Dear Sir, Ben Franklin Would Like to Add You to His Network

Historian Caroline Winterer’s analysis of Franklin’s letters applies big data to big history

(Timothy Archibald)
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What Franklin was doing at this early stage, her analysis shows, was writing primarily to James Parker, a printing partner in New York; David Hall, a fellow Philadelphia printer and business partner; Isaac Norris, a leading Pennsylvania politician; William Franklin, his son; and Deborah Franklin, his wife. He was dispatching letters mainly to Americans in the colonies and a handful of correspondents in England. Four hundred of Franklin’s outbound letters, mainly from London, were sent to Philadelphia, 253 to London and 145 to Boston. While he received 850 or so letters from correspondents in America and 629 from England, he received only 53 from France, 29 from Scotland and 13 from the Netherlands.

“We perceive Franklin as a star at the center of a galaxy,” Winterer says of Franklin’s role in the era’s intellectual firmament. “This data restores Franklin as a bit player.”

Even so, the metrics reveal the trending velocity, as it were, of Franklin’s correspondence. If one were to take a snapshot at two points, the year 1758, for instance, shows that letters in substantial numbers were directed to Philadelphia, London and Boston. By 1772, Franklin was sending increasing amounts of correspondence not only to those three cities, but to Edinburgh, an important locus of Enlightenment thought, and, significantly, to Paris—now among the top destinations for his letters. He had broadened his American network, too, incorporating locations including Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Savannah, Georgia.


The research is at the frontier of what’s known as the digital humanities, an approach that has been a boon for younger scholars who are at home in this new world. In temporary trailer space this summer, while CESTA offices were renovated, a small army of graduate students and computer gurus coded metadata from letters and other sources, their backpacks and flip-flops strewn around the floor. Students hunkered down over laptops, not a book in sight. In one corner, four researchers engaged in a furious game of foosball.

Although Winterer has gained a measure of academic fame for digital studies, she does not see herself as a techie, and says she limits her time online. “I tend to be somewhat technology averse,” she says.

The past, she says, exerted a strong hold on her from childhood. Her parents, oceanographers at the University of California at San Diego, “drove around California’s deserts and mountains when I was a kid,” she recalls, “narrating the big geological story of the landscape.” The experience of “pondering the past in a fleshed-out way (either in the age of T. rex or Franklin),” Winterer adds, “struck me then, as it does now, as an awesome exercise in the imagination.”

She first began to rely on computers as a graduate student in intellectual history at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. “The go-to resource for scholars became their computer screen and not the book. Computers allow you to do the natural jumping around that your mind does,” says Winterer. Also, computer models make it easier to see complex data. “I am a very visual person.”

In a break with traditional practice, Winterer and her colleagues have not attempted to read each letter or account for its contents. “You are eating the food and forcing yourself not to taste it,” says Winterer. “We are saying, ‘Let’s look at the letter in a different way.’”

Applying data mining to historical and literary subjects is not without detractors. Stephen Marche, a novelist and cultural critic, says the approach is misguided. “Trying to avoid the humanity of the work strikes me as pure folly,” he says. “How do you tag Franklin’s aphorisms? The engineering value is negligible; the human value is incalculable.” Other critics suggest the methods yield impressive-looking results without much meaning—“answers without questions.”


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