Skip to comments.Ben Franklin’s Greatest Invention
Posted on 12/08/2005 11:07:42 PM PST by Congressman Billybob
Even today, sources on inventions list six by Franklin that are still in active use today. One of those sits in my back hall, cheerfully and economically heating the back of my home the Franklin stove. Another sits on the bridge of my nose as I write this a pair of bifocals. But this is about Franklins greatest invention, one that the lists never mention because it is mere words, not a physical object.
Franklin made seven trips to Europe, as a diplomat and scholar. He was welcomed into all the learned societies that existed in Europe then. One of the things he learned on those trips was that creative people were being cheated out of the financial benefits of their creations. When the novels of Charles Dickens became popular, printers other than his own simply reset the type and republished the books, without a cent in royalties to the author. When Thomas Paines design for a cast iron bridge became known (and remained the standard until the advent of the use of steel in the 20th century), others copied the design without a cent in royalties being paid.
Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly the nations greatest political philosopher, in a group where the competition for that accolade was very high. But Franklin was the nations greatest practical philosopher. He recognized that the building of a nation required the creation of a form of fastest possible communication among its parts. So he created the first Post Office, and also served as the first Postmaster. Were Franklin to return, he would recognize in a trice how the Internet works and why it is important. On his second day back, he would have a blog entitled Poor Richards Almanack.
But even the Post Office, which led inexorably to the Internet, was not Franklins greatest invention. He thought about the problem of creative people being encouraged to develop new creations. He understood the importance of good, old-fashioned financial incentives. He suggested to James Madison the following 27-word clause to be added to the powers of Congress in Article I, Section 8. With little debate and no objection, since it came from the respected scientist, it was added to the Constitution:
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;....
What is the importance of that clause? The US is only a small fraction of the worlds population. There are other, highly developed nations, with their own great universities. Still, more than three-fourths of all the worlds patents, copyrights, and trademarks are issued annually to Americans.
Is it because Americans are a special breed of human beings, better able to understand complexities and see the shape of the future? Comparisons of American students with their counterparts at all ages in other developed nations should quickly dispel that notion.
No, it is Franklins invention of this clause that has caused the explosion of American creativity, which began with the founding of the nation, and has shown no signs of slowing down in the two and a quarter centuries since. By giving a temporary monopoly to inventors like Thomas Edison and Bill Gates, it unleashed their abilities to redirect economic history. It unleashed the abilities of writers and creators like Mark Twain and Steven Spielberg to redirect literary and cinematic history.
(And one of the great diplomatic challenges of our times is to get certain nations to stop stealing the results of that creativity, by stealing the developments and reproducing them exactly the way everyone was stealing all inventors works, when Franklin toured the learned societies of Europe, three centuries ago.)
Where did Franklin get the idea for this powerful clause, the one that is the engine behind the economic miracle of the United States of America? Every other clause in the Constitution has its progenitors in the works of Baron Montesquieu, John Locke, and other political and historical writers known to the Framers of the Constitution. This clause, and this one alone, has no ancestor.
Franklin saw the problem as it existed in the rest of the world. Franklin recognized that providing an economic incentive would encourage inventors and creators. And he also recognized that it must be temporary, for limited times, since he was aware of permanent monopolies such as the salt monopoly in the Ottoman empire, which were benefits for preferred supporters of the ruler.
In short, Franklins invention of this clause led to the current status of the American economy as the most powerful economic engine in history. And that is no small achievement.
About the Author: John Armor is a First Amendment attorney and author who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. John_Armor@aya.yale.edu
John / Billybob
Very intersting!! If Ben were alive today, one can only imagine what his stock would be going for. The man was amazing.
My favorite Franklin quote:
"Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
And I always thought it was hanging out a window buck-nekkid and having an "air-bath."
BTT, and thank you for a fascinating item. Ben also developed the beginnings of the modern battery and proved in Paris that a fellow in his 70's could cuckold a generation of young Frenchmen. My hero!
Franklin made this contribution when he was in his late seventies.
Fine work. BTTT.
Thanks for beating the drum regarding Franklin and recognition of intellectual property (IP) rights. In reading constitutions of other governments, you may occasionally encounter references to property and rights. I have yet to find another constitution which recognizes intellectual property. I believe the reward and protection of IP is one of the most powerful elements contributing to the success of our country.
Unfortunately, our Congress has taken the clause to justify policies which are harmful to developments in the arts and sciences. Suppose, in the year 2100, I find a piece of work with a notice "Copyright 1980 John Smith". A copyright search finds nothing. By what means could I determine whether the work is in the public domain?
Indeed it is. The little clause from Franklin that established the concept of intellectual property generated a profound and overwhelmingly positive result over the ensuing decades.
The great problem faced today by American inventors and authors is that the disgusting corrupt porcine polticos of the bi-factional ruling party could care less about the utter disregard of US intellectual property by our supposed "favored trading partners" in China and elsewhere. Instead, they just keep on selling US citizens out at every opportunity.
Perhaps some creative inventor will come up with fast-track a tar-and-feathering device for members of congress. That would be a most worthwhile endeavor.
Wonderful! Thanks so much for posting it.
Ben is my favorite founding father. Regardless of how much I study, I still learn more about him.
Thanks for the article!
I get a genuine sense of pride and security every time I send another bunch of my daughter's songs off to the Library of Congress for copyright registration.
I like Franklin... especially when I have a stack of small oval portraits of him.
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