Today America Celebrates Ben Franklin’s 304th Birthday
Of all of America’s Founding Fathers, only Benjamin Franklin was a signer of all three of our country’s essential documents, The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and the United States Constitution. Benjamin Franklin was also the only Founding Father who actively campaigned against the institution of slavery. As a scientist, Benjamin Franklin, the man who learned to control lightning, was as revered and world-famous in his day, as Einstein was in his. Franklin, among many other things, gave us the conceptual framework we still use every time we think about things electrical. He was the first to describe
electricity as having positive and negative charges. Ben Franklin’s fingerprints are everywhere one looks in 21st Century.
Ben Franklin has often been called “the first American”, because, in so many ways, he embodied the brash new nation he helped create. His talents as an inventor and scientist are legendary. Consider a few of the useful creations that Ben left us: bifocal glasses, the wood stove and the lightning rod. They were all inventions he chose not to patent because he saw they were so potentially useful to the general public. They were among his many gifts to humanity. As the statesman, Ben Franklin was as essential to creating our new nation, as was George Washington, the soldier. Franklin’s unique combination of charm, celebrity and brilliance brought France in on our side of the Revolutionary War with the troops, navy and money necessary for us to win. As a proud citizen of a free society, Ben’s genius also flourished with his social inventions like the volunteer fire department, the lending library, the community hospital and, what has become, the University of Pennsylvania. As a writer, his prime work is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, a bestseller, never out of print since it was written, nearly 250 years ago. It is the true story of a runaway printer’s apprentice who, at the age of 17, stole himself from his older brother to whom he was indentured until he was 21 years old. Franklin’s Autobiography is the original blueprint to the ‘American Dream’ of how to become a self-made man. Horatio Alger and Dale Carnegie, are simply Ben’s 19th and 20th Century adherents and proselytizers. Today in the 21st Century, self-help books cover whole walls in bookshops. Franklin was the author the world’s very first best-selling book in the self-help genre.
I made a few comments at NORML’s National Conference at the 2008 conference about why I believe that NORML is a legitimate offspring of Ben Franklin’s social genius. On my flight home, I looked out the airplane window and I saw Ben waving back at me.
I was seated aft of the wings, watching the flaps extend to slow the aircraft for landing. I noticed from each of the tailing edges of the wing’s struts, there was a little antenna-looking thing, about as long as a ballpoint pen. I wondered, were those things some version of Ben Franklin’s lightning rod? The flight attendants couldn’t tell me, but I collared a pilot and asked him. “You bet,” he answered, “those are kind of negative lightning rods. As the air rushes over the wings, these little rods help drain off any charges the airplane builds up flying. With those little rods dissipating the plane’s electrical charge, they make aircraft far less likely to be hit by lightning.” Yes, kindly old Benjamin Franklin had been looking back at me from the tailing edge of that wing strut, after all.
Ben Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts in Jan 17, 1706, in an age dark with superstition and just fourteen short years after the Salem witch trials had been held. Not only were witches seen as real, witches were so greatly feared they were seen as needing execution by pressing, drowning, burning and hanging, or all of the above. Natural phenomena were so poorly understood that the Devil often got the blame for their occurrence. For example, if lightning struck your house or barn, it was seen as a sign that you deserved it. People might stand back let your lightning-struck building burn, as God intended, and work to save only “innocent” buildings around it. Franklin’s revelation, and kite-in-the-thunderstorm proof, was that the lightning in the clouds was the very same stuff as the static electricity created by brushing your hair or rubbing your socks on the carpet, just present in vastly larger quantities. It was also Franklin’s brilliant and revolutionary deduction that one could safely discharge lightning striking a building by channeling the charge down a wire to a rod buried three feet into the ground, still a foundation of today’s international fire protection codes.
By explaining and controlling one of nature’s most fearsome phenomenons, Ben Franklin’s elegant gift to humanity of the knowledge of what lightning really was, swept away before it countless generations of hocus pocus, superstition and ignorance on the subject.
After arriving as a runaway youth in Philadelphia with nothing more than two loaves of bread under his arms while eating a third, and through the full employment of his wits and ambition, by the age of 35, Ben Franklin was a rich man. He was a great success as a businessman, both printer and publisher. Along the way, Ben Franklin also invented franchising as a way to speed the creation of his wealth. By hiring and training the very best and brightest employees he could find, and then sending them off to other colonies with the capital sufficient to set up Franklin-style print shops there, they created a sizable income stream that was sent back home to Philadelphia. Ben was soon financially set up for his new life as one of the great scientists and statesmen of modern history. By the age of 42 Ben retired from business for good. The invention of science has always been regarded as one of mankind’s greatest achievements; Ben Franklin soon became one of the history of science’s great practitioners. At the age of 47, Ben was awarded the Copley Medal, his era’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize in Physics.
In 1787, Josiah Wedgewood produced 20,000 of these medals in porcelan and sent one of them to Ben Franklin, who said he was tormented by doubts while looking at it.
But of all the gifts Ben Franklin left the modern world, one of the most precious and productive, and something he is rarely credited with as its inventor, is the service club, the voluntary association of free people who come together and, by joint action, make their communities better…you know—the Kiwanis Club, Rotary, NORML! Ben Franklin, as a young printer, started such a club, the prototype of all future service clubs and nonprofits. It was called, Junto. They met every Friday night in a room above a tavern. It is during these club meetings where the first lending library came to life, the University of Pennsylvania, the volunteer fire department and the community hospital got their legs under them. Junto was the place where good ideas became community action; this is Ben Franklin’s brilliant organizational legacy that led directly to NORML.
Well, just how well are we modern day folks at NORML caring for Ben’s precious intellectual legacy? First, the Great Experimenter would probably ask, “How is the experiment going?” NORML’s website could connect him with 17,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies in the burgeoning field of Cannabinoid/endocannabinoid research and to 2,500 cataloged articles from the general press on the subject of marijuana.
As a writer, publisher and businessman, Ben Franklin would revel in the world-wide web and its potential. NORML’s website and blog are visited by up to 40,000 people every day, about 4 million unique visitors per year. Our website is stocked with over 10,000 pages of closely vetted information on the subject of marijuana, and from our online lending library of information, each day, every single day, the public downloads and prints off, in their own homes and offices, between 1.25-to-1.5 million pages from NORML’s website! That makes it about 10-million pages per week, or 500 million pages per year—all printed off by the end-user without requiring a single postage stamp for delivery!!! (A penny saved is still a penny earned—just as Poor Richard taught us so many years ago.) I think old Ben would be very proud of NORML for this wonderfully frugal, but revolutionary and growing success in the world of information dissemination.
The scientific method and proper intellectual rigor applied to the problems at hand were extremely important to Ben Franklin, all throughout his long life; these are organizational values that have been instilled since the beginning of NORML by our Board of Directors. In addition to our well-known legal tradition and the support of the over 550 attorneys of NORML’s Legal Committee; NORML’s scientific tradition forms the second, interlocking intellectual backbone of our organization. In the nearly 40 years of NORML’s existence, many luminaries in the area of science and science education have served/or are serving on the NORML’s Board of Directors. Here is just a small sampling from the long distinguished list of men and women of science who have helped make NORML what it is today: Dr. Benjamin Spock, M.D., the ground-breaking and best-selling pediatrician; Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., world-recognized pioneer in alternative medicine; Dr. Kary Mullis, PhD., Nobel Laureate Chemistry 1992, for work upon which is based all DNA replication and cataloguing work that has been done since; Dr. Louis Lasagna, M.D., the first scientist to prove experimentally that the placebo effect was real; Dr. Lester Grinspoon, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, Harvard Medical School; Dr. John P. Morgan, M.D., Professor of Pharmacology and a noted Pharmaco-ethnomusicologist; and Ann Druyan, President of Cosmos Studios, and co-writer and co-producer with her late husband, Carl Sagan, of the beloved Emmy and Peabody Award winning Cosmos Series for PBS. NORML Board Members, all.
Yes, indeed, I think Ben Franklin would be very proud to have spawned NORML, just as we are, proud to be Ben’s offspring.
HAPPY 304th BIRTHDAY, BEN! THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! LET FREEDOM
By George Rohrbacher,
NORML Board of Directors,
January 17, 2010