Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Joseph Banks, 9 December 1783

From Joseph Banks

ALS: American Philosophical Society

Soho Square Decr. 9 1783

Dear Sir

The Friendship which I have Experiencd from you in your so speedily sending me Accounts of the Progress of the new Art of Flying which makes such rapid advances in the Countrey you now inhabit I beg to acknowledge with real gratitude. I wish I had more than gratitude something(?) to Communicate in return but times must Come when I shall be able to repay the debt which you have accumulated upon me with so much Friendly perseverance & beleive me I shall do it with a grateful pleasure.

Charles’s Experiment seems decisive & must be performd here in its full extent. I have hitherto been of Opinion that it is unwise to struggle for the honor of an invention which is absultely(?) Effected. Practical Flying we must allow to our rivals. Theoretical Flying We claim ourselves. Bishop Wilkins in his Mechanical magic has as I am informd (for I have not yet got the book) a proposal for flying by means of a vessel filld with rarefied Air3 & Mr. Cavendish when he blew Soap bubbles of his Inflammable air4 Evidently performd the Experiment Which Carried Charles the memorable flight of the 1st. instant. When our Friends on your side of the water are coold a little however they shall see that we will visit the repositories of starrs & Meteors & try if we cannot derive as much Knowledge by application of Theory to what we find in the Armories of heaven as they can do.

Mr. Mitchel has given us a very curious paper in which he considers light as subject to the power of gravitation,5 like all other bodies if so says he should there be any material difference in the magnitude of the Fixd Stars the light of the Large ones would move more slowly & in consequence be liable to a different refraction from that of the smaller ones but no such thing being Observd with our best Telescopes we have here a right to judge them not varying from each other in any immense quantity of magnitude for was any one to be 100 times larger than another the difference would be discernable.

A miserable Comet made his Appearance to Mr. Nathan Pigot in his Observatory at yorkshire on the 196 & the weather has been so hazy in the Evenings that it has scarce been Observd since it was on the

Right Ascen North declen
19 at 11h:15’ 41:0:0 3°:10′
20   10:54′ 40:0:0 4:32
21   it was seen in the place where it was expected

but the night was too hazy to observe it.

It appears like a Nebula, with a diameter of About 2 minutes of a degree the nucleus faint it is seen with difficulty when the wires of the instrument are illuminated but is not visible with an opera glass.

Mr. Pigot

Novr. 29 it was seen near the Chin of Aries & appeard like a nebulous Star as there was some moon light it was dificult to find it.

Decr. 1 it was removd near the preceeding Eye of Aries but conceiving other astronomers who have fixd instruments have noted its place he has not calculated the distance from any Known star.

Mr. Herscell7

We are told that a Man has prepard Wings at a very considerable expence indeed they say £1000 that the models upon which they are Constructed have flown & that the reality now in London but packd up in a Box should by a comparative calculation carry 150 lb. more than the man. The Machine consists of 4 wings two of which beat while the other two are drawn back some people whose opinion in Mechanics is lookd upon as Authority have said that they must succeed. Credat Judeus say I. I must see it before I beleive it.8

I am dear Sir with real gratitude & sincere thanks Yours Faithfully

Jos: Banks

I open this to thank you for Mr. Faujas’s book9 which I receivd this moment on my return home from dinner

Addressed: Dr. Franklin / Passy / near / Paris

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3John Wilkins, bishop of Chester and a founding member of the Royal Society, was one of the first scientists to seriously consider the problem of flight. He speculated on how a vessel filled with ethereal or rarefied air could fly to the moon in A Discourse Concerning a New World & Another Planet: in 2 Bookes (London, 1640), pp. 203–39. In Mathematical Magick, or, The Wonders that may be Performed by Mechanical Geometry (London, 1648), he proposed various kinds of flying machines but referred readers to his earlier work for an explanation of how rarefied air could be used to defy gravity. See also Barbara J. Shapiro, John Wilkins, 1614–1672: an Intellectual Biography (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969), pp. 39–45; J. E. Hodgson, The History of Aeronautics in Great Britain … (London, 1924), pp. 70–5.

4In a series of celebrated experiments, Henry Cavendish discovered that inflammable air (hydrogen) is about 11 times lighter than common air: “Three Papers, Containing Experiments on Factitious Air,” Phil. Trans., LVI (1766), 141–84.

5John Michell’s “On the Means of discovering the Distance, Magnitude, &c. of the Fixed Stars, in consequence of the Diminution of the Velocity of their Light …” was read before the Royal Society on Nov. 27, 1783: Phil. Trans., LXXIV (1784), 35–57.

6It was Edward Pigott, not his father, Nathaniel, who discovered this comet on Nov. 19, 1783. He described his observations in a Nov. 22 letter to Jean-Hyacinthe de Magellan, an extract of which was read before the Royal Society on Nov. 27, 1783: Phil. Trans., LXXIV (1784), 20. Banks reproduces here the information in that extract.

7Sir William Herschel.

8As the wings were said to have been made in Birmingham, Banks wrote to Matthew Boulton for more information. Boulton had no firsthand information as yet, having just returned from several months away, but had heard that the wings, their supporting steel rods, “a great number of Springs 8 ft. long,” and “a great many Wheels & pineons” had been made under the direction of a man named Miller, who had not revealed their purpose. Some people said they were intended for swimming, while others said they were for flying: Neil Chambers, ed., Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765–1820 (6 vols., London, 2007), II, 229, 231–2.

9Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier … (Paris, 1783).

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