Monthly Archives: April 2012

It’s a given that inventiveness is a characteristic of great writing (although it may be frowned on when the subject matter is non-fictional). You can’t be a successful author without having a highly inventive mind, can you? So why have so few writers used their power of invention for practical purposes?

Ben Franklin

Authors invent all the time. Remarkably few of them can dream up an invention. If you consult Wikipedia’s long list of inventors, you’ll find a bizarre cast of characters ranging from Mary Anderson, the cattle rancher and viticulturalist who thought up the windscreen wiper, to Fausto Veranzio, the sixteenth century chancellor of Hungary, who designed and tested the first parachute (aged 65, jumping from St Mark’s Campanile in Venice!). Only two renowned writers though. Benjamin Franklin and John Harington. Neither have many painters or sculptors been credited with inventions. Leonardo is the obvious exception while Samuel Morse and Frederick Scott Archer are worthy of honourable mention.

John Harington

This implies that practical imaginings rarely cloud the minds of creative writers and artists. This is hardly surprising and perhaps only reflects the poverty of the English language.

Invention can equally be:

(1) something defined in Patent Law as ‘a new, useful process, machine, improvement, etc., that did not exist previously and that is recognized as the product of some unique intuition or genius, as distinguished from ordinary mechanical skill or craftsmanship’, and,

(2) ‘an act or instance of creating or producing by exercise of the imagination, especially in art, music, etc.’.

There’s quite a gulf between ‘invention’ and ‘an invention’. The gulf of reality. Plots and characters can be wildly inventive but the book in which they come together is not seen as an invention because it’s the carrier not the essence of the author’s imagination (by the same token, the ‘Mona Lisa’ is just another wallcovering).  An aeroplane or washing machine is an invention because it is an expression of itself through itself, integrally real. So an author can be outrageously inventive but not an inventor while someone with a relatively prosaic mind can be an important inventor, as in Percy Shaw and his Catseye. Although an impressive wordstock, the English lexicon doesn’t have enough shades of meaning to differentiate the results of artistic creativity and practical creativity.

Whether it is a greater feat to invent a book or poem that becomes a classic than to invent, say, a television, is an intriguing argument. Made more intriguing be the likelihood that the mechanical inventor regards the creation of great literary fiction as an incomprehensible achievement while the writer is similarly amazed by the workings of a scientific brain.

What does that say about Ben Franklin and John Harington? It suggests that they are the unicorns of the human race, wondrous in their fusion of the artistic and the scientific mind.

They are not unlike each other. Inveterate letter writers and collectors of the papers and works of others, they used wit to question the social and political moralities of their times.

Franklin was the great hoaxer, creating the voices of Silence Dogood, Poor Richard and Polly Baker to debunk the colonial follies he saw around him.

In his seminal work, ‘The Metamorphosis of Ajax’, which remained in print for four centuries, Harington used Latin pseudonyms to satirise the great Elizabethans in whose circle he moved (the heavy disguise being necessary to save him from being hung for treason).

Franklin and Harington were likeable men whose company was valued by their contemporaries for the humour and insight they could bring to social gatherings. Both were outrageous flirts who enjoyed long and happy marriages.

Franklin lightning rod

The scientific achievements of Franklin are more numerous and diverse. Among his many creations were the lightning rod, the glass armonica (a glass instrument totally different from the metal harmonica), the Franklin domestic stove, bifocal glasses and the flexible urinary catheter. He did not seek to profit from them since his printing press business kept him comfortably off. An altruistic man, he dedicated his scientific works to the increase of efficiency and improvement of the human condition.

Although a persistent and unsuccessful seeker of office under Elizabeth and James, Harington was also a social reformer who did not expect to gain from his one great invention, the flush toilet. He designed it to impress his Godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. It is difficult to assess whether the flush toilet was entirely down to him. His assistant, Thomas Combe, was the mechanical mind behind the privy that was eventually installed in Richmond Palace. Yet the driving force behind one of the great breakthroughs in sanitation was undeniably Harington’s. Despite the ‘shyte place’ being the talking point of the 1590s in England, only the French took his design seriously. Sadly, it was two centuries before flush toilets reappeared in any number in England.

Flush toilet based on Harington's design

It is difficult to say how many lives have been saved by the lightning rod and the flush toilet and the point is not to compare the social significance of either. The point is to celebrate two highly unusual men, probably the only men who did both of the things that Franklin himself thought worthy of lasting fame.

“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”