Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What Use Is A Sundial in the Shade?

“What use is a sundial in the shade?”

This question was posed by one of the brightest minds of American history as he reflects on prudent use of one’s talents.  This creative mind links back to humble origins as the youngest brother of fifteen children and the overlooked apprentice in his family’s printing press.  It wasn’t until he adopted the pseudonym “Silence DoGood” to get his work published and to establish a reputation for himself in the printing industry.  After multiple successful publications, he continued to invent American essentials, travel the world, and structure the Constitution that rules our country to this day.  Yes, Benjamin Franklin is one of America’s first creative minds who enforced this nation’s motto of diligence and ingenuity. 

Last year in Dr. Whidden’s U.S. Experience class, I had the opportunity to read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.  Through each lecture we discussed the work under the lens of multiple interpretations, from Franklin the productive American ideal to Franklin the relentless Machiavellian reincarnate.  Regardless the interpretation, the truth remains that Franklin’s brilliance set America on the right track and left a legacy of ingenuity.  Ironically, Benjamin Franklin led the life of a creative mind long before Howard Gardner set pen to paper, and thanks to him, America is the industrious country that it is.

Like many of the creative minds studied in class, Franklin invented out of necessity and used his ideas as tools to solve problems….

One of Franklin’s brothers suffered from kidney stones and needed to use urinary catheters.  At the time, however, urinary catheters were made of metal and painful to use.  Franklin saw how his brother went through a lot of pain with his kidney problems and decided to ask the local silversmith for a more flexible material to modify the urinary catheter.  Thanks to Franklin, modern urinary catheters are made of more flexible material. 

During the winter, Philadelphia dropped to extremely low temperatures, requiring townspeople to venture out for firewood.   However, as forests thinned and fireplaces released most of the heat through the chimney, Americans were looking for a more energy efficient way to warm their homes.  Franklin tackled this problem head on with his modification to the stove, where its cast iron sides radiated heat in all directions and reduced the risk of house fires.

Here’s my favorite of his invention schemes.  As mentioned before, Franklin worked for his brother’s printing press as an apprentice and later rose in the business.  His printing press was used primarily to circulate news to educate the literate American public of current events.  However, for those with poor vision, it was difficult to read the small characters stamped out from the printing press.  To aid these readers (or some argue to drum up business), Franklin designed the bifocals that helped both nearsighted and farsighted people to read his print.  In addition, Franklin offered the idea of public libraries, where a small annual due made thousands of prints and books available to the American public (and again jump started more business for Franklin’s printing press). 

With other class concepts in mind, I can’t help but think of the skaters from Dog Town and Z Boys when I think of Franklin.  The skaters from the movie had a problem with their wheels on their skateboard.  Instead of complacently accepting the current condition of the skateboards, they used cleverness to solve the problem and replaced their wheel material with polyurethane for a smoother ride.  Almost in a parallel manner, Franklin saw everyday problems in his life and decided to actively fight them with clever solutions, from the flexible urinary catheter to the more efficient stove. 

Interestingly, while Franklin used many talents, he also exhibited multiple sides to his personality through his autobiography.  First and foremost Franklin was extremely disciplined, with a detailed schedule dictating every minute of his day, from the vegetarian meals he eats to the amount of work he had to complete.  Franklin was a socialite and knew everyone around town; however, toward his personal family, he remained fairly distant, as he missed his daughter’s wedding, ignored his ill wife on her deathbed, and constantly fought with his own son.  Not to mention, with other printing press businesses, Franklin was utterly ruthless in shutting competing business down.  For such a brilliant, concentrated mind, Franklin was more than aware of the resources in his town yet simultaneously uninvolved with his immediate family.  Speculate what you will about Franklin’s personality and talent, but to me this reminds me of Picasso’s estranged personal ties as his career progressed.  Franklin kept traveling, making political ties, and sealing deals while leaving his family in the dark. 

Through his inventions and innovations, all four types of creative from Kaufman and Beghetto’s paper can apply to Franklin.  For big C accomplishments, Franklin aided in writing the Constitution and played a part in establishing the Treaty of Paris.  His work in government made an eminent impact on American power through history so he fits the bill of a Big C creative.  For little c creativity, his smaller scale inventions like swimming wings aren't exactly necessary but are creative solutions to problems that make life easier for the general public.  His autobiography itself is very introspective and reflective, suggesting that Franklin is also a mini-c creative as a lifelong learner.  One of his adages says that “a man who is finished changing is finished learning,” and most definitely Franklin lives by the motto of living a dynamic life.  He documents things that he learns throughout the day and more importantly analyzes his own habits which he can improve, thus applying his creativity to growing into a better person.  Finally, pro-C creativity applies to Franklin because he is a master at making connections and advancing himself in the professional community.  His strong ties with government and France are ultimately what allows America to emerge as a successful nation.  

To most Americans, Ben Franklin forever holds the string connected to the kite and a very conductive key (even though Franklin's son was actually the one holding the kite tail).  To skeptics Franklin is the ruthless businessman and ladies’ man who held estranged ties with his family.  To me Franklin is a man who strongly believed in the convenience of human reason and who was motivated by reaching his idea of perfection.  

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