Benjamin Franklin Was a jack-all trades and master of many. No other American, except possibly Thomas Jefferson, has done so many things so well. During his long and useful life, Franklin concerned himself with such different matters as statesmanship and soapmaking, book-printing and cabbage-growing and the rise of tides and the fall of empires. He also invented an efficient heating stove and proved that lighting is electricity.
As a stateman, Franklin stood in the front rank of the people who built the United States. He was the only person who built the United States. He was the only person who signed all four of these key documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain. And the Constitution of the United States. Franklin’s service as a diplomat in France helped greatly in winning the Revolutionary War. Many historians consider him the a best and most successful diplomat that America has ever sent abroad. Franklin was the leader of his day in the study of electricity. As an inventor, he was unequaled in the United States until the time of Thomas A. Edison. People still quote from Franklin’s sayings pf Poor Richard and read his Autobiography. Franklin helped establish Pennsylvania’s first university and America’s first city hospital. Franklin’s fame extended to Europe as well as America. Thomas Jefferson hailed him as “the greatest man and ornament of the age and country in which he lived”. A French statesman, Count Honore’ de Mirabeau, referred to Franklin as “the Sage whom two worlds claimed as their own”.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706. He was the 15th child and the youngest son in a family of 17 children. His parents, Josiah and Abiah Franklin, were hard-working, Godfearing folks. His father made soap and candles in his shop “at the sign of the Blue Ball” on Milk Street.
Student and Apprentice
Benjamin attended school in Boston for only two years. He proved himself excellent in reading, fair in writing, and poor in arithmetic.
Josiah Franklin decided that he could not afford further education for his youngest son. He kept Benjamin home after the age of 10 to help cut wicks and melt tallow in the candle and soap shop.
Franklin’s schooling ended, but his education did not. He believed that “the doors of wisdom are never shut” and continued to read every book that he could get. He worked on his own writing style, using a volume of the British journal The Spectator as a model.
His prose became clear, simple, and effective. The boy also taught himself the basic principles of algebra and geometry, navigation, grammar, logic, and the natural and physical sciences.
He studied and partially mastered French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. He eagerly read many books such as Pilgrim’s Progress, Plutarch’s Lives, Cotton Matter’s Essays to Good, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Franklin made himself one of the best-educated persons of his time.
Franklin didn’t care much for the Trade of candle making. When he was 12, his father persuaded him to become an apprentice to his older brother James, a printer. He wrote several newspaper articles signed them “Mrs. Silence Dogood” and slipped them under the printshop door.
James admired the articles and printed several of them. But he refused to print anymore when he discovered that Benjamin had written them. The brothers quarreled frequently, and Benjamin longed to become his own master.
At 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, which was then the largest city in the American Colonies. The story of his arrival there has become a classic of American folklore. Many Tales describe the runaway apprentice trudging bravely up Market Street with a Dutch dollar in his pocket, carrying one loaf of bread under each arm and eating a third.
From 1723 to 1730, Franklin worked for various printers in Philadelphia and in London, England, where he was sent to buy printing presses. He became part owner of a print shop in 1728, when he was 22. Two years later, he became Sole owner of the business. He began publishing The Pennsylvania Gazette, writing much of the material for his newspaper himself. His name gradually became known throughout the colonies. Franklin had a simple formula for business success. He believed that successful people had to work just a little harder than any of their competitors.
Later in 1730, Franklin married Deborah Read, the daughter of his first Philadelphia landlady. Deborah wasn’t nearly so well educated as her husband. Her letters to him have many misspelled words.
The Franklins were a devoted couple. He addressed his letters to “my dear Debby”, and she signed her replies, “your afeckshonet wife”. Franklin had three children, two boys and a girl. One of the boys, William, became governor of New Jersey.
The First Citizen of Philadelphia
Franklin’s printing business prospered from the start. He developed The Pennsylvania Gazette into one of the most successful newspapers in the colonies. He always watched carefully for new ideas. Historians credit him as the first editor in America to publish a newspaper cartoon, and to illustrate a news story with a map, including Join, or Die, a political cartoon and the original publication by the Gazette is the earliest known pictorial representation of colonial union produced by a British colonist in America. It is a woodcut showing a snake cut into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies or regions.
He laid many of his projects for civic reform before the public in his newspaper. Franklin published The Pennsylvania Gazette from 1729 until 1766.
But Franklin achieved even greater success with Poor Richard’s Almanac than with his newspapers.
He wrote and published and alamanac for every year from 1733 to 1758. The fame of the alamanac rests mainly on the wise and witty sayings that Franklin scattered through each issue. Many of these sayings preach the virtues of industry, frugality, and thrift.
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wide: ‘God helps them that help themselves’, ‘Little strokes fell great oaks’. Other sayings reflect a shrewd understanding of human nature.” ‘He’s a fool that makes his doctor his heil”/ “He that fall in love with himself with have no rivals.”
Franklin never actively sought public office, although he was interested in public affairs.
In 1736, he became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. The poor service of the colonial postal service disturbed him greatly. Hopping to improve matters he agreed to become Philadelphia’s postmaster in 1737.
He impressed the British government with his efficiency in this position, and in 1753 he became deputy post master general for all the colonies.
Franklin worked hand at this job and introduced many needed reforms. He setup the first city delivery system and the first Dead-Mail Office. He speeded foreign mail deliveries by using the fastest packet ships available across the Atlantic Ocean. To speed domestic mall service, he hired more post riders, and required his couriers to ride both night and day. Franklin also helped Canada establish its first regular postal service. He opened post offices at Quebec, Montreal, and Trois Rivieres in 1763. He also established messenger service between Montreal and New York.
Franklin was a public-spirited and worked constantly to make Philadelphia a better city. He helped establish the first subscription library in the American colonies. The members of this library contributed money to buy books, and then free of charge. The original collection still exists. Fire losses in Philadelphia were alarmingly high, and Franklin organized a fire department. He reformed the city police when he saw that criminals were getting away without punishment.
City streets were unpaved, dirty, and dark, so he stated a program to pave, clean and light them. Philadelphia shamefully neglected the sick and insane during Franklin’s time. He raised money to help build a city hospital, the Pennsylvania Hospital, for these unfortunates. Scholars in the American Colonies had no professional organization, so Franklin helped establish the American Philosophical Society, with headquarters in Philadelphia. The city had no school for higher education, so Franklin helped found the academy that grew into the University of Pennsylvania. As a result of projects such as these, Philadelphia became the most advanced city in the 13 colonies.
Experiments with Electricity
Franklin was one of the first persons in the world to experiment with electricity. He conducted his most famous electrical experiment at Philadelphia in 1752. He flew a homemade kite during a thunderstorm and proved that lightning is electricity.
A bolt of lightning struck appointed wore fastened to the kite and traveled down the kite string to a key fastened at the end, where it caused a spark. Then he tamed lightning by inventing the lightning rod. He urged his fellow citizens to use this device assure “means of securing the habitations and other buildings from mischief from thunder and lightning”. When lightning struck Franklin’s own home, the soundness of his invention became apparent. The lightning rod saved the building from damage. Franklin’s lightning rod demonstrated his saying that “An ounce of prevention its worth a pound of cure”. Authorities generally agree that Franklin created such electrical terms as armature, condenser, and battery.
Franklin’s experiment with electricity involved some personal risk. He knocked himself unconscious at least once. He had been trying to kill a turkey with an electric shock, bit something went wrong and Franklin not the bird, was stunned. He later said, “I mean to kill a turkey, and instead, I nearly killed a goose”.
Franklin’s scientific interests ranged far beyond electricity. He became the first scientist to study the moment of the Gulfstream in the Atlantic Ocean. He spent much time charting its course and recording its temperature, speed, and depth. Franklin was the first to show scientists and naval officers that sailors could calm a rough sea by pouring oil on it. He favored daylight saving time in summer. It struck him as silly and wasteful that people should “live much by candle-light and sleep by sunshine”.
Franklin gave the world several other valuable inventions in addition to the lightning rod. The Franklin Stove proved most useful to the people of his day. By arranging the flues in his own stove in an efficient way, he could make his sitting room twice as warm with one fourth as much fuel as he had been using. People everywhere appreciate his invention of bifocal eyeglasses most of all This invention allowed both reading and distant lenses to be set in a single frame.
Franklin discovered that disease flourishes in poorly ventilated rooms. Franklin also showed Americans how to improve acid soil by using lime. He refused to patent any of his inventions, or to use them for profit. He preferred them used freely as his contribution to the comfort and convenience of everyone.
Franklin quickly appreciated the inventive efforts of other people. He once said that he would like to return to earth a hundred years later to see what progress humanity had made.
The first successful balloon flight took place in 1783, during Franklin’s story in Paris. Many bystanders scoffed at the new device and asked, “What good is it?” Franklin retorted, “What good is a newborn baby?”
Franklin’s scientific work won him many high honors. The Royal Society of London elected him to membership, a rare honor for a person living in the colonies. Publishers translated his writings on electricity into French, German, and Italian. The great English Statesman William Pitt told the House of Lords that Franklin ranked with Issac Newton as a scientist. He called Franklin “an honor not to the English nation only but to human nature”.