The Age of Benjamin Franklin

Course No. 8517
Professor Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
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Course No. 8517
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What Will You Learn?

  • Gain insight into one of the most famous Americans, and in many ways the archetypal American of his time; a profound thinker yet also a highly pragmatic figure.
  • Explore his many scientific contributions, from his early years as a printer to his groundbreaking work in the burgeoning field of electricity.
  • Delve into the drama of the American Revolution and consider Franklin's evolving worldview as he worked to negotiate among the Americans, the British, and the French.
  • See why Benjamin Franklin has earned his place on the world's stage-and consider why he continues to capture our imagination as a true character when so many of his counterparts have become merely names in the history books.

Course Overview

We all have certain images of Ben Franklin: the witty Founding Father who promoted independence; the Philadelphia printer who created Poor Richard’s Almanack; the scientist who conducted experiments with kites in electrical storms; the author of what is arguably America’s best-known autobiography. These images reveal an intellectually curious and successful man of the 18th century, but they don’t fully capture the rich and multi-faceted genius of one of the most extraordinary Americans—perhaps the quintessential American—in history.

Why is Benjamin Franklin so compelling? What made him so successful in his day? And why has he continued to influence generations of Americans? Tackle these questions and more in The Age of Benjamin Franklin, a thorough—and sometimes surprising—course that presents a full portrait of a personality that defies easy definition. Taught by Professor Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University, these 24 insightful lectures explore the many aspects of Franklin’s life and times.

From his humble beginnings as the son of a Boston soap maker to a world-renowned diplomat, Franklin’s story is the embodiment of the American Dream, characterized by a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps resolve. It’s the story he tells in his world famous autobiography—a blueprint for becoming a “self-made” man, by combining hard work and following a series of thirteen virtues. What you’ll learn early in this course is the difference between the character of Franklin that he created in his Autobiography, and the far more nuanced—and interesting—reality. For instance:

  • He was an Enlightenment thinker with Puritan roots, a friend of the leading thinkers of his time such as Voltaire and the evangelist George Whitfield.
  • He was Boston-born and Philadelphia proud, yet he was equally at home in London or Paris.
  • He championed intellectual values and wore the leather apron of a working man.
  • He possessed a scientific and creative mind, and his inventions include the lightning rod, bifocal glasses, and a flexible urinary catheter.
  • He was extraordinarily sociable; had a wife, children, a large, extended family, and close friendships with so many women that at least one scholar was inspired to call him “the founding flirt.”
  • He was a brilliant writer and humorist. His publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack inspired other American writers like Noah Webster.
  • He was highly respected, but not universally beloved in his time (or afterward). Many, like John Adams, questioned Franklin’s moral compass, in politics as well as in his personal life.

In this course, you’ll explore these many sides and more to discover who Benjamin Franklin was, what he believed, and how he conducted himself in business and politics. To better understand Franklin’s unique genius, Professor Allison takes you into his world of the 18th century—an era of political revolution, science and reason, communication and literacy. As Franklin rises to international greatness, you’ll see his countrymen take their own places on the world stage as they shake off the British Empire to form a new nation. Informative, entertaining, and insightful, The Age of Benjamin Franklin takes you into the fascinating life and times of a bona fide American genius.

A Paragon of the Enlightenment

Even if Benjamin Franklin had not gone into politics and had not lived during the American Revolution, it’s likely that he would have found a prominent place in history as a printer, scientist, inventor, and general Enlightenment thinker.

Professor Allison unpacks Franklin’s role as a scientist—or as as it was called at the time, a “natural philosopher”—exploring both the science and the truth behind the famous image of Franklin with the kite in the lightning storm. Although he may be best known as a Founding Father, his work on electricity is an equally grand achievement. As one scholar put it, he found the field of electricity as a parlor trick (something to shock guests at a dinner party), and he left it a science. We owe concepts of positive and negative charge, the battery, the Leyden jar, and more to Ben Franklin.

Professor Allison also delves into Franklin’s many other contributions to history. As you will find out, he had a dizzying series of accomplishments and interests, somehow finding time to:

  • Build a national printing business
  • Open America’s first library
  • Pioneer the development of the post office
  • Publish a number of satires
  • Invent the Franklin stove
  • Help create and codify the science of electricity
  • Write a string quartet
  • Write one of the first texts about chess published in the U.S.
  • Take up swimming

In addition, Franklin traveled the world, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, negotiated for support during the Revolutionary War and for peace following it, served in Congress, helped write the American Constitution, and hobnobbed with the likes of Cotton Mather, George Washington, Jeremy Bentham, David Hume, Voltaire, and countless others. He was a busy, busy man: ambitious, worldly, imaginative, and forward thinking, representing the best output from the Age of Enlightenment.

The Reluctant Politician

No history of Ben Franklin would be complete without an examination of the world around him, and the world of the 18th century was one of major intellectual and political upheaval. Franklin himself had little interest in politics, never seeking office but also—fortunately for us—never stepping away when he was needed.

From the Crisis of 1773, to the Stamp Act and the Tea Act, to the Declaration of Independence, the most challenging moments in early American history required deft negotiations among multiple parties. Franklin—with his rational and worldly mind on one hand, as well as his good humor, canny business experience, and pragmatic sensibilities on the other—was the perfect man for the job. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have his detractors; many thought Franklin was not suited to the job of envoy to Europe due to his humble origins, rakish reputation, and his unconcealed love of London (which he called home for 20 years). Even Franklin’s eldest son William—who had helped his father in his explorations of electricity—eventually became estranged from him when the two could not see eye to eye on American independence. Rumors even spread through certain circles that Franklin was a British double agent. You will venture with him to London and Paris as he negotiates, first for peace with the British Empire and then for support from France during the war, while contending with his own personal struggle with breaking from England and the toll it took on his family.

As you follow these dramatic events, you’ll also gain a sense of the 18th century world, reflecting on:

  • The texture of everyday life in Boston and Philadelphia, as well as London and Paris
  • The British Empire’s difficulties in governing far-flung colonies
  • The role Native Americans such as the Iroquois and the Delaware played in the American colonies
  • Race and the slave trade—and its incompatibility with Enlightenment values

Life in the 18th century was fascinating yet messy. In many ways, Franklin, with his boundless energy and curiosity, was the right man for these complicated and challenging times.

A Complex, Absorbing Portrait

With Robert Allison as your guide, you will come to know this outsized figure and the world he inhabited. You’ll discover Franklin was very much the intelligent, hard-working self-made man he presents himself to be in his autobiography. He was also a shrewd and savvy businessman, a canny politician, and a man with his share of enemies and personal conflicts.

Franklin himself wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Let all men know thee, but let no man know thee thoroughly.” In the end, Professor Allison leaves it to you to evaluate Ben Franklin’s enormous legacy. The man was one of the most notable Americans in history—a pioneer in science, politics, and diplomacy—he was truly a larger-than-life individual. The Age of Benjamin Franklin gives you a rich and entertaining portrait of his life and times.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Benjamin Franklin and the American Dream
    Begin your course with a look at Franklin's unfinished autobiography, a book in which he consciously created a persona for himself as a role model others may follow. Although there is more to Franklin than he showed on the page, surveying the Autobiography offers some foundational insights into his life, his worldview, and the times in which he lived. x
  • 2
    Meet the Franklins
    In many ways, the Franklins were a typical 18th century family—extended across space (New England, the West Indies, and Europe), and filled with comedy and tragedy, wealth and poverty. Here, you will meet his parents and siblings, learn the story of his wife and first-born son, and accompany Franklin on his travels as his family grew. x
  • 3
    Benjamin Franklin's Boston Beginnings
    We may associate Franklin with Philadelphia, but his roots lie in Boston. As you will find out in this lecture, many of the virtues Franklin would cultivate throughout his life grew from the values of the Boston Puritans. Delve into the Boston of the time to meet some of the people and witness the events that Franklin experienced in his youth. x
  • 4
    Benjamin Franklin and Philadelphia
    Shift your attention to the next stop on Franklin’s life voyage, the City of Brotherly Love. Not only was 18th century Philadelphia one of the leading cities in British America, it was one of the leading cities in the British Empire. Find out what made this city so important, and discover how the city shaped Franklin—and how Franklin shaped the city. x
  • 5
    Benjamin Franklin in London
    If Philadelphia was one of the British Empire's leading cities, London itself was becoming the metropolis of the Western world: the largest city in Europe, the financial center of the British Empire, and the nexus of global trade. From the royal exchange to the gambling dens, get to know this great city, and examine some of Franklin's pastimes. x
  • 6
    Benjamin Franklin: Printer and Postmaster
    The world was experiencing a major revolution in the 18th century thanks to the printing press. The rise in literacy, the spread of ideas, and the creation of communities across oceans and colonial boundaries re-shaped the world's intellectual landscape. Delve into Franklin's career as a printer, where he was at the center of this revolution. x
  • 7
    Benjamin Franklin: Scientist
    In addition to the print revolution, the 18th century saw scientific paradigms shift with the triumph of empirical knowledge. Franklin was a scientist—or, as he would have termed it, a “natural philosopher”—and his scientific contributions alone would have earned him a place in the history books. Examine some of his major inventions and ideas. x
  • 8
    Benjamin Franklin and Electricity
    Unpack Franklin's greatest scientific contributions, which were in the field of electricity. As one of his biographers put it, Franklin found electricity as merely a curiosity but he left it a science. Review his most important discoveries, experiments, and contributions, and reflect on the lasting legacy of Franklin as a scientist. x
  • 9
    Benjamin Franklin's Religious Beliefs
    Franklin lived during a great age of rationality and questioning, but also through one of the greatest religious revivals in world history. Franklin himself was a close friend of both George Whitefield, a famous evangelist, and David Hume, a powerful skeptic. Find out what Franklin made of these divergent intellectual movements. x
  • 10
    Benjamin Franklin: American Satirist
    The 18th century was also the golden age of satire, which provided an excellent way to question authority and challenge received wisdom. As you will learn in this lecture, Franklin was among peers with Swift, Defoe, and Voltaire, and he used personas like Silence Dogood to offer blistering critiques of society. x
  • 11
    The Musical Benjamin Franklin
    Among Franklin's lesser known abilities are his musical talents, which made effective use of his rational mind and his quest for understanding the world. After surveying the world of 18th century music, Professor Allison reveals Franklin's musical prowess, including the invention of a new musical instrument. x
  • 12
    Benjamin Franklin: Ladies' Man?
    Franklin has been called everything from a “babe magnet” to a “high-flying ladies’ man” to “the founding flirt.” Although he was conventionally married and had a family, he also had a number of unconventional liaisons around the world. Here, you will consider the many women in Franklin’s life, and his relationships with them. x
  • 13
    Benjamin Franklin: A Reluctant Politician
    Franklin loved science and ideas, but disliked controversy, a disposition that made him reluctant to enter politics. It is one of history's greatest ironies that this hesitant politician would become one of the most important political figures in the English-speaking world. Survey Franklin's entry into politics and consider his style as a politician. x
  • 14
    Benjamin Franklin and the American Indians
    It might be strange to consider, but Franklin knew more about Native Americans than modern historians do. The Iroquois, Delaware, and other natives loomed large in his world and held the balance of power in North America. Witness his negotiations with these groups and reflect on his views toward American Indians. x
  • 15
    Benjamin Franklin and Slavery in America
    Franklin's attitudes toward race and slavery changed over the course of his long life. During his life he owned four slaves, yet he came to despise the institution for the way it contradicted Enlightenment values. After surveying the institution of American slavery, Professor Allison walks you through Franklin's life as he wrestled with slavery. x
  • 16
    Benjamin Franklin and Colonies vs. Empire
    As with slavery, Franklin's attitudes toward the British Empire also shifted as Parliament struggled to govern far-flung colonies. Here, you will review Franklin's role as an American agent to London while tensions rose between Britain and the colonies. A steady drumbeat of war began to be heard. x
  • 17
    Benjamin Franklin and the Crisis of 1773
    Continue your study of the tensions between Americans and the British. In the wake of the Tea Act and Boston Tea Party, Franklin in London as an agent for the American colonies struggled to patch the relationship and salvage the empire, but by 1775, a break is imminent. x
  • 18
    Benjamin Franklin and Colonial Independence
    At 70 years old, Franklin played a central role in America's declaration of independence, the formation of a new government in Pennsylvania, and in diplomatic forays to Canada and France. Find out what lessons the reluctant politician had learned that would help him navigate the entirely new world being created around him. x
  • 19
    Benjamin Franklin and the Age of Revolution
    The late 18th century was an age of political revolution, and an era of philosophical revolution, as Enlightenment values spread across Europe and the Americas. As you'll learn in this lecture, Franklin was the American counterpart of his friends David Hume and Voltaire, all viewing the world with reason and skepticism. x
  • 20
    Benjamin Franklin: Acclaimed in France
    In December 1776, with independence declared and the American Revolution underway, Franklin traveled to Paris as an ambassador and was met with great acclaim. Journey with him through France over the next nine years, and learn how he adapted to French politics and culture, and cultivated an image of himself as a representative of the New World. x
  • 21
    Benjamin Franklin: Making Peace
    Although Franklin enjoyed himself in France, his primary mission was one of complicated diplomacy—first, to bring France into a military alliance with the United States; second, to negotiate with other European powers to support the American cause; and finally, to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain. Witness his strategy for achieving these ends. x
  • 22
    Benjamin Franklin: Framing the Constitution
    When he returned to America, he hoped to spend his remaining years enjoying life as a private citizen, but public duty called once again. Although America had won its independence, many challenges—from paying debts to establishing a government—remained. Delve into the debates and trials of a new nation. x
  • 23
    Benjamin Franklin's Critics and Enemies
    In his Autobiography, Franklin wrote a blueprint for how to win friends, but as you have discovered, he was much more complicated than the persona he created. From his beginnings as a ruthless businessman to his half-century as a political player, he developed numerous critics and even enemies. x
  • 24
    Benjamin Franklin's Remarkable Legacy
    Franklin lived an extraordinary life, but what's just as extraordinary is his legacy. Why has he been remembered so fondly when so many of his contemporaries have been forgotten? In this final lecture, consider why Franklin's legacy has endured, and examine the many ways he has been remembered by posterity. x

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Your professor

Robert J. Allison

About Your Professor

Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
Dr. Robert J. Allison is Professor of History at Suffolk University in Boston and also teaches history at the Harvard Extension School. He graduated from the Harvard Extension School with an A.L.B. before earning a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1992. Professor Allison received the Harvard Extension School's Petra Shattuck Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997, the Suffolk University Student...
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Reviews

The Age of Benjamin Franklin is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 30.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A man for all things. Dr. Allison is yet another in a parade of outstanding teachers in the GC. He not only makes Ben Franklin, the polymath interesting, he explores his remarkable contributions to printing, civic institutions in Philadelphia, science and the scientific method, and the American Revolution. He was central to the intervention of France and then the Treaty of Paris which was extremely favorable to America. Finally, he was a catalyst for the very unlikely American constitution. Each lecture was rich with detail and on the mark.
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lots of information, but............ IMHO, this course is badly in need of an editor. The lecturer is extremely well informed and presents the information clearly. But he goes off on tangents, with the result that at times, I simply lost interest. For example, way too much information is given about Franklin's extended family. This information could easily have been condensed. There are other areas where this is true, also. That said, the speaker provides many little-known details about BF and these are fascinating.
Date published: 2018-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Expanded Knowledge Professor Allison presented interesting, wide-rangeing information about Franklin in a friendly, conversational manner. His Franklin was much deeper than the one I had known before.
Date published: 2018-06-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Get to know America's Most Iconic Founding Father The Age of Benjamin Franklin follows some of the other Teacher Company courses’ bio-lectures on important figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. This course came as a surprise to me as there are already some excellent courses dealing with Colonial America. But one more cannot hurt. This unique course aims to place our premier Founding Father squarely into the society and culture in which he was raised and flourished in. I appreciate this course a lot more because Professor Allison tries his best to show how the factors in colonial society allowed for a figure like Franklin to grow and flourish in the atmosphere of emerging capitalism, philanthropy, and innovation in first Boston then Philadelphia. Professor Robert Allison is a gifted lecturer. Sometimes, however, I felt that he tended to droll on and on and it got tedious after a while. Still, this lecture has what I have come to expect from the Great Courses. I felt that more maps could have been useful, especially showing some of the joueyn’s that Franklin took in his life around the colonies and to Europe. I recommend this course to go along with ‘America’s Founding Fathers’ and Professor Allison’s first course ‘Before 1776’. Watching all three with give you a well-rounded understanding of the American colonies and how people like Ben Franklin helped to create the American identity.
Date published: 2018-05-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Insights and a Good Foundation This is an especially interesting course that provides a good foundation for studying other aspects of the Colonial Period and American Revolution. The professor clearly knows his topic and provides a balanced view of Ben Franklin. He recognizes the major contributions that Franklin made to America's government as well as to science. He does this, however, without ignoring the criticisms of Franklin's life. The professor handles these criticisms well, though, avoiding the extremes of hero worship or revisionist history. I learned a great deal about Franklin that I did not know, and I learned much about the times that he lived in.
Date published: 2018-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Indepth The depth of Franklin's world from many sides give me a better understanding of the man himself. Deep in family and the English world gives a better understanding of what he lived through. From childhood to his peak his environment is better understood and the directions he took. Benjamin Franklin stands even taller now.
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I am very disappointed with this course, mainly due to the presentation, which is dull and lifeless, and especially because Professor Allison apparently cannot speak without excessive, exaggerated hand gestures which are distracting and quite annoying. Of the many Great Courses I have purchased this is the first that has been dissatisfying.
Date published: 2018-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Right This course is an excellent one. The presentation is a very professional one. There are a lot of historical international facts associations and this create a real deference and a lot of new points of views which could clear the real world. Excellent
Date published: 2018-04-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great History Course The lecturer is excellent and the topic (Benjamin Franklin) is extremely interesting.
Date published: 2018-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Outstanding History of an Astonishing Life This is a wonderful and fascinating course which I recommend highly to anyone interested in American history, or who just wants to be inspired by the life of a truly remarkable individual. When I studied U.S. History in high school (a while ago), Ben Franklin came off as a slightly weird and amusing guy who flew kites with keys, spent time in Paris, and had something to do with the American Revolution. I am ashamed that it is only with this course that I have come to appreciate his brilliance; the astonishing range of his talents, accomplishments, and contributions; and his essential place in American history. But better late than never. Professor Allison is excellent. He is well-organized, capably presents a wide range of material in an all-too-brief time, and speaks in a clear conversational tone that held my interest. At first I found the course organization perplexing. Instead of a straightforward chronological narrative, our professor covers different aspects of Franklin's life in each lecture: his science in one, his religious beliefs in another, his romantic propensities in a third, and so on. But I quickly realized the advantage of this approach: The breadth and diversity of Franklin's experiences would have made the more traditional chronological approach hopelessly confusing. As it is presented, the course allows us to focus on and understand each of the many facets of this man. The only significant criticism I have is that Professor Allison is clearly uncomfortable with the science underlying Franklin's experiments. Descriptions here are superficial and mostly unenlightening. This is a small quibble, however, for an otherwise superb course. So - as I think is clear, this course has my highest recommendation. Enjoy. p.s. I would be very interested in learning what others remember being taught about Franklin in school! Were your experiences as incomplete and uninformative as mine? Please comment!
Date published: 2018-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course on a favorite Patriot I have read a number of books on Ben Franklin , and still I learned some new information about this fascinating personality from the founding of our country. Franklin is a multi-facited personality. The professor is knowledgeable out the time and personality of the era. The lecture on the inter-relations with other countries in Europe with England was especially enlightening.
Date published: 2018-03-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Everything you need to know-and more I've always been fascinated by Franklin, and wanted to learn more about him. If you feel the same way, then this course is for you. Sometimes there is too much about Franklins era, and not enough about Franklin himself. The detailed description of gin production and prostitution in 18th century London and Philadelphia were connected to Franklin only by the fact that Franklin lived in both cities. Nevertheless, although there were some sections of the course that tempted me to hit the fast-forward button, the good parts were very good indeed. I'm glad I listened to it, and would recommend it to others who are similarly interested.
Date published: 2018-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Historic Contributions of Benjamin Franklin! My curiosity of the founders of our country led me purchase this course. I am certainly glad I did! Professor Allison is an excellent storyteller and weaves the interpersonal relationships of Franklin throughout his many inventions and political positions. One area in which I had little background was the family and personal relationships of Franklin. I could never have imagined Franklin's approach to building allies during the Revolutionary War and his development of lifestyle attributes. For example, we all know his publishing of almanacs and other print stories. However, his contributions to the wording of the U.S. Constitution were more significant than I recalled from my history classes. If you wish to listen to an excellent orator delivering fantastic information, I highly recommend this course. You will be pleasantly surprised of some of the information pertaining to Franklin's life. Enjoy!
Date published: 2018-03-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Acceptable We were planning to use this with a group in our senior housing community (a CCRC) and we bought it for that purpose. The first lecture was knowledgeable and covered the scope of the course but did not sell the course. This can work with a captive college audience but it did not work for us. The group were interested in the subject, Benjamin Franklin; acknowledged that the lecturer meets academic standards, but they rejected the course because they did not want pedantry and the had little interest in Franklin's family, which was to be the subject matter for the next lecture. They prefer lectures couched as story telling over lectures couched as "I know what you don't, but what you should." We're now moving forward with a new subject and a stronger story teller
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The book & presenter are excellent. your review message was review to short. This is all I have to say.
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This was an extremely well researched and put together program. Ben Franklin was shown to be the genius that he was but no attempt was made to portray him as a saint. In addition, the times in which he lived and the people with whom he interacted were well woven in to help the listener understand the man in context. Ben Franklin is now, clearly, my favorite philosopher.
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A true man of the enlightenment I have long had what now seems like an elementary school admiration of Benjamin Franklin. Yes, I knew that he was a diplomat and an inventor and one of the most influential of the founding fathers, but he really was so much more, and this set of lectures really opened my eyes to the greatness of the man and of the times in which he lived. Many years ago the founder of the Tonight Show, Steve Allen, had a program where very well informed actors conversed with others, all portraying some great icon of history. Listening to these very well presented lectures got me to day-dreaming about the coming age of artificial intelligence; will we someday be able to converse with detailed and informed artificial intelligence recreations of minds of the past? If that ever happens within my lifetime (not likely!), my first choice of an artificial person to spend time with would be Benjamin Franklin. But back to the real world and the present: This is an excellent lecture series very well researched and presented. I represents the best of The Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Age Of Benjamin Franklin Excellent professor both in his knowledge and presentation. Information about Franklin is information about young America. All fascinating.
Date published: 2018-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Don't miss this one. Well worth your time if you like early American History. Professor Allison is a favorite. I have read quite a bit about Franklin but learned more with this coarse and enjoyed it very much.
Date published: 2018-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Completely covered Franklin's life I bought this course because I had other ones featuring Prof. Allison. I like his delivery. The progression through Franklin's life was a great timeline. I learned things I hadn't previously know and reviewed my background of knowledge. I was working on a project and this course finished about the time that the project was done. It was a great companion for that time.
Date published: 2018-03-17
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