years later, in 1740, a former professor mathematics from Harvard offered lectures, by subscription, that demonstrated the use of scientific instruments and recent discoveries in science.  We donít have records of who attended the lectures.  But evidently members of the Library Company could bring guests, so it is possible that young people and women, who could not have joined the library, could nevertheless have seen the lectures. 


This type of lecture series was common.  In 1743, Franklin saw some in Boston that demonstrated the circulation of the blood as well as electricity.  He helped publicize some demonstrations in Philadelphia, in 1744, which featured a solar microscope and were held in a private home [illus 5].  Such lectures did not produce new knowledge in science, but popularized scientific findings to a wider public.  Though they had begun in Europe, they quickly spread to the colonies and were good examples of the now widespread public interest in science, an interest that entrepreneurs serviced by investing in equipment like air-pumps and offering demonstrations of such devices. 


The lectures he saw in Boston and Philadelphia made Franklin curious about what new phenomena might be revealed by the scientific instruments he saw demonstrated. Luckily for him, two private donors gave some equipment to the Library Company that would allow him to do experiments of his own.  In 1747, a London merchant and Quaker benefactor, Peter Collinson, sent the Library Company an electrical tube, a cylinder of smooth glass that, when rotated against a cushion or a personís hands, generated an electric charge.  Slightly later, Thomas Penn, the proprietor of the colony, sent an apparatus, probably a frame in which the tube could be mounted and rotated.  [illus 6


With these devices, Franklin and three other members of the Library Company began experimenting with electricity.  His colleagues were Thomas Hopkinson, a lawyer, Philip Syng, a silversmith, and Ebenezer Kinnersley, a former Baptist minister who had found a second career as an itinerant electrical demonstrator. 


So Franklin had suitable equipment and collaborators for electrical experiments.  The place in which he and his collaborators did their experiments may be somewhat surprising [illus 7].  This is the Pennsylvania Statehouse, now Independence Hall, seen in what is supposed to be the best image of it from the mid-eighteenth century.  Until it had its own building, the Library Company used the upstairs area of the State Houseís west wing building to store its library and instruments and to hold its lectures.  (The two wing buildings were torn down in the early 19th century, then reconstructions erected at the beginning of the 20th century.) 


It is very interesting that this was the location for Franklinís experiments.  Pennsylvaniaís government did not have funds to actually sponsor any kind of scientific investigation, but it could lend public buildings to independent investigators.  And the fact that, as Franklin reported, people attended the electrical experiments in crowds, attests to the public nature of these events.  Indeed, the area around the Pennsylvania State House was also used for publicly-observed science.  A platform was built in front of the State House for observations of the Transit of Venus in 1769.  (The platform later proved handy for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.)  Sadly, few visitors to Independence Hall know this part of the buildingís history. 


Some of the electrical experiments were done in a private house, meaning in Franklinís home.  He was so fascinated with electricity that he could not bear to stop investigating it, so continued those investigations after hours and perhaps after some of his collaborators had called it a day.  (Thatís probably why Franklin acquired his own electrical apparatus.)  Eventually Franklin rigged up his whole house as an electrical device, placing a lightning rod on its roof, running a wire down from the rod, and splitting any current with yet another wire that would cause bells to vibrate, indicating the presence of atmospheric electricity.  Franklin had a portrait done of himself at his desk, listening to the bells ring electrically.  [illus 8]


In this image, as well, Franklin showed how he had become a gentleman.  In 1748, the year after he had begun his electrical experiments, Franklin retired from his printing business.  If he was not as rich as James Logan, Peter Collinson, or Thomas Penn, Franklin had nevertheless joined their rank in society.  He was now someone with wealth and leisure enough to pursue science, not as part of his daily work (as he had done as a printer), but as a significant activity in and for itself. 


Franklin had also made himself into a natural philosopher, someone who did not just describe nature, but instead discovered the causes of things within the natural world.  With his Experiments and Observations on Electricity, first published in 1751 [illus 9], Franklin became a major figure in science.  He was initially celebrated as such in France and in Britain, but his fame soon spread throughout Europe, even into Russia, and through the Americas, including the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. 


Thus, by cobbling together some motley public and private sources of support for science, Franklin made electricity, which had been a curiosity for the public and a puzzle for serious investigators, into a science.  His achievementóhe defined electricity as a physical entity that had two states or qualities, positive and negativeóbegan to influence multiple questions in the science and has continued to influence physics.  Even in his lifetime, for example, another investigator hypothesized that there was a similarity and possible connection between electricity and magnetism.


Scientists are interested in what science is done, meaning what protocols are observed, what results are achieved, whether those results can be repeated, whether the results inspire future questions.  Historians of science are interested in all that too, but they also investigate how science was done:  what people could and would do it, what intellectual and physical constraints define their efforts, what questions they thought they were answering, whether those questions have a place in science now. 


I think everyone, scientists, historians, and anyone else, should be interested in a third factor:  whether science is done in the first place.  However interesting Franklinís conclusions about electricity were, however interesting his method of experimentation was, the fact that he did his experiments at all is critical.  Without public interest in science in the colonies, without private donors to give electrical equipment, without the use of the Pennsylvania State House, without Franklinís own burning curiosity, the crucial experiments on electricity might never have been done. 


It is in some ways astonishing that they were done.  Interest in science in Franklinís America was fragile.  This is evident in the fact that he was unable to publish the account of his experiments in America.  His initial Experiments and Observations appeared in London, as did the three succeeding English-language editions published during his lifetime.  There were two important French editions, as well as versions in many other European languages.  But there was not a reading public in America that would have made publication of Franklinís serious work in science worth while to any American printer, even to Franklin himself, had he still been in the business. 


It would be nice to say that things got better after Franklinís death.  In fact, they got a bit worse.  Public support for science took a hit with the American Revolutionóthe private donors who were based in or had connections to Britain were less likely to take an interest in Americans once the colonists turned into rebels.  The American revolt against taxation meant that revenue was scarce in the new republic.  Neither the new United States government nor the individual state governments could afford much investment in science.  Indeed, the few politicians who argued for such investment, including John Quincy Adams, were figures of fun or of scorn. 


Things did finally get better in the twentieth century.  At that point, the scattered and small bases of science in the United States, which existed at universities and in some government agencies, increased and, after World War II, the United States became an important leader in scienceóa remarkable historical turnabout. 


It is more difficult to tell whether public interest in science has kept pace.  It goes up and down.  We may be living in a moment when the interest is down.  All the better to remember that, while Benjamin Franklin was one kind of a genius for using experiments to define electricity, he was another kind of genius in getting people to attend those experiments in crowds. 




Suggested Reading



Biographical  Notes


Joyce Chaplin is James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University.  She is the author, most recently, of The First Scientific American:  Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006) and is currently writing a history of circumnavigation.   





Illustration 1:  Title page, first issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 


Illustration 2:  Suggestion box, in which members of the Library Company of Philadelphia placed their requests for book purchases. 


Illustration 3:  Title page, Poor Richard, 1737 (Philadelphia, 1736)


Illustration 4:  Poor Richard Improved, 1751 (Philadelphia, 1750), with explanation of microscopy on lower half of right-hand page


Illustration 5:  ďJust Arrived from London . . .,Ē a demonstration of a solar microscope, advertisement printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1744.   


Illustration 6:  globe-type electrical device of the kind Franklin owned


Illustration 7:  Lawrence Herbert, A Map of Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent, with a Perspective of the State House (1752)


Illustration 8:  Franklin with his electric bells.  Edward Fisherís mezzotint, after a painting by Mason Chamberlain (c. 1762)


Illustration 9:  Title page of Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751)