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Carol Highsmith photograph of Benjamin Franklin sculpture.
Carol Highsmith, photographer. A sculpture of Benjamin Franklin. 2019. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Benjamin Franklin and His Magic Squares

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Recently, a 2-part, 4-hour documentary by Ken Burns was aired on PBS on the life of Benjamin Franklin and this rekindled my interest in the Founder. While browsing the Benjamin Franklin Papers, held here at the Library in the Manuscript Division, I came across a letter that Franklin wrote to his sister, Jane Mecom, on September 20, 1787. In it he references the costs of war in terms of ammunition, provisions, fair pay for troops, etc., writing:

It seems to me, that, if statesmen had a little more arithmetic, or were more accustomed to calculation, wars would be much less frequent.

Page from Practica arithmetice showing various magic squares.
Page from Practica Arithmetice, showing various magic squares. 1539.

I was well acquainted with Franklin’s experiments and inventions, but this casual mention of arithmetic spurred me to find out what I could about his relationship with mathematics. Franklin didn’t have a thorough education and was largely self-taught, including in mathematics. On page 98 of his autobiography Franklin writes:

And now it was that, being on some occasion made asham’d of my ignorance in figures, which I had twice failed in learning while at school, I took Cocker’s book of arithmetick, and went through the whole by myself with great ease.

This surprised me given his adeptness at creating magic squares, which require skill with arithmetic and quite a bit of creativity. In these matrices each row, column, and major diagonal equal the same number; similar to, but not quite the same as, sudoku.

These squares have been around for thousands of years and can be found in many cultural traditions such as Chinese, Indian, and Islamic. Some cultures attached mystical meanings to them and over time magic triangles, circles, hexagons, and other shapes have also appeared.

In his autobiography, Franklin writes that his time as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in the 1730s and 1740s was so excruciatingly dull that he passed the time by “…making magic squares, or circles, or any thing to avoid weariness.” In addition to the typical features of a magic square, Franklin included bent rows. For example, picture lines that begin in the lower left and bottom corners of the square and draw nearer as they approach the center diagonally until they meet, forming an arrow (^). One of his most famous squares, which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine (v. 38, 1768), can be seen here with an explanation alongside:

Benjamin Franklin. A Magic Square of Squares. The Gentleman’s Magazine, v.38. 1768: 313.

If after reading this post you too would like to learn more about founding father’s interest in science and business, see the research guide Benjamin Franklin: Man of Business and Science, featuring books, manuscript collections, and more.

Further explore the fun of puzzles using these subject headings in the Library of Congress online catalog:

For even more diversions see our 5-part series Mathematical Games of Martin Gardner!

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Comments (2)

  1. Frank Murphy has written a delightful children’s book, Ben Franklin and the Magic Squares (New York, Random House, 2001. 48 p.). LC call number: PZ7.M95335 Be 20001 FT MEADE.
    The story suggests that Franklin created a puzzle called magic squares to keep himself from being bored while serving as clerk for the Philadelphia Assembly. The book includes step-by-step instructions for creating your own magic squares. I often give it to 2nd graders.

  2. I remember in elementary school I found this illustrated children’s book about Franklin’s magic squares. Pretty good book with funny illustrations.

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