AL (draft): Library of Congress; copy: American Philosophical Society
Letters to the editor written in the guise of a woman were one of Franklin’s earliest and favorite forms of satire. The present example is the only instance we have seen of his crafting this sort of spoof in France. Whether it was truly intended for publication or simply meant to amuse his friends is not known; no mention of it has been found in any of his correspondence, and it never appeared in print. Despite its obvious appeal, the piece lay unidentified among Franklin’s papers until the present edition was launched.9
Franklin drafted this letter in French. The heavily labored manuscript shows him trying to refine his wording, correct the genders of his nouns, and wrestle his verbs into the proper form. He had his grandson Benny Bache prepare a fair copy, which suffers from Benny’s occasional spelling errors, and that copy was shown to a Frenchman—possibly Le Roy—who interlined a few suggestions, which we note in annotation. We publish the text as Franklin wrote it.
The problem so ingeniously solved by this female “subscriber” (“abonnée” is in the feminine) was one that French scientists were considering in the summer of 1783: how to generate the lightest and least expensive gas to fill a balloon. In late July, when Montgolfier announced his plan to demonstrate a machine aérostatique in Paris, scientists began speculating on what mysterious substance he could be using. Based on the calculations he had submitted, they realized that whatever it was, it could never achieve the levity of the newly discovered air inflammable (hydrogen), which was ten times lighter than air. Generating a sufficient quantity of hydrogen, however, would be painstaking and very expensive. As noted elsewhere in this volume, a team led by the physicist Jacques-Alexandre-César Charles raised public money to fabricate a balloon and fill it with l’air inflammable. Their highly publicized work culminated in a launch on August 27 witnessed by thousands of delighted spectators who, it seems, could talk of little else for weeks. When describing the experiment to Joseph Banks on August 30, Franklin mentioned a few of the fanciful applications that were being discussed, ranging from manned flight to refrigeration.1
Ascribing a date to this manuscript has posed its challenges, but we think it likely that Franklin wrote it in the giddy aftermath of Charles’s August 27 experiment. According to this “abonnée,” even a fool such as herself knew that there existed a substance ten times lighter still than l’air inflammable and available in abundance.
[after August 27, 1783]
On dit que les Chemistes font tous leurs efforts pour trouver un Air plus leger & moins dispendieux que l’air inflammable pour remplir les Aerostats (nom donné aux Ballons par notre savante Academie.) Il est vraiment Singulier que les hommes aussi eclairés que ceux de notre Siècle cherchent continuellement dans l’Art ce que la Nature offre partout à tout le monde, & qu’une Sotte telle que moi soye2 la premiere a en trouver l’Application. Mais je ne ferai pas un Secret de mon Invention, ni ne demanderai aucune Recompence du Gouvernement, ni aucun Privilege exclusive. Si vous desirez remplir vos Ballons d’une Matiere dix fois plus leger que l’Air inflammable, vous la pouvez trouver en grande quantité dans les Promesses des Amans & des Courtisans, dans les Soupirs de nos Veufs;3 dans les bonnes Resolutions faites pendant une Tempete en Mer, ou dans une Maladie à Terre; & surtout dans les louanges contenus dans les Lettres de Recommendation.4
Je suis, &c
9. Claude-Anne Lopez recognized this piece in our archive and published an English translation in Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, p. 222.
1. See BF to Banks, July 27 and Aug. 30.
2. BF meant “soit.” The correction was made on the fair copy.
3. Interlined on the fair copy is the suggestion: “ceux qui deviennent veufs”.
4. Within months of arriving in Paris, BF satirized the French convention of writing empty letters of recommendation in his “Model of a Letter of Recommendation of a Person You Are Unacquainted with”: XXIII, 549–50. See also BF to RB and SB, July 27, above. In this piece, he is playing on the French expression “en l’air” (idle, empty, shallow, silly) as applied to words or ideas, which had its English equivalent in the adjective “airy.”