Wilkins Prize Lecture
By Professor John Heilbron,University of California, Berkeley and University of Oxford
Benjamin Franklin, American patriot and natural philosopher, was born 300 years ago. Apart from a brief stay in England as a young man, he spent the first fifty years of his life transforming himself from a nobody into the leading citizen of Philadelphia.
When he began his first extended residence in England in 1757, he was already a Fellow of the Royal Society and the winner of its Copley Medal for his revolutionary discoveries in electricity. He did not come to Europe to collect his medal, however, but to represent the colony of Pennsylvania in its struggle with its Proprietor. His mission failed but he succeeded, becoming a great friend of Britain and its empire and of many of its leading men of science.
A second mission, on behalf of several colonies, also foundered, and with it Franklin's admiration of English ways; after many rebuffs and a spectacular public humiliation, he returned to America in 1775 a political as well as a scientific revolutionary. He soon turned up in France, whose academicians and statesmen welcomed him as a man of science and as the ambassador of an independent people. He accomplished his mission, which was to obtain French support of the Revolution, while cultivating philosophy at the Académie royale des sciences and courting elegant ladies wherever he found them.
The lecturer will describe Franklin's juggling of science and politics, others' judgments of his performance, and, perhaps, his ladies in Paris.