FRANKLIN, Benjamin, Signer (Pennsylvania). Autograph letter signed ("B Franklin"), [to the Marquise de Boulainvilliers], n.p. [Passy?], 1 January 1779. 1 full page, 4to, integral blank, minor fold separation, otherwise in fine condition. In French. With a 1-page note in French in an unidentified hand, identifying persons mentioned in the letter. Enclosed in a custom-made brown quarter morocco clamshell protective case.
A HUMOROUS USE FOR FRANKLIN'S LIGHTNING RODS
A characteristically witty letter from Franklin, in French, four months after his appointment as American Minister Plenipotentiary, congratulating a neighbor on the impending marriage of her daughter. The letter contains a unique punning reference to Franklin's famous lightning rods. He writes: "It gives me great pleasure, my respected neighbor, to learn that our dear and gracious child [her daughter, Anne] is soon to be married with your approval, and that we will nevertheless not be deprived of her presence. I assure you that I will make no use of my lightning rods [paratonnerres] to deflect this match. I pray God to favor it with His most precious benedictions, and that He may provide all concerned with many felicitous occasions. Mr [John] Adams and my grandson join me in these prayers, and in wishing you a thousand happy New Years. Madame, Your most humble and obedient servant B. Franklin." In a postscript at lower left, Franklin adds: "Excuse my bad French."
Franklin was residing at the Hotel Valentinois in Passy, a mansion owned by Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, a slave-trader and supporter of the American cause. Although considerably burdened with diplomatic responsibilities, Franklin was able to devote time to scientific experiments, to his private press and to correspondence. Interestingly, Franklin oversaw the installation of his lightning rods at the Chaumont estate.
The letter displays Franklin's legendary wit. In alluding to "my lightning rods" ("mes paratonnerres"), he uses the word--literally meaning "against thunder" in French--in a sophisticated play on words. The future husband of the Marquise de Boulainvilliers' daughter was named Clemont-Tonnerre, "tonnere" being the common noun "thunder." Thus, in a figurative sense, Franklin promises that his lightning rod would not be employed to deflect the groom from his natural path, i.e. in the direction of his future bride. Franklin's post-script apology for his poor French is seen to be excessively modest, for his command of the language is excellent.
Franklin's interest in electricity dated from about 1746, when he began his experiments--the famous kite experiment occurring in 1752 at a time when the science of electricity was in its infancy and theoretical explanations generally unsatisfactory. Between the years 1748 and 1752, Franklin invented a simple, successful means of protecting buildings from the disastrous effects of lightning--the lightning rod, described in his Experiments and Observations on Electricity.