Benjamin Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze 1777
Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze 1777
For the former mayor of Nepean, see Ben Franklin (politician)

Dr. Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706April 17, 1790) was an American publisher, journalist, author, philanthropist, abolitionist, public servant, statesman, scientist, librarian, diplomat and inventor. One of the leaders of the American Revolution, he was well known also for his many quotations and his experiments with electricity. Franklin was a member of the Freemasons, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and became a Corresponding Member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (now Royal Society of Arts). In 1775, Franklin became the first United States Postmaster General.

Franklin's inventions include the Franklin stove, the medical catheter, the lightning rod, swimfins, the glass harmonica (armonica),bifocals, and much, much more.




Franklin's father, Josiah Franklin was born at Ecton, Northamptonshire, England on December 23, 1657, the son of Thomas Franklin, a blacksmith and farmer, and Jane White. His mother, Abiah Folger, was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts on August 15, 1667, to Peter Folger, a miller and schoolteacher, and his wife Mary Morrill a former indentured servant.

In around 1677, Josiah married Anne Child at Ecton; and over the next few years, this couple had three children, all of whom being half-siblings of Benjamin Franklin. They included: Elizabeth (March 2, 1678), Samuel (May 16, 1681), and Hannah (May 25, 1683).

Sometime during the second half of 1683, the Franklins left England for Boston, Massachusetts; and while in Boston, they had several more children, including: Josiah Jr. (August 23, 1685), Ann (January 5, 1687), Joseph (February 5, 1688), and Joseph (June 30, 1689) (the first Joseph having died soon after birth).

Josiah's first wife Anne died in Boston on July 9, 1689. He then remarried, to Abiah, on November 25, 1689 in the Old South Church of Boston by the Rev. Samuel Willard.

They had the following children: John (December 7, 1690), Peter (November 22, 1692), Mary (September 26, 1694), James (February 4, 1697), Sarah (July 9, 1699), Ebenezer (September 20, 1701), Thomas (December 7, 1703), Benjamin (January 17, 1706), Lydia (August 8, 1708), and Jane (March 27, 1712).

Early life

Autograph of Benjamin Franklin
Autograph of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street in Boston, Massachusetts on January 17, 1706. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler, a maker of candles, who married twice. Josiah's marriages produced 17 children; Benjamin was the tenth and youngest son. His schooling ended at ten and at 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer who published the New England Courant. While a printing apprentice he wrote under the pseudonym of 'Silence Dogood' who was ostensibly a middle-aged widow. His brother and the Courant's readers did not initially know the real author. His brother was not impressed when he discovered his popular correspondent was his younger, precocious brother. He left his apprenticeship without permission and in so doing became a fugitive.

At the age of 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, seeking a new start in a new city. When he first arrived he worked in several printer shops around town. However, he was not satisfied by the immediate prospects. After a few months, while working in a printing house, Franklin was induced by Pennsylvania Governor Sir William Keith to go to London, ostensibly to acquire the equipment necessary for establishing another newspaper in Philadelphia. Finding Keith's promises of backing a newspaper empty, Franklin worked as a compositor in a printer's shop in what is now the Church of St Batholomew the Great, Smithfield. Following this he returned to Philadelphia in 1726 with the help of a merchant named Thomas Denham, who gave Franklin a position as clerk, shopkeeper and bookkeeper in Denham's merchant business.

Upon Denham's death, Franklin returned to his former trade. By 1730, Franklin had set up a printing house of his own and had contrived to become the publisher of a newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette gave Franklin a forum for agitation about a variety of local reforms and initiatives through printed essays and observations. Over time, his commentary, together with a great deal of savvy about cultivating a positive image of an industrious and intellectual young man, earned him a great deal of social respect.

Franklin established a common law marriage with a woman named Deborah Read in September, 1730. In 1724, while a boarder in her mother's home, Franklin had courted Deborah before going to London at Governor Kieth's behest. At that time, Miss Read's mother was somewhat wary of allowing her daughter to wed a seventeen year old on his way to London. Her own husband having recently died, Mrs. Read declined Franklin's offer of marriage.

While Franklin was finding himself in London, Deborah married a man named John Rodgers. This proved to be an regrettable decision. Rodgers shortly fled debt and prosecution by going to Barbados, leaving Deborah behind. With Rodgers' fate unknown, and bigamy an offense punishable by public whipping and imprisonment, Deborah was not free to remarry.

Franklin himself had his own actions to ponder. During 1730, Franklin acknowledged an illegitimate son named William, who eventually became the last Loyalist governor of New Jersey. While the identity of William's mother remains unknown, perhaps the responsibility of an infant child gave Franklin a reason to take up residence with Deborah Read. In any event, William eventually broke with his father over the treatment of the colonies at the hands of the crown, but was not above using his father's notoriety to enhance his own standing.

At a time when many colonial families consisted of six or more children, Benjamin and Deborah Franklin eventually had two. The first was Francis Folger Franklin, born October 1732. In one of the most painful moments of Franklin's life, the boy died of smallpox in the fall of 1736. A daughter, Sarah Franklin, was born in 1743. She eventually married a man named Richard Bache, had seven children, and cared for her father in his old age.

In 1733 Franklin began to issue the famous Poor Richard's Almanack (with content both original and borrowed) on which much of his popular reputation is based. Adages from this almanac such as "A penny saved is twopence clear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned") and "Fish and visitors stink in three days" remain common quotations in the modern world.

Franklin and several other members of a philosophical association joined their resources in 1731 and began the first public library in Philadelphia. The newly founded Library Company ordered its first books in 1732, mostly theological and educational tomes, but by 1741 the library also included works on history, geography, poetry, exploration and science. The success of this library encouraged the opening of libraries in other American cities, and Franklin felt that this enlightenment partly contributed to the American colonies' struggle to maintain their privileges.

In 1736 he created the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer firefighting company in America.

Middle years

Franklin began to concern himself more with public affairs. In 1743, he set forth a scheme for The Academy and College of Philadelphia, which he was appointed President of on November 13, 1749. The Academy opened on August 13, 1751, and seven men graduated on May 17, 1757, at the first commencement; six with a Bachelor of Arts and one as Master of Arts. It was later merged with the University of the State of Pennsylvania, to become the University of Pennsylvania, today a member of the Ivy League. He founded an American Philosophical Society to help scientific men discuss their discoveries. He began the electrical research that, along with other scientific inquiries, would occupy him for the rest of his life (in between bouts of politics and money-making).

An illustration from Franklin's paper on "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds."
An illustration from Franklin's paper on "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds."

In 1748, he retired from printing and went into other businesses. He created a partnership with his foreman, David Hill, which provided Franklin with half of the shop's profits for 18 years. This lucrative business arrangement provided leisure time for study, and in a few years he had made discoveries that gave him a reputation with the learned throughout Europe and especially in France.

These include his investigations of electricity. 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 (See electrical charge). He is also often credited with labeling them as positive and negative respectively. 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 Francois d'Alibard of France conducted Franklin's experiment (using a 40-foot-tall iron rod instead of a kite) and extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15, Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment and also successfully extracted sparks from a cloud (unaware that d'Alibard had already done so, 36 days earlier). Franklin's experiment was not written up until Joseph Priestley's 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity; the evidence shows that Franklin was insulated (not in a conducting path, as he would have been in danger of electrocution in the event of a lightning strike). (Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm Richmann of St. Petersburg, Russia, were spectacularly electrocuted during the months following Franklin's experiment.) Franklin, in his writings, displays that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his invention of the lightning rod, an application of the use of electrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he did not do it in the way that is often described (as it would have been dramatic but fatal). Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical. See, for example, the 1805 painting by Benjamin West of Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity from the sky.

In recognition of his work with electricity, Franklin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and received its Copley Medal in 1753. The cgs unit of electric charge has been named after him: one franklin (Fr) is equal to one statcoulomb.

Franklin established two major fields of physical science, electricity and meteorology. In his classic work (A History of The Theories of Electricity & Aether), Sir Edmund Whittaker (p. 46) refers to Franklin's inference that electric charge is not created by rubbing substances, but only transferred, so that "the total quantity in any insulated system is invariable." This assertion is known as the "principle of conservation of charge."

As a printer and a publisher of a newspaper, Franklin frequented the farmers' markets in Philadelphia to gather news. One day Franklin inferred that reports of a storm elsewhere in Pennsylvania must be the storm that visited the Philadelphia area in recent days. This initiated the notion that some storms travel, eventually leading to the synoptic charts of dynamic meteorology, replacing sole dependence upon the charts of climatology.

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

This political cartoon by Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War).
This political cartoon by Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War).

In politics he proved very able both as an administrator and as a controversialist; as an office-holder, he made use of his position to advance his relatives, though doing so was all but expected in a world dominated by political patronage. His most notable service in domestic politics was his reform of the postal system, but his fame as a statesman rests chiefly on his diplomatic services in connection with the relations of the colonies with Great Britain, and later with France. It was during this period that Franklin was involved in the creation of not only the aforementioned first volunteer fire department and free public library, but also many other civic enterprises.

In 1754 he headed the Pennsylvania delegation to the Albany Congress. This meeting of several colonies had been requested by the Board of Trade in England to improve relations with the Indians and defense against the French. Franklin proposed a broad Plan of Union for the colonies. While the plan was not adopted, elements of it found their way into the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

In 1757 he was sent to England to protest against the influence of the Penn family in the government of Pennsylvania, and for five years he remained there, striving to enlighten the people and the ministry of the United Kingdom as to colonial conditions. At Oxford University Franklin was awarded an honorary doctorate for his scientific accomplishments and from then on went by "Doctor Franklin." He also managed to secure a post for his illegitimate son, William Franklin, as Colonial Governor of New Jersey.

In 1756, Franklin became a member of the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (now Royal Society of Arts or RSA, which had been founded in 1754) whose early meetings took place in coffee shops in London's Covent Garden district, close to Franklin's main London residence in Craven Street (the only one of his residences to survive and which is currently undergoing renovation and conversion to a Franklin museum). After his return to America, Franklin became the Society's Corresponding Member and remained closely connected with the Society. The RSA instituted a Benjamin Franklin Medal in 1956 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Franklin's birth and the 200th anniversary of his membership of the RSA.

In 1758, the year in which he ceased writing for the Almanac, he printed "Father Abraham's Sermon," one of the most famous pieces of literature produced in Colonial America.

Franklin noted a principle of refrigeration by observing that on a very hot day, he stayed cooler in a wet shirt in a breeze than he did in a dry one. To understand this phenomenon more clearly Franklin conducted experiments. On one warm day in Cambridge England in 1758, Franklin and fellow scientist John Hadley experimented by continually wetting the ball of a mercury thermometer with ether and using bellows to evaporate the ether. With each subsequent evaporation, the thermometer read a lower temperature, eventually reaching 7 °F (-14 °C). Another thermometer showed the room temperature to be constant at 65 °F (18 °C). In his letter “Cooling by Evaporation” Franklin noted that “one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”

Later years

On his return to America, he played an honorable part in the Paxton affair, through which he lost his seat in the Assembly, but in 1764 he was again dispatched to England as agent for the colony, this time to petition the King to resume the government from the hands of the proprietors. In London he actively opposed the proposed Stamp Act, but lost the credit for this and much of his popularity because he secured for a friend the office of stamp agent in America. This perceived conflict of interest, and the resulting outcry, is widely regarded as a deciding factor in Franklin's never achieving higher elected office. Even his effective work in helping to obtain the repeal of the act did not regain his popularity, but he continued his efforts to present the case for the Colonies as the troubles thickened toward the crisis of the Revolution. This also led to an irreconcilable conflict with his son, who remained ardently loyal to the British Government.

Franklin, an engraving from a painting by Duplessis
Franklin, an engraving from a painting by Duplessis

In 1767 he crossed to France, where he was received with honor; but before his return home in 1775 he lost his position as postmaster through his share in divulging to Massachusetts the famous letter of Hutchinson and Oliver. On his arrival in Philadelphia he was chosen as a member of the Continental Congress and assisted in editing the Declaration of Independence.

In December of 1776 he was dispatched to France as commissioner for the United States. He lived in a home in the Parisian suburb of Passy donated by Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont who would become a friend and the most important foreigner to help the United States win the War of Independence. Ben Franklin remained in France until 1785, a favorite of French society. Franklin was so popular that it became fashionable for wealthy French families to decorate their parlors with a painting of him. He conducted the affairs of his country towards that nation with such success, which included securing a critical military alliance and negotiating the Treaty of Paris (1783), that when he finally returned, he received a place only second to that of George Washington as the champion of American independence.

When Franklin was recalled to America in 1785, Le Ray honored him with a commissioned portrait painted by Joseph Siffred Duplessis that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

In addition, after his return from France in 1785, he became an abolitionist who eventually became president of The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Nevertheless, Franklin had owned several slaves, and never freed any of them. His fortune had been earned selling newspapers that advertised slave sales. Ultimately, he chose not to bring the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when asked to do so by the abolition society to which he belonged.

While in retirement by 1787, he agreed to attend, as a delegate, the meetings that would produce the United States Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. He is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all three of the major documents of the founding of the United States: The Declaration of Independence, The Treaty of Paris and the United States Constitution. Franklin also has the distinction of being the oldest signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. He was 70 years old when he signed the Declaration, and 81 when he signed the Constitution.

Also in 1787, a group of prominent ministers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania proposed the foundation of a new college to be named in Franklin's honor. Franklin donated £200 towards the development of Franklin College, which would later merge with Marshall College in 1853. It is now called Franklin and Marshall College.

Later, he finished his autobiography between 1771 and 1788, at first addressed to his son, then later completed for the benefit of mankind at the request of a friend.

In his later years, as Congress was forced to deal with the issue of slavery, Franklin wrote several essays that attempted to convince his readers of the importance of the abolition of slavery and of the integration of Africans into American society. These writings included:

On February 11, 1790, Quakers from New York and Pennsylvania presented their petition for abolition. Their argument against slavery was backed by the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society and its president, Benjamin Franklin. Because of his involvement in abolition, its cause was greatly debated around the states, especially in the House of Representatives.

Death and afterwards

Memorial marble statue of Ben Franklin
Memorial marble statue of Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the extremely advanced age (for that time) of 84, and was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

At his death Franklin bequeathed £1000 (about $4400 at the time) each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, in trust for 200 years. The origin of the trust began in 1785 when a French mathematician named Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour wrote a parody of Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack called Fortunate Richard. In it he mocked the unbearable spirit of American optimism represented by Franklin. The Frenchman wrote a piece about Fortunate Richard leaving a small sum of money in his will to be used only after it had collected interest for 500 years. Franklin, who was 79 years old at the time, wrote back to the Frenchman, thanking him for a great idea and telling him that he had decided to leave a bequest to his native Boston and his adopted Philadelphia of 1,000 pounds to each on the condition that it be placed in a fund that would gather interest over a period of 200 years. As of 1990 over $2,000,000 had accumulated in Franklin's Philadelphia trust since his death. During the lifetime of the trust, Philadelphia used it for a variety of loan programs to local residents. From 1940 to 1990, the money was used mostly for mortgage loans. When the trust came due, Philadelphia decided to spend it on scholarships for local high school students. Franklin's Boston trust fund accumulated almost $5,000,000 during that same time and eventually was used to establish a trade school that, over time, became the Franklin Institute of Boston. (excerpt from Philadelphia Inquirer article by Clark De Leon)

In recent years a number of anti-Semitic groups have been promoting a fabricated quotation which has been debunked by historians: Neo-Nazi Theory (American founding fathers).

Franklin's likeness adorns the American $100 bill. As a result, $100 bills are sometimes referred to in slang as "Benjamins" or "Franklins." From 1948 to 1964, Franklin's portrait was also on the half dollar. He has also appeared on a $50 bill in the past, as well as several varieties of the $100 bill from 1914 and 1918, and every $100 bill from 1928 to present. Franklin also appears on the $1,000 Series EE Savings bond.

In 1976, as part of a bicentennial celebration, Congress dedicated the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Franklin's hometown of Philadelphia, including a 20-foot high marble statue. Many of Franklin's personal possessions are also on display there. The memorial is located in Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. It is one of the few National Memorials located on private property.

In 1998, workmen restoring Franklin's London home (Benjamin Franklin House) dug up the remains of six children and four adults hidden below the home. The Times of London reported on February 11, 1998:

"Initial estimates are that the bones are about 200 years old and were buried at the time Franklin was living in the house, which was his home from 1757 to 1762, and from 1764 to 1775. Most of the bones show signs of having been dissected, sawn or cut. One skull has been drilled with several holes. Paul Knapman, the Westminster Coroner, said yesterday: "I cannot totally discount the possibility of a crime. There is still a possibility that I may have to hold an inquest."

The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House (the organization responsible for the restoration of Franklin's house at 36 Craven Street in London) note that the bones were likely placed there by William Hewson, a young surgeon who lived in the house for 2 years and who had built a small anatomy school at the back of the house. They note that while Franklin likely knew what Hewson was doing, he probably did not participate in any dissections because he was much more of a physicist than a medical man. Hewson ironically died of septicaemia on May 1, 1744 which he contracted from cutting himself while dissecting a putrid corpse. [1]


  • Benjamin Franklin is one of the main inventors of Gregory Keyes' Age of Unreason trilogy.
  • A fictionalized but fairly accurate version of Franklin appears as a main character in the stage musical 1776. The film version of 1776 features Howard da Silva, who originated the role of Franklin on Broadway.
  • A young Benjamin Franklin appears in Neal Stephenson's novel of 17th century science and alchemy, "Quicksilver".

See also

Franklin's writings

Further reading

  • Benjamin Franklin, Edmund S. Morgan, Yale University Press, 2002, hardcover 368 pages, ISBN 0300095325
  • Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, August, 2003, hardcover, 590 pages, ISBN 0684807610 and as a sound recording ISBN 1402592957
  • The 100, Michael H. Hart, Carol Publishing Group, July 1992, paperback, 576 pages, ISBN 0806513500
  • The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, H.W. Brands, Doubleday; 1st ed edition (September 19, 2000), hardcover 768 pages, ISBN 0385493282
  • Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On The Unity Of His Moral, Religious, And Political Thought, Jerry Weinberger, University Press of Kansas, (September 7, 2005), hardcover 352 pages, ISBN 070061396X

  • Cooling by Evaporation: Franklin Letter To John Lining :Dear Sir, London, June 17, 1758.

External links, resources and references

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Preceded by:
Postmaster General of the United States
Under the Continental Congress

Succeeded by:
Richard Bache
Preceded by:
John Dickinson
Presidents of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania
Succeeded by:
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