(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Franklin

“Waterloo – Couldn’t escape if I wanted to”*…


On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo** this week, The Bodleian Library is featuring it’s Curzon Collection of political prints from the period of the Napoleonic wars– including several British and French cartoons depicting Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.

Most are available online in the Oxford Digital Library.

* Abba

** Napoleon wasn’t actually in Waterloo when he met his Waterloo. Most of the battle had occurred in Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit, just a few miles south of the town (the Lion’s Mound, the most iconic symbol of the battle, is located in Braine-l’Alleud). [source]


As we retreat to Paris, we might recall that it was on this date in 1782 that Congress adopted the Great Seal of the United States and, effectively, the bald eagle as the national symbol.  Benjamin Franklin, who had been a member of one the four committees charged with developing a design for the seal and had proposed an allegorical theme from Exodus, later wrote to his daughter,

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on…



Written by LW

June 20, 2015 at 1:01 am

“His whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency”*…


A man whose wit was matched only by the looseness of his tongue, the combative John Adams quickly acquired a hefty reputation for articulate jabs and razor-sharp put-downs at the expense of his allies and (numerous) rivals alike, including some of the most celebrated figures in American history (Bob Dole once described him as “an eighteenth-century Don Rickles”)…

American history comes alive: “7 of John Adams’ Greatest Insults.”

* John Adams, on Benjamin Franklin


As we hail the heckler, we might recall, in fairness to the heckled, that it was on this date in 1752 that Benjamin Franklin and his son tested the relationship between electricity and lightning by flying a kite in a thunder storm.  Franklin was attempting a (safer) variation on a set of French investigations about which he’d read.  The French had connected lightning rods to a Leyden jar; one one their experiments electrocuted the investigator.  Franklin– who may have been a wastrel, but was no fool– used used a kite; the increased height/distance from the strike reduces the risk of electrocution. (But it doesn’t eliminate it: Franklin’s experiment is now illegal in many states.)

In fact, the French experiments had successfully demonstrated the electrical properties of lightning a month before; but word had not yet reached Philadelphia.

The Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing created this vignette (c. 1860), which was used on the $10 National Bank Note from the 1860s to 1890s



Written by LW

June 15, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess”*…


Chess has been revolutionized several times since 1850. 1851 marked the first international chess tournament in London, leaving the German Adolf Anderssen as the official best chess player in Europe at the time. The 20th century saw several breakthroughs in chess theory as chess players began to treat chess as a science more than a pastime. With the advent of computers in the mid-1900s, chess players started analyzing games and writing computer opponents to hone their craft. Then in the 1990s, the widespread adoption of the Internet allowed players to play chess games with anyone in the world online.

That leaves us to wonder: How has chess changed in that timespan?…

Find out at “A data-driven exploration of the evolution of chess.”

And for a close look at one of the most recent developments– the surreptitious use of illegal technology– check out “Chess grandmaster accused of using iPhone to cheat during international tournament.”

* Terry Pratchett


As we begin to understand Marcel Duchamp’s choice, we might spare a thought for the polymathic Benjamin Franklin; he died on this date in 1790.  Justly remembered and rightly revered as a Founding Father of the U.S., author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, and aphorist, it is perhaps less well known that Franklin was a fanatic chess player.  He was playing chess by around 1733, making him the first chess player known by name in the American colonies.  His widely-reprinted and translated 1786 essay “The Morals of Chess,” a paean to the game that prescribed a code of behavior for its players, is the second known writing on chess in America.  He was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 1999.

Edward Harrison May’s “Lady Howe faisant mat Benjamin Franklin” (“Lady Howe mating Benjamin Franklin”), 1867



Written by LW

April 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”*…



It seems that in northern Siberia, the reindeer developed a taste for those colorful red and white mushrooms, fly agaric (amanita muscaria), and will eat them till they’re higher than a kite.  Anyone eating the meat of such reindeer will get equally high. The village shamen soon figured out how to reduce the toxicity of the mushrooms, while increasing the potency and claiming it helped them fly.  Folks in the far north had not yet discovered the art of fermentation, so the fly-in visits from the shaman with his mushroom treats were much anticipated.  A further point…many shamanistic arctic tribes such as the Koryaks of Siberia lived in semi underground yurt like structures, whose only entrance was a ladder through the smoke hole, or chimney, in the roof, down which the shamen would climb with his gifts, carried in a sack.

Then, in 1931, a young Swedish artist named Haddon Sundblom, obviously familiar with the tales, created a jolly round Santa Claus as a Christmas icon for his client, Coca-Cola,  using the company’s familiar red and white colors.  Coke notes with pride that until that time, St. Nick appeared in any number of guises, from a somber man in priestly garb to a green-clad elf, and it was only after Haddon had developed the character over several years that the jolly fat Santa became our Christmas standard-bearer, shown drinking his first Coke in 1934…

Read more in John Hulls’ terrific blog Somewhat Logically: “Reindeer Really Know How to Fly.”

* the famous reply contained in “Is There a Santa Claus?”, an editorial appearing in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun.


As we bake cookies to leave out on Christmas Eve, we might recall that on this date in 1732 Benjamin Franklin published the first edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanack,”  a pamphlet series that he continued, to great success, annually through 1757.  (Indeed, with print runs typically numbering 10,000, the series made Franklin’s fortune, allowing him to spend the bulk of his time on scientific experiments, diplomacy…  and in his own consciousness-altering experiments in The Hellfire Club.)

The first edition (published in 1732 for 1733)

 With the hope that your celebrations will be warm and peaceful, and with thanks for your kind attention over the last twelve months, (Roughly) Daily is going on it’s annual Holiday hiatus…  See you in the New Year!

Written by LW

December 19, 2014 at 1:01 am

“There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life”*…


From The Great Train Robbery, 1903

In 1888, Thomas Edison wrote that “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion.” The system was comprised of the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera, and a Kinetoscope, a motion picture viewer, and was mostly created by Edison’s assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. (The system was likely inspired by the zoopraxiscope created by photographer—and murderer!—Eadweard Muybridge to show off his motion photographs.) Early films from the Edison Manufacturing Co. showed off “actualities”: celebrities, news, disasters, and expositions. But later, the company switched to creating narrative films more in line with what we watch at the movies today…

These earliest films, often a minute or two in length,  could be purchased for $6.60 (about $169 in today’s currency).  But readers can see a selection of Edison’s early essays, streamed for free, at “10 Early Films Made by Edison’s Movie Company.”

* Federico Fellini


As search for the concession stand, we might recall that it was on this date in 1732 that Louis Timothee (sometimes rendered “Lewis Timothy”) became the first salaried librarian in the American Colonies. A printer and protégé of Benjamin Franklin’s, Timothee served as the part-time librarian for the Library Company of Philadelphia, one of Franklin’s first philanthropic projects, from its founding on July 1, 1731.  As the project took hold, Timothee’s position was elevated to a full-time, paid position.

The Library Company of Phildelphia



Written by LW

November 14, 2014 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”*…



The wonders of modern millinery…

Caffeine-fueled cram sessions are routine occurrences on any college campus. But what if there was a better, safer way to learn new or difficult material more quickly? What if “thinking caps” were real?

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Vanderbilt psychologists Robert Reinhart, a Ph.D. candidate, and Geoffrey Woodman, assistant professor of psychology, show that it is possible to selectively manipulate our ability to learn through the application of a mild electrical current to the brain, and that this effect can be enhanced or depressed depending on the direction of the current…

The success rate is far better than that observed in studies of pharmaceuticals or other types of psychological therapy,” said Woodman. The researchers found that the effects of a 20-minute stimulation did transfer to other tasks and lasted about five hours.

The implications of the findings extend beyond the potential to improve learning. It may also have clinical benefits in the treatment of conditions like schizophrenia and ADHD, which are associated with performance-monitoring deficits.

Read more at “Electric ‘thinking cap’ controls learning speed” in ScienceBlog.

* Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II, Scene 2


As we crank up our crania, we might recall that it was on this date in 1747 that Benjamin Franklin sent a thank you note to British scientist Peter Collinson:

 Your kind present of an electric tube, with directions for using it, has put several of us on making electrical experiments, in which we have observed some particular phenomena that we look upon to be new. I was never before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and time.

As the Franklin Tercentenary notes:

The study of electricity was the most spectacular and fashionable branch of Enlightenment natural philosophy. Franklin was immediately hooked when the Library Company’s British agent, Peter Collinson, sent him a glass tube used to generate static electricity. Franklin taught himself to perform basic electrical “tricks” with it and was soon immersed in trying to understand how this surprising phenomenon worked.

Through his electrical investigations, Franklin developed important new theories, complete with new terms and instruments to describe and demonstrate them. As usual, his concern centered on developing useful applications for his discoveries: the result was a lightning protection system that is still in use today, notably on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Franklin’s experiments were known all over Europe, initially through his personal correspondence and then through publications initiated by colleagues abroad. Later, Franklin’s international fame as a scientist would give him the status and political access to succeed as America’s premier diplomat.

Franklin at work on his most famous experiment




“A pun is the lowest form of humor—when you don’t think of it first”*…

Pun, noun. Origin unknown “The use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more meanings or different associations, or of two or more words of the same or nearly the same sound with different meanings, so as to produce a humorous effect; a play on words.” – Oxford English Dictionary

Pity the poor pun.  For the last few decades, puns have been the province of clever headline writers, anxious shopkeepers, and embarrassing uncles; otherwise, they tend to be deployed sparingly, and with a dose of irony.  Indeed, the late William Safire, the New York Times‘s long-time language writer, wrote in 2005 that a pun “is to wordplay what dominatrix sex is to foreplay – a stinging whip that elicits groans of guilty pleasure.” But puns have a long and storied history– they featured in the parables of Jesus and in the plays of Shakespeare— and they play an important role in the present, allowing Chinese social media users to address “forbidden” topics.

Are puns making a comeback?  Sally Davies explores the question in BBC Magazine‘s “The Pun Conundrum” (from whence, the photo above).


* Oscar Levant


As we punder paronomasia, we might recall that it was on this date in 1784 that Benjamin Franklin wrote, in a letter to his daughter Sarah Bache, of his displeasure with the eagle as the symbol of America; he preferred the turkey.


Written by LW

January 26, 2013 at 1:01 am


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