Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 17 January 1706, the 15th of 17 children. His dad was an English tallow chandler and soap boiler who had emigrated 20 years earlier.
Franklin was sent to Boston’s Latin school when he was 8, with a view to being trained for a theological career, but only stayed there for a year. His father then sent him to a school for writing and arithmetic. It seems that Franklin’s father had decided that his boy was not destined for the ministry. At 10, he was taken out of school to assist his father in his business. Since he was fond of reading – and customarily spent any money he could get hold of on books – it was decided that he should become a printer.
When he was 12 he was apprenticed to his elder brother James, who had recently set up as a Boston printer. As well as books and pamphlets, James Franklin printed silks and other materials. While working for his brother, Franklin discovered that he was skilled in the art of tabloid writing, and the two made a few pennies writing articles about death and dismay. At 16 he also tried his hand at writing a serious article, and was thrilled to have his anonymous contribution well-received and printed.
The business relationship between the two brothers was not to last long though. The paper James Franklin printed continuously criticised the ecclesiastical and civil authorities in Boston. The Governor, having had enough of all this, stopped James from printing the paper, and sent him to jail for one month. On his release, James changed the name of the printer to Benjamin Franklin, in order to print the paper (and his views) again, and to evade prosecution.
The partnership between the two brothers did not last much beyond this – they eventually came to blows and parted ways. Because of the bad blood, James worked to prevent his brother from getting positions anywhere else in Boston, so Franklin decided that he would go to New York and seek his fortune there. Once in New York, the only work was part time, so it was suggested to him that he go to Philadelphia.
The Governor of Philadelphia heard of Franklin through some of Franklin’s extended family, and came to visit him in the printers where he worked. He was impressed with the young man of 18, and when Franklin’s father refused to finance Franklin to set up his own business, the Governor put up the money. He suggested to Franklin that he travel to London to purchase his printing equipment, and thereby meet useful people in England. It was not until Franklin arrived in London after 8 weeks at sea that he realised that the letters of credit promised to him by the Governor were not going to arrive. Eventually one of his acquaintances offered him some work back in Philadelphia and he was homesick, so after 2 years in England he went back to the US in 1726. He arrived back a very skilled printer. This was the first of eight journeys to England that Franklin would make.
Back in Philadelphia he began a newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, which was to make him rich. He wrote most of the articles for it, and it steadily became more influential. With his printing and newspaper business in full swing in the 1720’s he set about trying to find himself a wife. He demanded a dowry with his wife – enough money to pay off his debts, and had trouble finding a family who would put up that much money. Eventually in 1730 he married Deborah Read, with whom he had had a brief courtship in 1723. Business continued to grow, and Franklin began to publish many other publications. Quite surprisingly, Franklin retired from active business at the age of 42. He did this in order to focus on his scientific experiments.
Prior to retiring Franklin had already begun his experiments with electricity, and he was now able to devote more time to them. The electric battery was not invented until after Franklin died; so he was never able to work with an electric current. However, he managed to sort out many of the mysteries of static electricity that had puzzled people for ages. If you rub a glass rod with a piece of cloth, then it picks up an electric charge. Franklin realised that an equal amount of charge of the opposite kind collected on the cloth. This principle is now called the conservation of charge. He coined the terms positive and negative electricity for the different kinds of charge.
Franklin believed that lightning was simply electricity, and he wondered how the damage caused by lightning strokes could be avoided. He wrote in his notebook “The electric fluid is attracted by points – We do not know whether this property is in lightning… Let the experiment be made.” As a result of this experiment, Franklin wrote in 1749 that during thunderstorms, trees, spires, and chimneys would “draw the electrical fire” and therefore you should never shelter under a tree from a thunderstorm. People were terrified of thunderstorms, which were thought to be manifestations of divine wrath, and until then the best defence they had was to ring the church bells – but every year dozens of church steeples were struck and many bell-ringers killed! And in the following year he proposed that buildings should be protected by sharpened upright rods of iron, gilded to prevent rusting, fixed on the highest parts of edifices, and run down into the ground, in order to “draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it became nigh enough to strike.” In other words he invented the lightning conductor. In practice, as he discovered later, lightning conductors have two functions; first they “disarm” passing clouds by discharging them, and second if there is a lightning stroke they carry the current safely to the ground. In June 1752 Franklin did his most famous experiment, flying a kite up into a thundercloud, and drawing sparks from a key tied to the bottom of the wet string, holding on by means of a piece of dry silk and keeping himself insulated. This proved that lightning and electricity were the same thing.
For his work on electricity he became widely known in the scientific community – both in the USA and Britain. He had published papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and the Royal Society conferred upon him one of their highest awards – the Copley medal in 1753. In 1756 he was made a fellow of that society. He received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary Universities.
Franklin was a man of extraordinarily wide interests and talents. He studied the effect of pouring oil on troubled waters, and invented the rocking chair, bifocal spectacles, and daylight saving time. He charted the Gulf Stream, and was the first to suggest the use of thermometers as an instrument of navigation – knowing the temperature of the Stream allowed one to follow it. Franklin’s scientific accomplishments were commended no matter where the inventor travelled. In 1759, St. Andrews University in Scotland bestowed an honorary degree upon the Philadelphian, and Oxford University in England followed suit in 1762. Benjamin’s stay in Great Britain enabled the Pennsylvanian representative to refine his musical talents. While abroad, Franklin learned to play an assortment of musical instruments, including the harp, guitar, and violin. However, nothing gave him more satisfaction than his invention of the glass harmonica. This truly wonderful instrument would have a profound influence on classical music throughout the next century.
Franklin is probably best known for being a brilliant statesman. In the French and English wars, he took the side of the British and tried to encourage peace with the French and the Native American Indians, who were fighting together. He also fought for the rights of the Native Americans. Back in London for a time, he tried to use his contacts to stress the importance of America as a colony, but came away disillusioned with the British and their self-importance, and began calling himself an American rather than an English American for the first time.
When the American colonies decided to go their own way, he was one of the three men (the others were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) who drew up the Declaration of Independence, read in Congress on 4 July 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Franklin spent his last years in Philadelphia, and gradually became infirm. Towards the end of his illness, his daughter remarked that she hoped he might live a while longer, to which he replied ‘I hope not.’ He died aged 84.