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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Was an author named Richard the first person to discover electricity?   By Paul Niemann

[May 03, 2007]  Long ago there was a popular author who went by the name of Richard. His best-selling book is still available more than 200 years after his death. Richard was a pretty good inventor, too; in fact, some of his inventions and ideas are still being used today.

Besides being an author, he was also a scientist, a statesman, a printer, an economist, a musician and a philosopher.

Did I mention that he was also the first postmaster general of the United States? His work as postmaster general inspired him to invent the odometer, which measured the distance that mail carriers traveled. Why was it important to measure the distance they traveled? Because it would be another 80 years before someone would invent postage stamps, and the postage rate was calculated by the distance the mail carrier had to travel to deliver it. Then the recipient of the letter, not the sender, would pay the postage due.

Richard was also the first person to have his image appear on a U.S. stamp. Oddly enough, the second person to have his image appear on a stamp was George Washington.

You say you haven't heard of him?

Maybe it would help if you knew his full name: Richard Saunders. Richard introduced some pretty original sayings in his book, such as "Haste makes waste" and "Early to bed, and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

His father had earlier landed in Boston when he immigrated to America looking for religious freedom. Born in 1706, Richard was the youngest of 16 kids -- including six half siblings born to his father's first wife. Like his father, he was the youngest son of a youngest son; in fact, he was one of five consecutive generations of youngest sons.

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A man with many successful inventions and ideas, he was the first to suggest the idea of daylight-saving time. This idea was years ahead of its time, though, as daylight-saving time wasn't implemented until long after Richard died. He had invented many things, but he chose to give them away rather than profit from them.

The lightning rod resulted from his greatest accomplishment.

You still say you haven't heard of him?

You probably have, but you just don't realize it. Not yet, anyway. Maybe it would help if you knew that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, even though you won't find Richard Saunders' name anywhere on the document. You've probably heard of his popular book, Poor Richard's Almanack, which he published each year for 25 years.

In a previous article in this column, we listed the five greatest inventions of all time, and one of those was the discovery and use of electricity. That was Richard's main claim to fame. You see, a simple experiment that he conducted with a kite and a key enabled him to tap into the power of electricity.

That's impossible, you say -- Richard Saunders didn't discover electricity.

Actually, Richard wasn't his real name; it was his pen name. His real name was... Ben Franklin.

[Text from file received from Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

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