Volume 7, Number 2, 1998

Poor Richard's web site

Benjamin Franklin was 46 years old and had retired from a successful printing business four years earlier when he flew his famous kite to prove the link between lightning and electricity. He was 70 years old at the start of the Revolutionary War, just as his public-service career kicked into high gear.

"Franklin worked through gallstones, bladder stones and boils on his legs," says Richard H. Duggan, an associate with UD's information technologies unit, who helped J.A. Leo Lemay, Winterthur Professor of English, create an intimate new web-based portrait of Franklin.

"I'm in my 30s now," Duggan adds, "and I found it inspiring to read about everything Franklin did in his later years."

Lemay has been inspired by Franklin since 1964 (a year after Duggan's birth), when he completed a master's thesis on the inventor's friend, Ebenezer Kinnersley. "Franklin was a true genius, with an incredible amount of energy," says Lemay, who developed the web site as a research tool for scholars, and to supplement his upcoming seven-volume biography of Franklin.

By providing a detailed account of Franklin's daily activities, Lemay's web site- <http://www.English.udel.edu/lemay/franklin/> -reveals intriguing insights into the mind of one of America's greatest statesmen, philosophers and scientists. "This is a story with a great deal more passion and feeling than anyone has ever known," Lemay says.

The much-repeated story of Franklin's marriage to Deborah Read, for example, picks up a new twist, in light of the facts. Franklin had been engaged to Deborah, but her mother disapproved of the match, Lemay explains. When Franklin set sail for London to buy a printing press, Lemay notes, Deborah married "a bigamist and a thief" within months of his departure. The marriage soon ended, leaving Deborah free to wed Franklin in 1730. In public, Franklin routinely protected Deborah's honor by blaming himself for her ill-fated first marriage, saying he had "abandoned her," Lemay says. "In fact, she abandoned him, by marrying almost immediately after his departure."

Lemay's web site also casts Franklin's relatively lengthy stint as a bachelor in a different light. Franklin typically said that he waited until age 24 to marry because he would not wed a "disagreeable woman" in exchange for her dowry. But, Franklin had a son out of wedlock before he married Deborah. "The child, William, was not Deborah's son," Lemay says. "Franklin may have had a hard time finding a spouse who was willing to raise his illegitimate son."

Unfortunately, the exact date of Franklin's kite experiment still remains a mystery. Franklin flew the kite sometime in June 1752, but the only known Philadelphia daily weather reports for that year end in May. "If I only had four days' worth of storm data for the month of June," Lemay says, "I might be able to speculate about the date when he demonstrated the basic principles of electricity. I keep hoping that new weather data will surface."

Organized chronologically, the site begins in 1657 with the birth of Franklin's father, Josiah, in Ecton, Northamptonshire, England. It then proceeds to tell the story of Franklin's birth in 1706, his outstanding career as a printer and his years as a "rising citizen." Summaries of his activities from 1748 until his death in 1790 ultimately will be replaced by more detailed accounts.

"The seventh and final volume of my biography, covering the years from 1786 through 1790, should be finished by the year 2006, the 300th anniversary of Franklin's birth," Lemay says. "The web site will eventually include all the day-to-day details and references about Franklin's life that I could not fit into the printed biography."

Such intricate details will undoubtedly prove useful to Franklin scholars, says Lemay, whose web site provides no royalties. Sharing knowledge with scholars around the world is reward enough, he explains. "If I had published this material in hardcover books, they would have been extremely heavy, ponderous volumes, available at UD and perhaps a few hundred other libraries," he says. "By putting this material on the web, I'm making it available to everyone-scholars, students and anyone with a passing interest in American history, politics or science."

Set against a black background, the web site's dramatic home page features eight icons, seven of them showing Franklin including as a printer (1657-1730), then as a rising citizen in a curly wig (1731-1747), later as "the oldest revolutionary" (1776-1785), and finally as an "elder statesman" (1786-1790). As a symbol of Franklin's childhood years, Duggan used a portrait of Ben and Deborah Franklin's son, Francis, who died of smallpox at age 4. Arrows on either side of a drawing of Franklin's Boston homeplace on Milk Street allow computer users to move back and forth through a calendar of events.

-Ginger Pinholster