Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 [O.S. January 6, 1705] – April 17, 1790) was one of the
Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author and printer, satirist, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, a carriage odometer, and the glass 'armonica'. He formed both the first public lending library in America and the first fire department in Pennsylvania.
Franklin earned the title of "The First American" for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity; as a writer and spokesmen in London for several colonies, then as the first American ambassador to France, he exemplified the emerging American nation. Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical and democratic values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. In the words of historian Henry Steele Commager, "In Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat." To Walter Isaacson, this makes Franklin, "the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become." Franklin, always proud of his working class roots, became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies. He became wealthy publishing Poor Richard's Almanack and The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin was interested in science and technology, and gained international renown for his famous experiments in electricity. He played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and was elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society. Franklin became a national hero in America when he spearheaded the effort to have Parliament repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. From 1775 to 1776, Franklin was the Postmaster General under the Continental Congress and from 1785 to 1788, the governor of Pennsylvania (officially, President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania). Toward the end of his life, he became one of the most prominent abolitionists. His colorful life and legacy of scientific and political achievement, and status as one of America's most influential Founding Fathers, have seen Franklin honored on coinage and money; warships; the names of many towns, counties, educational institutions, namesakes, and companies; and more than two centuries after his death, countless cultural references.
Franklin's father, Josiah Franklin, was born at Ecton, Northamptonshire, England on
December 23, 1657, the son of Thomas Franklin, a blacksmith and farmer, and Jane White.
His mother, Abiah Folger, was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on August 15, 1667, to
Peter Folger, a miller and schoolteacher and his wife Mary Morrill, a former indentured servant.
A descendant of the Folgers, J.A. Folger, founded Folgers Coffee in the 19th century.
Josiah Franklin had seventeen children with his two wives. He married his first wife, Anne Child, in about 1677 in Ecton and emigrated with her to Boston in 1683; they had three children before emigrating, and four after. After her death, Josiah was married to Abiah Folger on July 9, 1689 in the Old South Meeting House by Samuel Willard. Benjamin, their eighth
child, was Josiah Franklin's fifteenth child and tenth and last son.
Josiah Franklin converted to Puritanism in the 1670s. Puritanism was a Protestant movement
in England to "purify" Anglicanism from elements of the Roman Catholic religion, which they
considered superstitious. Three things were important to the Puritans: that each congregation be self-governing; that ministers give sermons instead of performing rituals such as a Mass; and that each member study the Bible so that each could develop a personal understanding and relationship with God. Puritanism appealed to middle-class individuals such as Benjamin Franklin's father, who enjoyed the governance meetings, discussion, study, and personal
The roots of American democracy can be seen in these Puritan values of self-government. These values, which were passed on to Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers (such
as John Adams), included the importance of the individual and active indignation against unjust authority. One of Josiah's core Puritan values was that personal worth is earned through hard work, which makes the industrious man the equal of kings (Ben Franklin would etch Proverbs 22:29, "Seest thou a man diligent in his calling, he shall stand before
Kings." onto his father's tombstone). Hard work and equality were two Puritan values that
Ben Franklin preached throughout his own life and spread widely through Poor Richard's
Almanac and his autobiography.
Ben Franklin's mother, Abiah Folger, was born into a Puritan family that was among the first Pilgrims to flee to Massachusetts for religious freedom, when King Charles I of England began
persecuting Puritans. They sailed for Boston in 1635. Her father was "the sort of rebel destined
to transform colonial America." As clerk of the court, he was jailed for disobeying the local
magistrate in defense of middle-class shopkeepers and artisans in conflict with wealthy landowners. Ben Franklin followed in his grandfather's footsteps in his battles against the wealthy Penn family that owned thePennsylvania Colony.
Franklin's birthplace onMilk Street, Boston, Massachusetts
Franklin's birthplace site directly across fromOld South Meeting House onMilk Street is commemorated by
a bust above the second floor facade of this building
Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street, in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17,
1706 and baptized at Old South Meeting House. He was the son of Josiah Franklin,
a tallow chandler and soap- and candle-maker, and his second wife, Abiah Folger. Josiah had 17 children; Benjamin was the fifteenth child and youngest son. Josiah wanted Ben to attend school with the clergy but only had enough money to send him to school for two years. He attended Boston Latin School but did not graduate; he continued his education through
voracious reading. Although "his parents talked of the church as a career" for Franklin, his schooling ended when he was ten. He then worked for his father for a time and at 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who taught Ben the printing trade. When Ben was 15, James founded The New-England Courant, which was the first truly
independent newspaper in the colonies. When denied the chance to write a letter to the paper for publication, Franklin adopted the pseudonym of "Mrs. Silence Dogood", a middle-aged
widow. "Mrs. Dogood"'s letters were published, and became a subject of conversation around town. Neither James nor the Courant's readers were aware of the ruse, and James was
unhappy with Ben when he discovered the popular correspondent was his younger brother.
Franklin left his apprenticeship without permission, and in so doing became a fugitive.
At age 17, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, seeking a new start in a new city. When he first arrived he worked in several printer shops around town. However, he was not satisfied by the immediate prospects. After a few months, while working in a printing house, Franklin was convinced by Pennsylvania Governor Sir William Keith to go to London,
ostensibly to acquire the equipment necessary for establishing another newspaper in Philadelphia. Finding Keith's promises of backing a newspaper to be empty, Franklin worked as a typesetter in a printer's shop in what is now the Church of St Bartholomew-the-Great in
the Smithfield area of London. Following this, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726 with the help of Thomas Denham, a merchant who employed Franklin as clerk, shopkeeper, and
bookkeeper in his business.
In 1727, Benjamin Franklin, then 21, created the Junto, a group of "like minded aspiring
artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community." The Junto was a discussion group for issues of the day; it subsequently gave rise to many organizations in Philadelphia.
Reading was a great pastime of the Junto, but books were rare and expensive. The members created a library, initially assembled from their own books. This did not suffice, however. Franklin then conceived the idea of a subscription library, which would pool the funds of the
members to buy books for all to read. This was the birth of the Library Company of
Philadelphia: its charter was composed by Franklin in 1731. In 1732, Franklin hired the first American librarian, Louis Timothee. Originally, the books were kept in the homes of the first librarians, but in 1739 the collection was moved to the second floor of the State House of
Pennsylvania, now known as Independence Hall. In 1791, a new building was built specifically
for the library. The Library Company is now a great scholarly and research library with 500,000
rare books, pamphlets, and broadsides, more than 160,000 manuscripts, and 75,000 graphic items.
Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press. Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit
Upon Denham's death, Franklin returned to his former trade. In 1728, Franklin had set up a printing house in partnership with Hugh Meredith and the following year became the publisher of a newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette gave Franklin a forum for
agitation about a variety of local reforms and initiatives through printed essays and observations. Over time, his commentary, and his adroit cultivation of a positive image as an industrious and intellectual young man, earned him a great deal of social respect. But even after Franklin had achieved fame as a scientist and statesman, he habitually signed his letters
with the unpretentious 'B. Franklin, Printer.'
In 1731, Franklin was initiated into the local Masonic Lodge. He became Grand Master in 1734,
indicating his rapid rise to prominence in Pennsylvania. That same year, he edited and
published the first Masonic book in the Americas, a reprint of James Anderson's Constitutions
of the Free-Masons. Franklin remained a Freemason for the rest of his life.
Common-law marriage to Deborah Read
Deborah Read Franklin Sarah Franklin
(circa 1759) Commonlaw wife of Bache(1743–1808) Daughter of
Benjamin Franklin Benjamin Franklin and Deborah
At the age of 17, Franklin proposed to 15-year-old Deborah Read while a boarder in the Read
home. At that time, the mother was wary of allowing her young daughter to marry Franklin, who was on his way to London at Governor Sir William Keith's request, and also because of
his financial instability. Her own husband had recently died, and Mrs. Read declined Franklin's
request to marry her daughter.
While Franklin was in London, his trip was extended, and there were problems concerning with Sir William's promises of support. Perhaps because of the circumstances of this delay, Deborah married a man named John Rodgers. This proved to be a regrettable decision. Rodgers shortly avoided his debts and prosecution by fleeing to Barbados with her dowry,
leaving Deborah behind. Rodgers' fate was unknown, and because of bigamy laws, Deborah was not free to remarry.
Franklin established a common-law marriage with Deborah Read on September 1, 1730, and
besides taking in young William, together they had two children. The first, Francis Folger Franklin, born October 1732, died of smallpox in 1736. Their second child, Sarah Franklin,
familiarly called Sally, was born in 1743. She eventually married Richard Bache, had seven
children, and cared for her father in his old age.
Deborah's fear of the sea meant that she never accompanied Franklin on any of his extended trips to Europe, despite his repeated requests. However, Franklin did not leave London to visit Deborah even after she wrote to him in November 1769 saying her illness was due to
“dissatisfied distress” because of his prolonged absence. Deborah Read Franklin died of
a stroke in 1774, while Benjamin was on an extended trip to England.
Illegitimate son William
In 1730, at the age of 24, Franklin publicly acknowledged an illegitimate son named William,
who would eventually become the last Loyalist governor of New Jersey. While the identity of
William's mother remains unknown, perhaps the responsibility of an infant child gave Franklin a reason to take up residence with Deborah Read. William was raised in the Franklin
household but eventually broke with his father over opinions regarding the treatment of the colonies by the British government. The elder Franklin could never accept William's decision to declare his loyalty to the crown.
Any hope of reconciliation was shattered when William Franklin became leader of The Board of Associated Loyalists—a quasi-military organization, headquartered in British occupied New
York City, which, among other things, launched guerilla forages into New Jersey, southern
Connecticut, and New York counties north of the city. In the preliminary peace talks in 1782
with Britain "...Franklin insisted that loyalists who had borne arms against the United States would be excluded from this plea (that they be given a general pardon). He was undoubtedly
thinking of William Franklin." William left New York along with the British troops. He settled in England, never to return.
Success as an author
In 1733, Franklin began to publish the famous Poor Richard's Almanack (with content both
original and borrowed) under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, on which much of his popular reputation is based. Franklin frequently wrote under pseudonyms. Although it was no secret that Franklin was the author, his Richard Saunders character repeatedly denied it. "Poor Richard's Proverbs," adages from this almanac, such as "A penny saved is twopence dear" (often misquoted as "A penny saved is a penny earned") and "Fish and visitors stink in three days" remain common quotations in the modern world. Wisdom in folk society meant the ability to provide an apt adage for any occasion, and Franklin's readers became well prepared. He sold about ten thousand copies per year (a circulation equivalent to nearly three million
In 1758, the year in which he ceased writing for the Almanack, he printed Father Abraham's
Sermon, also known as The Way to Wealth. Franklin'sautobiography, published after his death,
has become one of the classics of the genre.
Daylight saving time (DST) is often erroneously attributed to a 1784 satire that Franklin
published anonymously. Modern DST was first proposed byGeorge Vernon Hudson in
Inventions and scientific inquiries
Franklin was a prodigious inventor. Among his many creations were the lightning rod, glass
armonica (a glass instrument, not to be confused with the metal harmonica), Franklin
stove, bifocal glasses and the flexible urinary catheter. Franklin never patented his inventions;
in his autobiography he wrote, "... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we
should do freely and generously."
His inventions also included social innovations, such as paying forward. Franklin's fascination
with innovation could be viewed as altruistic; he wrote that his scientific works were to be used for increasing efficiency and human improvement. One such improvement was his effort to
expedite news services through his printing presses.
Atlantic Ocean currents
As deputy postmaster, Franklin became interested in the North Atlantic Ocean circulation
patterns. In 1768 Franklin visited England as postmaster general and there he heard a curious complaint by Colonial Board of Customs: Why did it take British mail ships (which were called packets) a couple of weeks longer to reach New York from England than it took an average
merchant ship to reach Newport, Rhode Island. This was despite merchants ships
leaving London having to sail down Thames and then the length of the English Channel before
they sailed across Atlantic, while the packets left from Falmouth in Cornwall right on the
Intrigued, Franklin invited his cousin Timothy Folger, a Nantucket whaler captain who happened to be in London at that time, for dinner. Folger told him that merchant ships routinely avoided the then-unnamed Gulf Stream, while the mail packet captains sailed dead into it. American whalers had been telling them that they were stemming a three-mile-per-hour current. Franklin worked with Folger and other experienced ship captains, learning enough to chart theGulf Stream, giving it the name by which it is still known today.
Though it was Dr. Franklin and Captain Tim Folger, who first turned the Gulf Stream to nautical account, the discovery that there was a Gulf Stream cannot be said to belong to either of them, for its existence was known to Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, and to Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the
It took many years for British sea captains to follow Franklin's advice on navigating the current;
once they did, they were able to gain two weeks in sailing time. Franklin's Gulf Stream
chart was published in 1770 in England, where it was completely ignored. Subsequent versions were printed in France in 1778 and the U.S. in 1786. The British edition of the chart, which was the original, was so thoroughly ignored that everyone assumed it was lost forever until Phil Richardson, a Woods Hole Oceanographer and Gulf Stream expert, discovered it
in Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This find received front page coverage in the New York
No longer a printer
In 1743, Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society to help scientific men discuss
their discoveries and theories. He began the electrical research that, along with other scientific inquiries, would occupy him for the rest of his life, in between bouts of politics and
An illustration from Franklin's paper on "Water-spouts and Whirlwinds."
In 1748, he retired from printing and went into other businesses. He created a partnership with his foreman, David Hall, which provided Franklin with half of the shop's profits for 18 years. This lucrative business arrangement provided leisure time for study, and in a few years he had
made discoveries that gave him a reputation with the educated throughout Europe and especially in France.
His discoveries resulted from his investigations of electricity. Franklin proposed that "vitreous" and "resinous" electricity were not different types of "electrical fluid" (as electricity was called
then), but the same electrical fluid under different pressures. He was the first to label them
as positive and negative respectively, and he was the first to discover the principle
of conservation of charge.
In 1750 he published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a stormwhich appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. On May 10,
1752 Thomas-François Dalibard of France conducted Franklin's experiment using a 40-foot
(12 m)-tall iron rod instead of a kite, and he extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15 Franklin may have possibly conducted his famous kite experiment in Philadelphia;
successfully extracted sparks from a cloud, although there are theories that suggest he never performed the experiment. Franklin's experiment was not written up until Joseph
Priestley's 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity; the evidence shows that Franklin
was insulated (not in a conducting path, since he would have been in danger
of electrocution in the event of a lightning strike). Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm
Richmann of Saint Petersburg, Russia, were electrocuted during the months following
In his writings, Franklin indicates that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his use of the concept of electrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he may not have done it in the way that is often described, flying the kite and waiting to be struck by lightning, as it could have
been dangerous. The popular television program MythBusters simulated the alleged "key at
the end of a string" Franklin experiment and established with a degree of certainty that, if Franklin had indeed proceeded thus, he would undoubtedly have been killed. Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical.
On October 19 in a letter to England explaining directions for repeating the experiment, Franklin wrote:
When rain has wet the kite twine so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it streams out plentifully from the key at the approach of your knuckle, and with this key a phial, or Leiden jar, maybe charged: and from electric fire thus obtained spirits may be kindled, and all other electric experiments [may be] performed which are usually done by the help of a rubber glass globe or tube; and therefore the sameness of the electrical matter with that of
lightening completely demonstrated.