On the Occasion of the Presentation of the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society

William O. Baker

April 2000


President Rhodes, eminent Committee, Councilors, and distinguished Executive Director: I am grateful to join with you and this assembly in the legacy of Benjamin Franklin, through the American Philosophical Society. And taking part in this meeting is for me precious. Esteemed scientific colleagues and friends are speaking here, eloquently enriching the knowledge that Franklin, the scientist charged the Society to pursue. I am serving as proxy for members of the initial program in this 21st Century, meeting in celebration of Franklin's legacy - the pursuit of “useful knowledge.” I am honored to be this proxy for the presenters/presentations that Dr. Bearn has assembled this week. So that is the actual embodiment of the Franklin Medal. I was surprised by finding electrical conductivity in organic macromolecular systems which Franklin and later Faraday established as insulators. (Now 60 years later the subject is flourishing, with devices, bioanalogues, etc.) Similarly, when linear or chain polymers were the style, my synthesis of densely branched and networked molecules applied immediately to Franklin's call to improve nature's materials. In this case the Hevea latex which is the basis for all telephone cables. But the substance also provided wholly artificial structures - now also in lively expansion of use. But then I spent the next decades persuading a few hundred and eventually a few thousand of Laboratories' colleagues to gather and do their versions of unanticipated experiments. So hence emerged much of what is now the science and technology of the “Information Age.”

Thus, a sample including the names of Gomory, Barton, Weinberg, Wiesel and Garwin all relate to our many mutual endeavors, while Blumstein and Gingerich enhance two primary arenas of our Laboratories' search for knowledge.

Further, the legacy of Thomas Jefferson wisely tells us that science is a small part of human learning. So Professor Vendler, as the Jefferson Medalist, links us with the vast realm of the humanities and the names of Putnam, Kinney, Michael Putnam combined with that of our illustrious Dublin Society progenitor, Thomas Mitchell, provost of Trinity. This perspective can assure for all science what Franklin said about electricity: “If there is no other use discovered for electricity, this however is something very considerable: that it may help make a vain man humble.”

Robespierre (to Franklin): “The least of your virtues is to be the most illustrious scientist in the universe.” (Oct., 1783 APS)

So vanity is disposed of, in those of us working nowadays in science and invention. Likewise, overall, Franklin's patriotism is admirably reflected in the names of Garwin, Finkelman, Canavan Sagdeev and Steinbrunner. So Dr. Alick Bearn has attracted for this first of the meetings in the 21st century speakers whose messages already show that the American Philosophical Society continues to honor Franklin's charge. As to our specific doings in Franklin's theme, from the outset we began by doing experiments unlikely or unpromising to succeed, but which seemed pertinent to telecommunications and to science and technology. But some worked out: such as finding electrical conductivity in macromolecules that had long met Franklin's (and Faraday's) tests as full insulators, and synthesizing and applying cross-bonded polymers that are now widely applied in the massive engineering of cable systems. Such very early and rather primitive forms of 99 useful" knowledge were a come-on to do better. So we spent the next half of the 20th Century persuading a few hundred, and eventually several thousand, colleagues to follow these corporate missions and driven by the vision of their minds' eyes through risk and novelty, stirred by worthy causes.

“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end, each changing place with that which goes before, in sequence toil all forwards to contend.” Sonnets

We conclude that “Useful knowledge,” nowadays sustaining the “Information Age,” has come out. (Some examples are further noted in forthcoming in 75th  anniversary - Bell Labs Journal.)

So, wishing that my late and beloved spouse, Frances, could also have seen this gathering in Franklin's name, I thank you all.


W. 0. Baker

April, 2000