Issue #21 July 2006

The first [open source] American

by Amy Anselm


Kids know him as the guy flying a kite in a lightning storm. Adults know him as the face on the hundred dollar bill. Historians know him as"The first American." His achievements and contributions to mankind, particularly to the fledgling United States of America, have shaped much of what we do on a daily basis, from the clauses of the Constitution to the maxims of Poor Richard's Almanack.

But all of Ben Franklin's ideas, actions, and contributions can be linked back to his own ideals. An appreciation of community. A love of truth. His belief in an inherent responsibility to his fellow man.

Franklin was truly ahead of his time. He wasn't just the first American, he was the first open source American.

Freedom. Transparency. Collaboration. Accountability. Sound familiar? This was how he lived his life and impacted society.


Did you know that Franklin formed the first collaborative, intellectual American community? Called the Junto (Latin for"meeting") Club, it was created in 1727, when Franklin was just 21, to debate the issues of the time and to share knowledge on business affairs.

In his Autobiography, Franklin describes organizing his"most ingenious acquaintances" into"a club of mutual improvement." He created rules for the Friday-night gatherings that encouraged discussions of"morals, politics, and natural philosophy." It was first held in a tavern, of course.

The gatherings were informal and informed. Their purpose was simply to discuss, to learn and to share, and Franklin includes in his account the penalties for any member who claimed to be positive, right, or who made direct contradictions. It was a community aimed at growth. One of the four questions any aspiring member had to answer was,"Do you love truth for truth's sake, and will you endeavor impartially to find and receive it yourself and communicate it to others?"

Its membership was as impressive as its goals, with a roster of names including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine.

Much of the discussion involved brainstorming publicly beneficial ideas and ways to implement them. The collection of books that the group amassed was used to establish the first lending library in America. Filled mostly with religious and educational volumes, it was an early testament to Franklin's love of open knowledge. And it was free (as in book-lending.)

Some of the discussions Franklin initiated at these meetings led to his proposal for a paid city watch police force, the organization of the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia, and the establishment of the first hospital in Pennsylvania. The American Philosophical Society was created from the Junto in 1743 when Franklin called for a"constant correspondence" of men with scientific and intellectual interests in the colonies.

While in England on political business, Franklin became a vocal member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (now the Royal Society of Arts). The society's goals went well beyond simply protecting the aesthetically pleasing, however, and they were known as a radical body who fought the status quo to bring about positive social change. Its founders undertook to "embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufactures, and extend our commerce," and emphasized the need to alleviate poverty and achieve full employment, as well.


Liberal politics seem to have been a pastime for Franklin in England. While there, he also became a member of the Club of Honest Whigs.

A testament to his dedication to the"honest" part, Franklin destroyed his own political career in England when he discovered and then released confidential correspondence. The letters were between Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchison and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, and they proposed restrictions on colonists' freedoms. Franklin sent them to American newspapers. It cost him what could have been a successful political career in London, one of his life ambitions.

Before he left, though, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford. It joined honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale.

Education was vital to Franklin, who was self-taught since the age of ten. He established and was the founding President of the Academy and College of Philadelphia. The Academy later merged with the University of the State of Pennsylvania to become the University of Pennsylvania, now an Ivy-League school.

Ben goes postal

This is an aspect of Franklin's life that receives less attention than his political accomplishments, but his physical contributions to society were impressive. Each carried his philosophical values with them.

In 1775, Franklin was appointed Postmaster General for the Continental Congress. In just two years of service he created a working postal system and"Dead Letter Office." While he was Postmaster he invented an odometer to aid in deliveries. He also invented bifocals as his eyesight worsened so he wouldn't have to keep changing glasses.

Recognizing that heat radiated in all directions, he invented the Franklin stove to stand in the middle of a room, instead of inefficient wall fireplaces where most of the heat was funneled straight out of the house. He printed and distributed pamphlets with instructions--complete with diagrams--of how to make one of his stoves. When someone else patented a similar design, Franklin was only offended that the design was changed, in his mind, for the worse.

He was fascinated by the concept of electricity, and with his famous and often-misinterpreted kite experiment, he proved that lightning was a whole lot of it. He released his findings to dispel some of the old and potentially dangerous myths. For example, in an ocean storm the mast and rigging of ships sometimes glowed purple, a sign that they were collecting electric charge from the storm. Sailors previously took the"aura" as a sign of good luck, as the only ones to survive the ensuing lightning strikes were, in fact, pretty lucky. He even invented the first battery.

Franklin continued his research and invented the lightning rod, mounting one on his own house to test its success. When the rod took a hit and his house still didn't burn down, he again published his findings for everyone's welfare. Fires, often started by lightning, were the biggest threat to houses and towns. He already had his volunteer firefighters, but he stood by all of his advice, including"an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Studying trade routes, he developed a map of the Gulf Stream. To conserve time and increase productivity, he also proposed Daylight Savings Time in the name of the efficiency he is so famous for.

Franklin also invented an improved version of the glass armonica, a popular musical instrument of the time. His version soon became the more popular version in Europe. Of all his inventions, Franklin often said that this was the one to bring him the most enjoyment.

He never patented any of his inventions. Yet he was a supporter of the rights of inventors and authors. In fact, he was responsible for the Constitutional clause that gave Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." He believed in the rights of creators. He also believed in their responsibility to contribute back to mankind.

It was a subject of controversy, but Franklin saw that his own ideas could benefit his fellow men, and that was his goal. He wanted his inventions widely available. All he would say on the matter was that "as we enjoy great advantages 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."


Later in his life he became an abolitionist, then the president of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage and the President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

He is the only Founding Father to have been a signatory to all three of the major works that established the independence, sovereignty, and liberty of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris (negotiated end of American Revolution), and the Constitution of the United States of America.

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When he retired from his political career he held a position as a Champion of American Independence second only to George Washington.

His Autobiography, written between 1771 and 1788, was originally a compilation of advice for his son, based on his own experiences. He later completed it with the benefit of mankind as the goal, and it was published after his death.

About the author

Amy Anselm hides from the real world at N.C. State University, where she is working towards degrees in English and Sociology. She spends her spare time building houses with Habitat for Humanity and trying to learn the acoustic guitar. Two houses have been completed, and she still only knows six chords.