Had Benjamin Franklin managed to outwit the Grim Reaper, he would have turned three hundred years old in 2006, and would probably have been making plans for another three hundred. Journalist, scientist, diplomat, and vendor of the virtues, Franklin stands in our imagination as the iconic “First American,” the self-made man and proud inventor of the future. His scientific achievements were indeed interesting and impressive—especially his research on electricity and his invention of the lightning rod. But equally interesting, and far more complicated, was Franklin’s idea of science. He was, you might say, our first home-grown Baconian—seeing scientific ingenuity as the greatest delight and truest redeemer of human life.
In 1780, Franklin complained to his friend and fellow natural philosopher Joseph Priestley of the disparity between scientific and moral progress: so badly constructed were most human beings, said Franklin, that Priestley should have killed boys and girls instead of innocent mice in his experiments with mephitic air. How much better than the bratty kids were the results of these experiments. Scientific progress, Franklin commented,
occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried in a thousand years, the power of man over matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transport. Agriculture may diminish its labor and double its produce; all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard.
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