What Would Ben Franklin Do?
Influences of America’s First Environmentalist
This is the third installment in our series about the founding fathers’ relationships with science, and what they might have to say about the science policy issues of today. Parts one and two, about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington respectively, can be found here, and here.
In the late 18th century, Benjamin Franklin was something of an icon in Europe. The French hung portraits of Franklin on their walls much in the same way college students pay tribute to John Belushi or Jim Morrison in their dorms. Everywhere Franklin went, his feisty personality preceded him, and it was this reputation in Europe that played a key role in securing the foreign aid the revolutionaries needed to triumph over the British. Many consider the celebrated polymath to be the first “American” in numerous regards—in entrepreneurialism, in political discourse, and, of course, in partying. As it turns out, Franklin was also the first American environmentalist, and his inventions influenced the scientific community for decades.
In the age of clean energy technologies racing to meet grid parity, we often forget that there was a push for cleaner energy in the time of the founders. Ben Franklin himself designed a four-sided street lamp to replace the commonly used globe lamps. A build-up of soot darkened the globe lamps, which required near-daily cleaning, and let off an excess of smoke. The Franklin lamp increased air circulation within the lamps, allowing for better fuel efficiency and less cleaning.
Similarly, Franklin sought to design a more fuel-efficient stove that consumed less wood and produced more heat. Incidentally, though Franklin managed to sell multiple sets, the stove did not work very well. It was later improved upon, however, and has come to be known as the “Franklin Stove.”
When Franklin was holed up in the suburbs of France due to a debilitating case of gout, his friends encouraged him to find ways to keep busy. And so, Franklin occupied himself in the only way he knew how: by devising ingenious and occasionally self-deprecating plots. In a 1784 letter to the Journal de Paris, Franklin parodied his penchant for sleeping late, observing, after a loud noise awoke him at dawn, “Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon… will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of [the sun] rising so early.”
As a more serious corollary, Franklin observed that, should he or any of his French compatriots rise with the sun, they would not have to burn candles for extra hours in the evening—a chore that Franklin, as a self-proclaimed cheapskate, found decidedly inefficient. It was from this observation and the desire to save a few bucks that Franklin outlined a rough idea for daylight saving time as a means for farmers to maximize production during light hours and cut down on fuel costs of illuminating the dark. The idea would not be adopted until after 1895, when George Vernon Hudson proposed the modern conception of daylight saving time.
It is no surprise that the first man to demonstrate that lightning was electrical would take a keen interest in electricity and energy. And take an interest, he did. Amid his busy schedule of promoting the American agenda, learning French in parlors, and drinking to excess, Franklin was the first to propose the theory of conservation of charge. Franklin also supported the controversial wave-theory of light. Among other contributions to physics, Franklin’s work with electricity precipitated his ascent to the first presidency of the American Philosophical Society, at the time a herald of scientific inquiry, which would later be headed by another famous scientist-statesman, Thomas Jefferson.
Despite his humble birth, Ben Franklin rose to prominence via his publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack, a collection of aphorisms and amateur guide to meteorology. This interest in meteorology extended itself into other environmental realms, including those of forestry, oceanography, and clean air.
Franklin built his own paper mill in order to furnish himself with a cheaper, more efficient supply of newsprint that would save trees. In doing so, he undercut his competitors. In the 1740s, he encouraged his friends to do the same, and eventually found himself at the center of a wholesale paper mill industry that was also environmentally friendly.
It was in his study of postal routes that Franklin took an interest in oceans and currents. When sailors took Franklin’s advice on the Gulf Stream, they managed to cut their commute by two weeks. Franklin’s studies into oceans lent itself to a concern for clean water. In 1739, Franklin petitioned the Philadelphia government to prohibit local tanneries from dumping waste into the tributary of the Delaware River. Similarly, in the 1760s, Franklin led a commission to monitor water pollution and waste disposal in Pennsylvania. Franklin also urged people to decrease their chimney use so as not to pollute the air.
Franklin also concerned himself with promoting public health. His contemporaries assumed that wearing damp clothing caused the common cold; however, Franklin observed that sailors wore wet clothes frequently and remained healthy. Before germs were deemed the culprit of compromising the immune system, Franklin suggested that the common cold was transmitted from people living in close quarters—a trend that happened to coincide with winter.
In keeping with his commitment to public health, Franklin launched a campaign to open a public hospital. Franklin diverted funds to the nation’s first hospital, also known as the Pennsylvania Hospital, in order to care for the poor and the mentally ill—two demographics long marginalized by colonial society.
In his will, Ben Franklin stipulated the construction of a water pipeline to provide fresh, clean water to the city of Philadelphia. This construction led to the Philadelphia Water Commission, which institutionalized Franklin’s belief that the public right to health should supersede private interests.
Given his commitment to environmental issues and sustainable business practices, it may be prudent to say that Franklin would have opposed some of the House cuts that stand to strip the public of food safety and farming innovation grants. He certainly would have taken no pleasure in the “Drill, Baby, Drill” chants, and not just because he would have found them lacking in wit.
Today’s political discourse supposes that the Founding Fathers were suspicious of the popular majority and favored limited government. Yet while our nation’s founders may not have intended the government itself to be run by direct democracy, they certainly believed that government had an obligation to protect the welfare of all its citizens. For Ben Franklin, a truly self-made man, that welfare included clean air, clean water, and general hygiene and sanitation. In retrospect, Ben Franklin did a couple things right. Maybe we should follow his lead in the arena of civic duty to protect our earth and our health.
Lauren Simenauer is finishing her bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology at the University of Virginia.
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