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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Winterer acknowledges the limits. “Digital humanities is a new starting point, never an endpoint,” she says. “For my project specifically, the digitization of early modern social networks can help us begin to discern new patterns and make new comparisons that would either not have occurred to us before or that would have been impossible to see, given the huge and fragmentary nature of the data set.”

To conduct the Franklin study, which Winterer began in 2008, existing computer-based mapping systems proved unsuitable for data gleaned from Enlightenment correspondence. “We had to create our own tools to focus on a visual language for handling humanities questions,” says Nicole Coleman, technology specialist at the Stanford Humanities Center.


The Republic of Letters was a community of the learned united by the exchange of correspondence, books and journals in pursuit of knowledge with little regard for religious, political and social boundaries. Serious correspondence was its lifeblood.

Gaining a foothold in the Republic’s social networks was vital for the acceptance of colonial American science, and required effort. The slow pace of trans-Atlantic mail and danger that items would fail to arrive necessitated a high level of organization. Moreover, correspondents often had to search out sympathetic sea captains to ensure that letters reached their destination, and rush to complete letters before vessels set sail—a practice detected and codified by Winterer’s tracking system, showing clusters of Franklin’s correspondence concentrated around ship-departure dates.

Winterer will analyze a more extensive network in the future, when she turns to Franklin’s post-1775 correspondence. After the American Revolution erupted, Franklin spent nine years in France as the representative of the fledgling United States. He would function as a central node in the Enlightenment intellectual networks on both sides of the Atlantic. By then, Winterer notes, he had become the Franklin we recognize—“the most famous American in the world, whose face by his own reckoning was as famous as the man in the moon.”

The impact of Winterer’s new take on Franklin in the world of ideas, like any emerging technology, can’t necessarily be predicted. That is perhaps fitting. Benjamin Franklin, inventor extraordinaire, wondered what the future would hold as he confronted the French fascination with the latest technological breakthrough, the lighter-than-air balloon. Asked his opinion of the new invention, Franklin shot back, “What is the good of a newborn baby?” Or so the story goes.


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