He Might Have Invented the Telegraf

A “Franklin, Benjamin” subject search in the Newberry’s online catalog returns over 300 titles. One of these is A Typical American, Benjamin Franklin, the published version of an address delivered by Joseph Medill before the Old-Time Printers’ Association of Chicago on January 17, 1896. The occasion marked the 190th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, which Medill also celebrated by commissioning the statue now standing in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

As the founder and editor of the Chicago Tribune, Medill’s interest in Franklin lay in his legacy as a newspaper publisher. In his opening remarks, Medill told the Printers’ Association, “We are assembled here this evening to celebrate the birthday of the printer’s patron saint, the immortal Benjamin Franklin.”

A short account of Franklin’s life ensues. Even as he lauds Franklin’s diplomatic career, Medill characterizes it as, essentially, a diversion from his experiments with electricity. For Medill, electricity was directly tied to recent breakthroughs in his general field of communications—breakthroughs which Franklin himself could have been responsible for. According to Medill, “Had he not been diverted from his electrical studies and experiments where might he not have pushed his discoveries? He might have invented the telegraf (sic) and the telefone (sic).”

Medill’s reverence for Franklin may have clouded his judgment, but he presents an interesting thought experiment. Perhaps there are one or two Franklinophiles out there right now who believe that their idol might have invented the Internet had he not spent so much time helping to build American democracy.

This essay was posted by Alex Teller, Manager of Communications and Editorial Services at the Newberry, in conjunction with the Statue Stories Chicago project.