American printer, author, diplomat, philosopher, scientist, inventor,
and one of America's greatest statesmen.
Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston. His father, Josiah
Franklin, a tallow chandler by trade, had 17 children; Benjamin was the 15th child and the
10th son. His mother, Abiah Folger, was his father's second wife. The Franklin family was
in modest circumstances, like most New Englanders of the time. After his attendance at
grammar school from age eight to ten, Benjamin was taken into his father's business.
Finding the work uncongenial, however, he entered the employ of a cutler. At age 13 he was
apprenticed to his brother James, who had recently returned from England with a new
printing press. Benjamin learned the printing trade, devoting his spare time to the
advancement of his education. His reading included Pilgrim's Progress by the
British preacher John Bunyan, Parallel Lives, the work of the Greek essayist and
biographer Plutarch, Essay on Projects by the English journalist and novelist
Daniel Defoe, and the Essays to Do Good by Cotton Mather, the American
Congregational clergyman. When he acquired a copy of the third volume of the Spectator
by the British statesmen and essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, he set
himself the goal of mastering its prose style.
In 1721 his brother James Franklin established the New
England Courant, and Benjamin, at the age of 15, was busily occupied in delivering the
newspaper by day and in composing articles for it at night. These articles, published
anonymously, won wide notice and acclaim for their pithy observations on the current
scene. Because of its liberal bias, the New England Courant frequently incurred the
displeasure of the colonial authorities. In 1722, as a consequence of an article
considered particularly offensive, James Franklin was imprisoned for a month and forbidden
to publish his paper, and for a while it appeared under Benjamin's name.
As a result of disagreements with James, Benjamin left Boston and made his way to
Philadelphia, arriving in October 1723. There he worked at his trade and made numerous
friends, among whom was Sir William Keith, the provincial governor of Pennsylvania. He
persuaded Franklin to go to London to complete his training as a printer and to purchase
the equipment needed to start his own printing establishment in Philadelphia. Young
Franklin took this advice, arriving in London in December 1724. Not having received from
Keith certain promised letters of introduction and credit, Franklin found himself, at age
18, without means in a strange city. With characteristic resourcefulness, he obtained
employment at two of the foremost printing houses in London. Palmer's and Watt's. His
appearance, bearing, and accomplishments soon won him the recognition of a number of the
most distinguished figures in the literary and publishing world.
In October 1726, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and
resumed his trade. The following year, with a number of his acquaintances, he organized a
discussion group known as the Junto, which later became the American Philosophical
Society. In September 1729, he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, a dull, poorly
edited weekly newspaper, which he made, by his witty style and judicious selection of
news, both entertaining and informative. In 1730 he married Deborah Read, a
Philadelphia woman whom he had known before his trip to England.
Franklin engaged in many public projects. In 1731 he founded what was probably the first
public library in America, chartered in 1742 as the Philadelphia Library. He first
published Poor Richard's Almanack in 1732, under the pen name Richard Saunders.
This modest volume quickly gained a wide and appreciative audience, and its homespun,
practical wisdom exerted a pervasive influence upon the American character. In 1736
Franklin became clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the next year was appointed
deputy postmaster of Philadelphia. About this time, he organized the first fire company in
that city and introduced methods for the improvement of street paving and lighting. Always
interested in scientific studies, he devised means to correct the excessive smoking of
chimneys and invented, around 1744, the Franklin stove, which furnished greater heat with
a reduced consumption of fuel.
In 1747 Franklin began his electrical experiments with a
simple apparatus that he received from Peter Collinson in England. He advanced a tenable
theory of the Leyden jar, supported the hypothesis that lightning is an electrical
phenomenon, and proposed an effective method of demonstrating this fact. His plan was
published in London and carried out in England and France before he himself performed his
celebrated experiment with the kite in 1752. He invented the lightning rod and offered
what is called the "one-fluid" theory in explanation of the two kinds of
electricity, positive and negative. In recognition of his impressive scientific
accomplishments, Franklin received honorary degrees from the University of St. Andrews and
the University of Oxford. He also became a fellow of the Royal Society of London for
Improving Natural Knowledge and, in 1753, was awarded its Copley Medal for distinguished
contributions to experimental science.
Franklin also exerted a great influence on
education in Pennsylvania. In 1749 he 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 curriculum he
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
In 1748 Franklin sold his printing business and, in 1750, was elected to the Pennsylvania
Assembly, in which he served until 1764. He was appointed deputy postmaster general for
the colonies in 1753, and in 1754 he was the delegate from Pennsylvania to the
intercolonial congress that met at Albany to consider methods of dealing with the
threatened French and Indian War. His Albany Plan, in many ways prophetic of the 1787 U.S.
Constitution, 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 that the adoption of this plan would have averted the American Revolution.
When the French and Indian War broke out, Franklin procured
horses, wagons, and supplies for the British commander General Edward Braddock by pledging
his own credit to the Pennsylvania farmers, who thereupon furnished the necessary
equipment. The proprietors of Pennsylvania Colony, descendants of the Quaker leader
William Penn, in conformity with their religious opposition to war, refused to allow their
landholdings to be taxed for the prosecution of the war. Thus, in 1757, Franklin was sent
to England by the Pennsylvania Assembly to petition the king for the right to levy taxes
on proprietary lands. After completing his mission, he remained in England for five years
as the chief representative of the American colonies. During this period he made friends
with many prominent Englishmen, including the chemist and clergyman Joseph Priestley, the
philosopher and historian David Hume, and the philosopher and economist Adam Smith.
Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1762, where he
remained until 1764, when he was once again dispatched to England as the agent of
Pennsylvania. In 1766 he was interrogated before the House of Commons regarding the
effects of the Stamp Act upon the colonies; his testimony was largely influential in
securing the repeal of the act. Soon, however, new plans for taxing the colonies were
introduced in Parliament, and Franklin was increasingly divided between his devotion to
his native land and his loyalty as a subject of George III of Great Britain. Finally, in
1775, his powers of conciliation exhausted, Franklin sorrowfully acknowledged the
inevitability of war. Sailing for America after an absence of 11 years, he reached
Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, to find that the opening engagements of the
Revolutionthe battles of Lexington and Concordhad already been fought. He was
chosen a member of the Second Continental Congress, serving on ten of its committees, and
was made postmaster general, an office he held for one year.
In 1775 Franklin traveled to Canada, suffering great hardship along the way, in a vain
effort to enlist the cooperation and support of Canada in the Revolution. Upon his return,
he became one of the committee of five chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. He
was also one of the signers of that historic document, addressing the assembly with the
characteristic statement: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang
separately." In September of the same year, he was chosen, with two other Americans,
Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, to seek economic assistance in France. His scientific
reputation, his integrity of character, and his wit and gracious manner made him extremely
popular in French political, literary, and social circles, and his wisdom and ingenuity
secured for the U.S. aid and concessions that perhaps no other man could have obtained.
Against the vigorous opposition of the French minister of finance, Jacques Necker, and
despite the jealous antagonism of his coldly formal American colleagues, he managed to
obtain liberal grants and loans from Louis XVI of France. Franklin encouraged and
materially assisted American privateers operating against the British navy, especially
John Paul Jones. On February 6, 1778, Franklin negotiated the treaty of commerce and
defensive alliance with France that represented, in effect, the turning point of the
American Revolution. Seven months later, he was appointed by Congress as the first
minister plenipotentiary from the U.S. to France.
In 1781 Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay were appointed
to conclude a treaty of peace with Great Britain. The final treaty was signed at
Versailles on September 3, 1783 During the remainder of his stay in France, Franklin
was accorded honorary distinctions commensurate with his notable and diversified
accomplishments. His scientific standing won him an appointment from the French king as
one of the commissioners investigating the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer and the
phenomenon of animal magnetism. As a dignitary of one of the most distinguished Freemason
lodges in France, Franklin had the opportunity of meeting and speaking with a number of
philosophers and leading figures of the French Revolution, upon whose political thinking
he exerted a profound influence. Although he favored a liberalization of the French
government, he opposed change through violent revolution.
In March 1785, Franklin, at his own request, left his duties in France and returned to
Philadelphia, where he was immediately chosen president of the Pennsylvania executive
council (1785-87). In 1787 he was elected a delegate to the convention that drew up the
U.S. Constitution. Franklin was deeply interested in philanthropic projects, and one of
his last public acts was to sign a petition to the U.S. Congress, on February 12, 1790, as
president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, urging the abolition of slavery and the
suppression of the slave trade. Two months later, on April 17, Franklin died in his
Philadelphia home at 84 years of age.
Franklin's most notable service to his country was the
result of his great skill in diplomacy. To his common sense, wisdom, wit, and industry, he
joined great firmness of purpose, matchless tact, and broad tolerance. Both as a brilliant
conversationalist and a sympathetic listener, Franklin had a wide and appreciative
following in the intellectual salons of the day. For the most part, his literary
reputation rests on his unfinished Autobiography, which is considered by many the
epitome of his life and character.
Invention of Bifocal
The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Franklin
The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Lightning Rod
from The Great Idea
The Great Idea Finder
ON THE BOOKSHELF:
The Stories of Twenty American Kid Inventors
by Tom Tucker, Richard Loehle / Paperback - 144 pages / Sunburst (1998)
The stories of twenty ingenious young Americans who have filed patents with the
United States Patent Office, including Chester Greenwood who invented ear muffs, Ralph
Samuelson, originator of water-skiing, and Vanessa Hess who created colored car wax.
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin / Hardcover / Buccaneer Books Inc; (June 1, 1984)
Franklin's classic Autobiography is his last word on his greatest
literary creation -- his own invented persona, the original incarnation
of the American success story.
What's The Big
Idea, Ben Franklin?
Jean Fritz / Hardcover: 48 pages / Putnam Publishing Group; (June 1,
A brief biography of the eighteenth-century printer, inventor, and statesman who
played an influential role in the early history of the United States.
The Way to
by Benjamin Franklin / Hardcover (November 1986) / Applewood Books
No Harvard MBA would be complete without the wisdom contained within this little
book. A captivating story line with principles and nuggets of truth just leaping off of
by Benjamin Franklin / Hardcover - 96 pages (November 1983) / Peter Pauper Press
Printed at intervals from 1733 through 1758, this bright, lively, and sly almanac
contained agricultural predictions, charts of the moon's phases, and, in Franklin's words,
12 Rules of Management
by Blaine McCormick, Neil Shigley (Illustrator) / Paperback - 200 pages (2000) /
Pulled from his autobiography, this entertaining and thought-provoking book
explores the innovative management principles Franklin pioneered and reveals how today's
business owners and managers can use those principles effectively.
ON THE SCREEN:
Benjamin Franklin: Citizen of the World
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 50 Minutes / Biography Channel / Less than $25.00
Benjamin Franklin's fascinating and diverse accomplishments defined him
as a Renaissance man who will be forever enshrined in America's pantheon
of heroes. He discovered electricity, invented the fuel-efficient
Franklin Stove, and authored the still popular Poor Richard's Almanac
ON THE WEB:
Franklin Institute Science Museum
A wealth of information on Franklin and Science. Check out the online version of
this Philadelphia, Pennsylvania museum.
Franklin: A Documentary History
The beginnings of a biography on Benjamin Franklin. Lots of links to sources for this
chronological work. Lots of COOKIES at this site.
His natural curiosity about things and the way they work made him try to find ways to make
them work better.
Franklin - the Science Years
At age 42, Franklin retired from the printing profession. He then devoted his time to
other studies, especially science. These were very productive years in his life, bringing
him world-wide fame as a scientific thinker.
Known today as "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," this classic piece of
Americana was originally written for Franklin's son William, then the Governor of New
Jersey. This reprint is from the original electronic text distributed by Project
Gutenberg. Lots of COOKIES at this site.
Invention Dimension: Invention of the Week
It took David R. Rittenhouse, another hero of early Philadelphia, to improve Franklin's
design by adding an L-shaped exhaust pipe that drew air through the furnace and vented its
smoke up and along the ceiling, then into an intramural chimney and out of the house
By his first wife Josiah Franklin had
seven children; by his second, ten, of whom the illustrious Benjamin was
the youngest son. For five generations his direct ancestors had been
youngest sons of youngest sons.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Immediately after inventing the furnace stove, Ben established
the first fire company and the first fire insurance company in order to help people live
- As postmaster, Ben
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
- Franklin coined many of the electrical
terms we use today, such as battery, conductor, condenser, positive
and negative charge, electric shock and electrician.