J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

A Peek at Franklin’s Improved Alphabet

Last mont Smithsonian Magazine’s Design Decoded blog highlighted a story on Benjamin Franklin’s phonetic alphabet.

The posting left me confused when it said:
Franklin developed his phonetic alphabet in 1768 but it wasn’t published until 1789, when Noah Webster, intrigued by Franklin’s proposal, included its description in his book Dissertations on the English Language. However, because, Webster lacked the type blocks to illustrate Franklin’s changes, the alphabet wouldn’t be seen until Franklin had new blocks cast to print the alphabet for his 1779 collection of writings, Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces.
No matter how I look at things, 1779 comes before 1789, so Franklin’s alphabet, explanations, and examples appeared in print ten years before Noah Webster reprinted the correspondence—translating it back out of the phonetic spelling into familiar form. I think the passage above must mean that Franklin’s scheme wasn’t published in the U.S. of A. until 1789, and even then the actual lettering couldn’t be reprinted.

But copies of Franklin’s Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces had undoubtedly been shipped into America in the 1780s. Many American authors, including the Rev. Cotton Mather, Prof. John Winthrop, Phillis Wheatley, and the Rev. William Gordon, had their books published in London even as they expected American sales. Webster probably found Franklin’s letters in one such imported copy. Incidentally, the American printer who didn’t have the typeface to replicate the London printing for Webster was Isaiah Thomas.

TOMORROW: What’s really remarkable about Franklin’s 1779 collection.

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