Thursday, December 08, 2022

Ben Franklin’s 'great quantity of wind'

| October 20, 2022 1:00 AM

If I say, “Benjamin Franklin,” you’d probably think founding father. Inventor of bifocals. Lightning rods. The Franklin Stove.

Farting. True story.

Picture it: The year is 1781. With America still in the throes of Revolutionary War, Franklin is on a diplomatic mission in France. And, as he was wont to do, enjoying the comforting indulgences of fun, food, and drink — inspiration for his notoriously entertaining essay, “A Letter to a Royal Academy About Farting,” a.k.a. “Fart Proudly.”

Addressed to The Royal Academy of Brussels, still one of Europe’s most distinguished scientific institutions, the letter satirically proposed that the academy invent something to help us fart without the shameful smell.

Context notes: “jakes” meant outhouse and a farthing was a coin; italics and capitals are original. Now without further ado and in his own words (irrelevant French removed):


“I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in natural philosophy, for the ensuing year … and I conclude therefore that you have given this question instead of a philosophical, or as the learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promised greater utility. Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious enquiry of learned physicians, chemists, etc. of this enlightened age.

“It is universally well known that in digesting our common food, there is created or produced in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind.

“That the permitting this air to escape and mix with the atmosphere, is usually offensive to the company, from the fetid smell that accompanies it.

“That all well-bred people therefore, to avoid giving such offence, forcibly restrain the efforts of nature to discharge that wind.

“That so retained contrary to nature, it not only gives frequently great present pain, but occasions future diseases, such as habitual colics, ruptures, tympanies, etc. often destructive of the constitution, and sometimes of life itself.

“Were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapes, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their noses.

“My Prize Question therefore should be, ‘To discover some drug wholesome and not disagreeable, to be mixed with our common food, or sauces, that shall render the natural discharges of wind from our bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as perfumes.

“That this is not a chimerical project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these considerations. That we already have some knowledge of means capable of varying that smell. He that dines on stale flesh, especially with much addition of onions, shall be able to afford a stink that no company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some time on vegetables only, shall have that breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the report, he may anywhere give vent to his griefs, unnoticed.

“But as there are many to whom an entire vegetable diet would be inconvenient, and as a little quick-lime thrown into a jakes will correct the amazing quantity of fetid air arising from the vast mass of putrid matter contained in such places, and render it rather pleasing to the smell, who knows but that a little powder of lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our food, or perhaps a glass of limewater drank at dinner, may have the same effect on the Air produced in and issuing from our bowels? This is worth the experiment.

"Certain it is also that we have the power of changing by slight means the smell of another discharge, that of our water. A few stems of asparagus eaten, shall give our urine a disagreeable odour; and a pill of turpentine no bigger than a pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing smell of violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in nature, to find means of making a perfume of our wind than of our water?

“(Philosopher references deleted.) The pleasure arising to a few philosophers, from seeing, a few times in their life, the threads of light untwisted and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven colours, can it be compared with the ease and comfort every man living might feel seven times a day, by discharging freely the wind from his bowels?

“Especially if it be converted into a perfume: For the pleasures of one sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the sight he might delight the smell of those about him, and make numbers happy, which to a benevolent mind must afford infinite satisfaction. The generous soul, who now endeavors to find out whether the friends he entertains like best claret or burgundy, champagne or madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose musk or lily, rose or bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a liberty of expressing one’s scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human happiness than that liberty of the press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight and die for.

“In short, this invention, if completed, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing philosophy home to men’s business and bosoms. And I cannot but conclude, that in comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the science of the philosophers above-mentioned… (French deleted) are, all together, scarcely worth a “FART-HING.”

Franklin never actually mailed the letter to the Royal Academy, instead sharing it with his many friends. No doubt it was quite the blowout.

• • •

Sholeh Patrick is a shoulder-shrugging columnist with the Hagadone News Network who just doesn’t get why farting turns grown men into giggling toddlers. Email

Recent Headlines