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From Boyhood to Manhood|
X. Leader of Sports and Thought.
by Thayer, William M.
|It is unusual that the same boy should be a leader in nearly all
innocent sports, and, at the same time, the most thoughtful and
studious boy of all. Generally, the fun-loving youth is an indifferent
scholar,--having little taste for reading and study. But it was
otherwise with Benjamin. He was as much of an expert in sport as he
was in reading,--the best jumper, runner, swimmer, and rower of his
age in Boston. And he enjoyed it, too. Perhaps he enjoyed being the
best more than any part of the sport. Certainly, when he was in
school, he enjoyed being the best scholar more than any part of a
pupil's experience; and he so managed to continue the best to the end,
though the end came much too soon for him.
Swimming was his favorite sport. It was claimed for him that, any time
between twelve and sixteen years of age, he could have swam across the
Hellespont. Here, as well as elsewhere, his inventive genius was
devising ways to promote more rapid swimming.
"I believe that I can double my speed in swimming by an invention I
have in mind," he said to John Collins, one day.
"What sort of an invention? You are always up to something of that
sort. I think that arms and legs are all the invention that will ever
promote swimming, slow or fast."
"Well, you see, John, if I do not invent something to greatly increase
speed in swimming," continued Benjamin. "I have been studying on it
for some time, and I think I have it."
"You do not need anything to increase your speed, Ben; you can beat
everybody now, and you ought to be satisfied with that."
"I am not satisfied. I want to do better yet. I never did so well in
anything yet that I did not want to do better."
Right here was really the secret of Benjamin's success,--trying to do
better to-morrow than to-day, not satisfied with present attainments,
pressing forward to something more desirable, going up higher. Such
boys and girls succeed. Difficulties do not alarm or discourage
them--they serve to draw them out and make them more invincible. But
youth who are satisfied to be just what they are to-day, no larger,
broader, or better, live and die mere ciphers. They are destitute of
ambition and the spirit of enterprise. They have no just conception of
their mission in this world. They do not understand themselves,--what
they are for and what they can be if they choose. What is worse, they
have no desire to know these things; the effort to know them is too
much for their easy, indifferent natures.
"I guess that is so," replied John, to Benjamin's last remark. "I
never saw a boy just like you; and I think you are right. I want to
know more than I do about many things, and I mean to. But what sort of
a swimming apparatus have you in mind?"
"Well, a sort of palette for the hands and sandals for the feet,
fastened tightly so as to be used readily. I have an idea that I can
throw myself forward with far greater speed."
"I will wait to see it before I pass judgment on it," answered John.
"It is risking more than I want to risk to say you can't do it; for
there is no telling what you can do."
"You will see it in a few days; it will not take long to make it. I
will notify you when it is ready, and we will try it. In the mean time
keep it a secret, and we will astonish the boys."
Within a few days John Collins was notified that the swimming
apparatus was ready, and would be tried at a certain time appointed.
Other boys were invited to meet at the pond at the same time.
Benjamin appeared on the scene with two oval palettes of wood,
resembling those used by painters, ten inches long and six broad. A
hole was cut in each for the thumb, so that they could be bound to the
palms of the hands. A kind of sandal, shaped somewhat like the
palettes, was fastened tightly to each foot. When rigged for a swim,
Benjamin presented a very singular appearance, and the boys looked on
"That is you, all over, Ben," exclaimed Fred; "no one in creation
except you would ever have thought of such an apparatus. But I
wouldn't wish myself in the water with such a rig. You are a sort of
skipper on legs, now."
"I do not expect to skip much on the water, but I expect to swim much
faster with this device than would be possible without it," replied
"It is different from what I thought it was from your description,"
said John Collins, who had been looking on with particular interest.
"It looks as if you might do something with it. Go ahead, Ben, sink or
swim, spread your sails and prove that your ingenuity is genuine."
Benjamin plunged into the water, and a more interested and excited
company did not watch Robert Fulton when he started up Hudson river
with his new steamer, eighty years later, than watched him with his
new mode of swimming. He struck right out into deep water easily, and
moved forward much more rapidly than he ever did before, the cheers
and shouts of the boys making the welkin ring. Taking a circuit around
the pond for a fair trial, the boys had a good opportunity to watch
every movement and to judge of the practicability of such an
"That is wonderful," exclaimed one, as he came around to the shore
where they stood.
"You are a genius, Ben," shouted another.
"Capital," added John Collins. "King George ought to make a duke of
you. But does it work easy?"
"Not so easily as I expected," answered Benjamin. "The apparatus is
hard on the wrists, and makes them ache. The sandals on the feet do
not help much. I think I could swim just as well without them."
"Then you do not consider it a complete success?" said John,
"Not entirely so. I can swim very much faster with it, but it is
harder work, and the wrists will not hold out long. I do not think I
shall apply to King George for a patent."
The swimming invention was pretty thoroughly discussed by the boys,
one and another suggesting improvements, Benjamin evidently satisfied
that swimming at less speed in the usual way was preferable to these
artificial paddles and increased rapidity. But their interest was
awakened anew when Benjamin informed them that he had another
invention that he proposed to try at a future day.
"What is it?" inquired two or three at the same time.
"You shall see; it is more simple than this apparatus," replied
Benjamin. "It will not be so tiresome to use."
"When will you let us see it on trial?" asked John Collins, who,
perhaps, appreciated Benjamin's spirit and talents more than any of
"Any time you will all agree to be here. You will not know what it is
until you see it."
The time was appointed for the trial of the unknown device, and the
boys separated with their curiosity on tiptoe as to the nature of the
other improved method of swimming. They had no idea that it was a
humbug, for "Ben" never practised sham. He was so much of a genius
that, no doubt, he had something that would surprise them.
John Collins was more like Benjamin than other boys in Boston, and he
was his most intimate companion. John was talented, and a great
reader. He had a craving thirst for knowledge, and used his leisure
moments to improve his mind. He frequently discussed profitable
subjects with Benjamin, who enjoyed his company very much for this
reason. In their tastes, love of books, and high aims, they were
suited to each other. Benjamin thought as highly of John as John did
When the time for trying the other device arrived, Benjamin appeared
on the scene with a new kite.
"A kite!" exclaimed John Collins, in surprise. "I see it now. That
is simple." He saw at once that Benjamin was going to make a sail of
his kite, and cross the pond.
"'T will hinder more than it will help, I think," remarked one of the
"We shall know whether it will or not, very soon," responded another.
"Ben isn't hindered very often."
While this parleying was going on, Benjamin was disrobing and getting
ready for the trial.
"Fred, you carry my clothes around to the other side of the pond, and
I will swim across," said Benjamin, as he sent his kite up into the
"All right," answered Fred; "I will do it to the best of my ability;
and I will be there to see you land." So saying he caught up the
clothes and started off upon the run.
The kite was high up in the air, when, holding the string with both
hands, Benjamin dropped into the water upon his back, and at once
began to skim the surface. Without an effort on his part, not so much
as the moving of a muscle, the sailing kite pulled him along faster
than his arms and feet could have done in the old way of swimming.
"That is better than the paddles and sandals," shouted John Collins,
who was intensely interested in the simplicity of the method. "Ben is
only a ship, now, and the kite is his sail. Nobody but him would ever
thought of such a thing."
"Not much skill in that way of swimming," suggested another youth;
"nor much fatigue, either. Nothing to do but to keep on breathing and
"And hold on to the kite," added another. "He must not let go of his
sail; he and his kite must be close friends."
The boys kept up their watch and conversation while Benjamin crossed
the pond, which he accomplished in a few minutes. Dressing himself,
while Fred drew in his kite, he hastened to join his companions and
receive their congratulations. The boys were extravagant in their
expressions of delight, and some of them predicted that so "cute" a
mode of swimming would become universal, while others thought that the
lack of skill in the method would lead many to discard it. Benjamin
"The motion is very pleasant indeed, and I could swim all day without
becoming fatigued. But there is no skill in it, as you say."
Benjamin expressed no opinion as to the adoption of the method by
others, and the boys separated to tell the story of Benjamin's
exploits on the water over town. Many years afterwards, when Benjamin
was a public man, famous in his own country and Europe, he wrote to a
Frenchman by the name of Dubourg, of both of these experiments as
"When I was a boy, I made two oval palettes, each about ten inches
long and six broad, with a hole for the thumb, in order to retain it
fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter's palettes.
In swimming, I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the
water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I remember I swam
faster by means of these palettes, but they fatigued my wrists. I also
fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals; but I was not
satisfied with them, because I observed that the stroke is partly
given by the inside of the feet and the ankles, and not entirely with
the soles of the feet.
Doctor Franklin wrote another long letter to a man in mature life,
advising him to learn to swim. The man was not inclined to do it on
account of his age, whereupon Doctor Franklin wrote:
* * * * *
"You will not be displeased if I conclude these hasty remarks by
informing you that, as the ordinary method of swimming is reduced to
the act of rowing with the arms and legs, and is consequently a
laborious and fatiguing operation when the space of water to be
crossed is considerable, there is a method in which a swimmer may pass
to great distances with, much facility, by means of a sail. This
discovery I fortunately made by accident, and in the following manner.
"When I was a boy I amused myself one day with flying a paper kite;
and, approaching the bank of a pond, which was nearly a mile broad, I
tied the string to a stake, and the kite ascended to a very
considerable height above the pond, while I was swimming. In a little
time, being desirous of amusing myself with my kite, and enjoying at
the same time the pleasure of swimming, I returned; and, loosing from
the stake the string with the little stick which was fastened to it,
went again into the water, where I found that, lying on my back and
holding the stick in my hands, I was drawn along the surface of the
water in a very agreeable manner. Having then engaged another boy to
carry my clothes around the pond, to a place which I pointed out to
him on the other side, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which
carried me quite over without the least fatigue, and with the greatest
pleasure imaginable. I was only obliged occasionally to halt a little
in my course, and resist its progress, when it appeared that, by
following too quick, I lowered the kite too much; by doing which
occasionally, I made it rise again. I have never since that time
practised this singular mode of swimming, though I think it not
impossible to cross in this manner from Dover to Calais. The
packet-boat, however, is still preferable."
"I can not be of opinion with you, that it is too late in life for you
to learn to swim. The river near the bottom of your garden affords a
most convenient place for the purpose. And, as your new employment
requires your being often on the water, of which you have such a
dread, I think you would do well to make the trial; nothing being so
likely to remove those apprehensions as the consciousness of an
ability to swim to the shore in case of an accident, or of supporting
yourself in the water till a boat could come to take you up."
It is probable that Benjamin's experiment with his kite in swimming
was the seed-thought of his experiment in drawing lightning from the
clouds with a kite, thirty years thereafter,--an experiment that
startled and electrified the scientific world. The story is a familiar
one, and should be repeated here.
He believed that lightning and electricity were identical. Experiments
for six years had led him to this conclusion. But how could he prove
it? He conceived the idea of an electrical kite by which he could
settle the truth or falsity of his theory. Having prepared the kite,
he waited for a thunder-shower; nor did he wait long. Observing one
rising, he took the kite, and with his son, twenty-one years of age,
stole away into a field near by, where there was an old cow-shed. He
had not informed any one but his son of his purpose, because he wished
to avoid ridicule in case the experiment proved a failure.
The kite was sent up in season for the coming storm to catch, and,
with intense anxiety, Franklin held the string, which was hempen,
except the part in the hand, which was silk. He was so confident of
success that he brought along with him a Leyden bottle, in which to
collect electric fluid from the clouds for a shock. It was a moment of
great suspense. His heart beat like a trip-hammer. At first a cloud
seemed to pass directly over the kite, and the thunder rattled, and
the lightnings played around it, and yet there was no indication of
electricity. His heart almost failed him. But in silence he continued
the experiment as the storm increased and drew nearer, and the
artillery of heaven grew louder and more vivid. Another moment, and he
beheld the fibers of the hempen cord rise as the hair of a person does
on the insulated stool. What a moment it was! The electric fluid was
there! His experiment was successful! Electricity and lightning are
identical! Pen nor poesy can describe his emotion. Eagerly he applied
his knuckles to the key, attached to the extremity of the hempen cord,
and drew a spark therefrom. His joy was immeasurable! Another spark,
and then another, and still another, until further confirmation was
unnecessary! The Leyden bottle was charged with the precious fluid,
from which both father and son received a shock as unmistakable as
that from his electric battery at home. Franklin's fame was secured
throughout the world. He went home with feelings of indescribable
Doctor Franklin was a very modest man, and he wrote a letter to Peter
Collinson, member of the Royal Society of London, dated Philadelphia,
Oct. 16, 1752, describing the experiment without even hinting that he
was the experimenter. As that letter described his electrical kite,
and his method of using it, we insert it here:
"As frequent mention is made in public papers from Europe of the
success of the Philadelphia experiment for drawing the electric fire
from clouds by means of pointed rods of iron erected on high
buildings, etc., it may be agreeable to the curious to be informed
that the same experiment has succeeded in Philadelphia, though made in
a different and more easy manner, which is as follows:
We have spoken of the discussions between Benjamin and John Collins
upon important subjects. When other boys were accustomed to spend
their time in foolish talking and jesting, they were warmly discussing
some question in advance of their years, and well suited to improve
their minds. One of the subjects was a singular one for that
day--female education. Legislators, statesmen, ministers, and teachers
did not believe that girls should be educated as thoroughly as boys.
Fewer advantages should be accorded to them. John Collins accepted the
general view; but Benjamin struck out boldly in favor of liberal
female education, being about a hundred years in advance of his times.
"Make a small cross of two light strips of cedar, the arms so long as
to reach the four corners of a large thin silk handkerchief when
extended; tie the corners of the handkerchief to the extremities of
the cross, so you have the body of a kite; which being properly
accommodated with a tail, loop, and string, will rise in the air like
those made of paper; but this, being of silk, is fitter to bear the
wet and wind of a thunder-gust without tearing. To the top of the
upright stick of the cross is to be fixed a very sharp-pointed wire,
rising a foot or more above the wood. To the end of the twine next the
hand is to be tied a silk ribbon, and where the silk and twine join a
key may be fastened.
"This kite is to be raised when a thunder-gust appears to be coming
on, and the person who holds the string must stand within a door or
window, or under some cover, so that the silk ribbon may not be wet;
and care must be taken that the twine does not touch the frame of the
door or window. As soon as any of the thunder-clouds come over the
kite, the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them, and the
kite, with all the twine, will be electrified, and the loose filaments
of the twine will stand out every way, and be attracted by an
approaching finger. And when the rain has wetted the kite and twine,
so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it
stream out plentifully from the key on the approach of your knuckle.
At this key the vial may be charged; and from the electric fire thus
obtained spirits may be kindled, and all other electric experiments be
performed which are usually done by the help of a rubbed glass globe
or tube, and thereby the sameness of the electric matter with that of
lightning completely demonstrated."
"It would be a waste of money to attempt to educate girls as
thoroughly as boys are educated," said John; "for the female sex are
inferior to the male in intellectual endowment."
"Pshaw!" exclaimed Benjamin; "you know better than that. The girls are
not as simple as you think they are. I believe that females are not a
whit inferior to males in their mental qualities."
"I would like to know where you discover evidence of it?" replied
John. "There is no proof of it in the works they have written."
"That may be true, and still they stand upon an equality in respect to
intellect. For not half as much is done to educate them as there is to
educate the male sex. How can you tell whether they are mentally
inferior or not, until they are permitted to enjoy equal advantages?"
"As we tell other things," answered John. "Females do not need so high
mental endowments as males, since they are not required to lead off in
the different branches of business, or to prosecute the sciences. I
can see no wisdom in bestowing talents upon them which they never use,
and it is often said that 'nothing is made in vain.'"
"Well, I must go," said Benjamin; "but I think you have a weak cause
to defend. If I had the time I could make out a case."
"A poor one, I guess," quickly added John. "We will see, the next time
we meet, who can make out a case."
"It will be some time before we meet again," replied Benjamin, "and
our ardor will be cooled before that time, I am thinking. But it will
do us no harm to discuss the subject."
"If we keep our temper," said John, tacking his sentence to the last
word of Benjamin's reply. And so saying, they parted.
After Benjamin had revolved the subject still more in his mind, he
became anxious to commit his argument to writing. Accordingly, with
pen and paper in hand, he sat down to frame the best argument he could
in favor of educating the female sex. He wrote it in the form of a
letter, addressed to his friend Collins, and, after having completed,
he copied it in a fair hand, and sent it to him. This brought back a
long reply, which made it necessary for Benjamin to pen an answer. In
this way the correspondence continued, until several letters had
passed between them, and each one had gained the victory in his own
Benjamin was anxious that his father should read this correspondence,
as he would be a good judge of its quality; and, after a little, he
took it to him, saying: "John and I have had some correspondence, and
I want you should read our letters."
There is little question that Benjamin was so well satisfied with his
own argument that he expected his father would give him much credit.
Perhaps his father believed, with most men of that day, that the
education of females was an unnecessary expense, and Benjamin expected
to convert him to his belief. Whether it was so or not, his father
"I should like to read it; what is it about?"
"You will find out when you read the letters."
Mr. Franklin improved the first opportunity to read the
correspondence, and report to Benjamin.
"I have been very much pleased and profited by this correspondence. It
is able for two boys like you and John; but I think John has the
advantage of you."
"John the advantage!" exclaimed Benjamin, with considerable surprise
and anxiety. "How so?"
"In some respects, not in all, I mean," added his father.
"Tell me of one thing in which he has advantage," and Benjamin
manifested disappointment when he made the request.
"Well, John's style of composition seems to me more finished, and he
expresses himself with more clearness."
"I rather think you are prejudiced, father" Benjamin said this for the
want of something better to say.
"I rather think not," answered his father. "You have the advantage
of John in correct spelling, and in punctuation, which is the
consequence of working in the printing office. But I can convince you
that less method and clearness characterize your letters than his."
"I am ready to be convinced," answered Benjamin. "I hardly think I
have attained perfection in writing yet."
His father proceeded to read from the letters of each, with the design
of showing that John's composition was more perspicuous, and that
there was more method in his argument. Nor was it a very difficult
"I am convinced," acknowledged Benjamin, before his father had read
all he intended to read. "I can make improvement in those things
without much trouble. There is certainly a good chance for it."
"That is what I want you should see. I am very much pleased with your
letters, for they show that you have talents to improve, and that you
are an original, independent thinker. My only reason in calling your
attention to these defects is to assist you in mental improvement."
Benjamin was just the boy to be benefited by such friendly criticism.
It would discourage some boys, and they would despair of any future
excellence. The rank and file of boys would not be aroused by it to
overcome the difficulty and go up higher. But Benjamin was aroused,
and he resolved that his composition should yet be characterized by
elegance and perspicuity. He set about that improvement at once. We
shall see, in another chapter, how he purchased an old copy of the
Spectator for a model, and set about improving his style.
It is quite evident that Mr. Franklin thought well of Benjamin's
argument on female education, for he did not criticise it. Perhaps it
was here that he found proof that his son was "an original and
independent thinker." It is somewhat remarkable that a boy at that
time should hold and advocate views of female education that have not
been advanced generally until within forty years. Looking about now,
we see that females stand side by side with males, in schools and
colleges, in ability and scholarship; that they constitute a large
proportion of teachers in our land now, when, before the American
Revolution, it was not thought proper to employ them at all; that many
of them are now classed with the most distinguished authors, editors,
and lecturers; and that not a few occupy places of distinction in the
learned professions, while many others are trusty clerks,
book-keepers, saleswomen, and telegraph-operators. Young Franklin's
views, the Boston printer-boy, a hundred and seventy years ago, are
illustrated and confirmed to-day by the prominence and value of
That a printer-boy of fifteen years could accomplish so much when he
was obliged to work from twelve to fifteen hours each day at his
trade, seems almost incredible. But he allowed no moments to run to
waste. He always kept a book by him in the office, and every spare
moment was employed over its pages. In the morning, before he went to
work, he found some time for reading and study. He was an early riser,
not, perhaps, because he had no inclination to lie in bed, but he had
more time to improve his mind. He gained time enough in the morning,
by this early rising, to acquire more knowledge than some youth and
young men do by going constantly to school. In the evening he found
still more time for mental improvement, extending his studies often
far into the night. It was his opinion that people generally consume
more time than is necessary in sleep, and one of his maxims, penned in
ripe manhood, was founded on that opinion: "The sleeping fox catches
It is not surprising that a boy who subjected himself to such
discipline for a series of years should write some of the best maxims
upon this subject when he became a man. The following are some of
"There are no gains without pains; then help, hands, for I have no
"Industry pays debts, while despair increaseth them."
"Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day."
"Leisure is time for doing something useful."
"A life of leisure and a life of laziness are two things."
"Be ashamed to catch yourself idle."
"Handle your tools without mittens; remember, a cat in gloves catches
"There is much to be done, and perhaps you are weak-handed; but stick
to it steadily, and you will see great effects, for constant dropping
wears away stones, and by diligence and patience the mouse ate into
We have spoken of what the printer-boy accomplished as remarkable. And
yet it is not remarkable when we consider the work some men have done
in leisure hours alone. Just here is one of the most important lessons
to be learned from the example and life of Benjamin Franklin. A
similar example is before us here in New England; that of Charles G.
Frost, of Brattleboro', Vermont, who was a shoemaker by trade. He died
a few years since. He wrote of his own life:
"When I went to my trade, at fourteen years of age, I formed a
resolution, which I have kept till now--extraordinary preventives only
excepted--that I would faithfully devote one hour each day to
study, in some useful branch of knowledge."
Here was the secret of his success--one hour a day. Almost any boy can
have that. He was forty-five when he wrote the above, a married man,
with three children, still devoting one hour a day, at least, to
study, and still at work at his trade. He had made such attainments in
mathematical science, at forty-five, it was claimed for him that not
more than ten mathematicians could be found in the United States in
advance of him. He wrote further of himself:
"The first book which fell into my hands was Hutton's Mathematics, an
English work of great celebrity, a complete mathematical course, which
I then commenced, namely, at fourteen. I finished it at nineteen
without an instructor. I then took up those studies to which I could
apply my knowledge of mathematics, as mechanics and mathematical
astronomy. I think I can say that I possess, and have successfully
studied, all the most approved English and American works on these
After this he commenced natural philosophy and physical astronomy;
then chemistry, geology, and mineralogy, collecting and arranging a
cabinet. Mr. Frost continues:
"Next, natural philosophy engaged my attention, which I followed up
with close observation, gleaning my information from a great many
sources. The works that treat of them at large are rare and expensive.
But I have a considerable knowledge of geology, ornithology,
entomology, and conchology."
Not only this; he added to his store of knowledge the science of
botany, and made himself master of it. He made extensive surveys in
his own state, of the trees, shrubs, herbs, ferns, mosses, lichens,
and fungi. He had the third best collection of ferns in the United
States. He, also, directed his attention to meteorology, and devoted
much of his time to acquire a knowledge of the law of storms, and the
movements of the erratic and extraordinary bodies in the air and
heavens. He took up the study of Latin, and pursued it until he could
read it fluently. He read all the standard poets, and had copies of
their works in his library. Also, he became proficient in history,
while his miscellaneous reading was very extensive. Of his books he
"I have a library which I divide into three departments--scientific,
religious, literary--comprising the standard works published in this
country, containing five or six hundred volumes. I have purchased
these books from time to time with money saved for the purpose by some
Benjamin Franklin's record, on the whole, may surpass this. Both of
them show, however, what the persistent and systematic improvement of
spare moments will accomplish. If a girl or boy can command one hour a
day for reading, twenty pages could be read thoughtfully in that time,
or one hundred and forty pages in a week. In a single year more than
seven thousand pages, which is equal to eighteen large duodecimo
volumes! In twenty years, one hundred and fifty thousand pages, or
three hundred and sixty-five volumes of the size named above! Divide
this amount of reading among history, philosophy, chemistry,
biography, and general literature, and the reader will be well versed
in these several departments of knowledge.
The old adage is, "Time is money," but the leisure time of Franklin
was worth vastly more than money, as it is to every youth; for it was
culture, usefulness, and character.