Benjamin Franklin: Media Mogul

It’s interesting to contrast how old technologies seem to me now with how they looked at the time.

I knew that Benjamin Franklin was a printer before, but I always thought of that as being very… something or other. Parochial or old-fashioned or whatever. I didn’t really have a background for thinking about the issue, and once I did it wasn’t on my radar as something that needed thinking about.

Reading his autobiography now, it became much more obvious to me what this meant. Information back then was almost entirely stored in people’s brains and pieces of paper. Since moving around was inconvenient and talking to people low-throughput, moving around pieces of paper was the main way of moving around information. Owning a printing press meant owning the main scalable means of moving around information.

Imagine having the only blog in the city. Or only having 3 other competitors. Imagine being the only way for people to make a bunch of copies of things, or being the only way to make a web page in town. That’s kind of what having a printing press would be like in 1700s America.

From a young age, Franklin pretty much kicked ass at reading and thinking about things. To learn how to write well he looked at articles that he liked, copied out their main points, and would try to reconstruct the original articles from those notes. He also needed a steady source of content to counterbalance the effects of just memorizing things. After getting enough feedback, he became decent at writing to the point of getting published.

Being able to write well was one of his most useful tools, to the point that most of the stories in his autobiography at some point involve “So I published a pamphlet on ____”.

It’s also because of this talent in writing that Franklin’s father pushed him into the printing trade after he found out that Benjamin didn’t really like candlemaking. Benjamin was apprenticed to his older brother, but later ran away to Philadelphia.

When he got there, there were only 2 printing shops in town. So he started working at one of them at 17 to get more experience running a printing shop, and because he didn’t have nearly the capital necessary to start a shop of his own.

A lot of people in Philadelphia liked Franklin more than the other printers (both for being smart and industrious), and started trying to encourage him to start his own shop. One would-be investor sent him to England to buy type for starting a shop, but that investor’s credit was actually worthless. Oops.

So Franklin stayed in England working at more printing shops to get more experience and more money while he read more things and made more friends. For a few years.

When he got back he went back to Philadelphia he went back to working at his first job, before finding someone who’s father had enough money to set them up with what they needed to start a shop. He then used interpersonal savvy and his general sharpness to provide better content and slowly edge out his competitors until he became fairly wealthy.

Modern translation: Franklin worked at a few startups while he learned about the technology necessary to launch a new media company, which delivered higher quality content to customers until he drove his competitors out of business.

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About atucker

Provisional pronouncements and (hopefully) honest mistakes. I'd like to be differently wrong about things, and helpful to the world.
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