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On This Day in History: Benjamin Franklin Invents Smoking Weed, April 20th 1753


Figure 1: A futurist re-imagining of the scene with modern-day glass blown bong. Edited by MJ Kang. 

Many woke up today excited about the 20th of April. Yes, the 207th anniversary of the Governor of Caracas declaring independence from Spain. Also the date that the Chicago Cubs played their first game in what is now today Wrigley Field. 

Beyond these striking historical moments, 4/20 is also a day that has come to be an international celebration of the drug called marijuana, popular with youths and adults alike across the globe. Inevitably around this time every year, folks start to wonder how 4/20 came to be. There are a number of origin stories floating around from the most common myth, that 420 is the police dispatch code for cannabis related incidents, all the way to the erroneous idea that 420 is the anniversary of Bob Marley's death.

The question remains: How did April 20th become 4/20 as we know it today? And, more importantly, how is Ben Franklin involved in all of this? 

In response to these very concerning gaps in the histokeography, UTB's historians have been busy rifling through the extensive archives of Philadelphia, looking for answers. The weed scholars have unearthed some papers that reveal Ben Franklin's involvement in the innovation of cannabis smoking as we know it today. 

Let's go back exactly 264 years, to the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now known as the University of Pennsylvania). A man named Ben Franklin has just founded this college, and needs a bit of a break. As Franklin famously remarked in 1735, "An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure unless the cure is something cool, like staying in bed for two weeks and only eating ice cream. Tonsillitis is very Good, if you ask me." After founding what would become Penn, Franklin's problem was stress and marijuana was both the cure and the prevention — so he set out to smoke a pound and an ounce. But how?

Following his famous Kite and Key experiment, where Benj identified lightning as a form of electricity in June of 1752, Benjamin conducted a much less well known experiment. While Franklin's passion for a strong red wine are widely remembered and recognized, his love for the devil's lettuce is hardly acknowledged. However, on April 20th, Benjamin found a way to light a drug cigarette, today known as a "joint" or maybe even as a "thick fat blunt" as one youth cannabis blogger so eloquently put it, using the electric jolt of lightning. The Lightning Joint Experiment forever informed how people consumed wacky tabacky, which is precisely why 4/20 is a celebration of Benjamin Franklin's noble contributions to U.S. society, and led directly to some of his later experiments like the Lightning Bong Experiment (see Figure 1 above). 

So when you see one of the many Ben Franklin statues around campus today, make sure to salute the man who made it all possible.