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Fascinating facts about Benjamin Franklin inventor of the Franklin stove, lightning rod, odometer and bifocal glasses. Benjamin Franklin
Inventor: Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin image courtesy Franklin Institute
Criteria: First to invent. First practical. Entrepreneur.
Birth: January 17, 1706  in Boston, Massachusetts
Death: April 17, 1790 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Nationality: American
Benjamin Franklin, 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 and science.

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 Revolution—the battles of Lexington and Concord—had 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.

To Learn More

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Invention of Bifocal Glasses   from The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Franklin Stove  
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Invention of the Lightning Rod
 
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History of Electricity  
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ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Brainstorm!: 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, 1976)

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 Wealth
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 the page.
Poor Richards Almanack
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, "entertaining remarks."
Ben Franklin's 12 Rules of Management
by Blaine McCormick, Neil Shigley (Illustrator) / Paperback - 200 pages (2000) / Entrepreneur Media

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:
The Franklin Institute Science Museum
A wealth of information on Franklin and Science. Check out the online version of this
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania museum.
Benjamin 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.
Benjamin Franklin's Inventions
His natural curiosity about things and the way they work made him try to find ways to make them work better.
Benjamin 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.
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography
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.
The 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
Famous Americans
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.
(URL: famousamericans.net/benjaminfranklin/)
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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 more safely.
  • 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 carriage.
  • Franklin coined many of the electrical terms we use today, such as battery, conductor, condenser, positive and negative charge, electric shock and electrician.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised October 9, 2006.
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