5 Facts You Didn't Know About Benjamin Franklin

When most people think of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), they think of a bespectacled, older-looking Founding Father of the United States who also happened to dream up some pretty neat inventions. 

I find him to be the most fascinating of the Founding Fathers, alongside Thomas Jefferson. Not only were these guys masters in the art of politics, they each went on to design everything from buildings to stoves. In essence, it could be argued they statesmen as much as they were inventors. 

In this post, I'd like to share five interesting facts about Franklin that I recently dug up. If you already knew these or would like to share any others not mentioned here, please feel free to do so in the comments section. 

1. Franklin designed a musical instrument used by musical geniuses Mozart and Beethoven.
Franklin designed what he dubbed a “glass armonica,” an instrument meant to replicate the distinct sound that a wet finger makes when rubbed along the rim of a glass. To play the instrument, the user would simply wet their fingers, rotate the apparatus and then touch the glass pieces to create individual tones or melodies. The armonica would go on to draw mass appeal during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Thousands were produced, and the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss all composed music for it. Franklin would later say that, “Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”

2. Franklin created a phonetic alphabet.
While living in London in 1768, Franklin set out  “to give the alphabet a more natural order.” Peeved by the many inconsistencies in English spelling, he came up with his own phonetic system that nixed the redundant consonants C, J, Q, W, X and Y and added six new letters, each designed to represent its own unique vocal sound. Franklin unearthed his “Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling” in an essay published in 1779, but later jettisoned the project after it failed to generate public interest.

3. Ben Franklin...a fashionista? 
Most people wouldn't think of Benjamin Franklin as being at the vanguard of fashion in the 18th century, but it turns out the French regarded him as a fashion icon. In 1776, the Continental Congress sent Franklin to France to obtain military aid for the revolution. Already world renowned for his lighting experiments (the French even referred to their electrical experimenters as “Franklinistes”),  his fame soared exponentially after his arrival in Paris. Well aware of the French conception of Americans as rustic frontiersmen, he dressed plainly and sported a fur hat, which soon became his trademark and appeared in various French medallions and portraits. Women even imitated the cap with large wigs in a style called “coiffure a la Franklin.” When Franklin later traded the fur cap for a white hat during the signing of the 1778 treaty between the U.S. and France, white colored headgear immediately became a fashion craze among the men of Paris.

4. Franklin left Boston and Philadelphia an unusual gift in his will.
When he died in April 1790, Franklin willed 2,000 pounds sterling to his birthplace of Boston as well as his adopted home of Philadelphia. The largesse came with an unusual condition: for its first 100 years, the money was to be placed in a trust and only used to provide loans to local tradesmen. A portion could then be spent, but the rest would remain off limits for another 100 years, when the cities could use it as they saw fit. Boston and Philadelphia followed Franklin’s wishes, and by 1990 their funds were worth $4.5 million and $2 million, respectively. The two towns have since used the money to help finance the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston and Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In addition, Philadelphia also put some of its funds toward scholarships for students enrolled in trade schools.

5. Ben is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Who would have thought that the bookish Franklin was an avid swimmer? Indeed, his lifelong love of swimming began during his childhood in Boston. He invented a pair of wooden hand paddles that he used to propel himself through the Charles River, and he wrote of once using a kite to skim across a pond. While living in England in the 1720s, a friend offered to help him open his own swimming school. Franklin declined the offer, but he remained a staunch advocate of swimming instruction for the rest of his life, once remarking, “every parent would be glad to have their children skilled in swimming.” His aquatic feats have since earned him an honorary induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

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