Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Joseph Banks, 28 May 1783

From Joseph Banks

ALS: University of Pennsylvania Library

Soho Square May 28 1783

Dear Sir

I cannot Miss the opportunity of Our Mutual Assistant in the Experiment of Pouring Whale Oil on the surface of the Sea Dr. Blagden who no doubt you remember Stationd on shore to mark the Effect of our process,6 I cannot I say Miss the opportunity of his Journey to Paris to present to you my sincere congratulations on the return of peace which in whatever form she is worshipd bad peace or good Peace never fails to prove herself the Faithfull nurse of Science. Dr. Blagden has now for some years Servd as Physician to the Army both in America & at home with no small degree of reputation but the principal reason why I have requested him to wait upon you is that he is master of the present state of Science in this Countrey & will I am sure have great satisfaction in Amusing as well as instructing your leisure hours by ample information of what we pacific ones have been doing here during the past times of turbulency.7

You will find I hope that we have not been idle a new Planet & a new periodical Phenomenon happening to a fixd star mark the progress of Active astronomy.8 The point of Congelation of Mercury the Dr. himself has written largely about9 many many more are the things he will inform you of which hitherto I suppose you only to have heard in the press & I trust that the Politician has not so entirely devourd the Philosophical part of your Character but that you will wish to hear them in detail.

To lengthen this letter would be only to waste your time in unnecessary employment Dr. Blagden who is my mouth on this occasion will tell you every thing which you want to know & I could write.

May then your Philosophy revive & shine as high in the Annals of Literature as your Politicks will & do in those of America is the sincere wish of You Faithfull & Obedient Servant

Jos: Banks

Dr. Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

6This 1773 experiment, born of BF’s observing the effect of oil poured on the pond at Clapham Common, was an unsuccessful attempt to quiet the ocean surf on a blustery day in October. It involved several boats and numerous assistants: XX, 472–4.

7Charles Blagden (XX, 474n) served as an army surgeon on a hospital ship off the American coast for the first three years of the war. After his return to England he renewed contacts with Banks and the greater London scientific community while working in the military hospital in Plymouth. In late 1782 or early 1783 he became the assistant of the celebrated chemist Henry Cavendish and moved to London: ODNB; Christa Jungnickel and Russell McCormmach, Cavendish (Philadelphia, 1996), pp. 212–15.

Blagden arrived in Paris on June 4 and stayed through the end of July, meeting with as many scientists as possible and trying to establish more fluent communication between the Royal Society and the Académie des sciences. His trip sparked the so-called water controversy. On June 21 he read to Lavoisier and others an unpublished paper of Priestley’s describing work that revealed the chemical composition of water, based on an experiment by Cavendish. (Priestley had sent the manuscript to Banks in April, but Banks did not present it to the Royal Society until June 26: Phil. Trans., LXXIII [1783], 398–434.) Two days later Blagden dictated it to Le Roy and helped him translate it into French. On June 24, with Blagden at his side, Lavoisier repeated the experiment; the next day he presented the results to the Académie des sciences. Lavoisier’s subsequent publication of the discovery claimed primacy, sparking a long-lasting debate.

Blagden delivered the present letter to BF on June 6, but did not dine at Passy until the 26th; see his letter of June 22. Details of his trip are from his 1783 journal at the Yale University Library.

8Both the discovery of what is now called Uranus and the theory of the solar system’s movements were the work of William Herschel (1738–1822). Herschel received the Copley medal in 1781 for the former, though he initially thought it a comet. On Nov. 7, 1782, he announced to the Royal Society that the “star” was actually a “Primary Planet of our Solar System” and submitted a paper entitled “On the Diameter and Magnitude of the Georgium Sidus; With a Description of the Dark and Lucid Disk and Periphery Micrometers.” The following spring he submitted “On the proper Motion of the Sun and Solar System; with an Account of several Changes that have happened among the fixed Stars since the Time of Mr. Flamstead”: Phil. Trans., LXXIII (1783), 1–3, 4–14, 247–83.

9During the winter of 1781/82, Thomas Hutchins, stationed in Hudson’s Bay, performed a series of experiments for the Royal Society that determined the freezing point of mercury; these were based on Cavendish’s detailed instructions and apparatus. Hutchins’ paper was read to the Royal Society on April 10, 1783. Cavendish submitted his own “Observations” on Hutchins’ results on May 1. Blagden’s contribution was to write a lengthy history of all previous attempts, entitled “History of the Congelation of Quicksilver.” This was read to the Society on June 5, shortly after he left London; upon his return, he inserted additional information gleaned in Paris. His final version, and the other two papers mentioned above, are in Phil. Trans., LXXIII (1783), *303–*370, 303–28, 329–97.

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