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Do You Feel Lucky, Steampunk?

Benjamin Rush's 'Tranquilizer', ca. 1810
The Kinematrix Has You.

Speaking of Victorian internets… (Raise your hand if you figure I wrote all that just to give context to this.) It should go without saying, but these are not supposed to be nice alternate histories. The second one is particularly unpleasant–it’s like the photo negative of Gernsblack. Much as I love the steampunk aesthetic, a world combining 19th century ideas and prejudices with 21st century technology could in practice be pretty dire… Read more

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The Gilded Age Internet and the People's Telephone

Baa. Baa.

Ten years ago, Tom Standage wrote a best-seller called The Victorian Internet, which elaborated many similarities between the 19th century telegraph and today’s interwebs. One could write a similar book about the early telephone, and in some ways, I guess I am doing just that. (I will next write a book about the Pony Express called The Jacksonian Internet, then a book about CB radio called The Jimmy Carterian Internet, and finally a book about the internet called The Millennial Pneumatic Tube.) I met Standage at this year’s Business History Conference and he cheerfully admitted that he was in the business of “simplification and exaggeration.” After several years of doing the opposite to the history of telephony, simplifying and exaggerating sounds like something fun to try.

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The Further Adventures of Ben Franklin's Ghost

The other day, I posted about Ben Franklin’s posthumous popularity as the go to ghost for American spiritualists. Probably Franklin’s most frequent and energetic earthly correspondent was an abolitionist minister turned spiritualist named John Murray Spear. In 1851 or 1852, Spear and his daughter Sophronia began seeking messages from the spirit world. In 1853, they announced that Spear had become the mouthpiece for the General Assembly of Spirits, a benevolent association of departed worthies like Franklin, Jefferson, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Assembly of Spirits was divided into a number of committees and subcommittees: the “Educationizers,” the “Governmentizers,” the “Healthfulizers,” the “Agriculturalizers,” and so on, but it was the “Electricizers,” headed of course by Franklin, who had immediate plans for Spear.

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Great Franklin's Ghost

I’ve been reading about Ben Franklin again—what else is new? But this time it’s actually related to a project, something I’m tinkering at with Bill Turkel and the clever, clever elves at the Center for History and New Media. About that project, more later. In the meantime, when you dine with Franklin, a side order of old weird America is always on the menu. Things come up that don’t fit even Bill or the CHNM’s generous definitions of serious history. Lucky for you, I have a blog…

Great Franklin's Ghost
Great Franklin’s Ghost!

Benjamin Franklin was not, as he is often remembered, a statesman who happened to dabble in science—that sounds more like Thomas Jefferson—but a scientist who happened to dabble in statecraft. (This according to Joyce Chaplin’s terrific The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. And if you enjoy that, definitely see James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America.) But as Franklin’s star rose in the century after his death, it was Poor Richard’s Yankee practicality that people remembered. Doctor Franklin the Enlightenment magus faded from popular memory. (On this, see also Pamela Laird’s Pull: Networking and Success Since Benjamin Franklin. Yeah, there are a lot of books about Franklin.) Washington was the soldier’s hero, and Jefferson remained beloved by democrats and other bearded yokels, but for industrializing America, Franklin the penny-counting businessman was the great archetype and inspiration: Early to bed and a penny earned, the Horatio Alger hero before there was Horatio Alger. Franklin’s science mostly dropped out of the picture: He invented bifocals, didn’t he? And something about a kite?

But there was one segment of American society which kept the memory of Franklin as scientist alive. In the middle to late nineteenth century, millions of Americans dabbled in spiritualism, visiting seances, decoding table rappings, pushing Ouija-style planchettes, and watching mediums emit ectoplasmic goo. And no spirit from the Other Side—no Puritan preacher, no messiah, no rich dead uncle—communicated with American spiritualists more frequently than the ghost of Benjamin Franklin. (And on this, see Werner Sollors’ 1983 article, “Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Celestial Telegraph, Or Indian Blessings to Gas-Lit American Drawing Rooms.” OK, I’ll stop doing that now.)

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