The history of the international fraternity of Freemasonry is riddled with secrets. Attempting to make a definitive account of its beliefs, rituals and influence would prove to be an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task. By their very nature, the Freemasons are a mysterious group, and although in the 21st century they claim to be “less a secret society and more a society with many secrets,” they do not relinquish covert information to non-members readily. What is known about the Freemasons is that a phenomenal number of great innovators, thinkers and influential individuals have been, upon closer inspection, members of this shadowy organization. The following inventive and original minds all, in their own ways, changed the world — and they were also all members of the Freemasons.
10. Vannevar Bush (1890 – 1974)
American engineer, scientist and developer of the first electronic analogue computer Vannevar Bush is perhaps best remembered as the author of the revolutionary essay “As We May Think.” Published in 1945, it envisaged much of the technology we take for granted today, including personal computers, the Internet, hypertext, online encyclopedias, and speech recognition software. In 1939, Bush — a Worshipful Master in Massachusetts’s Richard C. Maclaurin Lodge — was appointed president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; as such he assumed considerable influence with the US Government in military and scientific research. Bush was involved in the development and proposed use of the atomic bomb. And, as the alleged head of the “Majestic 12” — the purported code name of a secret committee of scientists, leaders and officials formed by President Harry Truman — Bush is rumored to have investigated UFO activity in the wake of the Roswell incident, the supposed crash of an alien aircraft in New Mexico in 1947. The secrets his fellow Lodge members may have heard are almost too immense to contemplate.
9. Sandford Fleming (1827 – 1915)
Sir Sandford Fleming was a Scottish-born Canadian inventor and engineer. Perhaps best known as the man who, in 1851, designed the first Canadian postage stamp, Fleming is also often credited with the invention of standard time zones. Amongst his many achievements, Fleming was chief engineer of the cross-continental Canadian Pacific Railway. Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897, Fleming was also a Freemason. Freemasonry helped Fleming in no small way, providing him with links to many influential members across the international fraternity. His proposal of world time zones was supported by many powerful masons, most notably the fourth Governor General of Canada, 9th Duke of Argyll John Campbell. Fleming’s engineering genius also helped to bring about the trans-Pacific submarine telegraph cable, which some have dubbed the “Victorian Internet.”
8. John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683 – 1744)
The French-born astronomer, scientist, natural philosopher and priest Rev. John Theophilus Desaguliers has been credited with the invention of the planetarium and is also remembered as the man who took steam engine design a step further though the addition of a safety valve. Influenced by Sir Isaac Newton, whom he was an assistant to, the Oxford-educated Desaguliers chose to settle in England. Desaguliers was also an extremely prominent Freemason and a major force both in collating the early history of the society and in attracting noblemen to the world’s first known Grand Lodge — the Premier Grand Lodge of England. Mystery shrouds his connection with Freemasonry up to 1719, but in that year he was elected the third Grand Master, and after serving in this post he subsequently held various prestigious positions within the Fraternity — in his adopted home as well as in Europe. Desaguliers, who appears to have invested far more time in science and Freemasonry than he did in the Church of England, has been called the “Father of Modern speculative Freemasonry.”
7. King Camp Gillette (1855 – 1932)
It can be reasonably claimed that the American innovator King Camp Gillette changed the world when he launched the cheap, disposable safety razor to a grateful public in 1901. Yet the founder of the world famous Gillette brand (now a business unit of Procter & Gamble), who was known for his business acumen and innovative marketing strategies, was also a Freemason. Little is known of Gillette’s personal experience within the Fraternity, but his political ideas are well documented and must surely have been shared among other members. Gillette was a “Utopian Socialist,” and envisioned a single public-owned corporation that controlled the entire world’s industry. He also imagined a giant US-wide city named Metropolis that would be powered exclusively by Niagara Falls. King Camp Gillette: dreamer; inventor; Freemason.
6. Traian Vuia (1872 – 1950)
The Romanian inventor, engineer and aviation pioneer Traian Vuia was one of the earliest innovators in flight technology. In 1906, his self-propelled, fixed-wing aircraft – complete with landing wheels – managed to fly 39 feet, approximately 3 feet off the ground. What is less well known is that the aeronautics genius was a member of Romania’s Masonic Order, which had grown steadily more organized following the unification of its lodges in 1880. It has been reported that, in the wake of World War I, Vuia was part of a small group of Freemasons who traveled to the Peace Conference in Paris to facilitate links with the Paris Ernest Renan Lodge — and in turn, between the governments of the two countries. As a world famous innovator and designer, Vuia’s value to Romania and his lodge was priceless, while journalists who were part of the French fraternity ensured Romania got good press at the conference.
5. Antonio Meucci (1808 – 1889)
It is widely held that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone. However, it is also claimed that inventor, revolutionary thinker and unconfirmed Freemason Antonio Meucci had devised the principles of the telephone when Bell was still an infant, and had a working model by 1859 — long before Bell and others. Unfortunately for the Italian, due to technical omissions relating to vocal sounds in his patent — which was filed five years before Bell’s — he never gained the credit for his work; until recently, that is. In 2002, the US Congress officially recognized Meucci’s work in the development of the telephone. The rumors of Meucci’s involvement with the Freemasons appear to be largely down to his close friendship with the great military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, the unifier of Italy. Garibaldi was an active Mason and arrived in New York around the same time as Meucci. The two shared ideas, and it seems likely that Freemasonry played some part in this exchange.
4. James Bowie (1796 – 1836)
James “Jim” Bowie, legendary frontiersman, pioneer, battle hero and reputed joint designer of the Bowie knife (with a little help from his brother, Rezin), is something of a folk hero in American cultural history. Bowie’s fame was born of violent circumstances. Having been shot and stabbed in the famous brawl known as the Sandbar Fight, Bowie killed the sheriff of Rapides Parish, Norris Wright, with an unusually long knife. It’s said that this became the basis for the design of the now-famous hunting knife. While many different manufacturers have produced their own versions of the blade, Bowie can lay claim to being the original inspiration for the design. Among his many other roles — including a slave trader and land speculator — Bowie was an esteemed member of L’Humble Chaumiere Lodge No. 19 at Opelousas, Louisiana. Yet just as his life appeared to be at its most settled and comfortable, his wife and children were killed in a cholera outbreak. He then fought and died alongside fellow national icons Davy Crockett and William Travis at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
3. Samuel Colt (1814 – 1862)
The American industrialist and inventor Samuel Colt is best known for popularizing the revolver that eventually led to the Colt Single Action Army, otherwise known as the Colt .45. He applied for his first patent at the age of 18, and his dream of perfecting the ‘impossible gun’ never faded. An engaging and pioneering character in the world of munitions and other fields, Colt once made a living as “the celebrated Dr. Coult,” lecturing on chemistry and performing demonstrations of the effects of Nitrous Oxide on willing audience members. Like his manufacturing rival Daniel Leavitt — who patented the first revolver after his own — and another great firearms exponent, Richard Gatling, Colt was also an active Freemason. Colt’s name will forever be associated with the gun, and interestingly his products were of great use to fellow Masons Benito Juárez, Simon Bolivar, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Sam Houston in their various violent revolutionary activities.
2. The Montgolfier Brothers (Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740 – 1810) and Jacque-Étienne Montgolfier (1745 – 1799))
The celebrated French inventors the Montgolfier Brothers — arguably the earliest important names in the history of aviation — performed the first manned ascent of a hot air balloon in 1783. Based on experiments with bags made of paper and fabric and a naked flame, their paper-lined silk balloon was lifted 6,562 feet in the air. In the same year they successfully transported first animals (a sheep, a rooster and a duck) and then later human passengers, the first one being Jacque-Étienne himself. Less is known about the brothers’ lives as Freemasons, but like Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier — who made the first untethered manned flight in a Montgolfier balloon — they were active members of the Fraternity.
1. Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)
Benjamin Franklin, the great statesman, scientist, political theorist and philosopher, is without doubt one of the most important inventors and public figures in American history. The creator of the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses and the glass harmonica also believed in generously donating his genius and never patented his work. He was a true Renaissance man, and possibly his greatest gift to civilization was the lightning rod, which led to a greater understanding of the nature of electricity. Franklin was active as a Freemason from at least as early as 1731, when he was initiated into St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia. Appointed Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1934, he was heavily involved in Masonic work his entire life, and edited and reprinted Scotland’s Rev. James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons in the same year as his high appointment. This was the first Masonic book in America and effectively linked the “Antient” and the “Modern” world. Franklin, known as the “First American,” was instrumental in the creation of modern America and, in doing so, brought the secrets of Freemasonry to a new nation. Or at least to its chosen few.