The first blogger
I am half way through Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson.
It is a teriffic biography of a fascinating and uniquely American character; seminal at a crucial moment in history.
Despite his long and deep record of life achievements, including statesman, scientist, scholar, diplomat, creator of volunteer fired departments, creator of public libraries, and author of the Declaration of Independence (among others), his self-written epitaph read Benjamin Franklin, printer.
Franklin was born into a relatively poor family of 17 children. His father was a soap maker, when soap was made from discarded animal fat. Not a noble or well paid profession. But Franklin quickly embraced the then-new technology of printing with a passion. Printing in 18th Century America was the counterpart to the Internet in 1992, a new technology just getting started. Even though the printing press had been invented in 1452 by Johannes Gutenberg, the rate of technological change was a good deal slower. Three hundred years later, the technology was really just gaining its legs.
At the age of 15 Franklin started The New England Courrant, the first newspaper in Boston.
A year later, after a dispute with his brother over the paper (which was not a newspaper as we would understand one today), Franklin left home and went to Philadelphia with no more than a few shillings, and took work as an apprentice to one of the only print shops in Philly.
Philadelphia in 1723 was the largest city in the Colonies, with a population of 23,000. Remarkably, London at the time was the largest city in Europe, with a population of 750,000 and Bejing the largest in the world, with a population of 900,000. Franklin soon set up his own printing shop, and that tool, the printing press, became his key to the rest of his life.
He went on to publish newspapers, newsletters, books, his yearly Poor Richard’s Almanac, and much more. Owning and print shop and having the knowledge of how to print (it is though that Franklin’s hand made metal type were the first made in the Americas), were the 18th Century equivalent of the web, and webcasting and blogging and vlogging today.
By being a printer, and by knowing the craft, Franklin put himself on the cutting edge of the communications technology of his day. His deep seated belief in democracy (also an extremely radical idea in his time) was almost a direct outgrowth of the freedom of the press that he personally enjoyed and understood so personally.
Much that Franklin wrote and published would more properly be recognized as blogging by us today, rather than ‘newspaper’ or ‘journalism’. Franklin was a journalist in the classic sense of the word – he penned and published ‘journals’, much of it driven by his own opinion.
Were Franklin alive today he would no doubt be blogging and vlogging.
He had a great love of cutting edge technologies of all kind. He was the classic 18th Century self-taught scientist; and his discovery of lightning as electricity, indeed much of his research into electricity is more than just the anecdotal kite with a key. No less than JJ Thompson, the nobel prize winning scientist who discovered the electron credited Franklin with doing the seminal work on the nature of charges and electricty.
The key to much of Franklin’s success (and fascinating life) was the marriage of his intense creativity to the physical reality of being able to publish at will; both in science and in politics as well. Had Franklin not had the printing press, had he not been a printer, it is unlikely that much of his native talent would have been able to flourish. For this reason, he always referred to himself first as a printer.
Today printing presses are increasingly becoming museum pieces, relics of another era. But the power to print, the power to publish, has never been more open and more democratic. And now, as video moves rapidly to the web, the power to communicate ideas in video, that most powerful of media, is also rapidly becoming democratized as well.
I have no doubt that were Franklin alive today he would have not just embraced video and blogging, he would have had his own website and blog and vlog where he would daily post (as he did in parchment and ink) his opinions on a wide variety of ideas and concepts.
The more we can make people video literate, the more people we can make video literate, the greater our chances of creating more Franklins in the 21st Century, and so the richer and more intersting our culture and society will be.