Reading 46

Benjamin Franklin

The following passage is adapted from an article that originally appeared in American History magazine (© 2009 by Steven Johnson).

  1. This is a story that begins—like
  2. so many tales of innovation
  3. and controversy in 18th-
  4. century culture—with a
  5. coffeehouse. The
  6. Enlightenment-era coffeehouse
  7. was the Internet of its day: a
  8. hub of conversation, news,
  9. shoptalk and public debate.
  10. Whole industries were
  11. invented in these new social
  12. environments, fueled by the
  13. buzz of caffeine and the
  14. intellectual energy of
  15. different professions
  16. gathering together to share
  17. ideas. Lloyd’s of London, the
  18. first insurance business, was
  19. created in Lloyd’s
  20. Coffeehouse. And while
  21. merchants and ship owners
  22. made insurance deals at
  23. Lloyd’s on Lombard Street,
  24. profound ideas about science,
  25. faith and politics took flight
  26. among the gentlemen who
  27. frequented a busy
  28. establishment just north of
  29. St. Paul’s Cathedral: the
  30. London Coffeehouse.
  31. The most famous denizen of
  32. the London Coffee­house
  33. was, ironically, an American:
  34. Benjamin Franklin. Franklin
  35. had a regular clan in the
  36. coffeehouse, a band of fellow
  37. iconoclasts that he would
  38. later dub “The Club Of
  39. Honest Whigs.” The club
  40. “consists of clergymen,
  41. physicians and some other
  42. professions,” wrote
  43. biographer James Boswell.
  44. “Conversation goes on pretty
  45. formally, sometimes sensibly
  46. and sometimes furiously.”
  47. Franklin relished his time
  48. with the Honest Whigs. He
  49. would write mournful letters
  50. from America in the last
  51. years of his life, reminiscing
  52. about the many days and
  53. nights he spent with the
  54. “honest souls” at the London
  55. Coffeehouse. But of all those
  56. over-caffeinated sessions in
  57. the shadow of St. Paul’s, one
  58. stands out as particularly
  59. significant. In late December
  60. 1765, he met a young
  61. minister and author named
  62. Joseph Priestley. It was the
  63. beginning of a friendship
  64. between intellectual soul
  65. mates who would
  66. revolutionize our
  67. understanding of the natural
  68. world. Franklin was already
  69. recognized as one of the
  70. great scientists of the
  71. century. At thirty-two,
  72. Priestley was at the
  73. beginning of his career, but
  74. he was soon to embark on a
  75. series of experiments that
  76. would ultimately give him
  77. claim to the title of the man
  78. who “discovered oxygen.”
  79. While Franklin is renowned
  80. for advancing mankind’s
  81. knowledge of the basic laws
  82. of electricity, his role in
  83. encouraging Priestley’s
  84. experiments and in helping
  85. make sense of what he
  86. discovered has been almost
  87. entirely ignored by both
  88. scientists and historians.
  89. Priestley initially set out to
  90. answer a chemistry question:
  91. What is air? But it was
  92. Franklin who helped
  93. Priestley understand that he
  94. was grappling with an even
  95. more profound mystery:
  96. why we have air to breathe
  97. in the first place.
  98. Priestley’s experiments
  99. revealed that the air we
  100. breathe is not some
  101. unalienable physical
  102. phenomenon, like gravity
  103. or magnetism, but is rather
  104. something that has been
  105. specifically manufactured
  106. by plants. In turn, Franklin
  107. recognized that the
  108. manufacture of breathable
  109. air is itself part of a vast,
  110. interconnected system that
  111. links animals, plants and
  112. invisible gases. And the
  113. choices we make as humans
  114. can have a dangerous impact
  115. on that flow, if the core
  116. participants in the system
  117. aren’t properly appreciated
  118. and protected.
  119. In discovering how Mother
  120. Nature had invented our
  121. atmosphere, Franklin and
  122. Priestley were inventing
  123. something just as profound:
  124. the ecosystems view of the
  125. world. Priestley engineered an
  126. audience with Franklin and
  127. his fellow Honest Whigs
  128. because he had concocted
  129. an idea for a book on the
  130. history of electricity. As a
  131. small-town minister and
  132. teacher with a hobbyist’s
  133. passion for the new discoveries
  134. of “natural philosophy,”
  135. Priestley knew that no other
  136. field had generated so much
  137. innovation in such a short
  138. amount of time. But no one
  139. had written a popular account
  140. of these world-changing
  141. discoveries. So he set off to
  142. London, hoping to meet the
  143. “electricians” and to persuade
  144. them to let him tell the story
  145. of their genius.
  146. Franklin, naturally, was
  147. immediately supportive of the
  148. idea, and promised the young
  149. Priestley open access to his
  150. library. But he and his friends
  151. took one additional step that
  152. proved crucial: They
  153. encouraged Priestley to
  154. conduct his own experiments
  155. while writing his history.
  156. Hearing his idols urging him
  157. to write about his own
  158. investigations opened up a
  159. whole new field of possibility
  160. for the young man. Priestley
  161. had arrived in London as a
  162. dabbler in natural
  163. philosophy, tinkering in the
  164. provinces with his electrical
  165. machine and his air pump.
  166. By the time he left, he was
  167. a scientist.