Today, Ben Franklin, revolution, and a house in Paris.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created
How utterly interwoven were the
revolutions of the late 18th century! There was really
only one revolution. Our American Colonies, the French,
the British, and all of Europe rose up in different ways
to bring down the old aristocracies. The process was
oddly unified, yet it was laced with ironies. For
By the time we signed our Declaration of Independence, a
clockmaker named Caron de
Beaumarchais had found his way into the French
aristocracy. Seven years later, Beaumarchais would write
the revolutionary play, The Marriage of Figaro and
give Mozart the basis for his lovely, and equally
revolutionary, opera. But now, in 1776, Beaumarchais
signed a receipt for a million livres from the new French
king, Louis XVI. He was to disburse it in support of the
American Revolution. In other words, a
commoner-turned-aristocrat, but still a revolutionary,
took money from the monarchy to support a
The Colonies got word of the support as they were
preparing to send 70-year-old Ben Franklin to Paris to secure
French help, and it was good news indeed. The Americans
were walking into a political snake pit, but shrewd old
Ben Franklin was well-connected on the Continent. His
work on electricity had established him as a popular
scientist of the first rank.
The French put Franklin in the hands of an aristocrat
named de Chaumont, who
strongly supported the Colonial cause. De Chaumont
offered Franklin the large guesthouse on his grand
estate. He also became his conduit into high-level
Franklin was an instant cult figure in France, with a
kind of Elvis Presley popularity. That stemmed from many
things. He fed the current French mania for experimental
science. The French called him The Electric
Ambassador. And politically, he didn't just
represent the coming revolution in France, he
Franklin, aging and infirm, came home just before
Revolution swept over France. Our wealthy supporters
didn't see it coming. King Louis was eventually beheaded.
De Chaumont lost his estate. His son went to New York to
manage a land investment on the route of a canal. (It was
being surveyed by the great engineer Marc Brunel -- a French royalist who fled
to America) Canal traffic would've made a fortune for the
younger de Chaumont, but the Erie
Canal pre-empted him with a different trade route. So
he settled into his land, became an American landowner,
and a president of the New York State Agricultural
Paris guesthouse no longer stands, but we know what it
looked like because Victor Hugo, whose writings were
laced with Franklin's ideals about social equality, made
quite a detailed sketch of it. No revolution is simple.
And the 18th century gave us a tapestry of interwoven
revolutions. But Ben Franklin was a red thread that runs
through every inch of the fabric of that epoch in the
reclamation of human rights.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Bigelow, J. Franklin's Home and Host in France. The
Century Magazine, Vol. 35, No. 5, March, 1888, pp.
Schama, S., Citizens: A Chronicle of the French
Revolution, New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
For more on Franklin see also the Encyclopaedia
Britannica article, see Episodes 141, 510,
710, 1377, 1386,
or click on the Search Episodes button below to
find additional material on Franklin.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.