- Written by Victor Parachin Victor Parachin
When it became clear that the American colonies would have to engage in a war for independence from England, Ben Franklin was made president of Pennsylvania’s defense committee.
In that capacity, he presided over the development of a top-secret system of underwater blockages to damage and prevent enemy warships from navigating the Delaware River as well as ways to more efficiently produce gunpowder necessary for militia muskets.
To compensate for the shortage of gunpowder, Franklin proposed making greater use of the bow and arrow. Though these were clearly antiquated weapons of war, Franklin justified their use in a letter written to Gen. Charles Lee, explaining:
“A man may shoot as truly with a bow as with a common musket … He can discharge four arrows in the same time of charging and discharging one bullet. A flight of arrows, seen coming upon them, terrifies and disturbs the enemies’ attention to their business … An arrow striking any part of a man puts him outside of combat till it is extracted.”
In his time, Ben Franklin may have been the smartest and most versatile American in the country. He was certainly its best scientist and inventor. Additionally, he excelled in business, diplomacy, and practical political policy.
Here are six fascinating facts about Benjamin Franklin.
1. He petitioned congress to abolish slavery in 1790. Franklin’s formal proposal of abolition presented to Congress began: “Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.”
Specifically citing the plight of African slaves, Franklin urged Congress to grant “liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.”
The petition failed to pass, and Franklin was strongly denounced by representatives from Southern states who asserted that the Bible fully supported slavery.
2. He created bifocal glasses. In an August 1784 letter to a friend, Franklin expressed great personal pleasure in the “invention of Double Spectacles, which, serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my eyes as useful to me as ever they were.
“The same convexity of glass through which a man sees clearest and best at the distance proper for reading is not the best for greater distances. I therefore had formerly two pair of spectacles, which I shifted occasionally …
“I had the glasses cut and half of each kind associate in the same circle. By this means, as I wear my spectacles constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I wanted to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready.”
3. He understood germ theory. Franklin was one of the first to suggest that colds and flu “may possibly be spread by contagion” rather than cold air, the common belief during his time.
“People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in close rooms, coaches, etc., and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other’s transpiration.”
His recommendation was for people, especially during a flu and cold season, to get as much fresh air as possible. Throughout his life, Franklin maintained ventilation in his home and especially his bedroom, where he kept the window open, even throughout the winter.
4. He described signs of lead poisoning and its treatment. Franklin observed a disturbing phenomenon. Tradesmen who worked with lead often experienced health issues such as joint pain, stiffness, paralysis, and severe intestinal problems.
Friends further raised his curiosity about this issue by pointing out that people who drank rum from stills that used metal coils also exhibited similar signs and symptoms.
Functioning much like a contemporary epidemiologist, Franklin concluded that the cause was lead poisoning. He strongly recommended caution when working with the metal and suggested that the coils of stills be replaced by tin rather than pewter, which contained large amounts of lead.
5. He created a new musical instrument. In 1761, Franklin attended a concert in England where all the music was performed on wineglasses of various sizes. That event sparked his imagination, and a few months later he produced an “armonica.”
He attached 37 glass bowls of different sizes to a spindle rigged with a foot pedal and flywheel to spin. Once set in motion, a person could play them simply by touching the spinning rims with a wet finger.
Franklin’s armonica became very popular in European circles. Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for it and Marie Antoinette took armonica lessons.
6. He promoted the benefits of physical exercise. Living in a time when life expectancy was between 35 and 40 years, Ben Franklin lived to a ripe, healthy, and happy 84 years. His “secret” was to work out, arguing that one of the most effective ways of warding off illnesses was to exercise.
In early America, he was unique in stating that the best measure of exercise was not duration but intensity, emphasizing the importance of perspiration. As a scientist he understood that a workout needed to be challenging and cleansing enough to produce sweat, thereby allowing the body to remove toxins.
Ben Franklin died at 11 p.m. April 17, 1790, at age 84. Nearly 20,000 mourners gathered in Philadelphia to pay their respects to a man whose inventions and scientific discoveries changed their world and who helped create a new nation.