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Impearls: Benjamin Franklin and WMD

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Earthdate 2003-07-23

Benjamin Franklin and WMD

Randy Barnett has been substituting for Glenn Reynolds over at Glenn's MSNBC column, writing cogently on the second amendment (right to bear arms) to the U.S. Constitution.  Most recently, one of Barnett's readers, arguing weapons of mass destruction must lie outside individual protections of the U.S. Constitution (possibly a worthy topic that I shan't otherwise address), proclaimed:  “The framers never imagined such things [as weapons of mass destruction] in their wildest dreams.”

On the contrary, America's founding fathers dreamt of many things beyond the ken of latter-day dogmatics.  American founding saint (if I may so characterize him) Benjamin Franklin pointed the way, nay even unto weapons of mass destruction:  1

The rapid progress true science now makes 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….

If that's too vague a presentiment to be regarded by some as conclusive proof of 18th-century imagined WMDs, recall that Franklin's scientific reputation during the later 18th century was immense:  he was known as conqueror of lightning (for invention of the lightning rod) and tamer of troubled waters (for experiments on tempering storm wave action by introduction of an oil slick).  Moreover, it was a remarkable scientific age, and while in France the first flights in the history of mankind took place, one ascent of which Franklin personally witnessed and wrote about: 2

The morning was foggy, but about one o'clock the air became tolerably clear, to the great satisfaction of the spectators, who were infinite; notice having been given of the intended experiment several days before in the papers, so that all Paris was out, either about the Tuileries, on the quays and bridges, in the fields, the streets, at the windows, or on the tops of houses, besides the inhabitants of all the towns and villages of the environs.  Never before was a philosophical experiment so magnificently attended….  Between one and two o'clock all eyes were gratified with seeing it rise majestically from among the trees and ascend gradually above the buildings, a most beautiful spectacle.  When it was about two hundred feet high, the brave adventurers held out and waved a little white pennant, on both sides their car, to salute the spectators, who returned loud claps of applause.  The wind was very little, so that the object, though moving to the northward, continued long in view….  I had a pocket-glass with which I followed it till I lost sight first of the men, then of the car, and when I last saw the balloon it appeared no bigger than a walnut.

These were the Moon shots of the age.

Franklin went on to presciently deliberate the impact of aircraft in war: 3

[Invention of aircraft might] possibly give a new turn to human affairs.  Convincing sovereigns of the folly of wars may perhaps be one effect of it; since it will be impracticable for the most potent of them to guard his dominions.  Five thousand balloons, capable of raising two men each, could not cost more than five ships of the line; and where is the prince who can afford so to cover his country with troops for its defence as that ten thousand men descending from the clouds might not in many places do an infinite deal of mischief before a force could be brought together to repel them?

Franklin even brought up plate tectonics (continental drift); remember, this is the 18th century! 4

Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen if the earth were solid to the centre.  I therefore imagined that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of a greater specific gravity, than any of the solids we are acquainted with; which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid.  Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested.

Franklin, in fact, was regarded by many of the British as nearly superhuman in his cunning and scientific acumen, and a mortal danger to Britain's Empire (a perception which history ajudges correct), where he positioned himself, in the midst of their enemies, in France.  Of British fears, here's what Horace Walpole had to say, writing in 1778 (a little tongue in cheek no doubt), about Franklin's perceived threat to Britain (in a story which surely made its way back to him): 5

The natural philosophers in power believe that Dr. Franklin has invented a machine of the size of a toothpick case and materials that would reduce St. Paul's to a handful of ashes.

Imagine what such a device would have done to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Thank God Franklin was on our side!

(I daydream of an alternate “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in which at the end of the Revolutionary War a matchbox-sized box is wheeled into a warehouse full of secret weapons of unimagined horror….)


1 Benjamin Franklin, letter to Priestley, February 8, 1780; quoted in Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, Viking Penguin, 1991, p. 658.

2 Benjamin Franklin, letter to Sir Joseph Banks, December 1, 1783; quoted in ibid., pp. 701-702.
3 Benjamin Franklin, December 6, 1783; quoted in ibid., pp. 702.
4 Benjamin Franklin, letter to Abbe Soulavie, September 22, 1782; quoted in ibid., pp. 660.
5 Horace Walpole, February 27, 1778; quoted in ibid., p. 660.


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