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Benjamin Franklin and the Early Scientific Vision - 1780

In 1780, from his residence in France, Benjamin Franklin (he then being the American Ambassador to that kingdom) wrote the letter, below, to the English natural philosopher, Joseph Priestley. The quotation (highlighted in blue) is cited frequently in the history of life-extension.

Dear Sir, Passy, Feb.8, 1780

Your kind Letter of Sept. 27. came to hand but very lately, the Bearer having staid long in Holland.

I always rejoice to hear of your being still employ'd in Experimental Researches into Nature, and of the Success you meet with. The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my Regretting sometimes that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried in a 1000 Years the Power of Man over Matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large Masses of their Gravity & give them absolute Levity, for the sake of easy Transport. Agriculture may diminish its Labour & double its Produce. All Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard. O that moral Science were in as fair a Way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and the human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity.-

I am glad my little Paper on the Aurora Borealis pleas'd. If it should occasion farther Enquiry, & so produce a better Hypothesis, it will not be wholly useless -

I am ever, with the greatest & most sincere Esteem, Dear Sir, Yours very affectionately - BF

Reference. Oberg, B (Editor) The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol 31, page 455-456, Yale Univ. Press 1995.

Ben Franklin
by Jean-Antoine Houdon 1778

National Portrait Gallery

Accession Number: NPG.76.40

Several aspects of this communication are of interest. First, Franklin predicts that in 1,000 years we will be able to transport large masses and double the agricultural yield. In his day, only animals and rudimentary mechanical pulleys were available to augment manpower. Alleviating toil was a major ambition of civilization from ancient times to the present. For example, Henry Ford, in the early 20th Century, was originally driven by the ambition to invent a "mechanical horse" (later termed "tractor") to release the farmer from a life of drudgery and to increase agricultural production. Those two predictions have been fulfilled beyond Franklin's most wild imagination. And in terms of disease prevention, medicine, and life-extension, the fulfillment of this science is imminent. The prediction that these event would be realized within a 1,000 years is characteristic in human psychology. Somehow, regardless of how well informed a person may be, the future always seems very far away. When Franklin refers to the prospect of "our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard" he means the mythical lives of the Hebrew patriarchs in the Torah or Old Testament.

Patriarch Age of death
Adam 925
Seth 925
Enoch 905
Kenan 910
Mahalalel 895
Jared 962
Methuselah 969
Lemach 777
Noah 950
Genesis Ch. 5 ver. 1-32 and Ch. 9 ver. 28

The letter of Priestley to which Franklin is responding is interesting in itself; and the full text is provided in the pop-up box below.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), one of the foremost figures in the history of science (see biographical links 1 & 2), begins his letter by acknowledging that Franklin is "much engaged in affairs of more consequences", by which he must be referring to the fact that Franklin was, at the time, the American Ambassador to France and a central figure in America's revolution against England, Priestley's country. It is intriguing that both gentlemen, as citizens, would technically be at war with each other but, personally, retain the highest collegial relationship. Also, Priestley ends his letter with comments about his funding situation - obviously, a perennial conundrum of scientists.