- The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius
Joyce Chaplin opens her engaging and important study of Benjamin Franklin’s scientific efforts with an extended comparison between Franklin and the only other scientist to enjoy Franklin’s international fame and iconic cultural position: Albert Einstein. Just as thousands of products featuring Einstein’s famous face can be purchased today, in his time, admirers of Franklin could purchase all manner of trinkets bearing the Founding Father’s likeness, from snuffboxes to fine china.
The comparison with Einstein is particularly useful for Chaplin to begin [End Page 794] with, because it gets at the main questions of her work: Though they were so important in their time, why have Franklin’s scientific contributions received so little scholarly attention? What was the impact of Franklin’s actions as scientist on his life as statesman? Like Einstein, Franklin has inspired much scholarly research, but unfortunately too little of it focuses on the specifics of his scientific work and the connection between his scientific life and his public life.
In The First Scientific American, Chaplin fills this lacuna and offers a volume that will be as important to historians of technology as it is entertaining for the lay reader. Like other biographers, she traces Franklin’s humble beginnings in Boston and his move to Philadelphia as a young man. But then Chaplin details Franklin’s early scientific investigations, especially his writings on natural history, his nautical efforts, and of course his experiments with electricity. Her vivid descriptions of Franklin’s many electrical experiments, some of which featured such wondrous spectacles as exploding barrels of alcohol over the Schuylkill River, complicate the oversimplified popular images of Franklin flying kites during lightning storms. These descriptions also offer a worthwhile view of the slowly professionalizing world of scientific research in the late eighteenth century.
In keeping with Chaplin’s other work, this is a truly transatlantic narrative, and she devotes a good deal of energy to researching Franklin’s scientific efforts in Europe and his contact with members of the Royal Society in London. Indeed, Chaplin’s account of Franklin’s participation in the patronage networks of the burgeoning world of elite science in eighteenth-century Europe is one of her most original and important contributions to the scholarship of both American history and the history of science. Ultimately, Chaplin argues, Franklin’s ability to represent himself on both sides of the Atlantic as a man of widely recognized scientific expertise and political influence was among his most important and productive contributions.
Chaplin admits that the major challenge in presenting a holistic view of Franklin’s science is the historiographical problem of branching several subdisciplines in a single work. It is certainly true, as she argues, that historians of science too often ignore American colonial science of the eighteenth century, and colonial American specialists generally ignore the vibrant early-modern scientific world. But at times The First Scientific American gets a bit lost in the distance between these fields, falling short in one or the other area and leaving the reader uncertain as to the context and merit of some of Franklin’s scientific research.
For the most part, however, Chaplin bridges these difficult intradisciplinary gaps successfully, going a long way toward illuminating the transatlantic scientific world of the eighteenth century, the relationship of scientific inquiry to political power during the colonial period, and the life of the individual who managed to span so much distance. The First Scientific [End Page 795] American is an extremely thorough, well-written work that will be appreciated by students of the history of science and technology as well as admirers of Benjamin Franklin.
Dr. Levine is the Mellon Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry Postdoctoral Fellow at Washington University in Saint Louis.