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Ben Franklin’s Bifocals

Most of us have come to think of Benjamin Franklin as a worldly-wise fellow, loved by his associates, and almost super-human in his ability to invent practical solutions. Some of his abilities may have come from his childhood. With 16 brothers and sisters, he probably had to learn to be quick-witted.

It turns out that he was human after all. Some of his inventions were quite off-the-wall, some totally ridiculous, and some were total failures.

His bifocals are a case in point. Well, two points. They were a brilliant invention that served a purpose. To assist the vision in someone who needs corrective lenses for both far and near vision.

But you have to understand his times. Almost no one wore glasses. To put such an arrangement on one’s face marked one as quite different. Then, to have a version with two sets of optics, was of course, unheard of.

In a way, the glasses suited Franklin. It made him much more famous in his time than he might have otherwise been, because he was instantly recognizable.

Shortly after America became established as an independent country, the politicians wanted a new house of government. Ben Franklin was first offered the job of architect. But at least one part of his plan was just too weird, so they gave the job to someone else. You see, Ben planned to hook pipes under the floor from all the seats to the fireplace chimney, creating a slight vacuum. These pipes would end under the seats, which would be ventilated to “carry away personal odours.”

He went on to become a bit rebellious about the staid academic institutions in America in his time, humorously offering this as a serious pursuit:

“Permit me then humbly to propose [. . . ] for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. It is universally well known, that in digesting our common food, there is created or produced in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind. That the permitting this air to escape and mix with the atmosphere, is usually offensive to the company, from the fetid smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred people therefore, to avoid giving such offence, forcibly restrain the efforts of nature to discharge that wind.”

You may think of the Franklin Stove as a fireplace insert. The modern Franklin Stove is more efficient than an open fireplace, because it’s glass front restricts the incoming airflow, most of which is wasted up the chimney, and creates a vacuum that sucks in more cold air from outside.

But his first stove wasn’t that, at all. It was a large thing that looked like an iron egg on a pedestal. It had holes for allowing incoming air on the top. The grate was in the middle, and the smoke vented out the bottom. The smoke then went through pipes under the floor, to a chimney on the other side of the room. It was supposed to be highly efficient. By bringing the air down, against its normal tendency to rise through the fire meant more complete combustion of the wood. By running the smoke under the floor before letting it escape heated the floor, which must have been quite comfortable. However, it was nearly impossible to light the thing or add more wood, without overwhelming the room with smoke. At first, Ben didn’t want to admit it was a failure. He blamed the problems with air flow on the servants, saying they were too ‘stupid’ to figure out how to light and maintain his stove.

When it was time to decide on a national bird for the United States of America, Ben suggested a turkey. An eagle was chosen instead.

He was one of the first to pollute the Atlantic Ocean. On a trans-oceanic voyage, he tried an experiment. He figured that if a coating of oil on water could calm the wave action by affecting the surface tension, or by lubricating the top of the water against the pull of the wind, such journeys would be smoother. So, he unleashed a great oil slick from his ship. It didn’t work.

His armonica was a very weird musical instrument. After hearing a concert played by rubbing fingers on the rims of wine glasses tuned by filling with various amounts of water, Ben loved the sound so much that he got to thinking. This inspired him to up with a horizontal shaft on which were mounted glass bowls or disks. The musician would turn the shaft with a foot pedal, much like a treadle sewing machine. One could make beautiful haunting music by rubbing wet fingers on the rims of the glass disks. I believe, but don’t know for sure, that the shaft turned in a long pan of water, so the disks remained wet. Armonica means “harmony” in Greek. The Ben Franklin armonica is also called a glass harmonica.

So, we make fun of his wrong turns, and the silly or entertaining things that he invented. However, during his 83 years, he also invented, created or discovered:

The first public lending library, the first paved streets in America, the first sanitation department, the system of taxes to pay for the streets and sanitation, the discovery that lightning is electricity, the first US Post Office, Poor Richard’s Almanac, better streetlights, the first crop insurance, the first playing cards in America, the first public hospital, discovery of ocean currents, artificial fertilizer, the reason for printers, plumbers, and painters getting sick – lead poisoning, that the common cold is contageous, and he acquired much of the funding for the Revolutionary War.


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