Skip to content

Benjamin Franklin: America’s Genius


Benjamin Franklin was a genius, recognized as such at home and abroad in his own time and still today. George Washington referred to him as ‘that great philosopher.’ Thomas Jefferson called him ‘the greatest man of the age and country in which he lived.’ John Adams said of him: ‘Franklin had a great genius, original, sagacious, and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvements in the fine arts and the mechanical arts….His reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire.’

Much of Franklin’s reputation was a result of his phenomenal demonstration of capturing lightning from the sky and bringing it safely to the ground without harming people or property. Before this, according to Adams, grown men would hide under their beds in superstitious fear during storms of lightning and thunder.

In ancient times, lightning was believed to be the javelins that the god Jove hurled at his enemies, and was referred to as Jove’s thunderbolts. In more modern times lightning was believed to be God’s method of punishing people for their sins. So Franklin was widely considered a great magician who, with his rod, had removed the danger from Jove’s thunderbolts. With Franklin’s demonstration, the world began to look upon natural phenomena in a different light, recognizing man’s ability to understand and control them through science and invention.

The lightning rod was the most spectacular, but it was only one of Franklin’s many transformative inventions. Most inventions are improvements upon prior art, but there was nothing before Franklin’s rod to capture lightning. It was absolutely new and original, without precursors or forerunners. And what makes this Franklin invention even more monumental is that despite the great advances in technology, the lightning rod in use today is essentially the same as when Franklin invented it.

The lightning rod was the result of a flash of genius that came to Franklin after years experimenting with electricity. Another of his original creations, bifocal eyeglasses, was very simple and came to him without any previous experimentation. One contemporary claimed Franklin invented them so he could watch the girls across the room while still keeping his eyes on the one next to him. His own explanation was less salacious. When traveling, he said, he had to carry two pairs of spectacles, which he shifted when he wanted to read or when he wanted to take in the view of the countryside. ‘Finding this change troublesome,’ he said, ‘I had the glasses cut, and half of each kind associated in the same circle….


By this means, as I wear my spectacles constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper glasses being always ready. This I find more particularly convenient since my being in France, the glasses that serve the best at table to see what I eat, not being the best to see the faces of those on the other side of the table who speak to me. And when one’s ears are not well accustomed to the sounds of a language, a sight of the movements in the features of him that speaks, helps….So I understand French better by the help of my spectacles.


A third original invention of Franklin’s is daylight saving time, which gives extra hours of daylight to enjoy in the evening. A stickler for economy, Franklin’s dictum ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise’ urged his fellow countrymen to work during daylight and sleep after dark, saving money on candles. He calculated that if all the families of Paris who caroused until late at night and then slept until noon would arise with the sun six hours earlier, 64 million pounds of candle wax would be saved in six months’ time.

With tongue in cheek, he proposed ‘to ring church bells at sunrise, and if that was not enough, let canon [sic] be fired in every street to wake the sluggards.’ Congress has never gone to that extreme, but over the decades — the recent spike in energy costs providing the latest example — it has heeded Franklin’s intent and extended the number of days covered by daylight saving time.

From utilitarian ideas to the world of art, Franklin was a force. Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for an instrument invented by Franklin, the glass armonica. The idea for the glass armonica was not something he had dreamed up out of the blue. Franklin loved music, enjoyed singing and played the harp, guitar and violin. During his stay in London, he heard a concert played on musical glasses and was delighted by the sound they made.

The performer had a number of glasses on the table; each glass held a different amount of water that produced a different tone when he rubbed his wet finger over the rim. Franklin was ‘charmed by the sweetness of its tones and the music produced.’ However, he thought the process was inefficient. The player’s finger had to run all around the rim of each glass and then had to jump to other glasses to play a melody. Furthermore, the glasses had to be filled precisely and tuned before each performance.

Taking up the challenge, Franklin experimented until he had produced a new instrument that he called the ‘armonica,’ from the Italian word for harmony (not to be confused with the harmonica or mouth organ, which was invented some 50 years later). Instead of using drinking glasses on a table, Franklin’s armonica employed 37 glass bowls of varying sizes from 3 to 9 inches in diameter,’sufficient for three octaves with all the semitones.’ Each bowl had a hole in the middle and was mounted close to its neighbor on an iron spindle. The spindle was laid horizontally in a wooden case and was rotated with the bowls by means of a foot treadle, like that in an old sewing machine.

There was a narrow trough filled with water along the front of the case to enable the player to wet his finger. With the bowls revolving, the player could rub any bowl easily and rapidly — since it was not necessary to move his finger around the rim — and the fingers of both hands could be applied at the same time to give more complex sounds. Franklin had ground each bowl to give the desired tone, so that once tuned it would be unnecessary to have to tune it again.

‘Its tones are incomparably sweet beyond any other; and they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressure of the finger,’ boasted Franklin. Apparently the public agreed. In Germany and Austria, Franklin’s fame for the armonica rivaled the reputation he had achieved for his electrical experiments and lightning rod. Marianne Davies, an accomplished musician, gave public performances on the armonica in England, Italy and Austria. At a recital for the imperial court in Vienna, Princess Marie Antoinette, soon-to-be queen of France, was so enthused she had Davies teach her to play it. The armonica was manufactured in London and sold across Europe.

In America George Washington and Thomas Jefferson heard it played at a concert in Williamsburg, Va., and commented on how pleasing it was. Franklin enjoyed playing it while in France when he visited his beautiful friend, Madame Brillon, an accomplished musician and composer, who would accompany him on the pianoforte. Its ethereal, haunting notes with a touch of melancholy made it a favorite at weddings. One author wrote, ‘The ear of a mortal can perceive in its plaintive tones the echoes of a divine harmony.’

In a philanthropic gesture, Franklin never patented any of his inventions, saying, ‘I never made, nor proposed to make, the least profit by any of them.’ It was a matter of principle with him that, as he had benefited from past inventions and discoveries, present and future generations should be able to benefit freely from his inventions. Among his other inventions were an improved printing press, a flexible catheter, an extension arm for grasping items beyond one’s reach, his famous stove and room heater, a modified odometer, a three-wheel clock that displayed seconds, minutes and hours, an improved oil lamp, flippers to aid swimming and even a sea anchor.

Among all of Franklin’s creations, what was his greatest? His earthshaking lightning rod, which not only saved property and lives but changed people’s way of thinking? Could it have been his stove that gave rise to modern systems of heating and ventilation? Or perhaps it was daylight saving time or the ubiquitous bifocal eyeglasses?

In fact, it can be argued that Franklin’s greatest invention of all was the United States of America. Of course Franklin did not create this invention alone, but he started it, he pursued it and he saw it through to completion. While the’states’ existed then as British colonies, what wasn’t there was the concept of ‘union,’ the glue necessary to bind those colonies into a nation. When Franklin began his work on this great experiment in 1751, some 25 years prior to the Declaration of Independence, the colonies were anything but united, and they had little interest in becoming so.

In those decades before the American Revolution, France was the enemy, occupying Canada and the Mississippi and Ohio territories, eager to displace all the British colonies along the Atlantic Ocean. Between the territory controlled by the British and the French were the Indians, and both sides tried to persuade them to become allies. Franklin was well acquainted with the Indians, and in 1751 he wrote:


I am of the opinion…that securing the friendship of the Indians is of the greatest consequence to these colonies….And to unite the several governments so as to form a strength that the Indians may depend on for protection in case of a rupture with the French….Such an union is certainly necessary to us all.


In the same year, New York’s colonial governor George Clinton invited representatives of the neighboring colonies to an Indian conference at Albany, but nothing came of it as there was no war, and the colonies had other matters to attend to. By 1753 the French were instigating raids on the pro-English Indians, and the invitation was renewed, but again to no avail. In response to the French assaults, Virginia sent young Major George Washington with two companies of militia to dislodge the French military from the Ohio territory. He was soundly defeated and had to surrender. Virginia had requested military assistance from Pennsylvania, but the Pennsylvania Legislature, jealous of Virginia and controlled by pacifist Quakers, refused.

The hostilities between the French and English in America ushered in the French and Indian War, which was to last off and on from 1754 to 1763, and came to be part of the European struggle between England and France known as the Seven Years’ War.

Reporting on the defeat of Washington in his newspaper, Franklin commented, ‘The confidence of the French in this undertaking seems well grounded on the present disunited state of the British colonies.’ He followed this with the first political cartoon to appear in an American newspaper. It showed a snake disjoined in eight separate pieces and the separate pieces labeled with the initials of New England, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North and South Carolina. The cartoon caught the attention of many readers and made clear the urgency of its message.

With the French skirmishes continuing on the frontier, and a growing fear that the Indians might be enticed into joining the French against the colonies, Governor Clinton reissued his invitation for a meeting at Albany with the Indians in 1754. Now, in addition to Franklin, others began to see the need for a common defense, and representatives of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maryland joined the conference. Much progress was expected of it.

Franklin was chosen as a delegate from Pennsylvania, and on his way to Albany he promoted his plan of union with all the influential people he met, asking them for their suggestions to improve the plan. At Albany the representatives agreed that a union was necessary, and they formed a committee comprising one representative from each colony to consider the matter.

Franklin’s Plan of Union was a detailed extension of his 1751 ideas. It called for a federal system with two branches: the executive and the Grand Council, a body drawn from the elected legislatures of the colonies. The duties of this union would be to levy taxes, provide for defense, deal with the Indians, make new settlements, raise and pay soldiers, and construct forts and naval vessels to be available in case of war. Although a number of plans were presented, the representatives eventually selected Franklin’s and appointed him to draw up a concrete proposal to be acted upon by Parliament.

Afterward, on a trip to Boston, Franklin had the opportunity to discuss the plan with William Shirley, the king’s royal governor of Massachusetts. When Governor Shirley proposed an alternative to the Albany Plan that excluded representatives of the colonies on the Grand Council, Franklin objected:


I apprehend that excluding the people of the colonies from all share in the choice of the Grand Council, will give extreme dissatisfaction, as well as the taxing them by act of Parliament where they have no representative….Where heavy burdens are to be laid upon them it has been found useful to make it, as much as possible, their own act; for they bear better when they have some share in the direction. And when any public measures are generally grievous or even distasteful to the people, the wheels of government must move more heavily.


However, this discussion made little difference because all the colonies ultimately rejected Franklin’s Plan of Union adopted at Albany, and the British government did not even consider it. Franklin concluded that the individual colonies were unwilling to give up any of their prerogatives to a federal government, and as for the British government, it found the plan too democratic for its liking.

Finally, in 1755 the British government in London responded to the French military actions and sent two regiments of British regulars under General Edward Braddock of the Coldstream Guards to capture the French strongholds in the Ohio territory. Franklin met with Braddock in an effort to acquaint him with the Indian style of fighting. He cautioned Braddock that the slender line ‘near four miles long, which your army must make in going through the woods may expose it to be attacked by surprise in its flanks, and then cut like a thread into several pieces.’ In reply, Braddock boasted, ‘These savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible that they should make any impression.’ Just as Franklin had anticipated, Braddock’s campaign was a disaster. The general was mortally wounded, more than 1,000 of his men were killed or wounded, and Franklin and other future revolutionaries learned a valuable lesson in the fallibility of the British.

In 1757 a dispute arose between the Pennsylvania Legislature and the sons of the founder of that territory, William Penn, who owned a large amount of land for which they were unwilling to pay taxes. The Penn family resided in London, so the legislature dispatched Franklin to England. While Franklin had an excellent record as a problem solver, this one proved to be difficult, involving as it did not only the Penns but also the British bureaucracy. Franklin was in England for six years and then, after two years at home, the issue of taxation led to his return.

Britain had allowed the colonies to tax themselves during the early part of the 18th century, but the struggle against the French had been costly and the government took the position that because the war had been fought for the benefit of the colonies, the colonies should have to share in paying for it. The colonists believed that they were British subjects, but since they had no representatives in Parliament, they should not be taxed without their consent.

Franklin, in essence, found himself serving as unofficial ambassador for all the colonies, pleading their case to the British government. This assignment kept him in England from 1764 to 1775 — tumultuous years leading to the outbreak of the Revolution. First there was the Stamp Act, which the colonists violently opposed and which Franklin, with some fancy manipulation, help to get repealed. Then came a series of other taxes, arousing discontent in America that was countered by hostile reaction from the British government. The king and Parliament looked upon the colonists as spoiled, ungrateful children who were misbehaving and needed to be punished. By 1775 Franklin had lost hope of patching things up between England and its colonies and came home. While en route across the Atlantic, skirmishes at Lexington and Concord had already set revolution into motion.

As soon as Franklin arrived in America, he was pressed into service as a representative of Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress to decide what America was to do next. Franklin dusted off his Albany Plan of Union and presented it under the title The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The members did not accept it, as they were not yet ready for a break with the mother country and thought that Franklin’s draft was too radical.

One year later, however, the atmosphere had changed. Franklin was on the committee with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to draw up the Declaration of Independence. He was also appointed to the Committee on Safety to produce weapons and munitions for the colonies’ defense, the secret Committee of Correspondence to obtain friends and money abroad for the war effort and various other committees. Franklin’s Articles of Confederation plan was given to lawyer John Dickinson to rewrite, and it became the official constitution under which the Continental Congress then operated for 11 years.

Because of his renown and extensive contacts in Europe, Franklin was sent in 1776 to France to obtain help in the war against England. He spent the next nine years in Paris, where, as American ambassador, he coaxed Louis XVI into supporting the United States and providing the money, munitions and military to allow America to succeed in the struggle. Finally, after years of war, with John Adams and John Jay, Franklin signed the treaty of peace in 1783, in which England recognized the United States as a sovereign nation.

When he returned home in 1785, Franklin was elected president of Pennsylvania, and in that capacity he served as host to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. When the Articles of Confederation had been in operation, the states were still very distinct entities and would not agree to a strong union. However, by 1787, experience had shown that unity was necessary if the nation was to survive, and the Constitutional Convention was held to see if this objective could be accomplished.At 81, Franklin was so ill he had to be carried into the meetings, much like an ancient potentate, seated in a sedan chair lifted by four strong men. Yet he managed to participate in almost all the meetings, which were conducted from May to September. When the convention was on the verge of breaking up over a dispute between the large states and the small states, Franklin proposed a compromise under which the number of representatives in the House of Representatives would be based on population, which pleased the large states, and in the Senate the number of members from each state would be equal, which satisfied the small states. When September rolled around, however, unsettled disputes made it doubtful that the Constitution would be accepted. Franklin then made a speech, addressing the acting president of the convention, George Washington:


Mr. President I confess there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I will never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration to change opinions, even on important subjects which I once thought was right but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others….For when you assemble a number of men to have their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does….Thus I consent, Sir, to this constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.



On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of this convention who may still have objections to it would, with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.


Franklin’s passionate plea helped sway the convention and bring to fruition yet another set of ideals that have, with few amendments, served America and inspired the world for more than 200 years. Franklin had finally seen completed in his old age what he had set out to do 36 years before — invent a United States of America.

At the core of this creation stood another of Franklin’s elegant solutions to a complex problem, succinctly expressed when he was appointed by the Continental Congress in 1776 to design the currency for the newly formed United States. The bills and coins Franklin designed display 13 interlocking circles ringing the outside, representing the 13 original states. Inside this was another ring in which were the words ‘American Congress,’ and inside that ring were stamped the words ‘WE ARE ONE.’


This article was written by Seymour Stanton Block and originally published in the February 2006 issue of American History Magazine.