The Time Ben Franklin Casually Invented a Form of Kitesurfing
In a series of letters, Benjamin Franklin responded to a few inquiries from his French translator Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg about the “art of swimming.” Franklin was a talented swimmer as a boy (he had once considered opening a swim school), so he had plenty of words of wisdom for Dubourg, including:
—“Fat persons with small bones float most easily upon water.”
—“To throw one’s self into cold spring water, when the body has been heated by exercise in the sun, is an imprudence which may prove fatal.”
—“It is certain that much swimming is the means of stopping a diarrhea.”
But perhaps Franklin’s most interesting comments were in regards to a few swim-related inventions he made when he was a boy, like the rudimentary fins that “resembled a painter’s pallets.” Franklin also relayed a story about the time he casually partook in kite-aided swimming. He found it very agreeable.
Before taking a dip in a pond that was “near a mile broad,” the young Franklin tied his kite to a stake on the shore. We all know how Franklin gets when he's around kites, so, naturally, inspiration struck:
The kite ascended to a very considerable height above the pond, while I was swimming. In a little time, being desirous of amusing myself with my kite, and enjoying at the same time the pleasure of swimming, I returned, and loosing from the stake the string with the little stick which was fastened to it, went again into the water, where I found, that lying on my back, and holding the stick in my hands, I was drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner.
Franklin then asked an observer—who was no doubt gawking at this chubby boy skimming across the water via kite—to take his clothes to the other side of the pond. “I began to cross the pond with my kite,” he writes, “which carried me quite over without the least fatigue, and with the greatest pleasure imaginable.” He then nonchalantly retrieved his clothes and called it a day.
While he never tried kite swimming again, Franklin guessed it “not impossible to cross in this manner from Dover to Calais.” His prediction, in a way, came true. In 2012, billionaire (and Franklin-esque bon vivant) Richard Branson kitesurfed across the English Channel:
While Franklin’s brief experiment lacked modern-day kitesurfing's board, the principles and general extreme-ness of his act make it a clear forerunner.
While all the founding fathers agreed on the pursuit of happiness, Franklin could likely get there fastest by hanging on to his kite and haulin' ass.