Front Page Titles (by Subject) XIX: ON DISCOVERIES 1 - The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. II Letters and Misc. Writings 1735-1753
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XIX: ON DISCOVERIES 1 - Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. II Letters and Misc. Writings 1735-1753 
The Works of Benjamin Franklin, including the Private as well as the Official and Scientific Correspondence, together with the Unmutilated and Correct Version of the Autobiography, compiled and edited by John Bigelow (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). The Federal Edition in 12 volumes. Vol. II (Letters and Misc. Writings 1735-1753).
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The world but a few ages since was in a very poor condition as to trade and navigation; nor indeed were they much better in other matters of useful knowledge. It was a green-headed time; every useful improvement was hid from them; they had neither looked into heaven nor earth, into the sea nor land, as has been done since. They had philosophy without experiments, mathematics without instruments, geometry without scale, astronomy without demonstration.
They made war without powder, shot, cannon, or mortars; nay, the mob made their bonfires without squibs or crackers. They went to sea without compass, and sailed without the needle. They viewed the stars without telescopes, and measured latitudes without observation. Learning had no printing-press, writing no paper, and paper no ink. The lover was forced to send his mistress a deal board for a love-letter, and a billet-doux might be about the size of an ordinary trencher. They were clothed without manufacture, and their richest robes were the skins of the most formidable monsters. They carried on trade without books, and correspondence without posts; their merchants kept no accounts, their shopkeepers no cash-books; they had surgery without anatomy, and physicians without the materia medica; they gave emetics without ipecacuanha, drew blisters without cantharides, and cured agues without the bark.
As for geographical discoveries, they had neither seen the North Cape, nor the Cape of Good Hope south. All the discovered inhabited world which they knew and conversed with was circumscribed within very narrow limits, viz., France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Greece; the lesser Asia, the west part of Persia, Arabia, the north parts of Africa, and the islands of the Mediterranean sea, and this was the whole world to them; not that even these countries were fully known either, and several parts of them not inquired into at all. Germany was known little further than the banks of the Elbe; Poland as little beyond the Vistula, or Hungary as little beyond the Danube; Muscovy or Russia perfectly unknown, as much as China beyond it; and India only by a little commerce upon the coast about Surat and Malabar. Africa had been more unknown, but by the ruin of the Carthaginians; all the western coast of it was sunk out of knowledge again and forgotten; the northern coast of Africa, in the Mediterranean, remained known, and that was all; for the Saracens overrunning the nations which were planted there ruined commerce as well as religion. The Baltic sea was not discovered, nor even the navigation of it known; for the Teutonic knights came not thither till the thirteenth century.
America was not heard of, nor so much as a suggestion in the minds of men that any part of the world lay that way. The coasts of Greenland, or Spitsbergen, and the whale-fishing not known; the best navigators in the world, at that time, would have fled from a whale with much more fright and horror than from the Devil in the most terrible shapes they had been told he appeared in.
The coasts of Angola, Congo, the Gold and the Grain coasts, on the west side of Africa, whence, since that time, such immense wealth has been drawn, not discovered, nor the least inquiry made after them. All the East India and China trade, not only undiscovered, but out of the reach of expectation! Coffee and tea (those modern blessings of mankind) had never been heard of. All the unbounded ocean we now call the South Sea was hid and unknown. All the Atlantic ocean beyond the mouth of the Straits was frightful and terrible in the distant prospect, nor durst any one peep into it, otherwise than as they might creep along the coast of Africa, towards Sallee or Santa Cruz. The North Sea was hid in a veil of impenetrable darkness. The White Sea, or Archangel, was a very modern discovery; not found out till Sir Hugh Willoughby doubled the North Cape, and paid dear for the adventure, being frozen to death with all his crew, on the coast of Lapland; while his companions’ ship, with the famous Mr. Chancellor, went on to the gulf of Russia, called the White Sea, where no Christian strangers had ever been before him.
In these narrow circumstances stood the world’s knowledge at the beginning of the fifteenth century, when men of genius began to look abroad and about them. Now, as it was wonderful to see a world so full of people, and people so capable of improving, yet so stupid and so blind, so ignorant and so perfectly unimproved; it was wonderful to see with what a general alacrity they took the alarm, almost all together, preparing themselves as it were on a sudden, by a general inspiration, to spread knowledge through the earth and to search into every thing that it was possible to uncover.
How surprising is it to look back so little a way behind us and see that even in less than two hundred years all this (now so self-wise) part of the world did not so much as know whether there was any such place as a Russia, a China, a Guinea, a Greenland, or a North Cape! That as to America, it was never supposed there was any such place; neither had the world, though they stood upon the shoulders of four thousand years’ experience, the least thought so much as that there was any land that way!1
As they were ignorant of places, so of things also; so vast are the improvements of science that all our knowledge of mathematics, of nature, of the brightest part of human wisdom, had their admission among us within these two last centuries.
What was the world, then, before? And to what were the heads and hands of mankind applied? The rich had no commerce, the poor no employment; war and the sword was the great field of honor, the stage of preferment; and you have scarce a man eminent in the world for any thing before that time but for a furious, outrageous falling upon his fellow-creatures, like Nimrod and his successors of modern memory.
The world is now daily increasing in experimental knowledge; and let no man flatter the age with pretending we have arrived at a perfection of discoveries.
[1 ]From the Pennsylvania Gazette, October 14, 1736.
[1 ]Scandinavian literature was less known when this was written than at present. The learned suppose that the Icelandic Sagas have thrown new light upon the history of early discoveries, and that there is good evidence for believing that the American continent was known to the Norwegians more than four hundred years before the birth of Columbus.—See Wheaton’s History of the Northmen, chap. ii. The best opportunity was afforded to Mr. Wheaton, during his residence in a public capacity at Copenhagen, of ascertaining the genuineness and authenticity of these ancient records, and he appears to place full confidence in them. His opinion is, however, that “the illustrious Genoese” could not have had the slightest knowledge of the discoveries of those Northern adventurers, and that the colony begun by them was probably cut off at an early period in the same manner as the first establishments in Greenland.—Ed.