Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from William James, 7 June 1783

From William James

ALS: American Philosophical Society

Grand Hotel de Russie, Rue Richlieu,
June 7th. 1783—


Since I had the honor of waiting upon you I have gained no Intelligence of Mr Sayre,5 for which Reason I have thoughts of Returning Immediately to England. But before I quitted Paris I was desirous of Informing you, that I am the person, that for near twenty years, wrote in the English Newspapers upon public Improvements, many of which in Consequence have taken place.— My Objects were Roads, Rivers, Bridges, pavements, Carriages, Copper Sheathing Line of Battle ships, Roman Oval sewers, Rounding off the Angles of narrow streets, levelling the Ground And Iron Railing Churchyards &ca &ca—6 When I was in Paris six years ago, Monsr Le Roy of the Academy at the Louvre, Invited me to his Apartments to Consult me upon a Vareity of Matters but many Things that we Agreed upon have not been Carried into Execution, by which Neglect Paris is secondary to London in many Circumstances.—7 As I think your Influence would have the desired effect, if not out of the line of your Amusement, I have taken the liberty of sending you my Opinion.— Every street in Paris should have Trottoires, or Footways of broad Stones.— Such as have not width Enough for 2 footways, And two Carriages, should Admit of One Carriage Only. And where not wide Enough for One Carriage with footways paved with flat stones like Cranbourne Ally Liecester Fields, Change Ally &ca— The streets of London never became Magnificent, nor the shops elegant until Enginiers gave the level, And formed the footways upon their present principle, And the Carriageways upon a small Convex.— In this Improvement I include the footways of the Boulevards, to make them Equally perfect in wet weather.— The next Thing I would Recommend is the upright Roman Oval sewer, As now Carrying on in London six feet high, which Receives the filth of all the Houses, And Conveys it to the Thames.— It would likewise be of great Advantage to France, to pass an Edict, that all Carriages should have a proportional broad wheel According to their several Classes, those with four wheels to Roll double surfaces— The preservation of the Roads, And pavements, in this great Monarchy, would be an Immense saving, As would the lessening the Number of Horses.— I Could Save the State some hundred thousand pounds a year, in Reforming these Kind of Abuses, having spent at least One Thousand pounds On Carriages in Experiments.— The best wheels Ever Invented Are the Hoop Fellies.— I have tried them many years, And Know their Merit.— You have the Reputation of the Invention.—8 The destruction of the pavements in paris is Owing intirely to narrow wheels— In time the flat square, becomes Round headed, great weights Are moved with difficulty, Cruelty Ensues, and all Carriages are shook to pieces.— In London I have drawn 29 Sacks of Coals with 2 Horses, which is 2 Chaldron And 5 sacks.—9 4 Chaldron with six Horses, And 5 Chaldrons Or 63 sacks 15 Miles with Eight Horses.— In a Chariot, Mr Viny that makes the hoop Felly wheels, has Run 28 Miles with One Horse in 3 Hours with two people in it—1 Before I left London, I Compleated for a Family of your Acquaintance, a post Chariot with the front wheels 4 feet 10 Inches high, with a Strait perch.— It is As short As Another Carriage, And locks As Easy, the perch bolt being Advanced in front of the Axle.— I Judge Also, that making the natural Rivers of Any Kingdom navigable without Locks, by Improved ballast Work, a most Advantageous Improvement.— I tried the Experiment On the Thames, And supplied the Roads with ballast.— With a Wheel of 15 feet diameter I Could Raise 100 Tun in 4 Hours.— For want of this being Carried into Execution the Thames is Unnavigable several Months in the year.— By a Calculation I found that 300 Tuns from Staines to London of a day Made a saving Against Land Carriage of £25000 a year—2 Judge then What pains should be taken to Abolish All Lock work on natural Rivers And to Avoid them when possible On Artificial Canals.— I have taken the liberty of sending what Width I think would aggrandize France.—3

Inches Inches
waggons 9 to roll 16 12 Horses not less than 2 abreast.
6 to roll 12  8
3 to roll  6  4
carts 9  6
6  4
3  1
} 4 to roll  8  6 Horses— No Luggage
private Coaches
Chariotts &ca
} 2½ to roll  5  6 Horses
Light Carriages
with One horse

If I have trespassed a Moment upon your Time Improperly, I beg to Apologize, And to Assure you that I am with great Respect, Sr, your most, Obedt Hum Servt,

Wm James.

P.S. Is it not a pity that all France does not Employ Hoop Felly Wheels.—

To Dr Franklin—

Notation: William James Paris June 7. 1783

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

5Stephen Sayre’s final extant letter to BF was written in June, 1782: XXXVII, 469–70. By December he was in Bordeaux, preparing to return to America aboard the Minerva and vainly hoping that he would be entrusted with official dispatches from the American commissioners. He directed his request for a passport to Jay because he did not expect BF to reply: Sayre to Jay, Dec. 10, 1782, Columbia University Library; John R. Alden, Stephen Sayre: American Revolutionary Adventurer (Baton Rouge, La., and London, 1983), pp. 135–6. The Minerva did not sail until mid-March and arrived in Philadelphia on April 22: Pa. Packet or the Gen. Advertiser, April 24, 1783.

6James had been peppering London newspapers with these articles since the 1750s. Most appeared in the Public Advertiser, and almost all were published anonymously. Occasionally James signed with his initials, writing from Garraway’s Coffeehouse. More often, if he signed at all, he employed pseudonyms such as “A Friend to Broad Wheels” (Gen. Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Feb. 21, 1778) and “An Enemy to Locks and Shoals” (Public Advertiser, Aug. 21, 1781), reflections of his two primary missions: to improve roads through the use of proportional broad wheels, and to better inland waterways through ballast work instead of locks. These projects, he argued, would dramatically reduce British debt.

7James had, in fact, used his meeting with Le Roy to leverage public improvements in England. In 1778 he warned Parliament that the French ministry meant “to improve upon the English” not only by adopting a nationwide plan for proportional broad wheels but also by establishing manufactories for British hoop fellies (mentioned below) in every province, reforms expressly “under the Care of the ingenious Mons. le Roy”: Gen. Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, Feb. 21, 1778; St. James’s Chron. or the British Evening Post, Sept. 12, 1778.

8BF had suggested the method of using steam to bend single-piece hoop felly wheels to Joseph Jacob and John Viny in the early 1770s; see XX, 157–8, and the letter from John Viny and Family, May 21, above. James had advocated these wheels from the beginning, claiming that they outlasted common wheels, would lessen the consumption of timber by four-fifths, and would save the public hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling annually in horses and road repairs. He urged Parliament to abolish “all but the bent felly wheels” and to “buy out this patent, and throw the improvement open to all the ingenious wheelwrights in general”: Public Advertiser, April 17 and Dec. 1, 1772; Morning Chron. and London Advertiser, Jan. 20, 1773, and Feb. 14, 1774.

9One chaldron is the equivalent of 12 sacks or 36 bushels.

1James also praised John Viny’s stagecoach design and in 1784 argued that it be the model for the next government “mail-machine,” as it was the “most expeditious carriage in the kingdom”: Public Advertiser, April 30, 1777; July 28 and Aug. 26, 1784.

2James had repeatedly announced the findings of both experiments in the London press, with varying levels of detail. See, for example, the St. James’s Chron. or the British Evening Post of Oct. 29, 1782, for the first, and the Public Advertiser of Oct. 23, 1780, for the second.

3The following plan for proportional broad wheels had appeared repeatedly in the London papers, in various forms, for over a decade. See, for example, the Morning Chron. and London Advertiser, Jan. 20, 1773.

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