Fuse #8

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Review of the Day: A Dangerous Engine

There are certain historical figures with whom I wouldn’t mind being pals with. I always thought that Teddy Roosevelt would be a great buddy. Ditto (and don’t ask me why I think this) Abe Lincoln. But let’s go even farther back in time. Who’s the Founding Father you’d love to shoot the breeze with? The guy who could hold his end of a conversation but still have time to found a nation? Not Washington. He had his points but charm and wit were not amongst them. Maybe Sam Adams, though you’d have to figure out whether you liked him better drunk or sober. Nope, I’m thinking of one feller and one feller alone. Ben Franklin. Everyone loves Ben Franklin. And of course, aside from helping birth our little nation, Ben was a diplomat and scientist extraordinaire. I would daresay that aside from Rosa Parks, Harry Houdini, and Helen Keller, children’s biographies of Mr. Franklin are among the most prolific. Now we’ve a new take on Ben’s life in, A Dangerous Engine by Joan Dash. Definitely intended for those scientifically and politically minded children (in short, kids like Benjamin Franklin himself), the book is not really going to go over too well with large swaths of the child reader population. It’s an in-depth story that fills a definite gap in children’s libraries everywhere but it’s written for one in ten children, at least. For some kids this will be dull stuff. For others, it's a beautifully penned, insightful, meticulously researched and truly informative treatise on everything from “Where does electricity really come from?” to “Did John Adams really have it in for Ben?”.

Born, as we all know, in Boston in 1706, Ben Franklin was his family’s fifteenth child and last boy. He went into printing with his brother, then took off to find his fortune when he was in his late teens. In his life he wed, created a newspaper, performed experiments, became a diplomat for America, and died. Sounds simple, yes? But the life he led was a complex and remarkable thing. Dash explains Franklin’s early scientific discoveries, during the course of which she is able to basically explain how our ancestors began to play with and discover electricity. We see Franklin’s family members and how his relationship with others changed over the years. We see him in England for at least a decade and then in France where he was loved and adored. We see his flaws, his successes, his triumphs, and his shattered pride. In-depth, extensive, and engaging, Dash has given us one of the more amazing biographies of this great man and required reading for anyone truly interested in his life.

As I mentioned before, this is not a book for every child. I admit that my supremely unscientific mind would waver, swoop, and wander about when the discussions of electricity got too technical. Dash is simplifying everything as well as she possibly can, of course. In the book's excellent Bibliography she writes of discovering a rare book entitled, “Ben Franklin’s Experiments, A new Edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity” by I. Bernard Cohen. Cohen’s book contains an introduction that was intended to, “make Franklin’s experiments, and eighteenth-century electricity in general, understandable to nontechnical people, a group I belong to”. I was a little surprised to hear this as I found myself repeatedly rereading the sections of this book pertaining to electricity. Obviously, older child readers of the scientific persuasion are going to have an easier time with this than myself. Still, I suspect that for a large swath of the young ‘un population, this book will bog down in the experiment sections, then pick up again when it returns to Ben’s life.

And what a life it was! Illegitimate children cropping up not only from Ben but from his own illegitimate children as well. His persnickety intentions towards controlling his family members. His multiple feuds, fights (though he was a passive fellow), and methods. There were lots of facts about Franklin I never knew and learned from this book. Seemingly at odds with his personality in some ways was the fact that he never patented any of his inventions. I also never knew he invented a brand new instrument called the armonica (try Googling it for fun). Most impressively, Dash is able to tie in Franklin’s continuing influence today. She at one point mentions a federal interagency group that came to the conclusion, “That Franklin, or conventional, lightning protection systems ... are highly effective in preventing lightning damage”.

For the most part, A Dangerous Engine is split into two parts. One looks at Franklin’s scientific life. The other, his diplomatic life. On the diplomatic side we see Franklin playing the French off their fears that America would join once more with England unless they received more aid. It is also necessary to note that the book, for the most part, doesn’t downplay Franklin’s many faults. On slavery the man was less than holy. Says the book, “Franklin took a cool and slightly scornful attitude toward the institution of slavery; the slaves themselves, he said, were lazy and unreliable”. And, of course, he owned two. Later he would join with the abolitionists, “not on humanitarian grounds but because it made white people lazy and proud”.

In terms of research, this book exceeds any and all expectations. The Bibliography, as I have mentioned, is superb. Better still are the Source Notes. Dash even takes time to mention that, “Readers will notice that some quotations retain the eighteenth-century spelling and punctuation, while others have been modernized. This is because I have followed the style used by my sources”. Does she cover her bases or what?

If I were to try and find a companion for A Dangerous Engine, the book I would pair this title with would have to be the recent and remarkable The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence by Marc Aronson. Both titles are different takes on figures from the American Revolution, to say nothing of the Revolution itself. In Dash’s case, she is helped in no small part by the obscure book on Franklin’s experiments found while she was browsing the Physics Library at the University of Washington. Should you know of a scientifically minded youth with a penchant for history (and they do exist) hand over “A Dangerous Engine” forthwith. Charming and extensive.

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