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Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

Biography | Timeline of Franklin’s Life | Words of Franklin | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: Inventions

by Sergio Acosta

ben_franklinBenjamin Franklin was a man of many talents. He was a businessman, writer, scientist, inventor, and political leader. As one of America’s founders, he signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin was born into a large family in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706. He was the youngest of 10 sons, and he had seven sisters.

At just 10 years old, after only two years of school, Ben began working in his father’s candle and soap shop to help make ends meet. Realizing that Ben was too bright to be a candle and soap maker, his father allowed him to begin working for his older brother James, a printer.

Ben enjoyed his new job in the printing shop. He learned to set type and operate the press. He also had the opportunity to read many books and magazines. Ben enjoyed writing, and to improve his writing, he attempted to rewrite magazine articles from memory.

Ben’s brother James started his own newspaper in 1721, the New England Courant. James encouraged readers to send in their own articles for publication. Ben sent in several humorous articles under the alias Silence Dogood. His brother published them not knowing Ben was the author.

Ben enjoyed the printing business, but he often got into arguments with his brother. When he was 17, he decided to quit and find work somewhere else. He first went to New York, but he had no luck finding work there. So he left for Philadelphia, where he found work in a print shop.

Ben worked hard and saved his money. In a few years, he had enough money to buy the business from his boss.

Now the owner of a print shop, Franklin married a young widow named Deborah Read. In spite of her name, she could hardly read or write. But Deborah helped Ben run his printing shop. And soon, Deborah gave birth to their first child, William, and years later, to Francis and Sarah.

Once Franklin’s printing business was successful, he began printing a weekly newsletter, The Pennsylvania Gazette. Following the success of the Gazette, Franklin printed  Poor Richard’s Almanack , which became a best seller in colonial America. Poor Richard’s Almanack consisted of weather forecasts, poems, sayings, and a calendar. Franklin wrote much of it himself.

As Franklin grew wealthier, he began devoting more of his time to bringing about civic improvements. With help from others, Franklin established the first library in the colonies. He also set up the colonies’ first fire department, which consisted of 30 volunteers.

When Franklin turned 42, he decided to retire from printing and devote his time to public affairs and science. Intrigued by electricity, he thought that lightning and electricity were one and the same. On a stormy June evening, Franklin decided to test his theory by flying a kite with a metal key attached to the string’s end. When lightning struck the kite, Franklin received a shock from the key. He was lucky he wasn’t killed. (Others copying his experiment did die.) His experiment proved that lightning was, in fact, a form of electricity.

Franklin made practical use of his discovery. He invented the lightning rod, which protected buildings from lightning strikes. Placed on top of buildings, the lightning rod attracted and absorbed bolts of lightning. The electric current flowed down a wire and sank into the ground.

Being devoted to civic service, Franklin gave his invention away. Buildings all over the colonies began sporting lightning rods, but Franklin never made a penny from the invention.

Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, and shortly after, he was named deputy postmaster. Once Franklin began working with the postal service, he immediately improved it. He employed more riders and put them on more direct routes.

In 1754, when the French laid claim to the Ohio River Valley, Franklin became increasingly involved in politics. To strengthen the colonies against the French, he suggested that the Northern colonies unite. But his idea was not adopted, at least not yet.

Franklin was sent to England to talk with the Penn family, the founders of the Pennsylvania colony. He urged them to pay their share of taxes to raise a militia to protect themselves from the French. They agreed. Franklin remained in London for five years. He managed to get his son William named the new Royal Governor of New Jersey.

Franklin returned to America briefly in 1763. Colonists were complaining about Britain, and Franklin was sent back to London to talk with the British government. When Franklin arrived in London, he heard the dreadful news that the British government was about to pass the Stamp Act. This act required American colonists to pay for an official stamp placed on all documents (such as deeds to land, newspapers, and even playing cards).

Franklin worked to get the Stamp Act repealed. He succeeded. But the British Parliament soon passed new taxes on paint, glass, paper, tea, and other imports from Britain. The colonists protested, and Parliament eventually got rid of all the taxes except for one on tea.

On December 16, 1773, a mob of Bostonians boarded three British ships stationed in Boston harbor and dumped 300 chests of tea into the water. Known as the Boston Tea Party, this event set America on the road to revolution.

When Franklin defended the Boston Tea Party, the British government dismissed him from his job as postmaster. Franklin had wanted America to remain part of the British Empire. But when the king refused to read a petition from the American Continental Congress, Franklin concluded that America would have to part from Britain. This saddened Franklin, and news of his wife Deborah’s death deepened his grief.

ben_franklin2Franklin returned to America in April 1775, two weeks after the start of the Revolutionary War, which Franklin had tried so hard to prevent.

Franklin attended the Second Continental Congress. In June 1776, Congress voted for independence from Britain. It appointed Franklin as a member of the committee to write the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson did the actual writing, but he helped Jefferson. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, Franklin reportedly said: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Months later, word reached America that France, Britain’s longtime rival, was willing to help America in its war against Britain. So, in November 1776, 72-year-old Franklin sailed to France as America’s diplomat. During the next few years, while the Revolutionary War was taking place, Franklin obtained loans for America to buy much needed weapons and supplies. He also worked out a military alliance between America and France.

When the war ended, Franklin stayed in France to help draft the peace treaty. A large crowd met Franklin when he returned to Philadelphia. He had become a national hero. Franklin looked forward to his retirement. But in 1787, he was called for another great task: to help write the U.S. Constitution.

When it was written, Franklin was asked what sort of government the Constitution created. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin lived the remainder of his days in Philadelphia with his daughter Sarah, her husband, and their seven children. He died on April 17, 1790, at age 84.

Biography | Timeline of Franklin’s Life | Words of Franklin | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: Inventions

Timeline of Benjamin Franklin’s Life

1706

Jan. 17

Benjamin Franklin born in Boston, Massachusetts. (According to the calendar of the time, he was born on Jan. 6, but the old calendar was changed.)

1716

Ben starts working in his dad’s candle and soap shop.

1718

Ben begins working as an apprentice printer for his brother James.

1723

He moves to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

1727

Franklin forms Junto, a club to discuss issues and improve life in Philadelphia.

1728

He opens his own print shop in Philadelphia.

1729

He begins publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, a weekly newspaper.

1730

Franklin marries Deborah Read.

1731

William Franklin, their first child, born.

Franklin sets up the first library in the colonies.

1732

Francis Franklin is born.

1732

Franklin begins publishing  Poor Richard’s Almanack. He prints a new edition each year until 1758

1736

Francis Franklin dies of smallpox.

Franklin sets up the colonies’ first fire department.

1737

Franklin is appointed postmaster of Philadelphia.

1743

Franklin proposes an academy. From this idea, a school and eventually the University of Pennsylvania is founded.

1743

Sarah Franklin born (nicknamed “Sally”).

Franklin founds the American Philosophical Society, a group to promote the study of science and other important subjects.

1748

Franklin retires from his printing business.

1751

Franklin gets his book on electricity published in London.

Franklin is elected to Pennsylvania Assembly.

1752

Franklin conducts his kite experiment.

Franklin invents the lightning rod.

Franklin helps found the first colonial fire insurance company

1753

Franklin is appointed deputy postmaster.

1754

Franklin proposes that the colonies unite.

In support of this proposal, he publishes the famous Join or Die political cartoon.

1757–1762

Franklin goes to and remains in London as the representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

1762

Franklin returns to Philadelphia.

1764

Franklin is sent back to London.

1774

Franklin’s wife dies in Philadelphia.

1775

Franklin returns to Philadelphia.

Franklin is elected to the Continental Congress.

1776

July 4

Congress issues the Declaration of Independence.

Congress appoints Franklin as the first U.S. postmaster.

Franklin sails to France as America’s diplomat and eventually gets France to agree to side with America against Britain.

1783

Along with John Adams and John Jay, Franklin negotiates the treaty ending the Revolutionary War.

1785

Franklin returns to Philadelphia.

1787

Franklin is a delegate to Constitutional Convention.

1790

Franklin, age 84, dies in Philadelphia.

Biography | Timeline of Franklin’s Life | Words of Franklin | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: Inventions

Words of Benjamin Franklin

The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding), lies here, food for worms; but the work shall not be lost, for it will (as he believed) appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.
—His proposed gravestone (it is not his actual one)

From Poor Richard’s Almanack:

Eat to live, and not live to eat.

There is no little enemy.

Blame-all and Praise-all are two blockheads.

Necessity never made a good bargain.

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

God helps them that help themselves.

Don't throw stones at your neighbors’, if your own windows are glass.

There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.

If you would not be forgotten,
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worthy reading,
Or do things worth the writing.

Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.

He that riseth late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.

The used key is always bright.

When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time; for that's the stuff life is made of.

Lost time is never found again.

Work as if you were to live a hundred years,
Pray as if you were to die tomorrow.

A little neglect may breed great mischief . . . for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.
A Courteous Reader (1758)

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Historical Review of Pennsylvania (1759)

There never was a good war or a bad peace.
—Letter (1778)

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
—Statement after the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776)

No nation was ever ruined by trade.
—“Thoughts on Commercial Subjects”

A republic if you can keep it.
—Statement after the Constitutional Convention (1787)

[I]n this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.
—Letter (1789)

Franklin’s List of 13 Virtues

In Chapter 8 of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, published after Franklin’s death, Franklin listed the 13 virtues he considered most important. This is what he wrote:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

 

Biography | Timeline of Franklin’s Life | Words of Franklin | Fascinating Facts About Him
Slide Show: Inventions

Fascinating Facts About Benjamin Franklin

         Franklin was the 15th of his father’s 17 children.

         When he was 15, his older brother James founded The New-England Courant newspaper. James would not allow Benjamin to write for the newspaper, so Ben began writing letters under the pen name “Silence Dogood,” a widow living in the country. Ben slipped Dogood’s letters under the door of the newspaper at night. Dogood’s letters became very popular. James was furious when he learned Dogood’s real identity.

         Franklin designed the first glass harmonica, which he called the “armonica.” This musical instrument consists of series of glass disks suspended in water and turned by a foot-pedal device. The player rubs the disks, each is a different size and plays a different tone. Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, and others composed music for the armonica, which was always Franklin’s favorite of his inventions.

         Franklin had always wondered why ships traveling east from America to England traveled more quickly than ships taking the same path west. Starting with his first trip to England in 1724 and ending 60 years later with his final return voyage, he took measurements of the temperatures in the water and mapped the Gulf Stream. His measurements were accurate even by today’s scientific standards.

         In 1727, Franklin started a philosophical society for men in Philadelphia called the Junto. Its members discussed moral, political, and scientific ideas. Franklin in 1743 founded the American Philosophical Society, the oldest still-existing scholarly organization in the United States.

         Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1732–1758. In this popular book, he wrote many well-known proverbs, including:

Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

God helps those who help themselves.

Humility makes great men twice honorable.

There are no ugly Loves, nor handsome Prisons.

                        The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise. 

                        Don’t misinform your Doctor nor your Lawyer.        

         Franklin visited the famous preacher Cotton Mather in Boston in 1724. When Franklin was leaving, he did not see a beam over a certain doorway. Mather yelled “Stoop! Stoop!” But Franklin did not understand him and bumped his head on the beam. Mather then told Franklin “You are young and have the world before you; STOOP as you go through it, and you will miss many hard thumps.”

         In Franklin’s famous kite-flying experiment, he and his son William tied a silk ribbon to the twine attached to the kite. The key was tied to the silk ribbon. They stood inside a shed, flying the kite in the blustery day from there. Before the rain came, the silk threads began to stand up, showing there was electricity in the air. Franklin got a mild shock when he touched his knuckle to the key. When the rain came, sparks flew off the key to his hand. Franklin later invented the lightning rod, based on his experience.

         Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” political cartoon was inspired by the six tribes of the Iroquois Nation.

Biography | Timeline of Franklin’s Life | Words of Franklin | Fascinating Facts About Him 
Slide Show: Inventions

Flashes of Genius: Benjamin Franklin's Inventions

Click on first image to start the slide show.

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