We know little of this mysterious Transylvanian other than what the great Benjamin Franklin, who claims to have been his friend, reveals in a letter from 1755. A man of good education and many interests, Samuilă Damian (Samuel Domjen/Dömjen) was an intrepid Orthodox priest with a passion for traveling. In fact, his dream, quite unusual at the time, was to go around the world. To accomplish this feat, between 1744-45 he crossed Europe towards England passing through Germany, France and the Low Countries and eventually settled for a while at Oxford where electricity was the thing of the day. He learned everything that was to it and then set sail for the New World, arriving in Philadelphia sometime in 1748 after a detour through New England and Maryland. In the bustling metropolis of the English Colonies, Damian became a protégé and disciple of no other than the famous inventor and educator Ben Franklin, who had been impressed by his scientific inclinations. His stay in Philadelphia was brief yet that was enough for him to get accustomed to his American mentor’s experiments in electricity, which he came to master.
But his longing for adventure was greater than his scientific call and, armed with a flattering letter of recommendation from Franklin, the restless Father set off for Charleston by way of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Impecunious as he was, Damian sustained himself all these 800 miles and during his stop in Charleston by offering 20-shilling electrical demonstrations to astonished crowds that must have marveled at these small miracles. Never losing sight of his ultimate goal, when he saved enough to continue his journey he boarded a ship to Jamaica and after a short while he landed in Mexico. There his traces were forever lost and nobody knows to this day what happened to him. But his legacy remains. Samuilă Damian must be recognized as one of our greatest travelers and explorers. His American experience, first ever to have been made by a Romanian, was meteoric, yet courageous and inquiring, and his sojourn was elevated by the friendship with one of the most beloved Americans of all time, who cherished him and respected him. Almost a century must pass until his exploits are emulated by other bold, inquisitive Romanians. We’ll learn about them and their discoveries in our next blogs.
Photo 1: The city of Philadelphia in the 18th century
Photo 2: Detail, Benjamin Franklin by David Rent Etter, after Charles Wilson Peale after David Martin, 1835 (source: Independence National Historical Park)
Reference book: Cernovodeanu, Paul, and Stanciu, Ion, Imaginea Lumii Noi în Țările Române și primele lor relații cu Statele Unite ale Americii până în 1859, Romanian Academy Publishing House, Bucharest, 1977