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Benjamin Franklin: The Original Steampunk Innovator

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin The Man Ahead Of Time

 

Benjamin Franklin was a man ahead of his time. Born in 1706 into a world of candlelight and quill pens, Franklin pioneered innovations and inventions that wouldn’t become commonplace until the 19th and 20th centuries. From bifocals to the lightning rod, Franklin’s ingenious creations foreshadowed the tech-obsessed steampunk aesthetic. Had he been born a century later, Franklin likely would have felt right at home tinkering away in a clockwork-filled workshop. Let’s examine Franklin’s numerous accomplishments through a steampunk lens to appreciate how this versatile Founding Father embodied the inventive spirit that defines the genre.

The Urban Tinkerer

Benjamin Franklin was a city boy, born and bred in Boston, Massachusetts. But the big city was too small to contain Franklin’s ambitious imagination. As a teenager in the 1720s, Franklin fled Boston to start a new life in Philadelphia. In this bustling urban center, Franklin found ample opportunities to exercise his inventive genius. Like many steampunk protagonists, Franklin was an urban tinkerer who used the tools at hand to solving pressing problems. For instance, Franklin created a simple extension arm out of wooden strips to grab books from high shelves in his print shop. He also invented a pulley system that made it easier for him to operate the printing press. These seemingly humble innovations improved Franklin’s workflow and productivity, demonstrating his knack for urban invention.

Some of Franklin’s most ground breaking innovations related to electricity and lighting. As any steampunk worth their salt knows, few technologies represent the genre more than flickering bulbs and crackling currents. Franklin’s electrical experiments in the mid-18th century were the first steps toward modern power and illumination systems. While electricity remained more a novelty than a practical tool in Franklin’s lifetime, his pioneering research lit the path forward.

In one iconic experiment, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite with a metal key into a lightning storm, proving that lightning contained electrical charge. His dangerous thunderstorm tests demonstrated that lightning was electricity, not the wrath of any deity. This empirical approach to demystifying electricity was pure steampunk. Benjamin Franklin founded the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia in 1736, granting him intimate knowledge of fire’s ravages. This led him to invent the lightning rod, which protects buildings by conducting lightning’s electrical charge into the ground. By taming electricity’s awe-inspiring power, Franklin embodied steampunk’s spirit of science-fuelled mastery over nature.

On the illumination front, Benjamin Franklin created an innovative design for street lights to brighten Philadelphia’s night time thoroughfares. As a frugal man, he was troubled by the cost of maintaining traditional candle or oil-burning street lamps. Drawing inspiration from nautical lamps, Franklin created an inexpensive, self-contained street light that used mirrored reflectors to amplify the glow of an oil flame. Franklin’s reflected light concept was a steampunk-worthy innovation that made artificial light more efficient and cost-effective. In steampunk fashion, Franklin hacked existing technologies to craft an ingenious hybrid lighting solution.

 

Benjamin Franklin steampunk

 

The Tireless Polymath

Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential jack-of-all-trades, displaying expertise across subject areas that steampunk characters also tend to dabble in. He founded the first public lending library, volunteer fire department, and hospital in colonial America. He excelled at chess, played music, and wrote extensively as a printer and author. But Benjamin Franklin didn’t just gloss the surface of these pursuits – he immersed himself in domains that mattered like journalism, politics, diplomacy, and more.

Benjamin Franklin published the famous Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1732-1758, sharing his wit and wisdom across 25 editions. He authored world-renowned writings like his Autobiography and provided pivotal support for the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. As if being a savvy writer and key Founding Father weren’t enough, Franklin also served as a diplomat across Europe, securing aid for the American Revolution. Wherever his restless intellect took him, Franklin explored subjects thoroughly, embodying steampunk’s spirit of open-minded inquiry.

Even into his golden years, Benjamin Franklin undertook new challenges that required mastering unfamiliar fields. In his late 70s, while serving as Ambassador to France, Franklin taught himself French, mathematics, and chess. He became a chess aficionado and anonymously wrote a witty essay on playing chess called “The Morals of Chess” under a pen name. Franklin saw chess as a mental model for cultivating foresight and circumspection. In typical Franklin fashion, he took a recreational game and transformed it into a tool for intellectual and moral betterment. This zest for learning new skills never left Franklin and perfectly aligns with steampunk’s thirst for boundless knowledge.

Inventor Extraordinaire

Of course, Franklin’s most direct connection to steampunk lies with his ingenious inventions. As a printer by trade, Franklin crafted many devices that improved bookmaking and publishing using the machines and tools on hand. His steampunk spirit of invention led him to create:

  • The Odometer: Used to track the mileage of delivery wagons and carriages. It resembled a modern pedometer.
  • Bifocals: The first split bifocal lenses, with both distance and reading vision in one frame. Franklin suffered from presbyopia later in life.
  • The Long Arm/Reach: An extension arm for grabbing books off high shelves in Franklin’s print shop.
  • The Franklin Stove: A metal-lined fireplace insert that improved heating efficiency.
  • The Armonica: A musical instrument that produces sound from spinning glass bowls.
  • The Flexible Urinary Catheter: A flexible tube worn to drain the bladder, preventing infections.
  • The Lightning Rod: A metal rod affixed to structures that conducts lightning strikes harmlessly into the ground.

Franklin never patented any of these inventions, choosing to share his innovations freely for the public good. He eschewed personal profit to contribute his ideas back to society. This charitable approach was ahead of his time but aligns well with the open-source mindset of today’s makers and hackers. Franklin personified steampunk’s inclination to ignore propriety and improvise clever solutions using basic materials.

 

Benjamin Franklin - free mason

 

Revolutionary Ideas

Beyond his technological feats, Franklin championed revolutionary concepts that broke from the norms of his era. As a prominent Freemason, he belonged to a secret fraternal order that emphasized Enlightenment ideals of reason, liberty, and civic virtue. Freemason societies welcomed men from diverse backgrounds and faiths, functioning as laboratories for radical ideas in Franklin’s day. As a freethinker and self-made man, Franklin found an ideological home there.

In 1751, Franklin published a satirical essay suggesting daylight saving time, noting how shifting schedules could better sync work with daylight. At the time, such sweeping societal changes seemed ludicrous. Yet Franklin’s ability to re-examine entrenched habits and propose bold reforms aligned perfectly with disruptive steampunk technologies. He also conceived audacious political ideas like abolishing slavery, providing education for women, and establishing a unified American federal government – 100 years before these reforms came to pass!

Franklin also dabbled in values-driven business models that steampunks would appreciate. As postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, he operated the city’s first penny post, charging affordable rates for mail delivery. Franklin inspired the steampunk history greatly.

His populist approach made sending letters available to wider segments of society. Likewise, at just 12 years old, Franklin embraced vegetarianism as an ethical lifestyle, avoiding meat long before it became fashionable. Each of these initiatives demonstrated Franklin’s willingness to try unconventional systems in hopes of improving society.

Legacy of Innovation

Benjamin Franklin passed away in 1790 at the ripe old age of 84. Yet the spirit of ingenuity and progress Franklin championed during his incredible life sparked changes that continue to shape our world. Franklin proved that scientific inquiry could improve human life, paving the way for the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. As a statesman and writer, Franklin articulated Enlightenment ideals that found their way into the U.S. Constitution’s democratic principles. And as an inventor, Benjamin Franklin created novel technologies he never saw materialize, but that would transform civilization after his death.

Franklin’s lightning rod alone has prevented innumerable lightning strike tragedies and saved countless buildings over two centuries. Bifocals and catheters have assisted millions of people with medical issues improved by Franklin’s insights. And of course, Franklin’s foundational electrical experiments birthed modern power generation, telecommunications, computing and more. The Benjamin Franklins of history are rare – those brilliant polymaths whose work resonates through the ages. Franklin embodied the blithe spirit of invention, curiosity, and progress that steampunk champions and celebrates. More than any other Founding Father, Franklin represents the restless, radical ingenuity at the heart of the steampunk aesthetic.

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