Updated: Dec 6, 2018
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin - inventor extraordinaire, founding father, and all around renaissance man - had an avid passion for swimming? Quite frankly, we think it only makes sense that such a genius would share our love the sport.
…Where It All Began
Let's start with a fun fact: Ben Franklin was so into the sport that his first documented invention was swim fins! Oh, and did we mention that he was just 11 years old?
He tells of this in a March 1773 letter to Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, his French disciple, “I made two oval palettes, each about ten inches long, and six broad, with a hole for the thumb, in order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resemble a painter’s palettes. In swimming, I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back: I remember I swam faster by means of these palettes, but they fatigued my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals; but I was not satisfied with them, because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles, and not entirely with the soles of the feet.”
…The First Swimming Performer?
At the age of 19, on a boating excursion down the Thames with friends, he dived into the river and swam from Chelsea to Blackfriars — a good 3.5 miles. A master of all strokes in a city where few could swim, this was a noteworthy spectacle.
In a 1726 letter to Oliver Reeve, Franklin described his show, “performing on the way many feats of activity, both upon and under the water, that surprised and pleased those to whom they were novelties.”
He also described demonstrating some tricks of his own, “aiming at graceful and easy as well as useful. All these I took occasion of exhibiting to the company, and was much flattered by their admiration."
A competent coach as well as swimmer, he then taught two of his friends to swim but turned down an offer by Sir William Wyndham to open the first American swim school in England. Upon his return that same year, he proposed that all American schools should have swimming programs.
…The First Kitesurfer?
Franklin's kite-in-a-thunderstorm experiment is very well known, but did you know he also used a kite to make another discovery? On normal days he would fly his kite, then put it down as he swam. One day he decided to combine his pleasure for kiting with his pleasure for swimming by grabbing onto the string of the kite and lying on his back.
He described creating the first form of kitesurfing in a letter to Mr. Barbeu-Dubourg… “I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over without the least fatigue, and with the greatest pleasure imaginable.”
A Swimmer Through and Through
We know, we know… the images you see of Franklin don't exactly match up to our modern image of an extraordinary athlete. Yet, despite having dwindling health after being infected with pneumonia and lung abscesses at a young age, and suffering from gout attacks by middle-age, he lived to be 84 years old. To put that in perspective, that was 30 and 40 years past the average lifespan at the time!
Benjamin Franklin was one of the few of his time who considered swimming a requisite to a healthy lifestyle, and thus became the only founding father inducted in the Swimming Hall of Fame!
Before you go…
We rounded up a few more interesting quotes from Frankling that might make you love swimming even more:
“The exercise of swimming is one of the most healthy and agreeable in the world. After having swum for an hour or two in the evening, one sleeps coolly all night, even during the most ardent heat of summer. Perhaps the pores being cleansed, the insensible perspiration increases, and occasions this coolness.”
“With respect to those who do not know how to swim, or who are affected with a diarrhoea at a season which does not permit them to use that exercise, a warm bath, by cleansing and purifying the skin, is found very salutary and often effects a radical cure."
" 'Tis supposed that every parent would be glad to have their children skilled in swimming, if it might be learnt in a place chosen for its safety and under the eye of a careful person...'tis some advantage besides, to be free from the slavish terrors many of those feel who cannot swim, when they are obliged to be on the water even in crossing a ferry."