Science Interviews


Sun, 25th Jun 2006

The Life of Benjamin Franklin

Dr Mark Skousen, eighth generation descendent of Benjamin Franklin

Part of the show Naked Q&A and The Life of Benjamin Franklin

Chris - What's your connection to Benjamin Franklin and who was he?

Mark - I am a direct descendent of Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin was the first scientific American. He was a great statesman and on eof our founding fathers and a very successful printer. But his greatest love was science and he was very much a practical inventor. He wasn't into high theory and academia and was an inventor of five or six things. I made a list: the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, bifocals, charting of the Gulf Stream, daylight savings, the armonica.

Chris - How did he come up with that lot? That's a lifetime's achievement to make one of those things. I'm not sure I know what a Franklin stove is by the way, so perhaps you'd better tell me.

Mark - It's basically a box inside a fireplace that allowed the heat to go up and then down and then out. In other words in stayed much longer in the fireplace.

Chris - So more efficient.

Mark - Yes, much more efficient.

Chris - I could use on eof those because in my dining room we've got this big open fireplace and you can burn off a big of coal in it in an evening. It's just a conduit to the sky for the heat because the heat goes straight up the chimney. So I could do with a Franklin stove.

Mark - It wasn't very successful because it leaked a lot so smoke went into the area and it didn't always work that well, but it at least worked in theory.

Kat - I'm staggered by Franklin's achievements in all aspects. Would you class him as a Renaissance man up there with someone like Da Vinci?

Mark - Well there's a book called the 100 most influential people in the world and Franklin is listed there as the most multi-talented genius of all ages. So he's right up there with Da Vinci and others with this broad selection of fame and interests. It's really remarkable.

Kat - And he invented the armonica, which makes him the coolest man on Earth.

Mark - Yes, because it does require water and so forth. I should also mention that he would qualify as one of the first Naked Scientists because he had a theory of colds, and he would walk around in the morning totally naked and have the windows open.

Chris - He was a man hell-bent on self-destruction, wasn't he, with his lightning rods and walking around naked!

Mark - No question that he risked his life many times not only for his country but also as a statesman and also as a scientist with his kite experiment. He also tried to help people who had physical problems. He would electrify them.

Chris - Let's get to the bottom of that. He did what?!

Mark - On several occasions he gave a form of shock therapy which many scientists of that day believed in.

Kat - It also says here that he invented bifocals. Was he short sighted himself?

Chris - Bifocals are for long-sighted people.

Mark - Yes, he had a hard time seeing people at a long distance and also he had a hard time reading. You have to understand that when he invented these he was over 70 years of age. He couldn't make out people, especially in France where he had a hard time with the language. He needed to see what they were saying with their mouth.

Chris - I have that problem and I'm normally sighted.

Mark - With French?

Chris - Yeah with the French.

Dave - Yeah, bifocals are for old people who can't focus on things a long way away. They can't adapt as much so you have two lenses in them: one for far away and one close to you.

Kat - I'm obviously too young to have such a problem.

Chris - Because interestingly, apart from being a scientist, he was up there with turning America into something that wasn't part of Britain, wasn't England anymore and be its own country. And he took some great risks doing that didn't he?

Mark - Yes he did. He hazarded his life and fortune as he often said and others did who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He was also helped to write the constitution of the United States, so he was a political figure, a statesman, a scientist. Even though we won the war, he hated war because it took him away from his number one pursuit, which was his avocation as a scientist. He had many friends whom he lost as a result of the war and so he always said there was no such thing as a good war and no such thing as a bad peace. He also felt the government played a positive role in science and he was around at the time when Mr Mesmer came from Vienna and said you could mesmerise people. He actually exposed that and wrote an article for the French government to expose that. He said the government have a responsibility to expose fads and junk science.

Chris - That's very encouraging. One thing I see here, and I don't believe he was truly American, because it says Franklin did not believe in profiting from his inventions. He never tried to make money on them and never tried to patent or trademark his secrets. He felt inventions belonged to the public for their universal enjoyment. Where has America gone wrong since?

Mark - Well I think that's a universal principle. We westernise everything: intellectual rights, patents, trademarks and so forth. It's not just and American custom. In the Compleated Autobiography, you'll see that he was really a man of wisdom and a very modern person. He would be on the internet today. He would be using cell phones and so forth, while many people are afraid of these things. Not Franklin.

Chris - Now just to finish off, you've given me a wonderful selection of stamps. Are these commemorative stamps?

Mark - Yes they are and I just wanted to point out the US post office couldn't have just one Franklin stamp honouring him. They honour him in four different ways as a statesman, as a printer, as a postmaster and as a scientist.

Chris - He should have his barber honoured as well because he's got fifteen different hairstyles in each of these stamps. Thanks very much for coming in and have a great time here in the UK where you'll be touring with your book. What Mark has done is finish what Benjamin Franklin started.


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