Benjamin Franklin: A Time-Binder Extraordinaire

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Benjamin Franklin: A Time-Binder Extraordinaire


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Time-binding is a general semantics formulation that involves the characteristic ability of human beings to use language and other symbols to transmit information across time, which allows each generation the opportunity to pass on useful knowledge to future cohorts. Some of its more prominent practitioners include Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and Marie Curie, all of whom made outstanding contributions to knowledge in their specific fields. But there are some people who have made outstanding contributions to human knowledge in a variety of fields. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who gained fame as a philosopher, scientist, inventor, philanthropist, civic leader, and statesman, was one of these people. The following is a partial description of Benjamin Franklin's time-binding contributions to America and humankind.

Benjamin Franklin: Philosopher

Almanacs were highly popular books in colonial America, with people using them for weather predictions, practical household hints, puzzles, and various other entertainments. Poor Richard's Almanack, which was published by Franklin beginning in 1732, also contained a collection of Franklin's aphorisms and proverbs, many of which live on in American English. For example:

* A penny saved is a penny earned.

* Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

* Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

* Well done is better than well said.

* God helps them that help themselves.

For many colonists, Poor Richard's Almanack was the only book (aside from the Bible) that they read each year and Franklin's maxims on honesty, hard work, and healthy skepticism helped to define an American ethos just emerging from its Puritan and provincial past. They articulated a rising nation's shared values and they drew increased attention to the author and to Philadelphia, the city in which he lived.

In 1743, Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, the country's first learned society, which still exists as an eminent scholarly organization promoting useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities. Membership in the Society was open to those with knowledge to add to the stock of human progress: "from the propagation of trees to preventing disease; from the unearthing of fossils to improvements in the brewing of beer; and from new techniques in animal breeding to the surveys of land and sea, mountains and coasts, rivers and 'great Roads.' " (1)

Franklin's philosophical organization encouraged "all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things ... [that] increase the Power of Man over Matter ... [that] multiply the Conveniences or the Pleasures of Life." (2) Franklin eventually gained such renown in the field of philosophy that in 1762 David Hume, perhaps the most important philosopher to write in English and a contemporary and ardent admirer of Franklin, labeled him "America's first philosopher and first great man of letters." (3)

Franklin was a strong advocate of religious tolerance and personally believed that "the most acceptable Service we [can] render God is doing good to his other Children." (4) In doing such good, he thought helping people in practical ways had much to recommend to it.

Benjamin Franklin: Scientist and Inventor

Fireplaces in the early eighteenth century were highly inefficient at heating rooms, and they consumed enormous quantities of wood. To remedy these defects, Franklin designed a new stove in 1741 that produced far more heat and consumed far less wood than a fireplace. The governor of Pennsylvania was so delighted with the "Franklin stove" that he offered the inventor a patent on it for many years. But Franklin refused the proposal, saying, "[A]s we enjoy great advantage from the Inventions of Others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve Others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously. …

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