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Four inventors signed the Declaration of Independence

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By Paul Niemann

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[JULY 1, 2004]  In 1776, while working for our nation's independence from England, Benjamin Franklin said, "Indeed we must all hang together, otherwise we will hang separately." The penalty for treason against the British was death by hanging.

In this column we often cover stories that are timely and relevant, so we celebrate our nation's freedom by taking a look at two signers of the Declaration of Independence who were also known as inventors in their day. As regular readers of this column know, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson -- two of the most famous among the 56 signers -- were inventors. There were two other signers who were inventors but who are unknown to most Americans. We will introduce these two signers and inventors to you here.

Francis Hopkinson

Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) was born in Philadelphia. His father was one of the first trustees of the College of Philadelphia, now called the University of Pennsylvania, as well as its first graduate. Hopkinson went on to become a judge.

The only "inventions" that Judge Hopkinson created were the American flag and the Great Seal of the United States. While history credits Betsy Ross with designing the flag, it was probably Hopkinson who played the larger role in its design. Betsy Ross had sewn the flag together, and this may be why she is regarded as the person who designed the flag. The journals of the Continental Congress indicate that Hopkinson designed the flag, though. In 2000 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of Hopkinson's flag design.

In addition to being an inventor, Hopkinson was an author. In 1778 he wrote a ballad called "The Battle of the Kegs," loosely based on a battle in which gunpowder kegs floated down the Delaware River toward the British at Philadelphia, and the British returned the favor by firing back. Hopkinson was also a chemist, a physicist, a musician, a composer and an artist.


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George Clymer

Like Hopkinson, George Clymer (1739-1813) was born in Pennsylvania. He was an orphan who was raised by his uncle, and his paternal ancestors were among the earliest settlers of the state.

Clymer invented the Columbian printing press, which was an improvement over Ben Franklin's printing press. But the Columbian, with all its bells and whistles, never caught on in the United States.

You may have heard the story of how the signers of the Declaration of Independence were hunted by the British for treason. The 56 signers literally risked everything fighting for our nation's freedom. Each one became a marked man. Some were captured, while others, like Thomas Jefferson, escaped.

Nine of the signers died as a result of the war, but all were driven from their homes at one time or another. Five were captured, imprisoned and abused. Seventeen signers lost everything they owned, including 12 who had their homes completely burned. Several lost their wives and families. One lost all of 13 of his children.

George Clymer and Francis Hopkinson both escaped with their families, but their properties were completely destroyed. Clymer was the only signer who returned to England. His reason for returning was that England presented him with a better opportunity for his Columbian printing press.

Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July in 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Coincidentally, it was the same day that another signer, John Adams, died.

In the end, each of the 56 signers kept his word to " mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

[Paul Niemann]

Invention Mysteries is written each week by Paul Niemann. A special thanks goes out to Jessica Summers for her contributions to this article.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2004

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