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Benjamin Franklin's Intellectual Revolution


Up next, you know, this week was Independence Day, and to celebrate, we're going to be looking at the life of Benjamin Franklin. We know him for his role in the American Revolution, but we're going to look at the great intellectual revolution he brought to America. Maybe you didn't know about that. Well, you can find out more about it in the new book, "The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America."

Jonathan Lyons is here to talk about how Franklin's inventions were fueled by his idea to use and share knowledge for the greater good. How did this lay the foundation for the political revolution? How do we see these things, how do we see these ideas shaping us today? We're going to be talking to Jonathan Lyons. He's here. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JONATHAN LYONS: Glad to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: People just - what does the general public - what do they just think, that Benjamin Franklin flew a kite and that's what he did, I would guess?

LYONS: Well, yes. I mean, we all have that association, and it's understandable, but, in fact, Franklin was part of a broad, as you mentioned, social movement that really predated not only the kite flying, but also predated our own American Revolution, which we're celebrating this weekend.

FLATOW: So what is the part about the useful knowledge, the society of useful knowledge? I mean, did he actually make us think about how to do things that are useful that we weren't thinking about before?

LYONS: Well, useful knowledge was the term of art used at the time, both in England and in the Colonies, and it was opposed to ornamental knowledge. And the notion of useful knowledge was that this was knowledge, science, investigation, observation that would allow us to live better. It was a very social aspect. So it's everything from agronomy, to how to make wine, to how to grow crops, navigation, cartography, anything that would kind of fall under the general category, perhaps, of engineering today.

FLATOW: Yeah. And he put together an organization to move these ideas forward. Can you describe that for us?

LYONS: Well, he did. It was known formally as the Leather Apron Club. Now, the leather apron was a badge of honor, a piece of clothing worn by Franklin as a craftsman. Of course, he was a printer. The other members were largely craftsmen - there was a silversmith, there was a clockmaker, a glazier - and they would meet once a week in a tavern in Philadelphia in secret, and they would talk about ideas that would help advance their own social standing, but also help improve society.

One example is what we've come to call the Franklin stove. It was then known as the Pennsylvania stove. And Franklin and his friends in the Leather Apron Club were debating two important problems of the day. Firewood was very expensive, and their houses were very smoky. And so the Franklin stove was a successful effort to create a high-efficiency or relatively high-efficiency stove, and he published the plans for how to make it in his newspaper. And as with his other inventions, he assigned - he sought no patent or direct profit from it.

FLATOW: Hmm. But this was a secret society, was it not? How does he share his knowledge with this?

LYONS: Well, the secret - the secrecy was really just a sort of practical matter. He was adamant that if the word got out who the members of this club were, then all their friends and associates would want to join, and it would get unwieldy. But Franklin, of course, was a printer, and his friends in the Leather Apron Club helped him buy a printing press and go into business.

And so now they had no - they have ideas, but they had, you know, an outlet. They had a way of printing it. So he had his newspaper, and he had a publishing - what became a publishing empire, and he could publish pamphlets and other ideas that interested - of interest to his - to the craftsmen in the Leather Aprons.

FLATOW: I don't think a lot of people realize that it was his friends who helped him out become this printer, to start all this printing stuff that he did.

LYONS: Well, of course, Franklin began life with a great deal of talent and ambition, but virtually no resources. And his first trip to London, he went - because the governor of Pennsylvania told him, if you go to London, I'll help you buy a printing press. It didn't work out.


LYONS: So he had to come back empty-handed and start over from scratch.

FLATOW: Right. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Jonathan Lyons, author of "The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Just to share a little bit personal information, when I was in seventh grade, I got fascinated with Ben Franklin. He - I wrote my first - I guess my first paper ever in junior high school on Ben Franklin. I think I was using the Harvard Bookshelf book. There's a whole book about him on one of those Harvard bookshelves.

LYONS: Oh, absolutely. I - the research for this book was largely carried out at the great facility in Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.


LYONS: And if you go there and look up Benjamin Franklin under titles, you'll probably get at least a thousand hits in their electronic catalog. I mean, there are so many Franklins. What I tried to do was not write a biography of Benjamin Franklin, but to use Franklin's life and lived experience to show this knowledge revolution, which he helped engender, and how that laid the foundation for the coming political revolution because colonial science was frowned upon. In fact, before Franklin, there really wasn't such a thing as colonial science.

FLATOW: Hmm. And so how did that lead to the revolution?

LYONS: Well, let's back up just a little. Colonial science before Franklin was largely interested parties would provide the experts, the scientists, back in London...

FLATOW: Right.

LYONS: ...and Sweden and Germany with raw materials, and they would say, oh, this animal is such and such. We'll call that science. Very much the way the colonial economy shipped raw iron ore from, say, Virginia, it was turned into steel products and then re-exported to the Colonies. So they were re-exporting science.

What Franklin and his team of experimenters in Philadelphia did with their breakthrough with the kite and all his other work on electricity is force the Europeans to take the colonists seriously as fellow scientists. And this was very liberating and went sort of hand in hand with this notion that we can take charge of our destiny.

FLATOW: Is this where - yeah.

LYONS: In that sense, it laid the foundation.

FLATOW: Is this where the idea of Yankee ingenuity came from?

LYONS: Well, I would say it's very much where it came from because these notions of useful knowledge came directly out of British thinking, the Scottish experience and from the continent. But in the hands of the Americans who had, remember, very specific problems. There were no great universities here. There were no libraries. There was very little capital. There were very few workers. Wages, as a result, were very high. And so we had completely different conditions. You had this vast unexplored continent. So they had to apply these ideas of useful knowledge, and it was in the application that transfer into what you're calling Yankee ingenuity and I would agree.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's great a great book. The book I'm talking about is the "The Society for Useful Knowledge." Jonathan Lyons is our author, "How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America." Our number is 1-800-989-8255. We're going to take a short break. We'll come back and talk more with Jonathan Lyons. You can also tweet us, @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Jonathan Lyons, author of "The Society for Useful Knowledge." It's about Benjamin Franklin, who brought enlightenment to America. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Just to parse this a little bit more about the connection between Franklin bringing useful ways of doing thing to America and the American Revolution. Does that - does his ideas of - do his ideas about thinking independently about being a tinkerer or being a craftsman play into the idea? Gee, we should think independently about our freedom and where our country is heading, and that lead to the American Revolution that way.

LYONS: Well, there is some of that, Ira, but it was more - what Franklin was doing and what his movement was doing was bringing a whole new class, which was a kind of what he called the middling sorts, into the economy, into politics, into society, into positions of leadership. And one of the ways they were doing it in a very significant way was by introducing these technological improvements to daily life. And so this opened up the social system and with it the political system to a whole new way of looking at things.

Now I mentioned earlier ornamental knowledge was posed as against useful knowledge. And in Franklin's mind, and the mind of his contemporaries, ornamental knowledge was the province of the old elite, the European elite, the religious establishment, the political establishment either back home or those that were still ruling the colonies in the name of the British crown. And so you see this dichotomy opens up between the interests of a small elite tied closely to Europe and the sort of independent-minded American coming up from the lower classes and the middle classes. So there was very much and element of that.

FLATOW: Now I get it. I want to bring on another guest to talk about one of Franklin's inventions. He had so many things that he studied, but he also invented a musical instrument called the glass harmonica. And it's an invention that Franklin said gave him, quote, "the greatest personal satisfaction." We don't see many of them around today. Dennis James, a professor of glass music studies - yes, glass music studies - at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He plays one. He created and co-directed the first international Glass Music Festival in 1983 and has recorded several albums on glass harmonica too. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DENNIS JAMES: Well, good afternoon.

FLATOW: Can you describe this instrument for us?

JAMES: Well, it's a version improvement of the musical glasses. If you've ever irritated people at dinner by picking up your wine glass, wetting you finger and rubbing the rim, that's the principle. But Franklin saw a player named Delaval play in 1761, in March in Cambridge. Franklin was sort of representing the Pennsylvania colony at court in London at the time, and he was a member of the royal society, and Edmond Delaval played a table of individual wine glasses, mounted. And Franklin wrote in his diary that right after seeing that that he thought he was charmed by the sweetness of the notes, but the music he wished to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, brought together in a narrow compass so as to admit a greater number of tunes all within the reach of the hand of a person seated before the instrument.

So what he did is he commissioned some special glasses that didn't have stems, simply the bowl, put a hole where the bowl - where - at the back of the bowl so that he could put a metal shaft and had them cut together, sort of like an Indian bell tree, and so that they were all nested together in a horizontal row with just the rims showing. And then you'd wet your fingers, put them in array, sort of like a keyboard. You're just touching the rims. They're turning horizontally underneath. He put a mechanism to make the whole thing turn like a sewing machine mechanism. And the result was such an improvement that it's now classified the first American musical instrument.

FLATOW: Wow. And we have a little bit from your album about what that sounded like.


FLATOW: Tell us a bit about this as we listen.

JAMES: This is the most famous work. Most famous because if we didn't have it, you wouldn't hear the instrument today. It was written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and it's a little adagio in C that he wrote for the major player of the instrument, Marianne Kirchgassner, the blind player, reigning virtuoso of the day. And she would play this piece to introduce people to the sound of the instrument, and then she followed it with a companion work Mozart wrote for her with the chamber ensemble. And so the two were matching works. But this single - it's considered one of the most exquisite and charming, small pieces that Mozart ever wrote. Just gorgeous.

FLATOW: So there were a lot of people playing this instrument then?

JAMES: Well, we know that one factory alone in northern France made 5,000 of them in the days when the instrument was popular. Franklin himself commissioned eight of them which he distributed - he gave one to his mistress Madame Brillon in - outside of Paris and he gave one to his daughter Sally. And so there were eight of Franklin's own. And the original Franklin instrument does survive, and it's sitting in the showcase at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

FLATOW: Let's hear a little more of it here.


FLATOW: Wow. So why aren't there more of them around?

JAMES: Well, they're very expensive. My instruments are valued at $107,000 each. I have two of them. In the day, they were very expensive, too expensive for the Mozart family. They cost 50 golden ducats, and that was apparently equivalent to a very expensive harpsichord of the time. So they were very expensive. They're very hard to make to a degree of professional quality, and so there's very few of them available today. And then they break.

I mean, I've been traveling mine since I began doing this professionally in 1988, and I averaged at least one major breakage a year in the first years of doing it. It was terrible. But I've got control of it now, and so it's possible to do this.

FLATOW: Can you find a repairman to repair it?

JAMES: Well, when we built the instruments at the factory, we kept about 10 spare glasses that are all ready to be tuned. They're of the right size. They can be fitted on to the instrument. And then whenever one breaks, I'd fit them on them. And I still have at least eight of every note still stored at the factory in Germany, so I think I'll make it through my lifetime.

FLATOW: Any concerts coming up we could - we should know about?

JAMES: Well, my next major appearance is my Tanglewood debut at - with the Boston Symphony coming up in August.

FLATOW: No kidding.

JAMES: There's a major new work for glass - calls for glass. It's George Benjamin's new opera "Written on Skin" that's being held all over Europe. It had its debut last year in France and just finished a London run, and it's coming to America. The American debut is at Tanglewood in August, and so I'll be playing the extremely difficult, surprisingly difficult contemporary music part written by Maestro Benjamin. And he'll be conducting. And so that's this year.

FLATOW: Well, wow. Well, we can never look at a wine glass the same way again after this.

JAMES: Oh, play them. Just play them.


FLATOW: Thank you very much, Dennis, for joining us today.

JAMES: Indeed. Thank you.

FLATOW: And good luck. We'll look forward to your concert at Tanglewood. Dennis James is professor of glass music studies at Mason Gross School of Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And you can see him playing glass armonica on our website at sciencefriday.com. What did you think about that? Talking with Jonathan Lyons, author of "The Society of Useful Knowledge."

LYONS: Well, it was beautiful. I've always wanted to hear one. But I think it illustrates a couple of very interesting points that we've been touching on. One is, what did Franklin do here? Well, he improved an existing technique, and that was very much in the mold of the kind of work that he and his colleagues were doing. They were improvers. I mean, they - obviously, they invented things as well.

But they were looking at incremental improvements, marginal improvements, improving the utility of processes, of lighting, of street cleaning, of stoves, of the musical glass. And I think the other thing it does, Ira, that's very helpful is it gives us a little context for what it was that people like Franklin meant by useful knowledge.

Music was useful in his mind. Theater was useful. It was morally edifying. It improved the person who visits the theater who listens to the music. So it wasn't an extremely narrow sort of utilitarian view. I want to make that point clear. And I think this piece of music did that beautifully.

FLATOW: Yeah. That's why we at SCIENCE FRIDAY have been trying to change the word geek to Benjie(ph) because we think that people today are more like Benjamin Franklin. They have wider interests than just technology. And Benjamin Franklin certainly had these huge interests, wide interests.

JAMES: Well, absolutely. And I think that many of your listeners would share a lot of Franklin's views about science. Of course, many of the people who appear on your show are practitioners of cutting-edge science, you know, theoretical science, very complicated experiments, very sophisticated notions. That was a big change from the 18th century way that Franklin and his friends did science. Science then was very much experiential. You went to a lecture on electricity, and you get to actually feel what a charge felt like.

LYONS: You would touch a portrait that was electrified and you would get a shock. Or you would see someone's hair standing on end. And the kite is another example. I mean, done correctly, and it is quite dangerous, the guy holding the kite can hold his knuckle near the electrified key and the charge will jump to his knuckle, and he'll feel it and sense it. And in fact, one early scientist was electrocuted doing a variation of Franklin's experiment.

FLATOW: I think he was Russian, a Russian scientist.

LYONS: He was Russian, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah. And in fact, Isaac Asimov, the late science popularizer and author wrote a book. I think it was called "The Kite that Won the Revolution" because they did not lead his introduction because he described how to do the kite experiment. He did not do it first, if I understand correctly. The French did it first.

LYONS: Well, the French did what was called the century box experiment, which is the one you're referring to.


LYONS: Yes, they did do it first and Franklin got word of it. And there's actually some dispute among Franklin scholars as to when he did the kite experiment and, in some minds, whether he actually did do the kite experiment.

FLATOW: But nevertheless, he was declared a hero in France, right?

LYONS: Well, yes. His initial work on electricity in Philadelphia was, as he would put it - as he put it later in life, laughed at by the connoisseurs of Europe, just the idea of an American scientist. As I mentioned earlier, there was this built-in prejudice against colonial science. But he forced to break through. And in 1753, he was awarded the Copley Medal by the London - Royal Society of London, which was essentially the Nobel Prize for science of its day. And this changed everything.

And yes, as his work then led to the creation of the lightning rod, which not only protected buildings but saved lives, eased the terror of thunderstorms for people around the world, yes, he became a very serious cultural hero. And later in life, when he goes on to represent the American revolutionary cause in the courts of Europe, particularly in France, he's lauded as a hero. And it enhances his diplomatic work immeasurably.

FLATOW: And helps bring Lafayette and all the French help to the American Revolution.

LYONS: Oh, yes. Without that I don't think - and there's quite - a lot of listeners would probably be familiar with either the PBS Special or books about John Adams. And John Adams shows up in Paris at the same time Franklin is there.

And Adams is apoplectic. He sees Franklin getting up late, drinking wine, going to parties, flirting with women. And he's thinking, what's going on here? And he writes to his wife, I believe, and it says, when the history of the revolution is written, it will be about Franklin and his lightning rod, and Washington and his sword. In other words, they'll be no place for Adams. But what Adams didn't see was that Franklin was actually being a very efficient diplomat.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm talking with Jonathan Lyons, author of "The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America."

Let's see if we have time for a phone call or two. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Liz in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Liz.

LIZ: Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

LIZ: I just think women owe a lot to Ben Franklin. I went to John Adams house in Quincy, and they said one of the leading causes of death among women at their time was by fire with the long skirts and they did the fireplace. And after the stove, that's not - I never even thought about that. And then with electricity, he changed the drudgery of the everyday women's life immeasurably.

FLATOW: Hmm. Yeah. Franklin stove.

LIZ: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. Thanks, Liz. Thanks for calling.

LIZ: Thank you.

FLATOW: Yeah. So he...

LYONS: Well, electricity, Ira, was actually not received that way initially, though I think the caller makes an excellent point. And there's a wonderful anecdote. Franklin set up a lightning rod on his house partly to show the neighbors that it was safe and effective. But he had it rigged up with little bells and clappers. And so when it was - pick up a charge, the bells would ring in the house. This terrified his wife Deborah.


LYONS: And so he writes a letter from London and assures her, well, if it bothers you, tie off this piece of wire and essentially closed the circuit and it'll be silent.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Dan in Blackberry, Virginia. Hi, Dan.

DAN: Yes. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAN: I imagine Franklin was interested in having Americans to be able to manufacture goods from their own raw materials too. Britain was preventing America from weaving cotton cloth from their own cotton. I imagine Franklin was - I thought it would be important for, you know, Americans to be able to have that - those technologies too. I guess I'll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW: OK. Thanks for calling. Independence of craftsmanship industry.

LYONS: Well, actually, Franklin was initially not a supporter of American industrialization, though he did changed his mind by the 1760s into the early 1770s. So the caller is correct in that regard.

But I think it makes it a broader point. And again, as I mentioned at the outset, this is not exclusively a book about Franklin. And George Washington is also features quite prominently. And Washington and some of the other Virginia figures who became known, you know, the patriots, George Mason, for example, Arthur Lee, et cetera, they started to organize what called non-importation campaigns. They were trying to force political change on behalf of the British and their relationships with the colonies. This is in the run up to the revolution.

And so they were trying to block importation of British goods and create import substitution, i.e., home manufacturing. And this revealed the extent to which America was ill-prepared for industrialization.

And I argue in the book and show how that realization that the colonies were badly prepared. They didn't have the infrastructure, they didn't have the scientific knowledge, they didn't - weren't even sure what their potentialities and capabilities were. This was another empathise, not only to the movement for useful knowledge but eventually to the political rebellion.

FLATOW: Right, right. Well, and I advice all of our listeners, if you want to learn something different and see Ben Franklin from a different angle, from just an inventor, how his impact on society was and how influential he was. It's "The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America" by Jonathan Lyons. Jonathan, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

LYONS: My pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. That's about all the time we have. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.