The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 17 Jan 2006

Happy Birthday Benjamin Franklin!

Today is Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday.

Franklin was born on 6 January, 1706. When they switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, everyone had their birthday moved forward eleven days, so Franklin's moved up to 17 January. (You need to do this so that, for example, someone who is entitled to receive a trust fund when he is thirty years old does not get access to it eleven days before he should. This adjustment is also why George Washington's birthday is on 22 February even though he was born 11 February 1732.)

(You sometimes hear claims that there were riots when the calendar was changed, from tenants who were angry at paying a month's rent for only 19 days of tenancy. It's not true. The English weren't stupid. The law that adjusted the calendar specified that monthly rents and such like would be pro-rated for the actual number of days.)

Since I live in Philadelphia, Franklin is often in my thoughts. In the 18th century, Franklin was Philadelphia's most important citizen. (When I first moved here, my girlfriend of the time sourly observed that he was still Philadelphia's most important citizen. Philadelphia's importance has faded since the 18th century, leaving it with a forlorn nostalgia for Colonial days.) When you read Franklin's Autobiography, you hear him discussing places in the city that are still there:

So not considering or knowing the difference of money, and the greater cheapness nor the names of his bread, I made him give me three-penny worth of any sort. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls. I was surpriz'd at the quantity, but took it, and, having no room in my pockets, walk'd off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other.

Thus I went up Market-street as far as Fourth-street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife's father; when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous appearance.

Heck, I was down at Fourth and Market just last month.

Franklin's personality comes across so clearly in his Autobiography and other writings that it's easy to imagine what he might have been like to talk to. I sometimes like to pretend that Franklin and I are walking around Philadelphia together. Wouldn't he be surprised at what Philadelphia looks like, 250 years on! What questions does Franklin have? I spend a lot of time explaining to Franklin how the technology works. (People who pass me in the street probably think I'm insane, or else that I'm on the phone.) Some of the explaining is easy, some less so. Explaining how cars work is easy. Explaining how cell phones work is much harder.

Here's my favorite quotation from Franklin:

I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider'd, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Happy birthday, Dr. Franklin.

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