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Sunday, 1 March 2015

Benjamin Franklin


Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, one of seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, a poor candle and soap maker who had emigrated from Ecton, Northamptonshire, England, in 1685. Benjamin was his tenth and youngest son.

His mother, Abiah Folger, was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, to Peter Folger, a miller and schoolteacher, and his wife Mary Morrill. She was Josiah's second wife and Benjamin was one of ten children born to her.

The Franklins lived on Milk Street, Boston for the first six years of Benjamin's life, until January 25, 1712. The Franklins moved from their rented home on Milk Street and bought a house from Peter Sargeant at the south-west corner of Union and Hanover Streets. It was about five times as large as their Milk Street home.

Benjamin learned to read very early. He attended South Grammar School under Nathaniel Williams and Edward Wigglesworth at the age of  eight and George Brownell's English school for his second and final year of formal schooling to the age of ten, where he excelled at reading and writing but not arithmetic.

After his two years of schooling, Benjamin was taken into his father's business after which he self educated himself in his father's library.

Benjamin taught himself geography when a boy, while his father was saying prayers, by looking over four large maps that hung in his father's parlor.

After starting work for his half brother James Benjamin studied in the evenings arithmetic, grammar and navigation. He improved his reading and writing by copying essays from The Spectator. Benjamin would read an essay, make a short note of the idea of each sentence, lay aside his notes for a few days, and then try to rewrite the essay. Comparison of his version with the original showed him the need to enlarge his vocabulary.

Reading was the only amusement the teenage Benjamin allowed himself.


At the age of 10, Benjamin was taken into his father's business cutting candle wicks and filling molds. Finding the work uncongenial, however, he entered the employ of a cutler for a spell before returning to his father's business.

At the age of 12 Ben became an apprentice to his stepbrother James, a printer, who taught him his trade.

When Benjamin was 15, James founded a brashly insolent publication, The New-England Courant, which was the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. Benjamin was busily occupied in delivering the newspaper by day and in composing articles for it at night.

At the age of 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, seeking a new start in a new city, He arrived there on October 6, 1723 and got a job working for a printing house.

After a few months, Franklin was convinced by Pennsylvania Governor Sir William Keith to go to London, ostensibly to acquire the equipment necessary for establishing his own printing business. When he got there, Franklin he found that the letters of credit which should have been in the ship's mailbag were not there.

After being let down by Keith, Franklin worked as a typesetter in a printer's shop in what is now the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in the Smithfield area of London.

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press. Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting 

Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1726 where he was employed by the merchant Thomas Denham, as clerk, shopkeeper, and bookkeeper in his business.

 In 1728, Franklin set up a printing house in partnership with his friend Hugh Meredith; the following year he became the publisher of a weekly newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1730 he borrowed money to become sole partner of his printing business.

In 1747 Franklin sold his printing business. This freed up time for his scientific inquiries and public service.

Franklin was prosperous from his various ventures and made a fortune selling lightening conductors. However in 1755 he was nearly ruined when he promised to stand good for the loss of horses and wagons supplied by Pennsylvania farmers to support General Edward Braddock's ill-fated campaign against Fort-Duquesne in the French and Indian War. For over two months he faced the possibility of having to pay almost $20,000 out of his own pocket. The government eventually paid.

Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Wilson, 1759


As a teenager, Franklin contributed satirical pieces for his step brother's newspaper, The New England Courant, using the pseudonym Silence Doogood.

In 1732, Franklin published The Philadelphia Zeitung, the first foreign language newspaper in British colonies. The German language newspaper failed after only one year, because four other newly founded German publications quickly dominated the newspaper market.

When Franklin was twenty-six years of age he published his famous Almanack, which he continued for a quarter of a century. A mixture of aphorisms, practical information, weather predictions, proverbs and satirical prophecies, within a few years 10,000 copies were being sold annually. It was second only to the Bible in copies sold in the colonies in the mid 18th century.

This annual publication was known as "Poor Richard's Almanack." because Franklin wrote a preface to it each year, signing it "Richard Saunders."

Franklin was America's first political cartoonist. His drawing of a snake divided into eight parts was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754.  Its intention was encourage the former colonies to unite against British rule and its original publication by the Gazette was the earliest known pictorial representation of colonial union produced in America.

In 1758, the year in which Franklin ceased writing for the Almanac, he printed in it Father Abraham's Sermon, now regarded as the most famous piece of literature produced in Colonial America. A collection of adages and advice presented the Almanac during its first 25 years of publication, it was organized into a speech given by "Father Abraham" to a group of people. They include, There are no gains, without pains" and "Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

The phrase "he had an axe to grind" is attributed to Franklin. His autobiography, which was written between 1771 and his death contains an anecdote concerning a smith who was asked by a man who had no time to grind his axe how the grindstone worked. By the time the exhausted smith had showed him, using much energy in the process, the man's axe had been sharpened.

Franklin in London, 17677. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House
Franklin's unfinished Autobiography is considered by many the epitome of his life and character. It was intended to serve as a model for those who came after him. It was the best seller of the year in 1794 in America.


Franklin had a fine scientific mind and was a major figure in the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity as well as an inventor.

Franklin developed the first pair of bifocal spectacles for long-sighted people. Tired of constantly taking his glasses on and off to read he decided to make a pair of glasses which would let him enjoy both the beautiful scenery and his treasured books when travelling. He cut two pairs of spectacles in two and put each lens into a single frame.

Franklin devised the first wet suit for divers as well as a primitive version of flippers.

He invented the Franklin Iron Furnace Stove which enabled people to warm their houses less dangerously and use less wood.

In 1749 Franklin coined the term "battery" to describe a set of linked capacitors he used for his experiments with electricity by analogy to a battery of cannon. (He borrowed the term from the military, where a "battery" refers to weapons functioning together.)

Franklin conceived the idea of drawing down lightening from the clouds by means of a rod. In 1750 he published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm that appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. On May 10, 1752, Thomas-Fran├žois Dalibard of France conducted Franklin's experiment using an iron rod instead of a kite, and he extracted electrical sparks from a cloud.

A month later, Franklin carried out the experiment himself. There was nowhere high enough in Philadelphia for that purpose, so he used a kite with a metal key tied to the end of the string, which on June 10, 1752 he flew during a thunderstorm. By this dangerous means he created sparks. The next two men to repeat this experiment were electrocuted.  As a result of these researches into electrical current issues Franklin identified lightening as an electrical conductor.

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West
Franklin made a sizeable amount of money from his discovery and in 1753 he published details how to make the lightening rod in his Almanack,

Framklin's invention of a lightening rod was the first practical victory of science over a natural phenomenon.

In Europe Ladies took to wearing lightening rods on their hats and trailing a ground wire.

Franklin proposed that "vitreous" and "resinous" electricity were not different types of "electrical fluid" (as electricity was called then), but the same electrical fluid under different pressures. He was the first to label them as positive and negative respectively,

Franklin assumed electric charge moved in the opposite direction that it actually does, and so objects he called "negative" (representing a deficiency of charge) actually have a surplus of electrons. To this day electrical engineers prepare their diagrams with the electricity flowing in the wrong direction following Franklin's guess.

Franklin made eight voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and through measuring the temperature on each of his voyages he was able to chart the Gulf Stream in detail.

Franklin originated the idea of maximising the daylight hours by adjusting the clock.


When Franklin entered Philadelphia one Sunday morning in 1723, tired and hungry he had few coins in his pocket. Finding a bakery, he asked for three pennies' worth of bread and got according to his autobiography "three great Puffy Rolls." Munching the rolls as he walked up Market Street, Franklin went past the door of the Read family, where stood Deborah Read, his future wife. She saw him "and thought I made as I certainly did a most awkward ridiculous appearance." A few weeks later he was rooming at the Reads.

The uneducated but cheerful Deborah's first husband, John Rogers, whom she had married whilst Franklin was in England deserted her in 1725. When she heard of Rogers' death in 1727 she began seeing Franklin and they married in 1730.

A short time after he married Deborah Read, Franklin bought home his new born son. It is not known whom young William's mother was.

Deborah raised William as well as their own two children,  Francis "Franky" who died of smallpox at the age of 4 and Sarah ("Sally) who married a merchant. William became governor of New Jersey.

Deborah operated a general store out of the front of her husband's print shop.

Deborah's fear of ocean voyages prevented her from traveling with her husband, so she spent many years alone in Philadelphia while he was in Europe. In 1774, while Franklin was in England, she died unexpectedly of  a stroke.

During his time in England, Franklin made friends with many prominent Britons, including the chemist and clergyman Joseph Priestley, the philosopher and historian David Hume, and the philosopher and economist Adam Smith.

In 1785, Benjamin Franklin was the richest person in the United States.

Franklin sometimes wore a fur cap to hide his eczema


Franklin was a good and keen swimmer. As a child he once read a book about swimming and taught himself swimming strokes using wooden puddles for his hands and feet to help him swim faster. He used a kite in the breeze to pull him along.

During his first spell in England in the mid 1720s, Franklin thought of opening up a swimming school. He once dived into the Thames River in the Chelsea, London and swam 3.5 miles northeast to the Blackfriars neighborhood, a feat that he was proud of.

An early pioneer of the breaststroke, in England Franklin regularly swum across the River Thames by that method.

Franklin played several musical instruments including the guitar, harp and violin.

He once invented a musical instrument called a glass harmonica, which uses the same principal as a when a dampened finger is rubbed against the rim of a glass and a sound is created.  Both Mozart and Beethoven approved of the instrument. Mozart was so taken by the sound created by the harmonica that he composed several pieces of music for it.

Franklin is reputed to have imported the first bath tub into America. He did much of his reading and correspondence whilst soaking in the tub.


Benjamin Franklin lived his life by 13 rules which he called "the 13 virtues." He wrote them when he was 20.

At the age of 16 Franklin came across a book recommending a vegetarian diet, whose advice he took on board. His devotion to study and refusal to eat flesh meant often Franklin had no more than a biscuit or a slice of bread, a pastry tart or a few raisins, and a glass of water. However his diet did save him money.

After a few years of vegetarianism, despite his dislike of their aroma, Franklin’s liking for fish tempted him back to eating flesh.

Franklin was initiated into the local Masonic Lodge in 1731. Within three years he had become Grand Master, indicating his rapid rise to prominence in Pennsylvania. Franklin remained a Freemason for the rest of his life

Franklin had a certain cynicism about physicians. " God heals and the doctor gets the fees" he once jested. On another occasion he wrote, " He is a fool that makes the doctor his heir."

Among the aphorisms and proverbs Franklin included in his Poor Richard’s Almanac was the saying, “God helps them that helps themselves”.

In 1775 Franklin formed with Dr Benjamin Rush, the first Anti-Slavery organisation in America, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes.

In a letter to his daughter, Franklin said he wanted the Turkey not the Eagle to be the United States national symbol. He considered the Eagle to be "a bird of bad moral character as it lives by shaping and robbing.

Franklin was one of the leaders of the United States who assembled to write the constitution. He called on the group to offer regular, daily prayer to ask for God’s assistance and blessings in their deliberations.

Franklin had enough respect for the Word of God to advise Thomas Paine not to publish his rationalist treatise, The Age Of Reason as "The world is bad enough with the Bible, what would it be like without it."


Franklin and several other members of a philosophical association joined their resources on July 1, 1731 to found the first public library in Philadelphia. The newly founded Library Company ordered its first books the following year, mostly theological and educational tomes, but by 1741 the library also included works on exploration, geography,  history, poetry and science. The success of this library encouraged the opening of libraries in other American cities.

In 1736, Franklin created the Union Fire Company, one of the first volunteer firefighting companies in America.

In 1749 Franklin wrote Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania; its publication led to the establishment in 1751 of the Philadelphia Academy, later to become the University of Pennsylvania. The first American Academy, he became its first president.

1755 Charter creating the College of Philadelphia

The curriculum Franklin suggested was a considerable departure from the program of classical studies then in vogue. English and modern foreign languages were to be emphasized as well as mathematics and science.

Seven men graduated on May 17, 1757, at the first commencement of the Philadelphia Academy; six with a Bachelor of Arts and one as Master of Arts.

Pennsylvania Campus

Franklin was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, having set up the first postal service there. He held the office until 1753, when he and publisher William Hunter were named deputy postmasters–general of British North America, the first to hold the office.

As postmaster, Franklin had to figure out routes for delivering the mail. He went out riding in his carriage to measure the routes and needed a way to keep track of the distance. He invented a simple odometer and attached it to his carriage.

Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1750, serving there until 1764. He transformed Philadelphia by giving it a police force,  paving and lighting the streets and improving the fire brigade.

Franklin  together with Dr. Thomas Bond obtained a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature in 1751 to establish a hospital. It was the first hospital in what was to become the United States of America.

In 1754, Franklin was the delegate from Pennsylvania to the Albany Congress which met to consider methods of dealing with the threatened French and Indian War. His Albany Plan provided for local independence within a framework of colonial union, but was too far in advance of public thinking to obtain ratification. It was his staunch belief to the end of his life that the adoption of this plan would have averted the American War of Independence.

In 1757 Franklin travelled  to London where he spent the next five years as representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He lived at 36 Craven Street, a Georgian terrace just to the west of Charing Cross Station.

After a break of two years in Pennsylvania, Franklin returned to England in 1764 to be the Agent of Pennsylvania . He remained there for the next ten years attempting to reconcile the differences between the British government and the colonies.

On the commencement of the War of Independence in 1775,  Franklin returned to America. He was largely responsible for the 1778 alliance with France, which helped win the war for America. The French King sending troops and a fleet made defeat for Britain inevitable. At the end of the war Franklin helped draw up the peace treaty.

Franklin was the American Ambassador to France between 1776-85. As Ambassador to France, he used the opportunity in Europe to put forward arguments for colonies in USA.

Franklin was one of the most popular men during Europe's Age of Enlightenment and the most famous American in Europe. His portrait was to be seen everywhere in Paris, in store windows and in many private houses. His image appeared on bracelets, medals, medallions, rings, snuff boxes and watches. People paid for seats in windows to watch Franklin ride past in his coach.

In his last year in France, Franklin had a large stone in his bladder that made travel by carriage an agony, He was carried to the port of Le Havre in a litter.

In 1785 Franklin he was elected President of the Pennsylvania executive council. By now he was crippled with gout and a kidney stone but Franklin still went about his job dutifully.

Franklin's return to Philadelphia, 1785, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
Franklin was renowned for his wit. He was a delegate to the constitutional convention, but was not entrusted with assignment of writing the Declaration of Independence for fear that he might conceal a joke in it.

Franklin was the only person to have signed all four of these documents: Declaration of Independence 1776 Treaty of Alliance with France 1778 Treaty of Peace with England and France 1782, American Constitution 1787

All the money Franklin made from his various official duties he made a practice of giving away.


For the last year of his life, Franklin was bedridden, escaping severe pain only by the use of opium.

Benjamin Franklin died from pleurisy at his home in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, and was interred in the Christ Church Burial Ground beside his wife in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On his tombstone is the simple legend ""Benjamin and Deborah Franklin".

His funeral in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known at that time. Around 20,000 people attended the burial.

When news of his death reached France Mirebeau in the French Assembly proposed that members should wear mourning attire for three days.

His will set up a philanthropic trust for $9000 to be given to Boston and Philadelphia in order that they might grant loans at 5% interest to young married artsians.

A picture of Franklin has been on the United States' hundred-dollar bill since 1928.

Franklin on the Series 2009 hundred dollar bill

Sources Encyclopedia Brittanica, Encarta Encyclopedia, Comptons Encyclopedia, The Life and Times of Benjamin FranklinFood For Thought by Ed Pearce 

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