Wharton IGEL and Benjamin Franklin, Penn’s Founding Father Figure

by Peter Woolsey*

Were you aware of the fact that Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University of Pennsylvania, discovered the North Atlantic drift in his voyages across the Atlantic? He also tamed electricity, advocated a frugal use of resources, and laid out a series of rules for a sustainable lifestyle.

Benjamin Franklin became aware of a variety of natural influences and sought to understand them long before they were “discovered” by later scientists. In 1785, while he was sailing home from France, he took the temperature of the ocean from his ship and recorded the warm water temperatures in the North Atlantic. He lowered an empty bottle to 35 fathoms with a cork in its mouth, at which point the water pressure forced the cork from its mouth and allowed it to fill. He noticed that the water gathered from that depth was six degrees cooler than that on the surface. In a similar experiment using a wooden keg with two valves, he found that water on the bottom was twelve degrees cooler than the water on the surface. He provided temperature charts and maps along with a suggestion that the thermometer could be a useful instrument for navigation, as it would enable captains to catch a ride on the Gulf Stream going eastbound –as well as avoiding it westbound. This could potentially shave off a week or more of intercontinental travel.

In seeking to promote the objectives of Wharton IGEL, and create a wider awareness of and interest in the global environment and climate change, it is worth reviewing the remarkable life of Benjamin Franklin and considering his many achievements. The “American Dream” that Benjamin Franklin promoted was one of simple, modest living, benefiting from the new democratic freedoms that were not possible in so many European countries. He also promoted and personally demonstrated his willingness to help his own community in many different ways. He promoted the virtues of the “middle classes” and fought the aristocracy all his life.

As a young man, Benjamin escaped from his native Boston to go live in Philadelphia, and succeeded in sustaining himself with hard work. He then spent his life fighting for democratic government, sensible taxes, and a minimum standard for all, rather than tremendous wealth for a few. We should encourage a return to a more democratic use of wealth and resources citing the 13 principles for living by which Benjamin Franklin tried to live his life. Originally there were just twelve:

  • Temperance
  • Silence
  • Order
  • Resolution
  • Frugality
  • Industry
  • Sincerity
  • Justice
  • Moderation
  • Cleanliness
  • Tranquility
  • Chastity

To these twelve, a Quaker friend kindly suggested he should add Humility, as Ben was prone to being guilty of pride. Of these, Benjamin emphasized the need for a democratic society observing Frugality, Industry, and especially Moderation. He was against a few prosperous aristocrats living only on wealth gained from inheritances. He was also against the earning of large fortunes, unless they were used for the common good.

The concept of Moderation should be applied to the distribution of world resources. The Earth cannot support the current high-consumption nature of ‘The American Dream” for more than a few. Promoting such a concept will only cause envy, frustration and lead to civil unrest. It is far better to encourage a more self-sustaining way of life, using cleaner energy resources such as solar, wind, renewable biomass and geothermal. Reading Ben’s own Autobiography and learning about his 13 principles can be a good step for living a good and ethical life and for self-help and personal development.

In successive generations the philosophy and principles of Benjamin Franklin inspired and motivated people as different as Andrew Carnegie and Dale Carnegie, both of whom credited their individual success to their reading of and adoption of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, especially those compiled in the yearly Poor Richard’s Almanack, a successful publication. Benjamin Franklin regarded these almanacs as a “vehicle for conveying instruction among the common folk”.[i] These almanacs outsold the Bible in the U.S. They resulted in his publication, The Way to Wealth that became the most famous book to be written and exported from colonial America. It was reprinted in 145 editions and translated into seven languages, becoming a source of wealth for Benjamin Franklin. This publication has now exceeded 1,300 editions.

Benjamin Franklin’s individual experiments, writings and influences on western political thought show that awareness of environmental protection and conservation date to the early colonial times. Yet his teachings are still of relevance today.

* Peter Woolsey, Rotary Foundation Fellow, The Wharton School 1966. Peter is a member of the Wharton IGEL Alumni Advisory Group.


[i] Franklin, B. (2005). The Way to Wealth. ISBN-10: 9788352138

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