This week -- January 17th -- marked the 300th birth anniversary of Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous of all of America's Founding Fathers, and a gifted scientist, politician, diplomat, and author. Though he was born in Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and this year, that city has launched several major exhibitions to celebrate its favorite son.
Benjamin Franklin would rate his place on the American $100 bill based on his diplomatic and political achievements alone --- he was, after all, the only Founding Father to have signed all five of America's founding documents. But when one considers his many other achievements including founding or helping to found Philadelphia's first university, its first fire brigade, its first insurance company, and its first philosophical society -- not to mention discovering and charting the Gulf Stream and inventing a whole new kind of musical notation, Americans may seem justified in feeling a certain awe of the man whose life, from 1706 to 1790, spanned most of the 18th century.
Page Talbot, curator of the exhibit titled "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," has been absorbed in Ben Franklin's extraordinary legacy ever since 1998, when Congress initiated the year-long Tercentenary festival in his honor. She says Benjamin Franklin seems to have been a very approachable man, "the character from history with whom I would most love to have dinner," she adds. "He was a man with a twinkle in his eye and a man who was engaging, who was uncompromising, who truly was a human." Ms. Talbot says that her exhibition, and the project overall, "really is a way to introduce again a man who many Americans, and many people around the world, feel that they know. But we feel we have a new story to tell."
That story involves a man born at the dawn of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, when people were beginning to put their faith in science rather than religion alone. But Franklin was no mere theoretician. Even during his own day, he was praised as the embodiment of ingenuity and pluck - and as someone who earned his role as a leader through merit and hard work, not through aristocratic connections.
"Franklin only went to school formally for two years. He was self-taught from the beginning," says Talbot. "He wasn't a book-smart person. He was interested in the practical application of knowledge. He would look at something and scratch his head and say 'Hmmm… 'I wonder how that works.' And he would do anything he could to figure it out."
Franklin's curiosity would lead him to invent, among other things, a highly efficient wood-burning stove, bifocal lenses, a vandal-resistant streetlamp, a library ladder-chair, swimming paddles, the odometer, a catheter, a three-wheeled clock and several innovations to the printer's art that were still in use during the 20th century.
Franklin never took patents on any of his inventions, preferring instead to contribute to the betterment of his community through the sharing of knowledge. This generous spirit extended to his prolific scientific correspondence, which he carried on with luminaries all over the world. Their correspondence about electricity, for example, led directly to Franklin's invention of the lightning rod.
Rosalind Remer, executive director of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, says the lightning rod saved many homes from fire, but it also inflamed Franklin's more zealous religious friends. "A lot of people felt that he was taunting God, that by redirecting lightning into the lightning rod and saving the building that he was somehow going against God's will," she says. "But it was a perfectly 'Enlightenment' thing to have done -- which was that God causes lightning, but we have a way to figure out how buildings don't have to burn down because of it."
In addition to celebrating Franklin's inventions, the Philadelphia exhibitions also celebrate his diplomatic achievements, which put him in the first rank of American historical figures. His masterful negotiations with France and England set a course for American autonomy and influence on the world stage. But despite his great accomplishments, curator Page Talbot says, Ben Franklin was NOT a perfect man.
"He left his family back in America for many, many years," she says. "He wasn't particularly humble, as he admitted himself. But ultimately, people who see the exhibition I expect -- and I hope -- will feel that this was a man who optimized all of his innate talents and left the world a better place."