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Ben Franklin’s Time Machine

by Larry Lefkowitz

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Note of Ben Franklin’s servant

Yesterday, grazed by an automatic carriage and, though not greatly harmed, thus reminded of the frailty of life, I desire to record what transpired, should I fall victim to some other device of this modern age before Ben is able to retrieve me, or should he fail in the effort. If the latter occurs, I assure his descendants that I bear neither him nor them any ill will, for he was the best of masters of servants, if not the best of masters of time.

With his fine wit, Ben would have appreciated the irony of it: “A stitch in time saves nine” being thought of as a maxim for prudence. I’m afraid its origin had reference to anything but prudence. How do I know? I was there, and because of him, I am here — in this building bearing his name, waiting for him to bring me home.

I suppose my present status began on the day I saw him working on a contrivance that looked like a barrel, though comprised of metal rather than wood. “Another stove?” I inquired. “No, something more forward-looking,” he replied. “Which reminds me, Peter, you have always expressed an interest in travel.” “Yes,” I said, “and I’m very grateful for the trips to Monticello when you went to see Mr. Jefferson.”

“Ah, yes, Thomas was always a favorite of yours. Of mine, too. A temperament quite similar to my own, even to the inventive spirit. As for Monticello, I was thinking of a longer journey.”

“I would like that,” I said blithely, not then realizing the significance of my assent.

“One of these days, Peter, you will have your opportunity,” he said with that slight smile of his; and as I recall it now, he patted the barrel-looking affair. Then he asked me to hold in place a piece of metal he was soldering, so that I might have a hand in it, I suppose.

A few weeks later, he called me to help further with the device, now considerably fleshed out. A sort of barrel-seat like one sees in lesser commercial establishments, except there were additionally two pieces of metal, two rods, which protruded in front above head level, separated by approximately a foot of space. That was the very day he asked me the question which, were he to put it to me again in the same circumstances, I would give different answer. “Peter, how would you like to see America in the future? — by then we may have reached the Pacific sea.” This as casually as if he were soliciting my opinion of the weather.

“I would give anything to see that,” I recall saying, an excess of curiosity being my principal vice.

“As would I,” he said, For America to reach the Pacific was one of his hopes. “And if you couldn’t get back?”

“Well, I don’t know about that. Philadelphia suits me.”

“It would still be there, probably considerably different — though whether an improvement, I am not sure,” and he chuckled. “But you are sure that you would truthfully like to go?” he asked, sounding more as if he wanted to reassure himself than me, and indicating with his arm that I was to sit in the chair within the device. I not then associating the proffered seat with the line of discussion so far taken and what was to take place next. Besides, I was an obedient servant.

“Yes,” I said sitting. “I have thought about doing some traveling in the future ( at this he nodded, although I did not mean into the future). You have been generous to me (now, as I recollect, he winced at this); not too many more years and I will have saved enough for a long trip. Another nine years should sew it up.”

“A stitch in time saves nine,” he exclaimed, pulling a lever with a suddenness that surprised me, for Ben, despite his industriousness, was a slow-moving man. I did not have time to dwell on the significance of what turned out to be his parting remark, for I saw a spark leap across the space between the two rods, in front of my face. I next felt a universal blow throughout my whole body from head to foot, which seemed within as well as without. After which I felt a violent shaking of my substance, which remitting, my senses gradually returned. A numbness remained in my arms and the back of my neck. My thoughts were of the spark which, combined with the soaring feeling I now experienced, reminded me of the kite experiment of the man who had pulled the lever. As I was thus soaring, it suddenly came to me: my master hadn’t been engaging in idle chatter — he was trying to convey me to the future! He who had written, “If you’d have it done, go; if not, send,” had chosen to overlook his advice. Dwelling upon the implications of his maxim filled me with not a little anxiety.

It was still Philadelphia. The buildings hadn’t changed that much. I arrived near one bearing a faded picture of the liberty bell above lettering that read “7th War Loan,” the printing inferior to that of the Franklin press. It is a somewhat differently shaped building — an institute named after Franklin — which interests me more. That is where I spend my time. There a lot of other changes, including a few for the better. Those automatic carriages are impressive. I do not know if Ben had anything to do with them after I left. Probably not, too noisy for his touch. One thing has not changed: America finished a war not too long ago. This time the British were with us, but we were still fighting the Hessians. Had to beat them again like at Trenton.

I guess Ben is having more difficulty than he expected in bringing me back. I hope he gets the knack of it one of these days. I get tired of going in this building of his and hanging about near the lightning machine. I refrain from getting too close. I judge ten feet is about right since the distance from the two metal rods is about five times that from the rods of the machine by which I was sent here, and the spark is five times as long. I figure Ben will reach me in the near future. In the meantime I feel like the brass ball suspended by the lightning between the bells attached to the lightning rod in Ben’s residence. He would exclaim that the light was bright enough to pick up a pin. I hope it is bright enough to pick up a man. Yet I am confident that soon the spark that leaps between the two rods will latch on to me. I hear the nation’s capital is now in a city named after General Washington. I would like to visit it, but for obvious reasons I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

4 April 1946
Peter S.
Servant of Ben Franklin

Notes of Ben Franklin

17 July 1788

Have this day made my will, only regretting that I could not include a provision providing for summoning Peter back, though perhaps it would be voidable for lack of enforceability. When we meet in the next stage of existence, I think he will box me on the ear for his one way trip, which treatment I will have earned; of course our respective parts in this affair — he, innocent baggage, me, not so innocent dispatcher, may have put him in a more northern, and myself a more southern, clime. I will make a last attempt to bring him back, if my strength allows.

Poor Peter. And all because, on a warm day of the same month some thirty-seven years ago, having demonstrated that electricity and lightning are one and the same with a certain kite experiment which gave me access to the regions of thunder, I wished to put lightning to use; not having then learned the lesson that he who snatches lightning from heaven may end up burning his — no another’s — hands. If the owner of those hands should somehow contrive to come back, with or without my assistance and , finding me gone, be curious as to what transpired, and for anyone else equally curious though less mediately concerned, my entries themselves are the best witnesses.


8 July 1751

I have visited lightning in his realm; let him visit me in mine. To this purpose I erected an iron rod to the top of my chimney, with a wire the thickness of a goose-quill coming through a covered glass tube in the roof and down through the well of the staircase, the lower end connected to an iron pump. On the staircase opposite to my chamber door the wire was divided; a little bell placed on each end; and between them a little brass ball, suspended by a silk thread, to play between and strike the bells when clouds passed with electricity in them. One night, awakened by loud cracks on the staircase, I perceived that the brass ball, instead of vibrating as usual between the bells, was repelled and kept at a distance from both; while the fire passed from bell to bell, whereby the whole staircase was enlightened as with sunshine, so that one might see to pick up a pin. Might poor Richard do better: an electric device to produce lightning? I believe he might.


23 April 1755

My dabbling with lightning have led me to own I am much in the dark about light. I am not satisfied with the doctrine that supposes particles of matter called light continually driven from the sun’s surface with a swiftness so prodigious. Must not the smallest particles conceivable have, with such motion, a force exceeding that of a 24-pounder discharged from a cannon? May not all the phenomena of light by more conveniently solved by supposing universal space filled with a subtle elastic fluid which, when at rest, is not visible, but whose vibrations affect that fine sense the eye as those of the air do the grosser organs of the ear?


12 January 1757

I have erected what I believe to be the most powerful electric apparatus till this day seen; producing a spark between the negative and positive ends of nine inches. Altogether an acceptable imitation of lightning, is it immodest to feel like Zeus with my modest bolt?


14 March 1757

My conjectures as to the nature of light and my experiments with electricity have led me to believe it may be possible to erect a device to allow travel in time. For if the elastic fluid in universal space has existed, as we may assume, since the beginning of time, and connects with the stars — the sources of light whose light is reaching us from the past — must not the fluid connect to the past and future as well? And whereas lightning is also composed of light, may not its introduction, not randomly as caused by clouds reacting with earth, but purposefully to charge the fluid at one spot, by focusing its energy on a point in time, be sufficient to propel an object, including a man, through the fluid to a point earlier or later in the fluid’s continuum. I am of this opinion. My plan is to adapt my electrical device to this purpose.


20 August 1757

I must put aside for the moment my labors to erect a bigger electrical apparatus to test my time theory. The Indians, abetted by the French, have been raiding the western Pennsylvania settlements. War is a hazard like fire or lightning, and like them to be guarded against. I am to represent the Pennsylvania Assembly in England to attempt to obtain better assistance. Gifts such as Braddock are better not sent.


18 June 1768

My device for moving in time as been much on my mind of late, no doubt because my time is passing, but I have been able to do but little work on it, as British taxation and exploitation of the colonies have kept me busy trying to mitigate them. Unless more astute minds prevail than presently labor in London, I fear we are headed for a breach.


22 January 1778

An ambassador in Paris striving to keep the ship of state afloat with French livres does not have time for science. I did manage to visit Lavoisier in his laboratory. Of my time device his reaction was typically French, “Franklin, my friend, why would anyone wish to leave this age?”


12 March 1786

Leisure in Philadelphia. Have been erecting my time mechanism. I am too old to travel or would test it myself. My servant Peter, fortuitously, has a bent for travel, always inquiring when our next trip is to be. He never tires of the journey to Monticello, though my kidney stone takes a less enthusiastic view. I am working him up for a trip somewhat longer, to the future. I must get his assent without alarming him. I feel a bit of the entrapper, but I have worked too long on this apparatus to forgo testing it before I make my own journey to the future, without benefit of machine, save perhaps deus ex machina. I only hope Peter’s trip is not similarly one way.


25 February 1787

Peter is today sent to the future, after having expressed a desire to see it. Good a time as any to travel, though a leap-year would have been more appropriate. I have endeavored to place him in Philadelphia two hundred years in the future, in time to celebrate, Providence willing, the bicentennial of America’s founding.


2 May 1787

My reach exceedth my grasp, I fear. Attempts to bring Peter back have so far proved unavailing. I feel somewhat like the magician who made his assistant disappear and was unable to summon him back when he inadvertently stood on the trap door. The difficulty lies, I believe, in a certain aspect of my device. I have been reworking it, but my stone has been most troublesome of late, confining me to bed. I hope to finish soon and try again. Should I not succeed, I will destroy the device lest another person be removed from our times by someone else’s equally unidirectional hand. So be it, Peter will be here intact and so remain the device, or both will be gone, the only record of each what is here committed.

[signature of] Ben Franklin

end of story

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