Franklin Institute Archives

Curatorial Archives
Ascending upwards towards the fourth and final floor of the institute I felt a sense of excitation for the experience that was to come. Upon rolling off of the ancient elevator, which could have been an artifact itself, I looked up to see a gated door complete with a heavy lock and a sign that read “Do Not Enter Violators Will Be Prosecuted”. I waited for Susan, the curatorial coordinator to unlock the door so we could begin our adventure through the history of the inventions and innovations of the 19th and 20th centuries. The room was large but densely populated by rows upon rows of artifacts and antiques. The air was warm, humid and stagnant and the lights were dimmed so that we could only see about 4 or 5 rows back. It was as if we were some of the only people to see this incredible room in years and Susan tells us this isn’t far from the truth which only excites us more. As we enter through the gate, Susan flicks a light switch on, telling us that the light is not good for the artifacts, preservation wise. The first thing we notice are huge busts of Ben Franklin laid sideways on the first row towards the bottom. As we walk through, the narrowness of the walking space and sheer size of the collection becomes immediately apparent. The room now presents not like a glorified storage closet but more like a library, complete with tiny aisles my wheelchair hardly fits through. Each invention or piece is numbered, dated and tagged with a description. The dates are almost unreal, 1920’s 1900’s, 1880’s, 1860’s.. The collection seems never ending, everywhere you turn a new object draws your attention. It is as if being in the room amongst all these artifacts makes history come alive. Imagining what people lived like during the times of some of these inventions is equally awe-inspiring and difficult. There are pieces from every facet of life. Primitive first drafts of technology we take for granted today. This is where modern technology came from, this is where it started. There were inventions of every kind, printing press’s, book binders, paper making machines, telescopes, microscopes, phonographs, microphones, calculators, navigation equipment, sound recorders, type writers, light bulbs, electrical equipment, etc. Of course none of these inventions looked much like the inventions of modern day but they were the building blocks of the inventions we use today. It was surreal to watch my whole world come crumbling down in this room, all the technology I use effortlessly was suddenly broken down and put in it’s rightful place. Being in the room somehow made modern life more real, more understandable. I realized then that almost all inventions are not individual, they are not independent. Rather they are innovations piggy-backed on their predecessors from whom they’ve learned so much. Scientists and inventors alike stand on the shoulders of the giants who’ve came before them. Training, learning, building and eventually improving upon their previous generations work. So, most of these pieces were not isolated inventions, rather the collection of historical innovation is a continuum and betterment of the past. In order to appreciate the age of some of these inventions we must understand the people and places where they were created. The museum has documents and artifacts from Orville Wright, who came to the Franklin Institute to build a wind tunnel. Orville and Wilbur, as you probably know built the first airplane in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The institute also has pieces from both Thomas Edison (1857-1931) and Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). For some more perspective, the president at the time of many of the oldest pieces in the room (circa 1830’s) was none other than Andrew Jackson who served from 1829-1837. Keep in mind he was only our 7th president (Lincoln was our 16th). It is truly impossible to know what life was like back then and not much easier to imagine. Susan tells us that life expectancy 100 years ago was not what it is today so many of the inventions we see were created by teenagers, after spending 5 or 6 years as an apprentice. Back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s The Franklin Museum was not a museum at all, it was a research institution which also contained a library. Susan tells us that in order to achieve a patent inventors had to build small replicas of their invention, about the size of something you can fit into a microwave. Many of these inventions I can understand but there are still many more i can not. It is amazing to see the ingenious ideas some of these inventors came up with. The mechanical and electrical engineers who crafted many of these pieces were truly skilled scientists. After Susan took us through the rows and showed us some of the oldest artifacts from circa 1820’s and 1830’s i realized something incredible. Every single one of the pieces in the room were completely useless. Not one of them could be used practically or seriously in todays world. A mere 50 years ago almost everything that generation was using has been updated and improved. Indeed, Susan tells us that they recieve many of their pieces from old men and women who had actually created the very inventions they are donating. Could there be a more powerful example of changing time and exponential scientific creation? I started to reflect on my own life, thinking about the first computer I ever used, and my first flip phone. I wondered how long it would be until some of the things I used as a young boy would end up in a room like this (not to mention my parents!). What a powerful experience to have in such a short 90 minutes.


About ben james

"The stars keep me up at night" -some song I heard one time Human. Studying the intersection of Neuroscience and Computation. Wanna be (astro) physicist.
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