June 11, 2013

Benjamin Franklin, Dabbler in Magic


        I thought I'd feature Benjamin Franklin today because according to one source I found, tomorrow is the Day of Saint Benjamin Franklin - sort of.  After the French Revolution the new government came up with a new calendar which was to be metric, egalitarian, and secular.  (Too bad a ten day work week is a slog whether or not you want to go to church on Sunday.)  All the Saints' Days were eliminated and replaced with secular honorees - including, according to the one historian, Benjamin Franklin for June 12.  But further research implies that the suggestion of new people to honor was rejected in favor of giving each day a plant or animal or something, so that June 12 became the day of honeysuckle.  At any rate, today seemed as good a day as any to think about Benjamin Franklin and his possibility as a fantasy character.
        In my current work in progress our heroes are chasing down a series of clues to find a secret fund hidden by Benjamin Franklin.  As a minor point, it's mentioned that Franklin was something of a wizard, able to recognize and use certain magical objects, including The Extraordinary Book of Doors of my story.  I feel quite justified in putting Franklin in this role, and I'll share my evidence.
        1. We all know about Franklin's interest in electricity, but in Franklin's time electricity was mostly regarded as a novelty for parlor tricks, much as a magician might perform at a birthday party.  Indeed, many scientists, including Franklin, held electrical parties where they entertained - and shocked - their guests.  Along with the shocks and hair-on-end, Franklin also performed tricks where he relit candles and made an artificial spider move mysteriously.  (He also nearly killed himself while electrocuting a turkey for an all-electric dinner.)  The line between performing "magic" tricks and conducting scientific experiments was often thin or non-existent in Franklin's day.
        2. One of Franklin's hobbies was creating magic squares, those mathematical grids in which numbers add up to the same sum in every row and column (and sometimes in other patterns, too.)  He composed a number of magic squares so impressive that today's mathematicians have yet to explain what algorithm he could have used to do it.  I say, the answer's obvious… After all, Franklin himself stated that his 16x16 square was "the most magically magical of any square ever made by any magician."
        3. Franklin enjoyed being thought a wizard.  While walking by a wind-whipped stream with friends he announced that he could magically quiet the waves.  Thereupon he made some mystical passes, waved his cane three times over the water, and the waves sank and the water became mirror-smooth.  His trick was to keep a small vial of oil in his hollow cane, so that he could drip the oil onto the water and suppress the waves.  This trick was part of a series of experiments Franklin made on oil and water and wave theory.  Clearly Franklin was not only scientifically curious, but also delighted by the magical effects that he saw in nature.
        So I think it's fun to imagine that if there were magic in our world, Benjamin Franklin might well have been one of those who noticed it, became fascinated by it, studied it, and experimented with it.

[Pictures: Work and Industry from "Poor Richard Illustrated," engraving by O. Pelton, 1887 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Reverse of paper money printed by Benjamin Franklin, using his method of leaf imprints to foil counterfeiters, 1764 (Image from Library of Congress);
Illustration of letter from "Silence Dogood" by Franklin, woodcut from New England Courant, 1722 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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