I love it when a confluence of interests come together, and such was the case for me last week when I learned something new about Benjamin Franklin that also involved Ludwig van Beethoven.  I wrote about Franklin last July 4th, not only due to his involvement in the founding of the country, but also because he was a peculiar, but talented, Rennaissance man.  Last week I began watching the new Apple TV series, “Franklin”, starring Michael Douglas.  I wanted to fact-check something I saw and that led me down the primrose path that I’m writing about this week.  First, I have to say, I’ve only watched the first episode of the series and it appears to be quite well done.  That said, whenever I see Douglas on screen, I can’t help but think of Gordon Gekko and his famous, “Greed is good” line.  I find it very distracting.  Secondly, much of the dialogue is sub-titled.  I’m all for authenticity (which is why they all speak French), but when you’re trying to do something else, in my case, knit, I hate it when I miss the gist of what’s going on because I missed reading the subtitles.  Anyway, it you don’t mind subtitles – or you don’t knit – you may thoroughly enjoy the story.

Franklin’s armonica

In doing my fact-check I discovered that among the items Franklin invented is the armonica.  No, not harmonica, like Stevie Wonder.  The armonica consists of a series of glass bowls that make different sounds.  Franklin got his inspiration after he saw an Englishman, Edward Delaval, playing water-filled wine glasses.  And haven’t we all done that at a dinner party? Franklin worked with London glassblower Charles James to build his new instrument and it had its world premiere in early 1762.  His armonica consisted of 37 glass bowls of varying sizes, arranged concentrically to eliminate the need for water and mounted on a rounded rod. The rod was moved by a foot pedal, and the glass bowls were played by rubbing one’s fingers along their edges. It was meant to produce tones similar to “singing” glasses. Franklin wrote from London in 1762 about his musical instrument: “The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressure of the finger, and that the instrument being well-tuned, never again needs tuning.”

The armonica was an instant sensation. Marie Antoinette took lessons, Thomas Jefferson was a fan, and Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both composed music for the novel instrument. As I recounted here in January, one of my goals for 2024 is to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by the end of the year, so I’ve been studying a bit about Beethoven as well.  He only wrote one major piece for the armonica (and thank God it wasn’t “Moonlight Sonata”.  But I do enjoy learning that two historical people that I admire also admired each other.

Despite its initial popularity, the armonica fell out of favor by the 1820s, due in part to its purported negative effects on mental health — attributed at first to the instrument’s ethereal tones, but later thought to be due to lead poisoning from the paint applied to the bowls. There was never any scientific proof of lead poisoning, but even without the sensation of social media, false stories spread about it and in some cities, it was banned as a safety precaution.

Franklin at his invention

Today, the armonica is used by some niche musicians, a second life that would surely please Franklin, who said the instrument had brought him “the most personal satisfaction.” An original Franklin armonica is in the archives at the Franklin Institute in Philidelphia, having been donated in 1956 by Franklin’s descendants after the children took great delight in breaking the bowls with spoons during family gatherings. It is only placed on display for special occasions, such as Franklin’s birthday.

I walked away from learning about this with two thoughts: first, I’d like to think that Ben and Ludwig are somewhere rocking out together on the armonica and second, I think the Franklin family gatherings might have been a lot of fun.



By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

As I have previously mentioned, probably ad nauseum, I am a committed Anglophile.  Give me a good BritBox mystery show and a cup of Earl Grey and I’m in my element.  I have often wondered what side I would have chosen in the Revolutionary War.  One can’t assume that the people who resided in “the colonies” were automatically revolutionaries, or “Patriots”, as they were known.  It is estimated that 15-20% of the British people living here remained loyal to the crown.  Thus, they were known as “Loyalists”.  Probably most notable among them, ironically, was William Franklin, the son of Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Many families at the time had divided loyalties, but none were as prominent – or as interesting – as the Franklins.

Flying the kite

William Franklin was born in Boston in 1730 and was Benjamin’s acknowledged illegitimate son.  He was raised by Franklin and his common-law wife, Deborah Read. Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall when Franklin had that discussion with his wife?  In any event, Franklin saw to William’s schooling and taught him the printing trade. William helped Benjamin publish Poor Richard’s Almanac and also assisted his father with many of his scientific investigations including his famous kite and lightening experiment.  Benjamin obtained a military commission for William during the French and Indian War, and later used his influence to help William be appointed to positions such as Controller of the General Post Office and Clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In other words, he was a nepo kid. When Benjamin’s government role took him to England, William accompanied him and formed many relationships with the British aristocracy.  When George III became King, William was appointed Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1862 and Benjamin could not have been prouder.  However, in the more than ten years that William served in that position his views diverged from his father’s, leading to a rift that would never quite heal.

Benjamin, sometimes referred to as a ‘reluctant revolutionary’, hoped at first that differences with the British could be resolved. When he did join the revolutionary cause, though, he was fully committed. He expected William would do likewise. In August 1775 Franklin traveled to New Jersey to convince William to join the rebellion. He told his son he would be accepted with open arms by those opposing the King and could easily win a generalship in the army forming under George Washington. But William believed America’s best chance to succeed lay in remaining with Britain. He firmly believed most Americans would not support the rebellion. He gave his famous “two roads” speech to the New Jersey legislature urging them to refuse to endorse the newly formed Continental Congress and take the road to prosperity as part of England rather than the road to civil war and anarchy. His efforts were to no avail.

A Loyalist being tarred and feathered

Ever a Loyalist, William secretly informed the British of revolutionary activities. Unfortunately for him, a packet of his letters was intercepted by the rebels who passed the information to the Continental Congress. They requested William be exiled from New Jersey. He was sent to Connecticut where he was jailed and placed in solitary confinement in a cell for prisoners about to be executed. Shocked at his harsh treatment, he wrote to Governor Trumball of Connecticut, “I suffer so much in being buried alive, having no one to speak with day or night…that I should deem it a favor to be immediately taken out and shot.”  Being shot was actually more humane than the normal punishment for Loyalists, most of whom were tarred and feathered. William’s wife became gravely ill and died while he was imprisoned. During all his travails, Benjamin exerted no effort on his behalf, leaving William to face the consequences of his decisions. In 1777, suffering from ill health, he was exchanged with another prisoner and allowed to go to New York. From there he departed for England where he would live in exile for the rest of his life.

William attempted to reconcile with Benjamin while the latter was in Paris as one of America’s peace commissioners, but Benjamin rebuffed William’s overture. The two would never mend their differences, each remaining true to his convictions.  They never saw each other again.

So, tomorrow, if you find yourself with family or friends with whom you have divergent views, don’t be the Franklins.  Find a way to compromise…or just chug another beer and agree to disagree.


When Did ‘Independence Day’ Become the ‘4th of July’?

by Bob Sparrow


Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin

Ahhh, the 4th of July – warm weather, baseball games, parades, old glory flying, fireworks, barbecues and beer. Who doesn’t love that? The neighborhood I live in has made this day a very special one from the time our kids were very small. We’ve had parades where the kids decorated their bikes in red, white and blue streamers. We’d go to the local school grounds and taught the kids to play softball until the year that they taught us. We’d play horseshoes and go swimming. We’d barbecue burgers and hot dogs, have a few cold beers (not the kids!) and when it got dark we launched some fireworks.

We thought it was the perfect 4th of July, and it probably was, but it wasn’t the perfect ‘Independence Day’. Nary a word was spoken about the courage of George Washington, the eloquent writing of Thomas Jefferson, the legal leadership of John Adams, or the many talents of Benjamin Franklin. And with all the media we’re surrounded with today, I’m betting that you don’t hear much about these heroes this week as we prepare for what is suppose to be a celebration of what these, and many other courageous men and women, did to create this incredible country.

It’s curious how we’ve personified virtually every other holiday we celebrate with characters, from Father Time to Santa Claus, but we’ve actually taken the Independence‘characters’, our Founding Fathers, out of our Independence Day celebration and relegated it to just a date.  It would be like instead of calling it Christmas, we’d just call it ’25th of December’, or instead of Easter we’d call it the ‘first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox’; OK, maybe we’d keep that one as Easter.  Independence Day is many American’s favorite holiday, but it’s because of the aforementioned activities not because we spend much time recalling and recognizing the deeds of the truly amazing people who founded this nation.

I suspect part of the reason for our lack enthusiasm over celebrating as the victors of the Revolutionary War, is that we don’t see England as our enemy anymore. In fact, they are, arguably, our strongest ally, but back in the day, they were not so very nice to us and they were particularly pissed when we told them to take their taxes and tea bags and put them where the sun don’t shine.


King George III

King George III, king of England at the time of our revolution, was a particularly annoying bastard – you can read some of our grievances with him in the actual Declaration of Independence, which, by the way can be printed on two typewritten pages – sans signatures. Maybe this year, you could print it out and read it during the barbecue, preferably before ‘beer thirty’. You might also mention that our Founding Father’s were not only courageous, but were very intelligent and interesting people. To wit:

–       George Washington, who is the only US president never to run for president, was elected twice by a unanimous decision of the Electoral College (He got every vote!) – popular vote was not used in those days. As president, he refused to be paid. But, he was also the richest president in history, with total assets in excess of $500 million in today’s dollars.

–       Thomas Jefferson publicly opposed slavery, even though he owned slaves his entire adult life and had 5 children with his slave, Sally Hemings.

–       John Adams died on the same day as his rival Thomas Jefferson on July 4th, 1826, the 50thanniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

–       The multi-talented Benjamin Franklin could speak 6 languages: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin . . . and English

–       Our first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was shot and mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr in one of the most famous duels in American history.

–       Patrick Henry, an attorney, had many people who had nothing to do with a case visit his court hearings just to hear him speak; he was that good of a public speaker.

–       Benedict Arnold, the famous traitor, was a General in both the American and British armies – some say at the same time.

I hope you all have a great 4th of July, but I also hope that you also make it a great ‘Independence Day’ and remember those who, nearly 240 years ago, gave us the freedoms that we so enjoy to this day.