May 102013
 
Schuylkill River

A bit of levity for a Friday afternoon! I know that sometimes I make life difficult for my children. They have the “mom on a mission”/”wacky history lady” living in their midst. I find the Founding Fathers, Founding Documents, and Founding Principles so fascinating that I just have to share all the interesting things that I find with them. Consequently, my poor cherubs are constantly pelted with questions beginning with: “Did you know,” “Have you heard of,” or “Have you read?” Well, here’s a twist on what usually goes on around my house! Last night, we were finishing up dinner. My older daughter was describing an idea that she had for an invention. Somehow the conversation shifted and she asked me, “Mom, did you know that Ben Franklin invented flippers?” My first reaction was, “No. No. Ben Franklin invented an array of amazing things but surely not swim fins….” My daughter, who spent considerable time reading about Franklin in the fifth grade, assured me that she was correct. She hopped on her IPAD and quickly found a reference. Much to my amazement, Benjamin Franklin was an avid swimmer! 

It is common knowledge that Ben Franklin was an inventor who designed a number of items that continue to be in use today. Bifocal glasses, an odometer, and the lightening rod are amongst his most notable inventions. But swimming fins, really? Actually, they were more of swim paddles to wear on the hands. Franklin, himself, was not happy with the fins he designed for his feet. Franklin developed the swim paddles when he was eleven years old! In Franklin’s autobiography, produced by his grandson William Temple Franklin, in 1818, the following passage from Franklin was included: “When a youth, I made two oval pallets, each about ten inches long, and six broad, with a hole for the thumb, in order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter’s pallets. In swimming I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I remember I swam faster by means of these pallets, but they fatigued my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals, but I was not satisfied with them, because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles, and not entirely with the soles of the feet.”

As Franklin continued to impart his thoughts about swimming as a healthful and relaxing activity, he related the following story from his childhood: “When I was a boy, I amused myself one day with flying a paper kite, and approaching the bank of a pond which was near a mile broad, I tied the string to a stake, and the kite ascended to a very considerable height above the pond while I was swimming. In a little time being desirous of amusing myself with my kite and enjoying at the same time the pleasure of swimming, I returned; and, loosing from the stake the string with the little stick which was fastened to it, went again into the water where I found that, lying on my back and holding the stick in my hands, I was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner. Having then engaged another boy to carry my clothes round the pond, to a place which I pointed out to him on the other side, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over without the least fatigue, and with the greatest pleasure imaginable. I was only obliged occasionally to halt a little in my course, and resist its progress, when it appeared that by following too quick, I lowered the kite too much; by doing which I occasionally made it rise again.”
In my mind, that story transformed Benjamin Franklin from a lofty Founding Figure to a human being who had a host of childhood memories just like the rest of us. It brings a smile to my face to think of little Ben Franklin figuring out that his kite could pull him across the pond using the force of the wind? I am not sure which of the ponds in Massachusetts that Franklin referenced, but he was known to swim in the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania which is featured in this image.

Franklin was so enthusiastic about swimming that he once swam more than three miles in the Thames River, as well as encouraging other adults to learn how to swim. He also advised that children be taught to swim: “’’Tis supposed that every parent would be glad to have their children skilled in swimming, if it might be learnt in a place chosen for its safety and under the eye of a careful person . . .’tis some advantage besides, to be free from the slavish terrors many of those feel who cannot swim, when they are obliged to be on the water even in crossing a ferry.” Benjamin Franklin was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968.

My daughter maintains her contention that Franklin also invented a pair of fins for his feet that he found to be useful. I could not find verification of such. If you have any information, please feel free to enlighten me!

Please take a moment to reflect on the amazing inventions made by our fellow countrymen, and What IS Right With America!

Susan

Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.

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