If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth the writing.
- Benjamin Franklin
During his lifetime, Benjamin Franklin was a world-famous celebrity - famous for his written words and for his amazing achievements. That fame continues to the present day as Franklin is one of the most recognised names from his time.
Born 17 January, 1706, in Boston, Franklin started life in poverty as the eighth of 10 children. At the age of 12, he took a printing apprenticeship with his older brother James who was the publisher of the New England Courrant. His brother was a tyrannical employer and later in life Franklin commented that his love of independence probably began under the harsh and arbitrary rule of his brother.
At the age of 16, Franklin became a vegetarian to save money and a year later he left Boston for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he quickly found work in the printing business. By the time he was 22, Franklin opened his own printing shop and began publishing his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, a year later. At 26, Franklin published the first edition of Poor Richard's Almanac under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.
So clever and funny were many of the proverbs in Poor Richard's Almanac that they are still used today and Franklin's publishing ventures soon netted him an impressive fortune, enabling him to turn his attention to other matters.
In 1736, four years after he began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania Legislature, and the next year he was appointed deputy postmaster of Philadelphia.
He served as deputy postmaster of Philadelphia for 16 years, until he was appointed Deputy Postmaster General of North America. In his new post, Franklin greatly improved mail service in the colonies, establishing 24-hour service between the major cities of Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
Tensions between England and France were increasing during this time and in 1747, Franklin organised a local militia unit called the 'Battalion of Associators' to defend Philadelphia from French privateers who were raiding towns along the Delaware River.
When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, Franklin was among the delegates called to the Council of Albany to discuss with the British an effective defence of the colonies. It was there that Franklin proposed his Albany Plan of Union, which would have created an intercolonial union with authority to levy taxes and finance an army for colonial defence. The plan was defeated.
During the war, Franklin helped arrange the defences of Pennsylvania's northwestern frontier. But he was called away from this duty to travel to England to attempt to reason with the heirs of William Penn, who viewed the colony as their personal property. Franklin negotiated with the Penn heirs from 1757 - 62, but they ultimately refused to listen to the colonists' demands. The trip to England wasn't a total loss however, as Franklin made numerous contacts in the royal court during his stay.
Upon returning to the colonies, Franklin was elected to a seat in the Pennsylvania Legislature and he quickly rose to the seat of Speaker of the Legislature. During his tenure as speaker, the legislature proposed that Pennsylvania be taken away from the Penn family and made a royal colony.
This move enraged the Penns and they fiercely opposed Franklin's bid for re-election to the colony's legislature and were successful. Despite this, the legislature sent Franklin back to petition directly to King George III in 1764 and Franklin remained in England for 10 years.
Franklin worked to maintain the peace between the crown and the American colonies, but when he saw that war was inevitable, he became a tireless campaigner for independence at the age of 70 becoming a revolutionary. Among his famous sayings from the time are:
'They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.'
'Idleness and pride tax with a heavier hand than kings and parliaments. If we can get rid of the former, we may easily bear the latter.'
'We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.'
Franklin was appointed by the Congressional Congress to help draft the Declaration of Independence. He was one of three commissioners sent to France in 1776, and in February of 1778 treaties of commerce and of defensive alliance were signed. He stayed in France for the next nine years and served on a committee of three peace negotiators with England, and the final peace was signed in September of 1783. He returned to Philadelphia in 1785 and became the president of the Pennsylvania executive council for two years. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, helping to draft the Constitution and signing it.
Of all the founding fathers, Franklin's signature is the only one on the Declaration of Independence; the Treaty of Alliance, Amity, and Commerce with France; the Treaty of Peace between England, France, and the United States; and the Constitution.
Scientist and Inventor
Franklin's role in the politics of his day helped shape the future of the United States and the world, but his ground breaking work in the sciences was equally significant.
Upon his retirement from the printing industry, he focused his talents on science and it was his work with electricity which brought him the most fame. After witnessing demonstrations about static electricity, Franklin became interested in the study of electricity. In fact, many of the terms he coined during his studies, like battery, positive/negative, and charge are still used today.
He was among the first to suggest that lightning was naturally occurring electricity. To test this theory, he undertook his famous kite-flying experiment with his son William in 1752. The duo flew a kite made of metallic wire into a storm and lightning struck the kite and electricity travelled down the kite string to a key fastened to a silk ribbon. By dumb luck, the lightning strike was not strong enough to kill the pair.
Using this knowledge, Franklin invented the lightning rod, which is a metal rod that sits atop a building to attract lightning. A wire runs from the rod to the ground, thus preventing a building from being struck by lightning. Franklin refused to patent or profit from the device because he felt it was such an important public safety tool.
In 1743, he studied the weather and found that storms travel in an opposite direction to their winds. He predicted that a storm's course could be plotted. He applied this information by printing weather forecasts in his almanac.
On his eight trips across the Atlantic Ocean he became very interested in ocean currents and shipbuilding. Franklin measured the temperature of the Gulf Stream and was able to chart it in great detail.
He also invented the Franklin Stove in 1742, which was a cast-iron fireplace insert that allowed people to warm their homes less dangerously and more efficiently. He also established the first fire company in America, as well as the first fire insurance company.
At the age of 79, Franklin became annoyed at having to carry two sets of eye glasses, so he invented bifocals. These glasses were made with lenses in separate areas to correct near and far vision.
While he was working in Paris, Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Savings Time to take advantage of the longer days during the summer months.
During his time in England, Franklin was able to indulge his love of music by learning to play a variety of instruments including the harp, guitar and violin. He even invented his own musical instrument that he named the glass armonica, which influenced classical music composers for decades.
Franklin was able to prove that ants communicated by suspending a honey jar with a single ant inside it from the ceiling of his laboratory. The ant climbed up the string, went across the ceiling and down the wall. Half an hour later Franklin reported that an army of ants returned and went to the honey jar.
The Quotable Ben Franklin
In his Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin wrote many clever sayings which are still part of our cultural heritage today. This is just one of the reasons the publication was such a popular success. Revolutionary War naval officer John Paul Jones even named his flagship the Bonhomme Richard in honour of Poor Richard's Almanac.
The following are a few of the more notable quotations attributed to Franklin:
Remember that time is money.
A little neglect may breed mischief, ...for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain and most fools do.
Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Fish and visitors smell in three days.
Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
God helps them that help themselves.
Haste makes waste.
Hide not your talents. They for use were made. What's a sundial in the shade?
It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.
Little strokes fell great oaks.
Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day.
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
Well done is better than well said.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
There never was a good war nor a bad peace.
Never contradict anybody.