Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Erasmus Darwin, 18 July 1772

From Erasmus Darwin3

ALS: American Philosophical Society

Lichfield Jul. 18—72

Dear Sir

I was unfortunate in not being able to go to Birmingham, till a Day after you left it.4 The apparatus you constructed with the Bladder and Funnel I took into my Pond the next Day, whilst I was bathing, and fill’d the Bladder well with unmix’d Air, that rose from the muddy Bottom, and tying it up, brought it Home, and then pricking the Bladder with a Pin, I apply’d the Flame of a Candle to it at all Distances, but it shew’d no Tendency to catch Fire. I did not try if it was calcareous fixable air.5

I shall be glad at your Leizure of any observations on the Alphabet, and particularly on the number and Formation of Vowels, as those are more intricate, than the other Letters.6 The Welch do not seem to have the W. Hence they call Woman, ‘Oman. I suspect the German W to be a sibilant W, and the same which the Middlesex People or Cockneys use, as in Women and Wine the say ’Vomen and ’Vine, but this Sound I suppose not to be our V. but the german W, or sibilant W.

It is possible the Welch may have consonat Letters form’d in the same part of the Mouth with our H, and the Spanish Ch. but I suspect the Lloyde is no other than the spanish Ch put before the L. The Northumberland People I think make the R a sibilant Letter?

I think there are but four Vowels, their successive Compounds, and their synchronous Compounds. For as they are made by apertures of different parts of the mouth, they may have synchronous, as well as successive Combinations. AW is made like H or Ch spanish by opening that part of the Fauces7 a little further. a is made like Sh. or I french. as in ale. e as in Eel is made like s or Z. O as in open, like W. The u as in use, is compounded of EU. i as in while is compounded of aw and e. But what is ah! as in garter? I know not. What the french u?

I have heard of somebody that attempted to make a speaking machine, pray was there any Truth in any such Reports?8 I am Sir with all Respect your obliged and obedient Servant

E Darwin

Lichfield Staffordshire

I would return you Dr. Priestley’s Pamphlet by the Coach but I suppose it is to be purchased at the Booksellers. My Friend Mr. Day who saw you at Lichfield intends himself the pleasure calling of you in London.9

Addressed: For / Dr. Benj Franklin / Craven Street / London.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3Charles Darwin’s grandfather, the doctor, scientist, inventor, and poet, whom BF had known since at least 1763: above, X, 227 n. Their relationship had not been close, but they had a number of mutual friends; and Darwin seems to have been stimulated by BF’s scientific suggestions. See Robert E. Schofield, The Lunar Society of Birmingham … (Oxford, 1963), pp. 24, 35, 60–1, 100; Desmond King-Hele, ed., The Essential Writings of Erasmus Darwin [London, 1968], p. 15.

4Although BF’s itinerary is not clear, his letter to Mary Hewson above, July 8, indicates that he was in Birmingham on that and the preceding day.

5This passage, although it leaves many questions unanswered, is significant in the light of Darwin’s later development. When BF constructed his apparatus and how it came into Darwin’s hands are not clear, but its purpose was to collect in pure form the gas (“unmix’d Air”) given off by matter decaying at the bottom of a body of water. Tests had shown that decaying matter released two gases in combination, one inflammable and the other not; see [James Keir,] A Treatise on the Various Kinds of … Gases (2nd ed., revised, London, 1779), pp. 36, 47, 72, 74. Experimenters in New Jersey years before had set marsh gas alight. In England BF had tried and failed to do so; Priestley had recently succeeded in collecting the gas. See above, XV, 121–2; Smyth, Writings, VI, 226–8; Phil. Trans., LXIV (1774), 93. One or the other man’s experiments must have accounted for BF’s apparatus. When Darwin used it, he apparently concluded that what he had was the incombustible gas, “calcareous fixable air,” but did not use the test described in Keir, op. cit., pp. 31–2. His curiosity was starting him on a long path. He had already begun the first of the four works that eventually promulgated his speculative theory of evolution, of which one of the most controversial parts was the spontaneous generation of life from organic matter decaying in water. See Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin (London, 1963), pp. 36, 122–4. Hence his bathing with BF’s bladder and funnel foreshadowed what became for him a major line of speculation.

6Darwin shared BF’s interest in phonetics and, like him, devised a phonetic alphabet. See the analysis of sounds in his additional notes, separately paginated, to his long poem, The Temple of Nature … (London, 1803), pp. 107–20.

7The passage from the mouth to the pharynx.

8Darwin himself had constructed a mechanical mouth, which pronounced some sounds so precisely that listeners thought a person speaking; and the invention is said to have been in operation by 1770. Ibid., pp. 119–20; Schofield, op. cit., pp. 109–10.

9The eccentric Thomas Day (1748–89), Darwin’s friend and at this time his neighbor in Lichfield, had strong scientific interests, which doubtless accounted for his desire to cultivate BF. Ibid., pp. 51–9 and passim; DNB.

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