Friday, March 18, 2016

George Goodwin's "Benjamin Franklin in London"

George Goodwin is the author of the highly-acclaimed Fatal Colours and Fatal Rivalry. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Franklin talked of Pasquale Paoli, the great Corsican anti-French patriot who had fled to London, and Franklin passed on some information he had heard from Robert Wood, the Under-Secretary of State. But the collective talk was of philosophy, inspiring Boswell, on getting home to his lodgings with a Mr Careless, to describe himself as the ‘Philosophe de Sans Souci’. He was then himself careless with a maid called Phoebe.
Franklin’s interest in science during his time in London was constant. We know that he continued to conduct practical experiments, such as his 1758 demonstration to Lord Charles Cavendish and others of some electrical apparatus he called his Philadelphia Machine, which obliged him by producing a spark nine inches long. Though he produced a damper for chimneys and stoves and, in 1768, the first map to chart the Gulf Stream, on the whole his science in London was philosophical, theoretical and speculative. He did, though, definitely invent two noteworthy physical items. One was a three-wheel clock, the other being the glass armonica.

James Ferguson, the Scottish natural philosopher and instrument maker, described Franklin’s clock in great detail in his Select Mechanical Exercises, first published in 1773. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of its design was that the larger of its two faces would show only four hours. Thus when the single hand was on the hour I, it would also be on the hours V and IX – the assumption being that the viewer would be sufficiently compos mentis to realize which of the three was appropriate. Each of the clock’s four quarters had the individual minutes marked up to sixty with each ten-minute mark enumerated. Above the larger face was a much smaller one which showed the seconds. The whole was a combination of style, simplicity and efficiency. The fact that Ferguson made improvements to the design was certainly not a criticism of a man classed by Franklin as someone ‘whom I rejoice to call my friend’. Rather it was reflective of a joyous collaborative spirit of scientific enquiry and practical experimentation that was common to the age.
This American ‘99 Test’, based as it is on page 99 of a book, is an excellent test of authenticity. Far better than a British ‘99 Test’, which would check whether a so-named Ice Cream had any authentic cream in it at all!

So, how does my Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father fare when facing the more searching American ‘99 Test’? Well, I am delighted to say that page 99 is true to the spirit of the rest of the book.

The first paragraph demonstrates that Franklin had very good contacts within the British government, a fact that has been too often missed by historians. It also shows that he was not a prude and enjoyed the company of men such as Boswell and the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood, though he and Dashwood enjoyed rewriting the Book of Common Prayer together rather than anything more scandalous.

The second paragraph shows that Franklin and the British aristocracy shared a passion for science, and moreover for a science that sizzled and sparked. It was for his theories on electricity that Franklin was famous, and indeed so much so that the philosopher Immanuel Kant hailed him as ‘The Prometheus of Modern Times’. Against that, his other mind-boggling scientific achievements, even his identification of the Gulf Stream were secondary – extraordinary as it might seem.

The third paragraph captures the point that the quest for scientific knowledge was a matter of joint enterprise and joyous collaboration. It embodied a desire for understanding rather than a greed for material gain based on practical application: after all, as one example, Franklin’s clock would not have been of much use during northern Canada’s long winter nights.

So, all in all, page 99 is a good representative of the rest of the book. And, if you like it, why not try the whole thing?
Visit George Goodwin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue