Benjamin Franklin, Innovator: Back of the Bus, da Vinci!

By Prof. Shlomo Maital

On a long flight, recently, I read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography on my Kindle. I realized that while we attribute multidisciplinary creativity to da Vinci, in art, science, engineering, urban planning, etc., when it comes to practical needs-based innovation driven by a deep understanding of society, the Boston-born American innovator Benjamin Franklin (1709-1790) is far ahead.

benjamin-franklinFranklin was born and raised in Boston, on Milk St., but left at an early age to find his fortune. He was self-educated and read widely. Here are a few of his innovations, driven by an independent inquiring mind:

He invented the lightning rod (flying a kite into an electrical storm that by all odds should have electrocuted him), the Franklin stove (highly efficient stove), bifocals (he wore them), the urinary catheter (none of his inventions were patented, he utterly opposed such wealth-creating monopolies). He wrote, “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.”

He charted and named the Gulf Stream ocean current. Once doubting sea captains believed him, they cut two weeks off the voyage between North America and England. He founded the American Philosophical Society, where scholars could present their research findings. He first noted that electricity has positive and negative charges. Franklin published ideas for sea anchors, catamaran hulls, watertight compartments, shipboard lightning rods and a soup bowl designed to stay stable in stormy weather. He founded the University of Pennsylvania. He invented the public library. He innovated the post office and stamps. He realized there was a shortage of printed money and, against the wishes of the wealthy oligarchs who controlled what little currency there was, printed currency to foster commerce. To this day the Franklin Mint prints currency and mints coins, in Philadelphia. And finally, Franklin helped write that amazing document, the American Declaration of Independence.

The fundamental difference between Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin, was that da Vinci tried to keep his innovations secret by his mirror-writing, and most of them were thus never implemented. Franklin, in contrast, purposely sought to give away his ideas and implement them as rapidly and as widely as possible. Generally he succeeded. His method was one widely taught today: Identify a social need, build a business model to acquire resources (he liked to use a subscription model – pay a small regular fee and enjoy library services, or hospital, or education, or postal services).

It is worth re-reading his Autobiography; innovators will find much in it to emulate.

*This article was initially published in Prof. Shlomo Maital’s Innovation Blog