The Story of Benjamin Franklin

The Birth of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin testing electrical current theory with kite
Benjamin Franklin testing electrical current theory with kite. (The Image Bank/Getty Images)

In 1682, Josiah Franklin and his wife emigrated to Boston from Northamptonshire, England. His wife died in Boston, leaving Josiah and their seven children alone, but not for long, Josiah Franklin then married a prominent colonial lady named Abiah Folger.

The Birth of Benjamin Franklin

Josiah Franklin, a soap and candlemaker, was fifty-one and his second wife Abiah was thirty-nine when a great American inventor was born in their house on Milk Street, on January 17, 1706.

Benjamin was Josiah's and Abiah's eighth child and Josiah's tenth son. In the crowded household, with thirteen children there were no luxuries. Benjamin's period of formal schooling was less than two years, and at the age of ten, he was put to work in his father's shop.

Benjamin Franklin was restless and unhappy in the shop. He hated the business of soap making. His father took him into various shops in Boston, to see different artisans at work, in the hope that he would be attracted to some trade. But Benjamin Franklin saw nothing that he wished to pursue.

Colonial Newspapers

His fondness for books finally determined his career. His older brother James was a printer, and in those days a printer had to be a literary man as well as a mechanic. The editor of a newspaper was most likely also the journalist, printer, and owner. A few newspaper terms evolved from these one man operations. The editor often composed his articles as he set them in type to be printed; so "composing" came to mean typesetting, and the one who sets the type was the compositor.

James Franklin needed an apprentice and so Benjamin Franklin was bound by law to serve his brother, at the age of thirteen.

New England Courant

James Franklin was the editor and printer of the "New England Courant", the fourth newspaper published in the colonies. Benjamin began writing articles for this newspaper. When his brother was put in jail, because he had printed matter considered libelous, and was forbidden to continue as the publisher, the newspaper was published under Benjamin Franklin's name.

Escape to Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin was unhappy being his brother's apprentice, after serving for about two years, he ran away. Secretly he booked passage on a ship and in three days arrived in New York. However, the only printer in town, William Bradford, could give him no work. Benjamin then set out for Philadelphia. On a Sunday morning in October 1723, a tired and hungry boy landed upon the Market Street wharf, Philadelphia, and at once set out to find food, work, and adventure.

Benjamin Franklin as Publisher and Printer

In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin found employment with Samuel Keimer, an eccentric printer just beginning business. The young printer soon attracted the notice of Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, who promised to set him up in his own business. However, the deal was that Benjamin had to go to London first to buy a
printing press. The Governor promised to send a letter of credit to London, but he broke his word, and Benjamin Franklin was obliged to remain in London nearly two years working for his fare home.

Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain

It was in London that Benjamin Franklin printed the first of his many pamphlets, an attack on conservative religion, called "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain." Though he met some interesting persons in London, he returned to Philadelphia as soon as he was able.

Mechanical Ingenuity

Benjamin Franklin's mechanical ingenuity first revealed itself during his employment as a printer. He invented a method of casting type and making ink.

Junto Society

The ability to make friends was one of Benjamin Franklin's traits, and the number of his acquaintances grew rapidly. "I grew convinced," he wrote, "that truth, sincerity, and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life." Not long after his return from England, he founded the Junto Society, a literary group that debated and criticized the writings of the members.

Necessity of a Paper Currency

The father of an apprentice at Samuel Keimer's print shop decided to back his son and Benjamin in starting their own print shop. The son soon sold his share, and Benjamin Franklin was left with his own business at the age of twenty-four. He anonymously printed a pamphlet on "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency" calling attention to the need for paper money in Pennsylvania and succeeded in winning the contract to print the money.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, "A very profitable job, and a great help to me. Small favors were thankfully received. And, I took care not only to be inreality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. And, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores thru the streets on a wheelbarrow."

Benjamin Franklin the Newspaper Man

"The Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and Pennsylvania Gazette" was the odd-sounding name of a newspaper which Benjamin Franklin's old boss, Samuel Keimer, had started in Philadelphia. After Samuel Keimer declared bankruptcy, Benjamin Franklin took over the newspaper with its ninety subscribers.

Pennsylvania Gazette

The "Universal Instructor" feature of the paper consisted of a weekly page of "Chambers's Encyclopedia". Benjamin Franklin eliminated this feature and dropped the first part of the long name. "The Pennsylvania Gazette" in Benjamin Franklin's hands soon became profitable. The newspaper was later renamed "The Saturday Evening Post".

The Gazette printed local news, extracts from the London newspaper the "Spectator", jokes, verses, humorous attacks on Bradford's "Mercury", a rival paper, moral essays by Benjamin, elaborate hoaxes, and political satire. Often Benjamin wrote and printed letters to himself, either to emphasize some truth or to ridicule some mythical but typical reader.

Poor Richard's Almanac

In 1732, Benjamin Franklin published "Poor Richard's Almanac". Three editions were sold within a few months. Year after year the sayings of Richard Saunders, the publisher, and Bridget, his wife, both aliases of Benjamin Franklin, were printed in the almanac. Years later the most striking of these sayings were collected and published in a book.

Shop and Home Life

Benjamin Franklin also kept a shop where he sold a variety of goods including legal blanks, ink, pens, paper, books, maps, pictures, chocolate, coffee, cheese, codfish, soap, linseed oil, broadcloth, Godfrey's cordial, tea, spectacles, rattlesnake root, lottery tickets, and stoves. Deborah Read, who became his wife in 1730, was the shopkeeper. "We kept no idle servants," wrote Franklin, "our table was plain and simple, our furniture of the cheapest. For instance, my breakfast was a long time bread and milk (no tea), and I ate it out of a twopenny earthen porringer with a pewter spoon."

With all this frugality, Benjamin Franklin's wealth increased rapidly. "I experienced too," he wrote, "the truth of the observation, that after getting the first hundred pound, it is more easy to get the second, money itself being of a prolific nature."

He was able at the age of forty-two to retire from active business and devoted himself to philosophical and scientific studies.

Franklin Stove

Benjamin Franklin made an original and important invention in 1749, the "Pennsylvania fireplace," which, under the name of the Franklin stove. Benjamin Franklin, however, never patented any of his inventions.

reBenjamin Franklin and Electricity

Benjamin Franklin studied many different branches of science. He studied smoky chimneys; he invented bifocal spectacles; he studied the effect of oil upon ruffled water; he identified the "dry bellyache" as lead poisoning; he advocated ventilation in the days when windows were closed tight at night, and with patients at all times; he investigated fertilizers in agriculture. His scientific observations show that he foresaw some of the great developments of the nineteenth century.

Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

His greatest fame as a scientist was the result of his discoveries in electricity. On a visit to Boston in 1746, he saw some electrical experiments and at once became deeply interested. A friend, Peter Collinson of London, sent him some of the crude electrical apparatus of the day, which Franklin used, as well as some equipment he had purchased in Boston. He wrote in a letter to Collinson: "For my own part, I never was before engaged in any study that so engrossed my attention and my time as this has lately done."

Benjamin Franklin's letters to Peter Collinson tell of his first experiments about the nature of electricity. Experiments made with a little group of friends showed the effect of pointed bodies in drawing off electricity. He decided that electricity was not the result of friction, but that the mysterious force was diffused through most substances, and that nature is always restored its equilibrium. He developed the theory of positive and negative electricity, or plus and minus electrification.

The same letter tells of some of the tricks which the little group of experimenters was accustomed to playing upon their wondering neighbors. They set alcohol on fire, relit candles just blown out, produced mimic flashes of lightning, gave shocks on touching or kissing, and caused an artificial spider to move mysteriously.

Lightning and Electricity

Benjamin Franklin carried on experiments with the Leyden jar, made an electrical battery, killed a fowl and roasted it upon a spit turned by electricity, sent a current through water to ignite alcohol, ignited gunpowder, and charged glasses of wine so that the drinkers received shocks.

More important, perhaps, he began to develop the theory of the identity of lightning and electricity, and the possibility of protecting buildings by iron rods. Using an iron rod he brought down electricity into his house, and studied its effect upon bells, he concluded that clouds were generally negatively electrified. In June of 1752, he performed his famous kite experiment, drawing down electricity from the clouds and charging a Leyden jar from the key at the end of the string.

Benjamin Franklin's letters to Peter Collinson were read before the Royal Society which Collinson belonged to but were unnoticed. Collinson gathered them together, and they were published in a pamphlet which attracted wide attention. Translated into French, they created great excitement, and Franklin's conclusions were generally accepted by the scientific men of Europe. The Royal Society, tardily awakened, elected Franklin a member and in 1753 awarded him the Copley medal with a complimentary address.

Science During the 1700s

It may be useful to mention some of the scientific facts and mechanical principles which were known to Europeans at this time. More than one learned essay has been written to prove the mechanical indebtedness of the modern world to the ancient, particularly to the works of those mechanically minded Greeks: Archimedes, Aristotle, Ctesibius, and Hero of Alexandria. The Greeks employed the lever, the tackle, and the crane, the force-pump, and the suction pump. They had discovered that steam could be mechanically applied, though they never made any practical use of steam.

Improvements to the City of Philadelphia

Benjamin Franklin's influence among his fellow citizens in Philadelphia was very great. He established the first circulating library in Philadelphia, and one of the first in the country, and an academy which grew into the University of Pennsylvania. He was also instrumental in the foundation of a hospital.

Other public matters in which the busy printer was engaged were the paving and cleaning of the streets, better street lighting, the organization of a police force and of a fire company.

A pamphlet which Benjamin Franklin published, "Plain Truth", showing the helplessness of the colony against the French and Indians, led to the organization of a volunteer militia, and funds were raised for arms by a lottery. Benjamin Franklin himself was elected colonel of the Philadelphia regiment. In spite of his militarism, Benjamin Franklin retained the position which he held as Clerk of the Assembly, though the majority of the members were Quakers opposed to war on principle.

American Philosophical Society

The American Philosophical Society owes its origin to Benjamin Franklin. It was formally organized on his motion in 1743, but the society has accepted the organization of the Junto in 1727 as the actual date of its birth. From the beginning, the society has had among its members many leading men of scientific attainments or tastes, not only of Philadelphia, but of the world. In 1769 the original society was consolidated with another of similar aims, and Benjamin Franklin, who was the first secretary of the society, was elected president and served until his death. The first important undertaking was the successful observation of the transit of Venus in 1769, and many important scientific discoveries have since been made by its members and first given to the world at its meetings.

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