Happy 308th Birthday, Benjamin Franklin!

by AMNH on

News Posts

Born in Boston 308 years ago today, Benjamin Franklin—the printer best known as an inventor and statesman—was also an avid amateur scientist.

Happy Birthday Benjamin Franklin (2014)

As he wrote to a friend around the time of his retirement at age 42 from his Philadelphia print shop, “I am in a fair Way of having no other Tasks than such as I shall like to give my self, and of enjoying what I look upon as a great Happiness, Leisure to read, study, make Experiments.”

Franklin’s most famous experiments may have been the ones investigating the connection between lightning and electricity, but in his time Franklin was also known for an omnivorous interest in natural phenomena, including fossils. He was often sent the latest finds, as he was sure to share these with other influential thinkers of the day.

A detailed French drawing from the 1790s of a mastodon tooth. The surface of the molar seems composed of about eight small knob-like structures.
Unlike elephants' molars, mastodons teeth had "Knobs or Prominances," as Benjamin Franklin noted in the 1760s. This French image dates from the 1750s. 

In the summer of 1767, Franklin was living in London as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly to Great Britain when he received a curious shipment from the colonies: “a box of elephants’ tusks and grinders” collected in the Ohio River Valley, at a site called Big Bone Lick, or as Franklin called it, “the Great Licking Place.”

The package, which included four tusks, four molars, and a vertebra, piqued Franklin’s interest—most especially the teeth, which had “Knobs or Prominances” unlike those of herbivorous elephants. Was the animal, perhaps, a carnivore? Did these teeth belong to an animal that lived today, or had disappeared from Earth?

Franklin went on to share the fossils with both English and French scientists and thinkers. Part of a flood of New World fossils then arriving in Europe, these sparked a lively debate about whether extinction existed, and, later, helped prove that the New World, like the Old, had been home to its own set of giant prehistoric animals.

Today, we know that the bones sent to Franklin belonged to an (herbivorous) American mastodon, an extinct elephant-relative that lived in North America from 3.75 million to about 11,000 years ago.

Side view of the Warren mastodon fossil in the Museum's Hall of Advanced Mammals.

Here at the Museum, you can see the nearly complete skeleton of a 9-foot-high mastodon with tusks more than 8 feet long. Known as the Warren Mastodon, it was discovered in upstate New York in 1845, more than eight decades after Franklin received his curious box.