Ben Franklin's Sensitive Nose
Throughout most of my life, I have had great respect for Ben Franklin. He was not just a founding father of the United States of America. He was a key architect of the republic. He was a great communicator. He was a prolific writer and a man of infinite solutions. He was the co-founder of one of America’s first hospitals. He was a statesman, diplomat, humorist, and also a wondrous scientist.
He studied electricity and batteries to store it. He invented many devices that worked to better Americans’ lives in his day, like the Franklin Stove, which some still use today. He was also dedicated in his day to curing the ills of humanity, both sociological and biological. The following is a letter he wrote to The Royal Academy of Brussels in 1781 to request that they issue an alternative scientific challenge to their constituent scientists to deal with the natural endemic problem of ill wind instead of their proposed mathematical challenge.
Franklin did not seem to believe it was possible to eliminate the actual passage of foul gasses from the body – a fart; he writes that restraining these gasses is not a good idea. To do so, he postulates, can lead to pain, illness, and sometimes death. He was, therefore, not asking the scientists of the world to waste time trying to eliminate these gasses. Instead, he challenged them to come up with a way to make farts smell good. He wanted to free people to pass gas in public and become a pleasant occasion due to the fine perfumes. I think you will enjoy his insight on farts.
to The Royal Academy of Brussels
I have perused your late mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. “Une figure quelconque donnee, on demande d’y inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnee”. I was glad to find by these following Words, “l’Acadeemie a jugee que cette deecouverte, en eetendant les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITE”, that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis’d greater Utility.
Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age.
It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.
That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.
That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.
That so retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.
Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.
My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.
That this is not a chimerical Project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations. That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Smell. He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some Time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Report, he may any where give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed.
But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-Lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast Mass of putrid Matter contain’d in such Places, and render it rather pleasing to the Smell, who knows but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at Dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produc’d in and issuing from our Bowels?
This is worth the Experiment. Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water. A few Stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets. And why should it be thought more impossible in Nature, to find Means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water?
For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or to how small a Part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous. Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have pick’d out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels!
The Knowledge of Newton’s mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack’d by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions? The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and Comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels? Especially if it be converted into a Perfume: For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction.
The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly. And surely such a Liberty of Expressing one’s Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human Happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight & die for. — In short, this Invention, if compleated, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms.
And, I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers above-mentioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your “Figure quelconque” and the Figures inscrib’d in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a
234 years later and we still have not solved Ben Franklin’s equation. Will Ben Franklin’s farting challenge never be assailed? Will the solution to this malodorous nightmare never end? Inquiring minds want to know.
With all the interest in healthcare solutions in all the technical centers around the world, perhaps one of this new crop of entrepreneurs could tackle this vexing issue and, once and for all, free society to break wind at will!