Benjamin Franklin: A How-To Guide Explores Franklin's "How-To" Legacy, Celebrates 300th Anniversary of Founder's Birth

This "electrical machine," circa 1750 and owned by Harvard's President Holyoke, was designed to generate electricity for another apparatus piece of equipment. From the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

Benjamin Franklin knew how to get things done: he was an inventor and scientist, printer and politician, writer and thinker. Not coincidentally, he managed all this in the 18th century, a time when a wide variety of printed materials and technical instruments gave both intellectuals and the general public unprecedented access to information about science, technology, geographic exploration, politics, music, and religion. Armed with little formal education, Franklin consumed the available knowledge of his time and generated much of his own. His legacy reflects a "how-to" nature that helps explain how he contributed so much to his society.

This idea forms the basis for a new joint exhibit celebrating the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth (in Boston, incidentally) at Harvard's Houghton Library and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI). Benjamin Franklin: A How-To Guide features books, pamphlets, broadsides, and scientific instruments, some owned and used by Franklin, and others that influenced him and informed his life and work.

Franklin grew up reading what we might today term "how-to" literature, books that addressed subjects like swimming, letter-writing, diets, and science. "Franklin was a voracious reader. He kept up with what was going on in the world, especially with what we now call science or natural history," said Thomas Horrocks, Associate Librarian for Collections at Houghton and co-curator of the exhibit.

As an adult, Franklin took this "how-to" attitude to the next level. Aided by cutting-edge scientific equipment and noteworthy publications, Franklin counted accomplishments in a great many fields, from exploring and observing nature, devising experiments (with electricity, famously), writing useful and educational books, pamphlets, and encyclopedias, politicking in the U.S. and abroad, and helping America gain independence from Great Britain.

What's more, he sought to make information accessible both through his own writings and those he printed for others. And he aimed for a wide public. His popular Poor Richard's Almanac, printed annually for years,didn't require readers to be overly educated. Part of his genius in disseminating information can be seen in his sayings: the ideas weren't necessarily his, but he reworked them and made them so pithy that we still reference him today.

This 18th century orrery could be used to show the movements of the planets within the solar system. From the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

The Harvard exhibition consists of two parts. The first, housed in Houghton Library, tackles the "Circulation of Knowledge"—what does one know, and how does one know it?—and offers 60-plus writings and scientific instruments that Franklin read, used, wrote, or was influenced by.

Franklin played every role affecting the spread of knowledge: thinker, reader, writer, printer, promoter, and disseminator. To that end, there's a wide variety of materials for viewing. In the spirit of disseminating knowledge, there are items he printed like the New England Courant, where Franklin apprenticed; his Plain Truth, a call-to-arms pamphlet that told colonists how to organize a militia; and Poor Richard Improved, the 1748 edition of his popular almanac with advice on things like weather and health, plus serious discussions of science.

There are also, of course, items pertaining to Franklin's political career, with highlights such as the Declaration of Independence, one of only 25 copies known to exist, and the written appointment and instructions Franklin received in 1776 when he was sent to Paris to secure French aid and recognition of the United States. 

Franklin's displayed writings include items like Experiments and Observations on Electricity, one of the works that made him famous, as well as his scientific writings translated into French, German, and Italian—Franklin was well-respected on the Continent, one reason he was successful in politics.

Eighteenth-century scientific instruments also feature prominently, items just like those Franklin used in his own experiments. Examples include a ring dial for determining the time using the sun's position; an orrery, which showed the movements of the planets within the solar system; and a Lieberkühn compass microscope.
"Franklin himself was a very curious person," said Horrocks. "He questioned everything, which led him to perform experiments of his own. This was not uncommon—there were a lot of amateur scientists in the 18th century."  

A lot of those amateurs were working together—Franklin liked the power science had to bring people together. This idea of  "Science and Sociability" provides the focus for the second portion of the exhibit at CHSI, curated by Sara Schechner, David P. Wheatland Curator. Here, 18th century scientific instruments, rare books, and letters are used to illustrate that science was a social activity involving collaboration and audiences much like other social activities.

These 18th century thunder houses were used in Harvard classes to demonstrate the effectiveness of Franklin's invention the lighting rod. From the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University.

Featured CHSI objects include "electrical machines"—which are what they sound like, machines that generated electricity for another machine or apparatus. One such machine on display, a large one made in London circa 1765, was purchased by Franklin on behalf of Harvard to replace equipment lost when Harvard Hall burned down in 1764. Resembling a great bed with headboard and footboard, the instrument has a large flywheel that rotates a glass cylinder against a cushion to generate electricity. Such a machine was used for cutting-edge science experiments as well as party games in which a lady might draw an "electrical kiss" from a charged-up gentleman. Social activities, indeed.

Also on display is a "village" of thunder houses that were used in Harvard classes, some bought with Franklin's help. A thunder house was a miniature house (small enough to sit on a desk) that Franklin designed as proof of the effectiveness of his lightning rod. A demonstrator would place gunpowder inside the thunder house and then charge his electric machine so that it drew a spark to a miniature lightning rod on the thunder house. If the lightning rod was grounded, nothing happened. If it wasn't, the gunpowder would ignite, blowing off the roof and collapsing the walls with a thunderous bang.  

There are also numerous scientific instruments for viewing that were owned and used by Franklin's friends, including chemists Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, physician and balloonist John Jeffries, Harvard professor and astronomer John Winthrop, and artist and museum director Charles Willson Peale.

For Franklin, science and knowledge transcended politics and war. Despite the American Revolution, he continued to be friendly with his scientific cohorts in Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin: A How-To Guide examines the tools Franklin had at his disposal and how he put them to good use. Whether scientific or political, using his own ideas or others, the self-taught Franklin stands as a paragon of knowledge, its dissemination, and how to get things done.

A final note: included in the Houghton display is Franklin's autobiography, Franklin's own how-to guide to himself.


The exhibition at Houghton Library runs June 5–September 23, 2006. Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 9 am-5 pm; Tuesday 9 am–8 pm, Saturday 9 am–1 pm. For details, call Thomas Horrocks at 617-495-2442.

The exhibition at the Collection of Historical and Scientific Instruments runs June 5–December 22, 2006. Hours: Monday–Thursday, 11 am–4 pm. For details, call 617-495-2779.