Benjamin Franklin was among the most talented and multifaceted personalities of this world – past and present included. He contributed hugely to the world by giving to it his many useful inventions at no cost, refusing to own patents on any invention; by his study of science especially electricity which helped add immensely to human knowledge; by advocating importance of public education and in order to help this cause he started the institutions of literary clubs, societies, libraries for the first time. Besides this he also made many contributions as a responsible citizen in the public arena to more than one nation.
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts on Jan. 17, 1706 as the youngest of many children to a poor couple named Josiah and Abiah. Josiah was a candlemaker.
Franklin did not have formal education except for 2 years of school. From childhood he spent time at his father’s shop helping him make candles. However, he was interested in attaining education and taught himself many things by reading and experimenting.
Later in childhood he also started working as a printer in a print shop. Even then, he kept up his interest in education and would study good books and periodicals late into the night after work. He was interested in learning to write well and hence read all classical authors and studied grammar. He eventually developed a very good style of writing. At the same time he was interested in mathematics and navigation.
At around the age of 17, he parted ways with the print shop owner with whom he worked for many years. During this time, he had become extremely skilled at typesetting. He left Boston, penniless and reached Philadelphia, hungry and tired. Little did one know at that time that this city would one day consider him among its most distinguished citizens.
He soon found a job in Samuel Keimer’s printing shop, who recognizing his skills in printing, paid him well. By 1728, when Franklin was 22, he partnered with Hugh Meredith and started a print shop.
Around that time Franklin fell in love with Deborah Read, in whose house he was a boarder. He proposed to her but her mother refused this alliance. Deborah was then married off to a man named John Rodgers. However the marriage did not last long. At the age of 24, Franklin married Deborah. Though Deborah was very unlike Franklin in interests, she was very devoted to him. Franklin had three children. The eldest was William; Franklin’s child from a previous relationship, who grew up to become the governor of New Jersey. With Deborah he had two other children – Francis Folger and a girl called Sarah.
Franklin’s efforts in the printing business paid off and he became extremely successful at it. He was made official printer for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. He rose to be a distinguished citizen of Philadelphia as a result of this.
Proverbs in newspapers
Franklin started publishing in 1728 with a weekly newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette. In time he added more publications to his credit. He published Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732 which became extremely popular. This had the Gregorian calendar, weather forecast apart from many stories, jokes and proverbs for amusement. The homely proverbs displayed his philosophical leanings and became famous for all time to come. Some of these are:
- Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away
- Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead
- Fish and visitors smell in three days
Innovation in education – Literary Club, Societies and Library
Benjamin started a debating club in 1727. This became very popular among youngsters and laid the foundation for the American Philosophical Society to which it was converted in 1743. The reputation of this society in promoting scientific and intellectual dialogue remains unblemished to this day.
In 1731, the first circulating library in America was started by Franklin with the support of the enthusiastic young people who frequented his club. This was named the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Besides these contributions to intellectual growth of people, Benjamin had other radical views in education and wanted to improve the system prevailing at that time. He published his ideas which initiated the creation of the University of Pennsylvania.
Since Franklin was a prominent citizen of Philadelphia, he insisted on good civic administration and pressed for lighting of streets and cleanliness. He initiated the pavement of streets in Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin started Philadelphia’s first volunteer fire company called the Union Fire Company. He also started the nation’s first fire insurance company in 1752.
He started the first hospital in America. For this he raised money from the public by writing in newspapers for the cause of hospitals.
Franklin brought many improvements in the postal system which enabled it to become profitable for the first time in history. He proactively informed people about mail waiting for them at the post office by publishing their names in his newspaper. As distance was one way to measure cost of the post, he devised an odometer to measure distance – this would be fitted to all carriages carrying post. He marked each mile on the way by milestones. He also made efforts to improve the morale of post boys. The postal system benefited tremendously under him, mail deliveries became more frequent and efficient. Eventually, the system became profitable.
Daylight Savings Time
Benjamin Franklin advocated saving energy by cutting down on fuel needs for lighting and warming. He wrote in 1784 in the journal of Paris when he was living in France that it would be prudent to rise with the sun and set with it so solar energy could be utilized more. He also strongly suggested that there be laws passed which mandate it. Franklin wrote an essay on this subject titled “An Economical Project”. He said it would give more opportunity of doing productive work during the summer months, as opposed to the cold and dreary days of winter.
With this the idea of daylight savings time was born which mandated people to adjust their clocks twice a year.
Benjamin Franklin was an avid inventor throughout his life. However he refused to patent any invention, even when offered the chance to do so. He believed that since he benefited from inventions done by people who lived before him, others should also benefit from his inventions. Following are some of his most notable inventions:
The Franklin stove
This was an improvement upon fireplaces, which did not heat a house uniformly and consumed a lot of wood. Besides, they were dangerous as sparks would come out frequently with the chance of the whole house catching fire. Franklin’s stove spread warmth to the whole room as its grate extended out into the room though the stove itself stood in the fireplace. The stove was such that it used only 1/4th of the wood used by fireplaces with doubled heat production. This stove was very popular and remained so for around a century.
Theories related to Electricity
Franklin was very interested in electricity and conducted many experiments in it. This formed the basis of a book he published on electricity which was hugely useful in formulating the Modern Electric Theory.
Contrary to what many believe, Franklin understood well the dangers of using conductive rods and decided to use a kite instead. This provided him with a reasonable level of safety. He took the kit out to where it was raining. Even though most of the string got wet, Franklin ensured that the part which he was holding and its surrounding areas remained dry. He attached a key to the string and connected it to a Leyden jar, which would accumulate electricity from the lightning bolt, if his theory was correct (and it was correct). He wanted the kite to be struck by lightning. That didn’t happen, but he noticed that the strings of the kite were repelling each other. From this, he accurately deduced that the Leyden jar was being charged. It is said that Franklin received a mild shock by moving his hand near the key afterwards, because lightning had negatively charged the key and the Leyden jar. So in a way, the shock he received proved his theory!
After his kite experiment, Benjamin Franklin became well aware of the dangers of electricity (And the shock he received probably helped as well!). He started pondering over ways to protect buildings, ships and people from lightning. This effort on his part culminated in the invention of the lightning rod. Lightning rod is arguably his most famous invention. The lightning rod was designed to be mounted to the outside wall of the house. One end of the rod would point high up into the sky; the other end would be attached to a cable. This cable would lead down to the ground where it would be buried very deep. The cable was to transmit the electric charge from the lightning on to the ground, thereby preventing a fire.
Benjamin Franklin was interested in music. He created an improvised armonica, made of glass in 1761. This one was smaller and more convenient to handle. It did not require water tuning unlike other armonicas. Franklin himself enjoyed playing it with family at home and even carried it to social get-togethers. Due to the obvious advantages, it became very popular – even among musical geniuses Beethoven and Mozart who composed music for it.
As postmaster general, Franklin invented a simple odometer which could be attached to the carriage. By counting the rotations of the carriage wheel, it measured distance. This helped in setting up efficient routes and also helped to determine the actual cost of delivery.
Benjamin Franklin developed bifocal lenses in 1784. He had advanced in age and developed both near sight and far sight. This necessitated him to have two pairs of glasses – one for reading and one for seeing farther away. While he had to repeatedly change glasses, he had an idea to have both types of lenses fit into the frame. He ordered to put the distance lens at the top and the reading lens in the bottom. That is how the bifocal lenses were invented!
Being born in Boston and spending his initial years there, Benjamin Franklin loved the sea and harbored dreams of voyages into distant waters. He learnt to swim at a young age and became an expert swimmer. At that age itself he displayed his innovative bend of mind by designing fins for the hands. These were crude – made of wooden palettes and shaped like lily pads. Each of these had a hole through which to put his thumb. Since these were successful at increasing speed but not very comfortable, later Franklin refined these to make swim fins as they are known today.
Benjamin Franklin was very interested in the civic maintenance and lighting of public roads. In those days, however electricity had not yet been harnessed for lighting. And the street lamps had to be lit with oil. However, the lamps were such that they would become dark with soot after a few hours and light would become very dim. Moreover, this necessitated daily cleaning of the lamps. Benjamin Franklin pondered over the problem. He then redesigned the street lamp such that there was airflow in the lamp. He put a funnel in the lamp to would pull the smoke out and crevices below to aid the smoke move up.
Franklin was a library enthusiast, having founded a library himself. He spent a lot of time in the library and found reaching higher shelves difficult. He made the library chair multipurpose such that it became a chair when put in one direction. When reversed, it became a step ladder. He also fitted a fan in it to be operated by a foot pedal.
To further read reach books on upper shelves that were beyond the reach of even the library chair he improvised, he invented an extension arm. The arm had two “fingers” attached to the end of a long rod. A cord was attached to the fingers such that they could be manipulated by pulling the cord. Such devices are in existence even today in some places.
Franklin invented a simple clock known as the three-wheel clock. It did not have the minute hand like all clocks of that period.
Flexible urinary catheter tube
Franklin’s lesser known interest was to study the working of the human body. When his half brother fell sick with kidney stones, in order to ease his discomfort, Benjamin Franklin invented a flexible urinary catheter. This was the first such device made in America.
Benjamin Franklin was the first political cartoonist. The first political cartoon was “Join or Die”, published in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. It was related to the Albany Plan of Union. It displayed his wit and interest in issues of governance and started the trend of political cartoons.
Charting the Gulf Stream
Benjamin Franklin was one of the first people to chart the Gulf Stream. His love of the sea and his frequent travels between Europe and America on official purposes, enabled him to study details about sea travel. Franklin noticed that he reached Europe faster when sailing from America than when sailing back to America.
In order to unravel this mystery he studied the direction of wind, measured the wind speeds, ship speed, depth of the ocean and temperature. By finding a relation between these parameters, he was able to help increase the speed of ships. This also led him to map the flow of the Gulf stream. This was a huge contribution to the shipping industry and to international trade.
Franklin’s interest in sea travel did not end at charting the Gulf Stream. He had many ideas to improve ships and travel. He studied ships from different countries such as China and understood the principles involved. He was able to propose ideas to prevent ships from sinking eg. having water tight compartments to contain leaks etc., and others to have a comfortable travel – eg. designing a soup bowl which would not overturn even in a storm. He had better ideas about sea anchors, lighting rods, catamaran hulls etc. All his findings about oceanography was published in 1786 in Maritime Observations – brought out by the Philosophical Society.
Benjamin Franklin studied many aspects of physics like heat conduction, cooling, wave theory of light etc. Scientists like Michael Faraday and the University of Pennsylvania acknowledged his contributions. He was credited with formulating the law of the effect of heat on the conduction of normally non-conductors like glass and with theories on the non conduction of ice. Franklin performed many experiments which led to the concept of refrigeration. He was one of the few scientists who supported Christiaan Huygens’ wave theory of light against Newton’s corpuscular theory. At that time most people believed that the latter was true. Later, with Young’s slit experiment, the wave theory of light was proven.
Benjamin Franklin observed that the nutrients in fruits – especially citrus fruits – were very important to the body especially for the health of the gums and skin. At that time Vitamin C had not yet been discovered. He strongly recommended the addition of such fruits to the diet of sailors. Years after this proposal some navies such as British navy accepted it and included lime in the daily diet of sailors. This reduced outbreaks of scurvy among the seamen.
Public offices and awards
Franklin was elected to be a fellow of the Royal Society in 1756. He was also awarded its Copley Medal. In 1773 he was elected to the Royal Academy of Science in Paris. Franklin obtained honorary degrees from Yale and Harvard as acknowledgement of his contributions to science.
Benjamin Franklin was the deputy postmaster of Philadelphia from 1737 to 1753. He then rose to be the post master general.
Benjamin was a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1751 to 1764. He displayed foresight during the Britain, US – French war about Indian raids to Pennsylvania. He organized a volunteer army to counter this. The Pennsylvania Assembly sent him into the frontier in 1755 to direct the building of forts and to raise troops for British army which had arrived to combat the French.
During the last years of his life, he rose to be the president of the Pennsylvania Assembly a post equal to that of the governor. He was also sent to Britain on multiple occasions as a diplomat eg. to solve the dispute between Pennsylvania and the Penn family on taxes, for the repeat of Stamp act . He was stationed there as a US representative for 10 years.
In 1775 Congress appointed Franklin to consider the problems of the Continental Army at George Washington’s headquarters. Benjamin Franklin was part of the team which drafted the Declaration of Independence.
During the last years of his life he was also US’s diplomat to France. He was a very popular and respected figure in France. Though he was pressed to prolong his stay there, frail health forced him to return to his home. Franklin reached Philadelphia on Sept. 14, 1785 amidst widespread welcoming and celebration.
Franklin’s Last Years
Franklin spent the last five years of his life confined to Philadelphia. Though he was sick and suffered from kidney stone and gout, he did not remain idle – some of his inventions were made even at this stage. During this time, he also wrote many newspaper articles and his autobiography. He signed a memorial to the state legislature for the abolition of black slavery. This was his final public service.
Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84. His wife had died much earlier. As per his wishes he was buried beside his wife in Christ Church cemetery, in Philadelphia with public honors.