Technology and Consciousness in the Brumidi Corridor of the United States Capitol


By John Dyer

Franklin's Laboratory: The Inventor's Looking Glass

The lunette of Benjamin Franklin is the starting point for the narrative of technology in the Brumidi Corridor. Its iconography describes technology as a means to interpreting of the laws of nature.

Brumidi placed Franklin in a laboratory. The inventor, therefore, is an observer in this image--a person who monitors experiments. He reads using a magnifying glass. Like any good inventor, he is curious. Therefore he is not reclining in his chair, but rather is moving forward, as if in motion. Notice that Franklin does not direct his attention at physical phenomenon. The lunette is not about nature. He isn't experimenting by flying his kite during a lightening storm, for example

The founding father seeks something more abstract than raw data. That is why he uses a magnifying glass, really. He wants to read the fine print. What Franklin truly seeks are the fundamental laws of nature. For this purpose is the mechanical device at his left, presumably a part of one of his famous experiments with electricity. The combination of books and technology, the Enlightenment's marriage of arts and science, is how he goes about discovering these laws.

I support this reading by appealing to Franklin's Deism as evidence of his attitude towards inventing and inventions. Deists felt God revealed himself through immutable laws which could be understood by man through reason. The laboratory is where one conducts the controlled experiments that manifest these laws.

If we take Franklin's magnifying glass, an artificial, man-made appliance, as a symbol for the imagination, and the book as the Bible, this reading becomes clearer. Many deists denied the existence of revelation or divine intervention, arguing that God did not interfere in the world, since it was already governed by perfect and comprehensible laws. Therefore, a literal reading of the Bible, with all its fantastical stories, was not an adequate path towards godliness. In other words, man could not sit back and expect salvation without using his imagination. Franklin believed mankind had to be an active participant in God's creation if he was to understand his environment.

Negatively, however, this scrutiny obviously cuts one off from certain kinds of experience. As mentioned previously, Franklin is not in a pastoral setting, he is confined in a rather small space. Believing laws are the fundamental units experience, over nature, Franklin severs himself from a visceral appreciation of reality. If everything has a reason and is dominated by that reason, everything is explicable, determinable and subject to inquisition. As such, nothing ever leaves the operating table, and in a sense we are stuck in a laboratory forever. Hence, his conception of electricity is mediated by the contraption to his left.

How then does Franklin connect with other members of the human race? He interacts with others in two ways. Firstly, in his laboratory there are books and a quill pen. The founding father can communicate with others through writing and reading. This gives him a greater audience, for he reads the corpus of literature above his desk and gains the insights of all those writers, and he may contribute to that corpus by writing, perhaps recording his discoveries, acting in a community and in many regards in the interest of all mankind, for in discovering one of God's universal laws, he discovers something applicable to everyone. But this method of interacting with others is obviously disconcerting. There is an evident distance between Franklin and other people. And then again we see the inventor's dependence on laws--the laws of established language.

The other way Franklin talks to other people is by his point of view. Notice that for all the above talk on reading and the scientific method, Franklin isn't even paying attention to his book. He's looking out at the viewer.

The founding father's attempt to discover the ways of God through a delineation of nature's laws has brought him closer to the eternal than he probably ever expected to come. The fact is, one can never stop asking questions. Why does he look out at us? Franklin asks us what we know. Or, better yet, he asks us what we don't know.

The figure of Benjamin Franklin looking out into the unknown is the epitome of the American inventor--inquisitive, looking at nothing except what he expects to find already there.