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Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin.
1706 - 1790.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706.

His father, Josiah, was a candle and soap maker and his mother, Abiah Folger, Josiah's second wife, a homemaker (housewife). Josiah and his first wife, Anne, had produced 7 children, but Anne died in childbirth with the seventh child. Josiah remarried and with Abiah went on to have a further ten children, of which Benjamin was the eighth.

Josiah insisted that each of his sons learned a trade. He had great dreams of Benjamin becoming a minister, and consequently enrolled him in a grammar school at the age of eight. Although Benjamin grasped reading and writing with ease, he had difficulty mastering arithmetic. As a result, his father removed him from the school, quashing all hopes of his son's future as a clergyman. Benjamin began to assist his father at his trade, but had no satisfaction. Josiah decided to apprentice his son in the printing business with one of his older brothers, James, in 1718 taking Benjamin's voracious appetite for reading into consideration.

James had a contract for the printing of the Boston Gazette, but, after ten months, the contract was transferred to a rival printer. In retaliation James founded his own newspaper, the New England Courant, in August of 1721. The two other Boston papers only reprinted news from abroad. James's paper carried local articles, opinion pieces written by James's friends, advertisements, and news of ship schedules. Benjamin was assigned the task of composing the type and printing the pages. It was also his responsibility to distribute the paper and increase its readership. The New England Courant's political satires on the Puritan leadership in Boston resulted in James's imprisonment on two occasions. During these difficult periods, Benjamin carried on the publishing and boldly refused to surrender to political pressure. As his responsibilities mounted, the younger Franklin began to resent the overbearing authority exerted upon him by his brother. Inspired by dreams of becoming a writer, and certain that James would refuse to publish his works, Benjamin adopted the pseudonym Silence Dogood and slipped his stories underneath the door of his brother's print shop. These lively tales were filled with advice and very critical of the world. James published them in the Courant and they received wide acclaim. No one suspected that a sixteen-year old was capable of such witty writings. When the author's true identity was revealed, the two siblings argued and ended up coming to physical blows. Quarrelling constantly, the brothers could no longer maintain their roles of master and apprentice. Benjamin desperately sought to escape his brother's disapproval and the narrow-mindedness of Puritan society. In September of 1723, with his close friend John Collins, Benjamin began an arduous journey. After a brief stay in New York, they arrived in Philadelphia on October 6th, penniless, weary, and facing an uncertain future.

Benjamin found work as an apprentice printer. He did so well that the governor of Pennsylvania promised to set him up in business for himself if young Benjamin would just go to London to buy fonts and printing equipment. Franklin did go to London, but the governor reneged on his promise and Benjamin was forced to spend several months in England doing print work.

Benjamin had been living with the Read family before he left for London. Deborah Read, the daughter of the family, started talking marriage with the young printer, but Ben did not think he was ready. While he was in England she married another man.

On returning to Philadelphia, Benjamin tried his hand at helping to run a shop, but soon went back to being a printer's helper. Benjamin was a better printer than the man he was working for, so he borrowed some money and set himself up in the printing business. Benjamin seemed to work all the time, and the citizens of Philadelphia began to notice the diligent young businessman. Soon he began getting the contract to do government jobs and started thriving in business.

In 1728, Benjamin fathered a child named William. The mother of William is not known.

In 1729, Benjamin bought a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. He not only printed the paper but often contributed pieces under aliases. His newspaper soon became the most successful in the colonies. This newspaper, among other firsts, printed the first political cartoon, authored by Benjamin himself.

In 1730 Benjamin married Deborah Read, whose husband had now left her, making her able to remarry.

In addition to running a print shop, the Franklins also ran their own store at this time, with Deborah selling everything from soap to fabric. Benjamin also ran a book store.

Benjamin thrived on work. In 1733 he started publishing "Poor Richard's Almanac". Almanacs of the era were printed annually, and contained things like weather reports, recipes, predictions and homilies. Benjamin published his almanac under the guise of a man named Richard Saunders, a poor man who needed money to take care of his ill wife. What distinguished Benjamins' almanac from the others were his witty aphorisms and lively writing. Many of the famous phrases associated with Franklin, such as, "A penny saved is a penny earned" come from Poor Richard.

During the 1730s and 1740s. He helped launch projects to pave, clean and light Philadelphia's streets. He started agitating for environmental clean up. Among the chief accomplishments of Benjamin Franklin in this era was helping to launch the Library Company in 1731. During this time books were scarce and expensive. Franklin recognized that by pooling together resources, members could afford to buy books from England. Thus was born the nations' first subscription library. In 1743, he helped to launch the American Philosophical Society, the first learned society in America. Recognizing that the city needed better help in treating the sick, Franklin brought together a group who formed the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1751. The Library Company, Philosophical Society, and Pennsylvania Hospital are still in existence today. Fires were a very dangerous threat at the time so Franklin set about trying to remedy the situation. In 1736, he organized Philadelphia's Union Fire Company, the first in the city. His famous saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," was actually fire-fighting advice.

By 1749 he had retired from business and started concentrating on science, experiments, and inventions. This was nothing new to him as, in 1743, he had invented a heat-efficient stove called the Franklin stove to help warm houses efficiently. As the stove was invented to help improve society, he refused to take out a patent. Among his other inventions are swim fins, the glass armonica (a musical instrument) and bifocal spectacles.

In the early 1750s he turned to the study of electricity. His observations, including his kite experiment which verified the nature of electricity and lightning brought Franklin international fame. Ever curious and inquisitive he became interested in the natural phenomenon known as electricity after witnessing demonstrations about static charge and the Leyden Jar. Consequently, he contacted Peter Collinson, a friend from London, and asked him to procure glass tubes and data on the procedure of electrical experiments. Rubbing the glass tubes with silk, Benjamin was able to generate a static charge that could be used in his many experiments. Benjamin was among the first to suggest that lightning was merely naturally-occurring electricity and that it could be drawn from the clouds. To prove this conjecture, he set up tall, pointed rods that provided an easy path for the electricity of the lightning to follow. In France, these "Philadelphia experiments" were duplicated for King Louis XV and his court. Eventually, these pointed rods would be modified to serve as lightning rods designed to protect people's dwellings. By channeling the electricity of lightning strikes through a safe route to the ground, lightning rods eliminated the threat of fires, thus helping with Benjamin's previous work on fire safety.

In 1752, aged 46, Benjamin performed his famous kite experiment with the aid of his twenty-one year old son, William. The kite was constructed with a sharp metallic wire situated on top, and at the end of the kite string, the scientist tied a silk ribbon to which a key was fastened. On a stormy day, lightning struck the kite, and electricity streamed down toward the key, presenting the final proof of lightning's electrical nature. Miraculously, the charge was not strong enough to be fatal to the observing father and son. Under normal circumstances, a lightning strike would have instantly killed the individuals bold enough to fly a kite during the heart of a thunderstorm. However, Benjamin seemed only dimly aware of the experiment's potential danger. In fact, there were numerous instances in which an experimenting Benjamin only narrowly escaped death. Once, he attempted to kill his Christmas turkey by administering an electrical shock. Accidentally, Franklin made contact with the current. The inventor's body immediately erupted into seizures but, after a while, Benjamin managed to recover.

Benjamin's electrical experiments brought him instant fame and, by sheer good fortune, Benjamin managed to survive his own inquisitiveness. Crowds of gawkers began to gather around his Philadelphian residence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wizard of electricity. Franklin had transformed electricity from a mere curiosity into a field of scientific study, exerting significant influence on both the theoretical and experimental aspects of the phenomenon.

For his efforts he received honorary degrees from Harvard College, Yale College, and the College of William & Mary. The Royal Society in London recognized Franklin with a gold medal in 1753 and inducted him as a member in 1756. Such an honor was rarely bestowed upon an individual from fledgling colonial America, where scientific research had not yet been fully developed. What made the achievement even more remarkable was the fact that Benjamin had no formal education in the sciences, relying purely on his personal intellect and curiosity. Despite the accolades, Benjamin remained modest. He even refused to patent the lightning rod or attempt to profit from it.

Electricity brought him international acclaim, but the brilliant Franklin investigated a variety of other sciences as well. Throughout his life, Benjamin studied the weather and proposed models to describe the progression of storm systems across the continent of North America. He also examined medicine under his own initiative. In fact, Franklin invented the medical instrument known as a catheter in order to treat his ill brother and even formulated theories about human circulation.

Not wanting to see valuable arable land wasted, the Philadelphia inventor sponsored experiments designed to improve agricultural techniques and insisted that agricultural sciences be included in the curriculum at his Academy of Pennsylvania. In short, Franklin's genius mastered each and every endeavor that he put his mind to, and, as the imminent colonial conflicts would prove, this included politics.

He had become involved in Philadelphia politics in October 1748 when he was selected as a councilman. He rapidly progressed, in June 1749 he became a Justice of the Peace for Philadelphia, and in 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. On August 10, 1753, Franklin was appointed joint deputy postmaster-general of North America. His most notable service in domestic politics was his reform of the postal system, but his fame as a statesman rests chiefly on his subsequent diplomatic services in connection with the relations of the colonies with Great Britain, and later with France. 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 did find their way into the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

In 1757 he was sent to England by the Pennsylvania Assembly as a colonial agent to protest against the political influence of the Penn family, the proprietors of the colony. For five years he remained there, striving to end the proprietors' prerogative to overturn legislation from the elected Assembly and their exemption from paying taxes on their land. His lack of influential allies in Whitehall led to the failure of this mission. In 1759 the University of St Andrews awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In 1762 Oxford University awarded Franklin an honorary doctorate for his scientific accomplishments and from then on he went by "Doctor Franklin." He also managed to secure a post for his illegitimate son, William Franklin, as Colonial Governor of New Jersey.

During his stay in London, Franklin became involved in radical politics. He was a member of the Club of Honest Whigs, alongside thinkers such as Richard Price.

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 residence in Craven Street (the only one of his residences to survive and which opened to the public as the Benjamin Franklin House museum on January 17, 2006). 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 1759 he visited Edinburgh with his son, and he recalled his conversations there as "the densest happiness of my life". He also joined the influential Birmingham based Lunar Society who he regularly corresponded with and visited in Birmingham when he could.

All Benjamin did was not 'great'; while living in London in 1768 he developed a phonetic alphabet in "A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling". This reformed alphabet discarded six letters Franklin regarded as redundant (c, j, q, w, x and y), and substituted six new letters for sounds he felt lacked letters of their own; however, his new alphabet never caught on and he eventually lost interest.

On 4 July 1776 Congress appointed a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to design the Great Seal of the United States. Each member of the committee proposed a unique design. Franklin's proposal featured a design with the motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." This design was to portray a scene from the Book of Exodus, complete with Moses, the Israelites, the pillar of fire, and George III depicted as Pharaoh.

From 1776 to 1784 Benjamin was the United States Ambassador to France. During this time he lived in Paris and became such a favorite of French society that it became fashionable for wealthy French families to decorate their parlors with a painting of him. He conducted the affairs of his country toward the French nation, which included securing a critical military alliance in 1778 and negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783, with great success. During his stay in France, Benjamin, as a freemason, was Grand Master of the Lodge Les Neuf Sœurs from 1779 until 1781.

In special balloting conducted 18 November 1785 Franklin was unanimously elected the sixth President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. The office of President of Pennsylvania was analogous to the modern position of Governor. Benjamin held that office for slightly over three years, longer than any other President of the Council, and served the Constitutional limit of three full terms, but there is some question regarding the de facto end of his term, suggesting that the aging Franklin may not have been actively involved in the day-to-day operation of the Council toward the end of his time in office. 1787 saw Benjamin serving as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He played an honourific role but seldom engaged in debate.

In that year a group of prominent ministers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, proposed the foundation of a new college to be named in Franklin's honour. Franklin donated £200 towards the development of Franklin College; which is now called Franklin and Marshall College.

He was the only Founding Father who signed all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution.

Despite all his prestige, Bejamin Franklin dressed and lived simply. He had no need for pompous wealth, believing a rich intellect was far more valuable than expensive clothes. Furthermore, Benjamin did not view any form of labor beneath his dignity.

Benjamin Franklin died on April 17 1790, aged 84. His funeral was attended by about 20,000 people. He was interred in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

At his death, Franklin bequeathed £1,000 (about $4,400 at the time) each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, in trust for 200 years. As of 1990, over $2,000,000 had accumulated in Franklins' Philadelphia trust since his death. When the trust came due, Philadelphia decided to spend it on scholarships for local high school students. Franklins' Boston trust fund accumulated almost $5,000,000 during that same time and was eventually used to establish a trade school that, over time, became the Franklin Institute of Boston.

Some of Benjamin Franklins' inventions and innovations:

Most of the electrical terms we use today, such as battery, positive/negative, and charge, were originally coined by Benjamin and stand as a lasting testament to his work.

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