Benjamin Franklin: the founding father of open source?

The approach of this statesman and scientist presaged modern methods of social media and open science

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Dr. Christian Defeo of Mendeley has a PhD in creative writing. He is now working on his second PhD, in engineering.In a talk at the at the Benjamin Franklin House museum in London February 23, Elsevier’s Dr. Christian DeFeo, a Product Marketing Manager for Mendeley and a PhD student in Engineering at Loughborough University, will show how Franklin’s collaborative, open approach in the development of the lightning rod and Franklin stove presaged a method of innovation which has given us everything from Linux to the products of Maker Movement. Here, he writes about how Franklin’s open, networked approach to science continues on in today’s modern approach to research and the work we do at Elsevier.


Not far from the bustle of London’s Charing Cross Station is a unique building: the only surviving residence of Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and scientist. Today, it serves as the Benjamin Franklin House museum.

This house is special in another way. It may be the birthplace of social media; in 1770, Benjamin Franklin produced The Craven Street Gazette, a humorous newsletter intended to amuse the other residents.

In it, Franklin detailed his minor misfortunes, like being unable to find a key to the drawer which contained his dress shirts. The jovial nature of the articles he shared with his family and friends bears a striking similarity to many Facebook posts.

Dr. Franklin was also the master of a web of connections to leading scholars and scientists, which he sustained by correspondence and publishing. The value of this collaboration was particularly evident when he developed the lightning rod; he was dependent on the work and feedback of his peers. As George Goodwin explained in his recent tome Benjamin Franklin in London:

(Franklin's) own kite experiment followed many already undertaken in France, some of which were successful in drawing down atmospheric electricity and, of those, some fatally so to the experimenter involved. And it was merely an additional proof to a theory Franklin had already proved. It is appropriate that Franklin sent a description of the kite flight to Peter Collinson, as Collinson and Fothergill had been crucial in their support for his work, with Collinson adding Franklin and John Bartram to an international correspondence network that included the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus and his fellow countryman, the botanist Pehr Kalm. (Goodwin, 2016, p. 65)

1739 Edition of Poor Richard's Almanac (Public Domain)Once Dr. Franklin completed the design of the lightning rod, he published the instructions on how to make one in his periodical Poor Richard’s Almanac. Out of principle, he did not file any patents: the lightning rod and the Franklin Stove could be considered early examples of open source hardware.

There are also important similarities to how open source software is developed; Linux is a prime example.

As a master’s student in computer science, Linus Torvalds launched the Linux operating system on August 25, 1991, with a post on a Usenet community asking for feedback on his project; he said he wouldn't necessarily implement all the suggestions he received, but he was open to them. This may be the most seminal moment in the development of open source software. Much of modern technology's infrastructure, a mere quarter of a century later, is dependent upon this single project started by a lone student at the University of Helsinki.

As with Franklin, Torvalds wasn't operating in a vacuum; there were antecedents which made Linux possible. For example, UNIX was created by Bell Laboratories' Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie in 1969. Richard Stallman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the first project for a free operating system in 1983. In 1987, Andy Tanenbaum of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam created MINIX, upon which Torvalds based his operating system.

More recently, the burgeoning Maker Movement is highly dependent upon sharing data and gathering feedback in much the same way: as entrepreneur Chris Anderson explained in his book Makers: the New Industrial Revolution:

When you share, community forms, and what community does best is remixing, exploring variation in what a product can be and in the process improving it and propagating it far faster than any individual or single company could. (Anderson, 2012, p. 74)

Franklin’s approach, along with these more recent developments, holds valuable lessons for Elsevier: Dr. Franklin described himself as a printer; but what was printing in the 18th century if not the information and networking technology of its age? Furthermore, he was an early and enthusiastic practitioner of open science. At Elsevier, we have been following on in this tradition. For example, we have collaboration tools like Hivebench; we have a variety of open data initiatives, journals and tools like Mendeley Data for data sharing and open access to content; and we have partnerships for text and data mining. We’re using digital technology to make research more discoverable and dynamic. And we support collaborative research in a way that Franklin would likely recognise and heartily approve.

To attend the talk

Benjamin Franklin: The Founding Father of Open Source?


When: Thursday 23 February, 6:30pm
Where: Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven Street, London UK
Cost: £8/£5.50 for Friends and Concessions
To book: Call +44(0)207 925 1405 or email info@BenjaminFranklinHouse.org

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