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little-known stories behind well-known inventions"
|Niemann's note: Beginning next week, the
Invention Mysteries column will be expanding. Future stories
will include historical figures such as discoverers,
explorers, famous criminals, well-known athletes, actors and
other pop culture figures of yesteryear -- including some
inventors. The style and format of the stories will remain
This allows us to expand the topic to include more than
just inventor stories, and it coincides with the fall launch
of the TV version of these stories. With help from your
editor, we created an excellent new name for the column.
This week's story is the last one under the Invention
Mysteries name, and the new name will appear next week:
Red, White & True Mysteries.
Which four inventors signed the Declaration of Independence? By Paul Niemann
[June 28, 2007]
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.
We often cover stories in
this column 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 introduce these two signers and
inventors to you now.
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 actually
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
Hopkinson was also an author who wrote a ballad called "The
Battle of the Kegs" in 1778. The ballad was 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.
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.
[to top of second column]
Clymer invented the Colombian 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
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 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
Colombian 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,
In the end, the 56 signers kept their word to "mutually pledge to
each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
[Text from file received
from Paul Niemann]
Paul Niemann may be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2007