10 of Benjamin Franklin’s Lesser-Known Feats of Awesomeness

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

We all know about Benjamin Franklin’s kite-flyin’, library-establishin’, Declaration-signin’, newspaper-printin’, lady-killin’ ways. But let’s celebrate some of his lesser-known but very cool contributions to society, on what would be his 312th birthday.

1. HE SWAM WITH THE FISHES.

As a youngster, Ben learned to swim in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River and became somewhat of an expert. On a Thames River boating trip with friends, a 19-year-old Franklin jumped into the river and swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars (around 3.5 miles), performing all sorts of water tricks along the way or, as he described it, “…many feats of activity, both upon and under the water, that surprised and pleased those to whom they were novelties.” Franklin’s Phelpsian feats earned him an honorary induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968.

He was such an excellent swimmer, one of the careers he considered (and seemingly one of the few he did not choose) was running a swimming school of his own. Of course, he also invented his own swim fins.

2. HE PRINTED BENJAMINS, BEFORE THEY WERE BENJAMINS.

Many people know that Ben Franklin owned a printing company and the Pennsylvania Gazette. But it may be new knowledge that his company also printed all of the paper money for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Beginning in 1929, his face would grace the front of the $100 bill and people would call them “Benjamins” in his honor.

3. HE DEVELOPED AN ELECTRIC VOCABULARY.

Because the things Franklin was doing in his experiments with electricity were so new, he had to make words up for them as he went along. One scholar suggests that Franklin may have been the first to use as many as 25 electrical terms including battery, brushed, charged, conductor, and even electrician.

4. HE WAS NO DEBTOR.

Franklin was terrified of debt and viewed it as similar to slavery because he believed that, through the acquisition of debt, man essentially sold his own freedom. He was so anti-debt that he often spoke (seriously) about forming an international organization called The Society of the Free and Easy for virtuous individuals who, among other things, were free of debt and, therefore, easy in spirit.

5. HE WAS ALWAYS PUTTING OUT FIRES.

In addition to being a famously calming voice of reason and a frequent mediator at the Constitutional Convention, Franklin organized the first volunteer fire company in 1736: The Union Fire Company (nicknamed Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade). Among his many writings are articles on fire prevention, stressing that an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He was more eloquent than Smokey Bear.

6. HE INVENTED A TON OF COOL STUFF, INCLUDING THE ROCKING CHAIR AND THE ODOMETER.

Of course, you probably know that Franklin is responsible for the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and the Franklin stove. But in 1761, Franklin also invented the glass harmonica (or "armonica," as he called it). It became quite popular during Franklin’s time and armonica-specific pieces were composed by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel.

Some of Franklin’s other inventions include:
• The library stepstool, a chair whose seat could be lifted and folded down to make a short ladder.
• A mechanical arm for reaching books on high shelves. (Book retrieval—clearly a focus of Franklinian innovation.)
• The rocking chair—a chair that rocks.
• The writing chair—a chair with an arm on one side to provide a writing surface. (Activities one can do while seated were also a focus.)
• The odometer—used in Franklin’s time to measure distance along colonial roads used by the postal service.
• A pulley system that enabled him to lock and unlock his bedroom door from his bed.
• The flexible urinary catheter.

7. HE WAS PARTIALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AMERICA'S FIRST HOSPITAL.

Established in 1751 by Ben and Dr. Thomas Bond, Pennsylvania Hospital was built “… to care for the sick-poor and insane who were wandering the streets of Philadelphia” (those sound like some wild streets). While the hospital was Bond’s brainchild, Franklin’s support and advocacy got the project off the ground. He galvanized the Pennsylvania Assembly and helped raise the necessary funds. It appears that Franklin was more proud of this accomplishment than most (even all those outrageous swimming tricks); he said later of the hospital’s establishment, “I do not remember any of my political maneuvers, the success of which gave me at the time more pleasure.”

8. HE HAD SEVERAL PSEUDONYMS.

Franklin was prolifically pseudonymous and his pseudonyms were pretty wonderful:

• Richard Saunders. Richard Saunders is Franklin’s most well-known pseudonym; it’s the one he used for his wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac, which ran annually from 1732 to 1758. Poor Richard was partially based on one of Jonathan Swift’s pseudonyms, Isaac Bickerstaff – Saunders and Bickerstaff shared a love of learning and astrology. The Richard character brought a comic frame to what was otherwise a serious resource in the almanac and, over the years of publication, the fun but likely unnecessary character gradually disappeared.

• Silence Dogood. When Ben was 16 years old, he desperately wanted to write for his brother James’s newspaper, The New England Courant, but James was something of a bully and wouldn’t allow it. So, Ben contributed to the paper as a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood whose witty and satirical letters covered a range of topics from courtship to education. A total of 15 Dogood letters were published, resulting in the amusement of Courant readers, several marriage proposals for the pretend Mrs. Dogood, and, ultimately, a rise in the ire of James Franklin.

• Anthony Afterwit. Mr. Afterwit, a gentleman, wrote humorous letters about married life that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s own Pennsylvania Gazette.

• Polly Baker. Polly Baker was a pseudonym Franklin used to examine colonial society’s unequal treatment of women. She was pretend punished by society for having pretend children out of pretend wedlock while the fathers of the pretend children went pretend unpunished.

• Alice Addertongue. Alice is another middle-aged widow who wrote what amounts to a gossip column for Franklin’s Gazette in the form of scandalous stories about prominent members of society.

• Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful. These pseudonyms were used by Franklin to settle a personal dispute; they wrote letters mocking Franklin’s former employer, Samuel Keimer, who had stolen some of Franklin’s publishing ideas. Shortface and Careful’s letters were published in The American Weekly Mercury, a publication by a Keimer rival.

Busy Body. Also published in The American Weekly Mercury, Miss Body’s letters were basically gossip stories about local businessmen.

• Benevolous. Benevolous wrote letters to British newspapers while Franklin was in London. The primary focus of the letters was to correct negative statements made about Americans in the British press.

9. HE WAS A TRAVELING FOOL.

During Franklin’s life, the average person never traveled more than 20 miles from their home. Franklin, on the other hand, crossed the Atlantic Ocean eight times (the first time at age 18 and the last time at age 79) and spent 27 years of his life overseas.

10. HE THOUGHT GETTING TOGETHER WITH HIS BUDDIES TO DRINK BEER AND CHAT WAS A FANTASTIC WAY TO IGNITE SOCIAL ACTION (AS IT TURNS OUT, HE WAS RIGHT).

Franklin formed a group that he called the Junto. The group’s purpose was to gather and debate philosophical questions on topics from ethics to business. Initially composed of 12 members, the group brought together people from different backgrounds (among the originals were printers, surveyors, a cabinetmaker, a clerk, a glazier, a cobbler, and a bartender) and gathered in a tavern on Friday nights. In his autobiography, Franklin described the group as a “…club for mutual improvement.” But the group discussions resulted in not only self-improvement, but societal improvement: The Junto has been credited as the breeding ground for some of Franklin’s greatest achievements, including the establishment of the first library, the first volunteer fire departments, the first public hospital, and even the University of Pennsylvania. Makes your Friday night pub trivia team seem like a bunch of underachievers, doesn’t it?

This post originally appeared in 2011.

10 Resonant Facts About the Liberty Bell

iStock
iStock

It's impossible to talk about American icons without mentioning the Liberty Bell. The one-ton artifact has been present for some of the most important events in United States history, and it's served as a symbol of hope through the nation's darkest times. Here are a few facts worth knowing about the most famous bell in the country.

1. IT CRACKED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

The first crack that silenced the Liberty Bell has been largely forgotten. In 1751, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris commissioned a bell for the tower of the Pennsylvania State House (a.k.a. Independence Hall). But that first version wasn’t around for long: It cracked on the very first test ring. The bell was melted down, recast, and installed as the State House bell that structured the daily schedules of Benjamin Franklin and other important political figures.

2. IT RANG TO MARK THE STAMP ACT’S REPEAL ...

The State House bell typically signaled the start of Pennsylvania Assembly meetings or the reading of the news, but it also marked significant events. In 1756, it rang out in protest of the British Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act, and in 1766 it recognized the tax’s repeal.

3. ... BUT IT PROBABLY DIDN’T RING ON INDEPENDENCE DAY.

According to legend, a boy visited an old man in the State House bell tower on July 4, 1776 with an important message: The Declaration of Independence had just been signed. The story goes that the elderly tower keeper rang the bell that day to signal the news, but this likely never happened. The signing of the Declaration wasn’t publicly celebrated until July 8. So where did the story of the messenger boy and the old bell ringer come from? The mid-19th century writer George Lippard invented the tale for a children’s book called Legends of the American Revolution.

4. IT HAS A BIBLICAL INSCRIPTION.

The inscription wrapped around the top of the bell reads: “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” The quote is from Leviticus 25:10 in the Bible, and it’s part of instructions to the Israelites to return property and free slaves every 50 years.

5. IT BECAME AN ABOLITIONIST SYMBOL.

As the anti-slavery movement gained steam in the 19th century, these words developed a deeper meaning. Abolitionists saw the cause they were fighting for reflected in the inscription. The bell became a symbol of freedom for all people, and in 1835 the publication The Anti-Slavery Record referred to it as the Liberty Bell in print for the first time.

6. THE CRACK WAS WIDENED ON PURPOSE.

The Liberty Bell’s crack makes it instantly recognizable, but if it had been left alone it wouldn’t look nearly as dramatic. After ringing for decades, a thin crack formed in the bell in the 1840s. Metalworkers “repaired” the fissure in 1846 by widening it and inserting bolts at both ends. This way, the split metal wouldn’t bang together when rung, which would hopefully prevent the crack from growing.

7. THERE’S A SECOND, WORSE CRACK THAT’S BARELY VISIBLE.

The repair job didn’t end up doing the bell much good. When the bell was rung on George Washington’s birthday in 1846, a second crack formed across the crown, extending from the abbreviation for “Philadelphia” up to the word “Liberty.” It’s just a hairline fracture, barely visible next to the widened crack, but it forced the bell into retirement.

8. IT TOURED THE COUNTRY.

The new crack meant the Liberty Bell was unable to serve its original purpose, but it was still put to good use. The bell traveled to expositions and fairs across the country from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, making stops in small towns and major cities. Some of the more influential figures to catch it on tour included Thomas Edison and former confederate president Jefferson Davis. During its famous 10,000-mile trip from Philadelphia to San Francisco, it’s estimated that one-quarter of the country’s 1915 population caught a glimpse of the bell.

9. IT’S STILL TAPPED OCCASIONALLY.

The Liberty Bell hasn’t been rung since it formed its fateful crack in 1846, but it has been lightly tapped many times since then. During World War II, it was tapped to mark D-Day, V-E Day, and V-J Day. Today it’s an annual tradition for a group of young descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to tap the bell 13 times on July 4.

10. YOU CAN HEAR WHAT IT PROBABLY SOUNDED LIKE.

Even though no one alive today has heard the Liberty Bell ring, we still have a good idea of what it sounded like. In 1999, graduate students at Pennsylvania State University recreated the bell as a computer model. With this digital replica they were able to calculate the specific vibrations the bell would have made when struck. They even made this data into a playable audio clip: You can listen to the results here.

What Did Burr Do After Shooting Hamilton?

iStock
iStock

Aaron Burr's first order of business was to go home and have some breakfast.

Having victoriously emerged from that deadly encounter with Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, Burr returned to his estate in lower Manhattan for a hearty meal. Some accounts claim that the V.P. was also pleasantly surprised by a visiting acquaintance (either Burr’s cousin or his broker, depending upon the source) with whom he dined, politely choosing not to mention the bloody spectacle that had just transpired. The next day, Hamilton passed away. For Burr, his opponent’s death marked the beginning of the end.

On August 2, a New York coroner’s jury found Burr guilty on two counts. In their estimation, he’d committed the misdemeanor of dueling—and the felony of murder. To make matters worse, because his duel had taken place in New Jersey, the Garden State issued its own ruling, which also pronounced him a murderer.

“There is a contention of a singular nature between the two States of New York and New Jersey,” he dryly noted in a letter to his daughter Theodosia. “The subject in dispute is which shall have the honor of hanging the Vice President.” Facing a tempest of public outrage, Burr eventually set sail for Georgia, where plantation owner and former Senator Pierce Butler offered him sanctuary.

But, alas, the call of vice presidential duty soon rang out. As president of the Senate, Burr returned to Washington that November to oversee the impeachment of anti-Jeffersonian Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. Shortly thereafter—with some help from a contingent of Republican senators—Burr’s case was dropped in New Jersey, though by then, he’d already stepped down from the vice presidency.

Burr’s saga was far from over, though. After leaving D.C., he began aggressively recruiting allies for a planned seizure of America’s western territories. Among those he managed to enlist were General James Wilkinson, who’d been named Northern Louisiana’s regional governor. Burr even went so far as to begin training his own army before he was arrested in present-day Alabama and put on trial for treason. Ultimately, however, he was acquitted. His scheme foiled and his image scarred, Burr departed for Europe and wouldn’t return to his native country until 1812.

By then, the nation was entrenched in a nasty war with Great Britain and had largely forgotten his attempted conspiracy. Towards the end of his life, Burr went back to New York (where, despite the 1804 ruling, he was never actually tried for murder), revived his law practice, and married his second wife, the notorious socialite Eliza Jumel. He died on September 14, 1836, at the age of 80.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER