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Monday, November 9, 2015

November 9, 2015: American Inventors: Franklin and Jefferson

[This coming weekend will mark the 250th birthday of Robert Fulton, about whose influential invention I’ll write in Friday’s post. All week I’ll AmericanStudy some of our most complex and significant inventors—and I’d love for you to share your thoughts on them and other inventors (and inventions) for an innovative crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On a telling invention linked to each of the founding innovators, and what differentiates the two.
I written before, both in this space and in others, about some of my issues with Ben Franklin, or at least with the troubling national narratives to which he contributed in their early stages. But at the same time, it’s important to be clear that Franklin was in his own era and remains down to ours one of the most impressive as well as influential Americans, and a significant element to that impressiveness would have to be his scientific curiosity and innovativeness. On the long list of Franklin inventions at their hyperlinked article, of course the lightning rod stands out (my boys are already fascinated by Franklin’s bold and quite successful kite experiment, as was I at their age), but I might have to highlight the Franklin stove instead; invented by Franklin when he was only in his 30s, this home innovation significantly improved the ability of Franklin’s fellow Americans to heat their homes efficiently, simply, and with much less smoke or disturbance.
Thomas Jefferson (with whom my issues are also well-documented) wasn’t nearly the scientific mind that Franklin was; but he was certainly another of the most intelligent, well-read, and well-rounded Americans of theirs or any era, and he likewise developed and supported more than his fair share of inventions and innovations. Anyone who has visited Jefferson’s home of Monticello can attest to the unique and impressive seven-day clock calendar located in the house’s main hall, and it certainly reflects both the artistry and the outside-the-box thinking of Jefferson’s inventions. But given the voluminous quantity (and impressive quality) of Jefferson’s writings, I would have to highlight instead his polygraph; not the contemporary device made famous by Meet the Parents, but a very innovative machine for instant copying of any document written within the device. Yet while Jefferson was one of the first Americans (or figures anywhere) to own a polygraph, and did a great deal to help with its development (leading it to be closely associated with him to this day), it was not his own invention: the machine was first invented by an Englishman, John Isaac Hawkins, and then further developed and marketed by American artist Charles Willson Peale.
Franklin and Jefferson’s respective roles in the invention of these particular devices represents one way I would more generally differentiate the two men. While this is certainly an oversimplification, I believe it’s possible to say that Franklin was in many ways more a groundbreaking influence on his peers and period, while Jefferson was often particularly adept at distilling trends and ideas into new and influential forms. Both types are important to any era (and a founding one in particular), and indeed I would argue that, appropriately enough, Jefferson’s might be more suited for a politician and Franklin’s for a scientist and philosopher. Yet there’s another way to differentiate the two inventions and, perhaps, the two men linked to them: Franklin’s was far more democratic, intended for widespread use in many homes; while Jefferson’s was more designed for elite use, by those figures who would be writing a good deal and would want those writings shared and saved for posterity. Both men were among their era’s elites in every sense, to be sure; but despite Jefferson’s agrarian ideology, I would argue that it was Franklin and his inventions (as well as many of his other efforts) that most thoroughly benefited the American people as a whole.
Next inventive post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other inventors or inventions you’d highlight?

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