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TRANSCRIPT: Podcast: Walter Isaacson explores Benjamin Franklin's legacy

Author Walter Isaacson discusses Benjamin Franklin's contribution to the interplay of technology and democracy in American society.

"Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" is a production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and hosted by Paul Rosenthal. Audio production by Benjamin Bloom. Theme music by Will Eastman. Art Molella, executive producer. Walter Isaacson was originally interviewed on 11 October 2006 by Paul Rosenthal. This podcast released 27 October 2006.

Paul Rosenthal: Welcome to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices," a production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. We are at the National Museum of American History in Washington. I am Paul Rosenthal.

Here is a question to think about: "Was Benjamin Franklin the nation's first blogger?" Here is another one: "Would Thomas Jefferson have used the internet and fax machines to run his political campaigns?" What would they both think about electronic balloting?

While electronic technology was not directly on the minds of the founding fathers, they did create a system of government that not only established freedom of speech and freedom of religion, among others, they established a nation that saw technology as essential to its growth.

In our fall symposium at the Lemelson Center in November, we will be taking a look at the interplay between democracy and technology from the time Franklin, Jefferson, and the other founders got the United States booted-up in the 18th century, until today. It will feature a presentation from journalist and historian Walter Isaacson, author of "Benjamin Franklin - An American Life", and that will take place on November 2nd at the National Archives.

Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and former chairman and CEO of CNN, and managing editor of Time Magazine. He will join us on the podcast momentarily to tell us more about what he'll discuss at this along with the archivist of the United States, Alan Weinstein.

The program will continue November 3rd and 4th at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, with the conference co-sponsored by the university and Monticello. I talked with Lemelson Center director Art Molella about the origins and expectations of the upcoming symposium.

Arthur Molella: Well the idea came about in connection with the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth, and he becomes a very appropriate person for the kind of thing that we are trying to accomplish at the Lemelson Center, which is to show that invention, technology are an integral part of American history, and not something separate from American history. You can't really think about one without thinking about the other. There really hasn't been a much successful effort in the past to truly show how technology moves and is moved by American history.

So, technology in context is the purpose of this symposium. It points, really, to one of the key characteristics of the United States as an innovative nation. The premise of the symposium is that innovation in the material world goes hand-in-hand with innovation in the political world, as well, and I think a figure like Jefferson or like Franklin really exemplifies how the founding fathers really launched the country on that trajectory of combining technology and politics for the betterment of the polity of the United States.

Paul: Can you give me some examples of how you see that in some ways, what they were thinking about when they set this up, and the far-reaching thoughts in this particular area?

Arthur: Well these were very much enlightenment figures that we're talking about, and they truly felt that the material benefits to humanity would embrace and support the spiritual and political development of humanity, as well. So innovating, with constitutions for example, was as much an innovation as it was to build a steam boat, or a novel piece of farm machinery. These were all to the benefit of humanity, and they were trying to harness the same kind of innovative powers of man in launching this country.

Patent laws were another innovation that preceded the founding of the United States and colonial government and transferred to the states. The very form of government that we have is considered an innovation, and within that government, within that constitution was embedded the idea of a patent law and of technology. So the two really went hand-in-hand and the purpose of this congress is to explore that legacy.

Paul: How essential do you think the roles, the backgrounds of the varieties of personalities who were a part of this, how essential was this whole process?

Arthur: Do you want to explain that to me?

Paul: What I'm thinking of is where these people came from. And individual like Benjamin Franklin and how is the same and different from Thomas Jefferson, or is the same and different from a John Adams.

Arthur: Of course their backgrounds were crucial to the kinds of programs they were promoting. A man, like Franklin, who came out of the printing business, and then science and technology. This sort of thing was ingrained in him, and the invention of printing was probably as much on his mind as the invention of a government when he helped to launch this nation.

Thomas Jefferson with an agrarian background really kind of inherited some of the mechanical genius that many of our farmers showed in this country in the 19th century. You have to remember that much of invention in America in that period came from farming areas, from farming people. I think he stands as a symbol of that mechanical ingenuity with a love of the earth, and of farming.

Paul: One of the individuals who is going to be participating in our symposium is Walter Isaacson. I had an opportunity to speak with him about what his presentation was going to be about.

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Walter Isaacson: Benjamin Franklin thought that the free flow of information was crucial to a democracy. He felt that he could help tie America together by creating a postal system where people could community up and down the colonies. He also believed that the more outlets for information there were the more empowered people would be.

And then when he goes over to France as a diplomat, one of the first things he does is he builds himself a printing press because he believes that if the ideas and values being expressed in such documents as the Declaration of Independence are distributed throughout France, they would naturally be on our side on the revolution.

Paul:  From your experience as a journalist, what essences of Franklin's legacy do you see taking place in the way our media works today?

Walter:  Franklin believed in great access and openness in terms of information.  He didn't believe in closed information systems.  In fact when he built the postal system, he made sure that everybody's newspapers and magazines could be carried throughout equally in the postal system.

He lapsed for a little while.  There were a couple of years when he was having a big fight with his rival and he tried to give his own newspapers favored treatment, but in the end he realized that open access, whether it's the postal system or what we have today, the internet, is the thing that allows the most voices to flourish.

Paul:  So blogging is something with which he would be greatly in favor of?

Walter:  I think Benjamin Franklin, if he were alive today, would definitely build himself a website.  I'm not sure about blogging because he carefully rewrote everything he did, but he would have a beautiful website with lots of opinions and wonderful polished parodies, hoaxes, essays, and editorials on it.

Paul:  Over the course of American history, do you think that technology has affected the practice of democracy in any consistent ways?

Walter: I think technology's affected democracy in different ways.  For a while there were low barriers to entry when it came to being in the information business. Anybody could become a pamphleteer or start up a newspaper.  But then in the 20th century, you get the mass media, the broadcast media, and it was harder to open up a television network or even a radio station because you needed a whole lot of money to do that and you needed broadcast licenses.  Now the pendulum is swinging back because almost anyone who wants to can start a blog or a website.

Paul: So much is said about the nature of this country to try and spread democracy beyond our own borders and do you think that what Franklin and the other founders were able to set up with their ideas for technology within the democracy, do you think that that's spreading to those other nations as well?

Walter:  I think the greatest force to spread democracy around the world is the free flow of information and ideas.  Whether it be in 1989, when the revolutions in Eastern Europe were fueled by fax machines, or in China today, where people know how to go to proxy servers to get to Google and Yahoo when the censors try to block it.

Those are the things that allow people access to ideas and information and in the end that fuels democracy.  I actually think that Google and Yahoo may be doing more to promote democracy in the world than our government does.

Paul:  Ok.  Walter Isaacson, thank you very much for joining us today.

Walter: Great.  Thanks.

Paul:  Back again with Arthur Molella, director of the Lemelson Center.

Art let me ask you, we've been talking a bit earlier about the early republic and the interplay between technology and democracy.  Tell me, how do you think then it has carried now into the 21st century?  And what the founders have tried to set up back then, have the ideas that they had still stuck with us at this point?

Arthur:  Well, that's what actually we're going to explore in this conference.  We're going to see if there is some continuity.  In many cases we might be even reacting against it in some way, but in general, this is something that we have to reckon with; it became part of our formation.  Some one suggested to me that Ben Franklin may have been the first blogger.  This is a man who loved to communicate in a very stealth manner as Poor Richard and it seems to me that there is a distinct inheritance line here from Benjamin Franklin to those who are now using the internet to promote political opinion and so forth, cultural opinion as well.

The sort of ingenuity we saw in a Thomas Jefferson has inspired the present.  Whether Jefferson himself would have taken to the internet? I think he was a very thoughtful man and he would have looked at the implications for democracy of using the internet.  You know that can go both ways with the internet and I think those are the kinds of questions we'll be exploring looking from the 18th century to the 21st century.

This illustrates that the Lemelson Center sees an absolute continuity between past and present in the area of technology and history and I think it's all together appropriate for us to go back to Franklin and even earlier.  We've gone back to Leonardo before to understand the roots of the technology that we see around us today.

Paul:  Art Molella thanks for joining us about this and we're looking forward to the conference.  And afterwards, let's talk again and let's see what we found out about it, what some of the conclusions are.

Arthur:  It's a pleasure.  I look forward to that.

Paul:  Again, the Lemelson Center's Fall Symposium will be held November 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in both Washington, D.C. & Charlottesville, Virginia.  We have many more details about it on our website including all of the speakers and presentations, the times and locations.  You can find it on our events page at invention.smithsonian.org.

You've been listening to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" from the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.  We're glad you've had the opportunity to tune in.  I'm Paul Rossenthal.

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We'd like to hear your thoughts about this program, or any others from the Lemelson Center. Send us an email. The address is LemCen@si.edu.  And we'll be back again soon with another edition of "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices".

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