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

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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.

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Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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10 Surprising Facts About Alexander Hamilton
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Getty Images // Chloe Effron

The Broadway musical Hamilton, like Alexander Hamilton himself, is an improbable success story. The critically-acclaimed show has renewed America’s interest in the country's most enigmatic founding father, who rose from obscurity to help build a new nation—one where he earned friends and enemies at just about every turn. To celebrate Hamilton's birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about him.

1. HE PROBABLY LIED ABOUT HIS AGE

We know that Hamilton was born on January 11; what’s in doubt is the year in question. A native of Nevis (a small island in the Caribbean), Hamilton repeatedly said that he was born in 1757. But official Nevisian records cite 1755 as his birth year. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps his college search had something to do with it. According to Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the Broadway show, “While applying to Princeton, Hamilton may have decided to ‘correct’ his real age and shed a couple of years. Prodigies aren’t supposed to be overaged freshman.” 

2. HAMILTON DABBLED IN POETRY.

For a self-educated orphan (his father had abandoned his family when Hamilton was just a boy, and his mother died not long after), the future founding father wrote with unbelievable polish. On August 31, 1772, a hurricane ravaged St. Croix. Teenage Hamilton—who’d been working on the island as a clerk—described the disaster in a letter that was eventually published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, writing, “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.” Little did Hamilton realize that these words were about to change his life forever. Blown away by the letter, readers quickly organized a scholarship fund for this talented young scribe. Before long, Alexander Hamilton found himself en route to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City.

Essay writing wasn’t his only literary passion. A number of poems have also been attributed to Hamilton. When a dear friend’s 2-year-old daughter passed away in 1774, he eulogized her in a touching tribute called “Poem on the Death of Elias Boudinot’s Child.” Another piece helped Hamilton win over his bride-to-be, Eliza Schuyler. As they courted, he sent a tender sonnet to the object of his affection. Eliza liked it so much that she placed the poem in a little bag and hung it around her neck.

3. THE OLDEST UNIT IN THE UNITED STATES ARMY IS HAMILTON’S.

According to the Army Historical Foundation, “Battery D, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), traces its lineage to Hamilton’s Revolutionary War artillery company and is the oldest serving unit in the regular army.” On March 17, 1776, Hamilton was made captain of the group, and under his leadership, it saw action in several key moments—including the Battles of White Plains and Princeton. Impressed by the young man’s valor, George Washington made him an aide-de-camp (with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) in 1777.

The father of our country couldn’t have picked a better man. In Hamilton, Washington found an energetic writer who was fluent in French and just so happened to share most of the General’s political views. Over the next few years, these assets made Hamilton an indispensable employee. Still, as time went by, he grew tired of essentially serving as a high-status clerk. In 1781, the aide-de-camp resigned from Washington’s inner circle. Afterward, Hamilton was put in charge of a new battalion and would pull off an impressive night attack against British forces at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.

4. HE AND AARON BURR OCCASIONALLY COLLABORATED.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In postwar Manhattan, the future dueling partners were two of the Big Apple’s top lawyers. With the Revolution over, Burr and Hamilton paid their bills by practicing law. Clients gravitated toward the two decorated veterans from all directions, and Hamilton and Burr faced off in a number of legal showdowns. Every so often, though, they’d work together on the same criminal or civil case—including People v. Levi Weeks (1800), which is recognized as the first U.S. murder trial for which we have a formal record. 

In December 1799, a young woman named Gulielma Sands mysteriously vanished. Eleven days later, her body was found at the bottom of a Manhattan well. Fingers were immediately pointed at Levi Weeks. Both the carpenter and Sands lived in a boarding house owned by Sands's relatives, and Weeks had been courting her.

In the court of public opinion, Weeks was guilty. Luckily for the carpenter, though, his older brother had friends in high places. Ezra Weeks was an architect who had supervised the construction of Hamilton’s Convent Avenue estate. He’d also done business with the Burr-founded Manhattan Company—which, incidentally, owned the well where Sands’s body was found.

(Created as a means of providing “pure and wholesome” water to New Yorkers, Burr launched The Manhattan Company with some vocal support from Hamilton. The bill Burr would eventually put before the state legislature wasn't the same one that Hamilton saw, however; Burr's true intention for the company wasn't to provide water but to create a bank that would allow him to sway future elections. The bill passed and the bank was formed; in the 1950s, it merged with Chase Bank and today lives on as JPMorgan Chase & Co. The company owns the guns used in Burr and Hamilton's duel.)

Burr, Hamilton, and Brockholst Livingston (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice) formed Levi Weeks’s defense team. In a two-day trial, they dismantled the state’s purely circumstantial case against their client, and the carpenter was found innocent. Eventually, Weeks moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where the accused murderer reinvented himself as an esteemed southern architect. 

5. VERMONT FOUND AN ALLY IN HAMILTON.

When Vermont declared its independent statehood in 1777, it upset certain New York industrialists, who considered Vermont to be a part of their state. For decades, New York and New Hampshire both tried to claim the area. So, in 1764, His Majesty decreed that everything west of the Connecticut River (Vermont and the granite state’s current border) belonged to New York. 

There was just one problem: most Vermonters were former New Hampshirites. Upon assuming control, New York refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of land grants established there by New Hampshire transplants. Vermonters responded by taking up arms against their neighbors to the west. Local militias—including one called the Green Mountain Boys—repelled New York emigrants by force. 

Then along came the American Revolution. In 1777, Vermont petitioned the Continental Congress to acknowledge its sovereignty as a state. Thanks to opposition from New York’s delegates, however, this didn’t happen. For the next 14 years, Vermont—unable to join the Union on its own terms—existed as an independent republic.

After the war, Congress refused to acknowledge the swath as anything other than a large chunk of New York. Thoroughly disgruntled, some locals lobbied to have their mini-nation absorbed by Canada.

From Hamilton’s perspective, the prospect of a British-ruled Vermont threatened America’s security. In 1787, he was working as a New York state legislator. During his tenure, Hamilton presented a bill that would instruct New York’s Congressional representatives to recognize Vermont’s independence. This measure died in the State Senate, but, in the end, Hamilton was able to spearhead a settlement between New York and Vermont. With the empire state’s approval (and payment from Vermont to New York of $30,000), Vermont finally entered the Union in 1791.

6. IT’S BELIEVED THAT HE AUTHORED MOST OF THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.

Apart from his stint as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, this is the political achievement for which Hamilton is best known. Published between 1787 and 1788, the 85 Federalist Papers essays urged New York’s electorate to ratify the recently-proposed U.S. Constitution. The influential documents were written under the shared pseudonym Publius by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Since none of them used their real names, we can’t be certain about how many papers each man wrote. Still, general consensus credits Hamilton with 51, Madison with 29, and Jay with five.

7. THE LAST LETTER THAT GEORGE WASHINGTON EVER WROTE WAS ADDRESSED TO HAMILTON.


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Two days before he died, America’s first President sent a dispatch to his former aide and cabinet member. Hamilton had recently argued that “a regular Military Academy” ought to be established, and his old mentor praised the idea. In a 1799 letter that would be Washington’s last, the elder statesman told Hamilton that such a place would be “of primary importance to this country.”

8. HE FOUNDED THE NEW YORK POST.

Established by Hamilton in November 1801, the paper was originally known as The New York Evening Post. The founding father conceived his new publication as a megaphone for the anti-Jefferson Federalist Party—which he’d also created. Hamilton himself generated many of The Post’s early editorials. “He appoints a time when I may see him,” editor William Coleman explained, “… as soon as I see him, he begins in a deliberate manner to dictate and I to note down in shorthand; when he stops, my article is completed.”

9. HIS ELDEST SON ALSO DIED IN A DUEL.

Then-Vice President Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. It was almost a case of deja vu: Three years earlier, another Hamilton had died under eerily similar circumstances. 

Like his father, Philip Hamilton was a bit quick-tempered. In 1801, the 19-year-old had a deadly run-in with George Eacker, a prominent Democratic-Republican lawyer. On July 4, Eacker delivered an Independence Day speech in which he not only denounced Alexander Hamilton, but asserted that the former Secretary of the Treasury would be willing to plot the violent overthrow of President Jefferson.

From then on, Philip harbored a passionate grudge against Eacker. Four months after the inflammatory address, the young Hamilton went to take in a show at New York’s Park Theater with his friend, Richard Price. Inside, they caught sight of Eacker. Bursting into his theater box, Hamilton and Price savagely heckled the attorney. Eacker—not wanting to disturb his fellow patrons—told them to meet him in the lobby, grumbling “It is too abominable to be publicly insulted by a set of damned rascals.”

“Who do you call damned rascals?” the teenagers shouted. A fistfight might have broken out right then and there, but Eacker diffused the situation by suggesting they all cool off at a nearby tavern. But the change in scenery did nothing to calm anyone involved: Later that night, the lawyer received a curt letter from Price challenging him to a duel. 

The ensuing Price-Eacker standoff was an uneventful affair, with both men failing to shoot their opponent. In the bloodless duel’s wake, Philip hoped that he might persuade Eacker to take back his insulting comments if he, too, apologized. Instead, Eacker flatly refused. Feeling that his honor had been intolerably attacked, Philip felt he had no choice but to issue a dueling challenge of his own—which the angry Jeffersonian accepted. 

Both combatants arrived at Weehawken on November 23. Each came brandishing a pistol provided by Alexander’s brother-in-law, John Baker Church. After the smoke cleared, Eacker would walk away unharmed—Philip would not. A bullet entered the young Hamilton above his right hip, tearing clear through to the left arm. Mortally wounded, Philip died the next day.

By all accounts, Alexander Hamilton was never the same man after his son’s untimely demise. When Burr and Hamilton met to settle their own score, they used the pistols from Philip’s duel.  

10. THEODORE ROOSEVELT WAS A BIG FAN.

Telescope Teddy was fascinated by all things Hamilton. In TR’s mind, this founding father stood tall as “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” Moreover, Roosevelt saw in Hamilton “the touch of the heroic, the touch of the purple, the touch of the gallant.” Our 26th President even found time to study the man while sitting in the Oval Office. Roosevelt read 1906’s Alexander Hamilton, An Essay on The American Union by historian Fredrick Scott Oliver. Before long, he was praising the book to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and Whitelaw Reid, America’s ambassador to the U.K.

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