Today, Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather. 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 them.
Benjamin Franklin was Colonial America's
famous liberal rebel. Cotton Mather was the archetypical
conservative Puritan leader. Like Mather, Franklin
started out in Boston. They made unlikely bedfellows, yet
when Franklin was eleven, he read Mather's book,
Essays to Do Good. It had a lasting impact on him,
and through his vast influence it has, ultimately,
touched us as well.
Ben Franklin's older brother James was a printer and the
publisher of the New England Courant. James went
after Mather on many issues -- most stridently during a
1721 smallpox epidemic. Mather was promoting the
unheard-of practice of inoculation, which he'd
learned from his African servant. (The idea of averting
disease by subjecting yourself to it was a very hard
Ben had served as James' apprentice during those times.
Then, at seventeen, he found work as a journeyman printer
in Philadelphia. He's been associated with that city ever
since. After a year he returned to Boston for a visit,
and the first thing he did was a surprise. He went to
visit Cotton Mather.
Mather made no mention of the earlier attacks by James,
and he received Ben graciously. Historian I.B. Cohen
tells how, as Franklin was leaving, Mather shouted at
him, "Stoop, stoop!"
Too late! Franklin struck his head on the low doorjamb,
and Mather intoned:
"You are young, and have the world before you; stoop as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps."
Franklin did not miss the point. Later
"I often think of [Mather's words] when I see pride mortified, and misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high."
The clergyman Mather also influenced Franklin the
scientist. He wrote about spontaneous hybridization in
plants. He wrote a treatise on medicine. Mather was an
empiricist who called "the incomparable Sir Isaac Newton"
his guide in science.
And so young Ben Franklin worked out his ethics by
turning Mather's advice into the more compact and secular
language of Poor Richard's Almanac. In an
exhortation on service to the kingdom of God, Mather said
that it means redressing
"the miseries under which mankind is languishing." Poor Richard summarized that one
in the words:
"Serving God is doing good to man, but praying is thought an easier service, and therefore more generally chosen."
But Franklin didn't just preach. He followed Mather's
advice and acted as well. In 1751, a Dr. Thomas Bond said
that Philadelphia needed a hospital. That was radical.
The Colonies had never seen a hospital. Franklin combined
his skill as a printer, his passion as a social activist,
and the guile of a superb fundraiser. He gave America its
There's a wonderful lesson here. Franklin and Mather were
stereotypical opposites, yet the best of each is woven
into America. They are a wonderful reminder that we all
need to keep weighing, sifting, and reassessing our own
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.