Franklin, Benjamin
Benjamin Franklin. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


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Franklin, Benjamin

Franklin, Benjamin

Early Life and Career

Preparation for Scientific Research

Gadgets and Inventions

First Researches in Electricity

The Analysis of the Leyden Jar

Full Statement of the Mature Theory

Dissemination of Experiments and Theories

Some Later Contributions to Electricity

A Major Defect Remedied by Aepinus

Gulf Stream, Convection Currents, and Storms

Heat and Light

Medicine and Hospitals

Later Life and Career


(b. Boston, Massachusetts, 17 January 1706; d. Philadephia, Pennsylvania, 17 April 1790)

electricity, general physics, oceanography, meteorology, promotion and support of science and international scientific cooperation.

Benjamin Franklin was the first American to win an international reputation in pure science and the first man of science to gain fame for work done wholly in electricity. His principle achievement was the formulation of a widely used theory of general electrical “action” (explaining or predicting the outcome of manipulations in electrostatics: charge production charge transfer, charging by electrostatic induction). He advanced the concept of a single “fluid” of electricity, was responsible for the principle of conservation of charge, and analyzed the distribution of charges in the Leyden jar, a capacitor. He introduced into the language of scientific discourse relating to electricity such technical words as “plus” and “minus,” “positive” and “negative,” “charges” and battery. By experiment he showed that the lightning discharge is an electrical phenomenon, and upon this demonstration (together with his experimental findings concerning the action of grounded and of pointed conductors) he based his invention of the lightning rod,

Franklin made contributions to knowledge of the Gulf Stream, of atmospheric convection currents, and of the direction of motion of storms. His observations on population were of service to Malthus. He was the principal founder of the American Philosophical Society, the New World’s first permanent scientific organization.

Early Life and Career

Benjamin Franklin’s father, Josiah, who was descended from a family of British artisans, immigrated to America, settling in Boston in October 1683. His mother, Josiah’s second wife, was Abiah (“Jane”) Folger, daughter of Peter Folger of Nantucket, a weaver, schoolmaster, miller, and writter of verses. On both sides of the family Franklin had forebears skilled in the use of their hands and with literary or intellectual gifts.

Franklin relates in his autobiography that he “was put to the Grammar School at eight years of Age,” but remained “not quite one Year.” His father then sent him “to a School for Writing and Arithmetic.” Although Franklin by his own admission failed arithmetic, he later repaired this deficiency. In midlife, he took up “making magic Squares, or Circles,” some of which were very complex and obviously required skill in computation. Published in England and in France from 1767 to 1773, they have attracted much attention and comment ever since.

At ten years of age, Franklin was taken home from school to assist his father, a tallow chandler and soap boiler. Since he was fond of reading and had in fact spent on books “all the little Money that came into . . . [his] Hands,” it was decided that Benjamin should become a printer. He was, accordingly, at age twelve indentured to “Brother James.” Within a few years he was able to break the indenture and secure his freedom. He left Boston to seek his fortune, first in New York (briefly and unsuccessfully) and then in Philadelphia

Franklin had immediate success in Philadelphia Before long he came to the attention of Governor Keith, who offered to subsidize him—although he was only eighteen—in the printing business. Franklin was sent to London to select types and presses and to make useful business contacts. Once at sea, Franklin discovered that the governor had sent him off without any letter of introduction and without funds for purchasing the printing equipment—indeed, that the governor had merely been “playing. . . . pitiful Tricks . . . on a poor ignorant Boy!” On arrival, Franklin found work in Samuel Palmer’s printing house, where he set type for William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated.

After two years away from Philadelphia (from November 1724 to October 1726) Franklin returned to his adopted city, skilled in the various aspects of the printing craft. He soon had his own shop and before long became a major figure in the town and, eventually, in the colony. With a partner, he published the pennsylvania Gazette; when the partnership was dissolved in 1730, Franklin kept the newspaper and shortly began publication of poor Richard; An Almanack (1733). He was Clerk of the Assembly, postmaster of Philadelphia (1737–1753), and publisher (1741) of the General Magazine. He was an organizer of the Library Company (1731), and the Union Fire Company (1736), and was a promoter of the Academy of Philadelphia (later the College and Academy of Philadelphia and now the University of pennsylvania), of which he became president of the trustees (1749).

As he became more deeply concerned with civic affairs and public life, Franklin retired from active business (1748), setting up what would become an eighteen-year partnership with David Hall, his printing house foreman. He was elected a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly (1751) and alderman of Philadelphia and was appointed a deputy postmastergeneral for the British colonies in North America (1753–1774). He was sent to England in 1757 and remained until 1762 as the Assembly’s agent.

Preparation for Scientific Research

When, in 1757, Franklin sailed for England for the second time, he had already won a high place in world science. He had published articles in the world’s leading scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and was a fellow of that society (elected 29 May 1756). For his research in electricity the Society had conferred upon him (on 30 November 1753) one of their highest awards-the Copley Medal. He had received honorary degrees from Harvard (1753), Yale (later in 1753), and William and Mary (1756). His book on electricity had already appeared in three editions in England and two in France, and one of his experiments—“proving the sameness of Lighting and Electricity”—was world-famous. Franklin was largely self-taught in science-as he was in other subjects-but this does not mean that he was uneducated. He had rigorously studied the science of his day in the writings of the best masters available.

In 1744 Franklin sponsored Adam Spencer’s lectures on experimental science in Philadelphia and purchased his apparatus; he had previously attended Spencer’s lectures in Boston. Also in 1744 Franklin published a pamphlet on the stove he had invented; in it he refers to, and quotes from, certain great masters of experimental science whose works he knew, including Boerhaave, Desaguliers, ’sGravesande, and Hales. He was also familiar with the writings of Robert Boyle and knew well the major treatise on experimental physics of the age, Newtork’s Opticks. He had also encountered expositions of the Newtonian natural philosophy in the published Boyle lectures, a series which included books by Samuel Clarke and William Derham . Having known Pemberton in London, he no doubt would have read Pemberton’s View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy, of which peter Collinson had sent a copy to the Library Company in 1732. Thus, even though Franklin may have had no formal training, he was well educated in Newtonian experimental science.

Gadgets and Inventions

Benjamin Franklin’s reputation in science was made by his experiments and the theories he conceived or modified to explain his results. The experimental scientist of Franklin’s day had not only to be able to design but also to construct the devices he needed. Franklin the artisan had no aversion to manual labor and operations. A gifted gadgeteer and inventor, he was not only able to make the devices he conceived but he could also think in terms of the potential of gadgets and instruments in relation to the development of his ideas: a significant ability, since usually the conception of an experimental problem cannot be separated from the means of exploring or solving it.

Throughout his life Franklin found it (as he writes in his autobiography) a source of “Pleasure . . . to see good Workmen handle their Tools.” He was aware of the great advantage to his research in being able “to construct little Machines for my Experiments while the Intention of making the Experiment was fresh and warm in my Mind. “This aspect of Franklin’s research was especially noted by William Watson in his review of Franklin’s book on electricity (Philosoprhical Transactions, 1752); Franklin, the reviewer said, has both “a head to conceive” and “a hand to carry into execution” whatever he considers “may conduce to enlighten the subject-matter.”

Among Franklin’s notable inventions and gadgets are the rocking chair, bifocal glasses, and the pennsylvania fireplace, or Franklin stove. He also conceived the idea of “summer time,” or daylight saving time. His most important invention, teh lightning conductor or lightning rod, is, however, in a different category altogether, an application to human needs (in the Baconian sense) of recent discoveries in pure science.

First Researches in Electricity

In the early 1740’s Franklin encountered the new electrical experiments in at least two ways. He saw some experiments performed by Adam Spencer in Boston in 1743 and again in Philadephia in 1744 Then, in 17459 (or possibly 1746) the Library Company of Philadelphia received “from Mr.Peter Collinson F.R.S; of Londn, a present of a Glass Tube, with some Account of the Use of it in making such electrical Experiments.” Franklin records that he “eagerly seized the Opportunity of repeating what I had seen in Boston, and by much practice acquir’d great Readiness in performing those also which we had an account of from England, adding a Number of new Ones.”

The first researches in electricity at Philadephia were made by a group of four experimenters; Frankline Philip syng, Thomas Hopkinson, and Ebenezer Kinnersley, who was Franklin’s principal coexperimenter. One of Franklin’s first recorded discoveries was the action of pointed bodies. A grounded pointed conductor, he found, could cause a charged, insulated conducting body to lose its charge when the point was six to eight inches away; but a blunt conductor would not produce such a discharge until it was an inch or so away, and then there would be an accompanying spark. A companion discovery was made by Hopkinson: a needle placed on top of a suspended iron rod would prevent it from becoming, charged, the electrical fire “continually runing out silently at the point” as fast as it was accumulated; this discovery had been anticipated by William Watson.

Other discoveries led Franklin and his coexperimenters to the concept that “the electrical fire is a real element, or species of matter, not created by the frication. but collected only.” Thus all kinds of electrification, or changes in electrification, in electrification, were to be explained by the transfer of “electrical fire,” which was “really an element diffused among, and attracted by other matter, particularly by water and metals.” Each body has a “natural” quantity of “electrical fire” if it loses some, Franklin would call it electrically negative, or minus; if it gains some and therefore has a “superabundance” of “electrical fire,” it would be positive, or plus. “To electrise plus or minus;” Franklin wrote in a letter to Collinson of 25 May 1747, “no more needs to be known than this, that the parts of the tube or sphere that are rubbed, do, in the instant of the friction, attract the electrical fire, and therefore take it from the thing rubbing.” In short since one or more bodies must gain the “electrical fire” that a given body loses, plus and minus charges or states of electrification must occur in exactly equal amounts. This quantitative principle is known today as the law of conservation of charge. It is still fundamental to all science, from microphysics to the electrification of gross bodies.

The Analysis of the Leyden Jar

One of the earliest and most significant results of the new Franklinian theory was the successful analysis of the Leyden jar, a topic introduced in a letter to Collinson, sent sometime prior to 28 July 1747. The Leyden jar, a from or condenser, or capacitor, was discovered or invented in the 1740’s and was named after one of the several claimants to the discovery, Musschenbrock of Leyden; Franklin knew the device as Musschenbroek’s “wonderful bottle.” Essentially the device was a nonconductor (glass) with a conductor on each side; before long it was used with the inside filled with water or metal shot, and the outside coated with metal. Electrical contact was made with the water or metal shot by means of a wire running through an insulating cork stuck into the neck of the bottle. When the outer coating was grounded, as by being held in the hands of an experimenter, and the wire was brought to charged body, the jar seemed capable of “accumulating” and “holding” a vast amount of “electricity.”

The first observation made by Franklin was that if the wire and water inside the bottle are “electrised positively or plus,” then the outer coating is simultaneously “electrised negatively or minus in exact proportion,” The equilibrium could not be restored through the glass of the bottle unless a conducting material simultaneously made contact with the outer coating and with the wire connected to the water or inner conducting material. He was astonished at the “wonderful” way in which “these two states of Electricity, the plus and minus are combined and balanced in this miraculous bottle.”

In a letter of 29 April 1748, containing “Farther Experiments and Observations in Electricity,” Franklin described some new experiments showing that a charged Leyden jar always has charges of opposite signs on the two conductors and that the charges are of the same magnitude. Clearly, he concluded, the “terms of charging and discharging” a Leyden jar are misleading, since “there is really no more electrical fire in the phial after what is called its charging than before nor less after its discharging......”

Franklin then annouced the most astonishing discovery of all, that in the Leyden jar “the whole force of the bottle, and power of giving a shock, is in the GLASS ITSELF.” He reached this conclusion by a series of ingenious experiments, which are known today as the Franklin experiments on the dissectible condernser. A Leyden jar with a loosely fitting cork a glass insulator. The cork was carefully removed, together with the wire that hung down into the water; it was then found that the jar could be discharged as before by an experimenter’s putting one hand around the outside of the jar while bringing a finger of the other hand to the jar’s mouth so as to reach the water. Thus, the “force” was not “in the wire”. Next, a test was made to determine whether the force “resided in the water” and was “condensed in it.” A jar was charged as before, set on glass, and the cork and wire removed. The water was then carefully decanted into an empty, uncharged jar resting on glass; this second jar showed no evidence whatever of being charged. Either the “force” must have been lost during the decanting, or it must have remained behind in the glass. The latter was shown to be the case by refilling the first bottle with “unelectrified water,” whereupon it gave the shock as usual.

In the next stage Franklin looked into the question of whether this property of glass came from the nature of its substance, or whether it was related to shape—a relevant question, since Franklin had pioneered in studying the effect of shape in the action of pointed and blunt conductors. In this inquiry he constructed a parallel-plate condensers (or capacitor) consisting of two parallel lead plates separated by a flat pane of sash glass. This condenser produced the same electrical effects as a Leyden jar, thus demonstrating that the “force” is a property of the glass as glass and is not related to shape. Franklin ingeniously joined together a number of such parallel-plate condensers to make “what we called an electrical-battery” consisting of eleven panes of glass, each “armed” with lead plates pasted on both sides, hooked together in series by wire and chain; the battery could be discharged by a special contrivance.

Full Statement of the Mature Theory

On 29 July 1750, Franklin sent Collinson his “Opinions and conjectures concerning the Properties and Effects of the electrical matter, arising from Experiments and Observations, made at Philadelphia, 1749.” This paper began with the proposition that the electrical matter consists of “extremely subtile” particles since it can easily permeate all common matter, even metals, without “any perceptible resistance.” Here Franklin used the term “electrical natter” for the first time. Although he indicated a cause for belief in its “subtility,” he took its atomicity or particulate composition for granted. The differce between electrical matter and “common matter” lies in the mutual attraction of the particles of the latter and the mutual repulsion of the particles of the former (which cause “the appearing divrgency in a stream of electrified effiuvia”) In eighteenth-century terms, such electrical matter constitutes a particulate, subtle, elastic fluid. The particles of electrical matter, although mutually repellent, are attracted strongly by “all other matter.” Therefore, if a quantity of electrical matter be applied to a mass of common matter it will be immediately and equally diffused through the whole. In other words, common matter’s is “a kind of spunge” to the electric fluid. Generally, in common matter there is as much electrical matter as it can contain; if more be added, it cannot enter the body but collects on its surface to form an “electrical atmosphere” in which case the body “is said to be electrified.” All bodies however do not “attract and retain” electriacal matter with equal strength and force” those called electrics per se (or non-conductors) “attract and retain it strongests, and contain the greatest quantity.” That common matter always contains electrical fluid is demonstrated by the fact of experience that a rubbed globe or tube enables us to pump some out.

The “electrical atmospheres” said to surround charged bodies are a means for explaining the observed repulsion between them, but this explanation takes cognizance only of the repulsion between positively charged bodies (that is, those which have gained an excess of fluid over their normal quantity). It offers no aid whatever in understanding the repulsion between negatively charged bodies—a phenomenon that had been observed by Franklin and his colleagues and reported by him in an earlier paper.

The concept of “electrical atmospheres” was not wholly novel with Franklin. Franklin’s original contribution lay in the particular use he gave to this concept in his theory of electrical action. For example, Franklin stated that it takes the “form . . . of the body it surrounds.” A sphere will thus have a spherical atmosphere and a cylinder a cylindrical one. Others had supposed that both would have a sphere of effluvia.

Franklin’s concept of “electrical atmospheres” was based on the idea that an uncharged body must have its “normal” quantity of electrical matter or fluid and that, therefore, any further electrical matter or fluid added to it will collect around the outside, like a cloud. If two such charged bodies came near one anothr these two clouds would produce repulsion, sincne the particles of which they are made tend to repel one another. Similarly, a body that has lost some of its normal quantity of electrical matter or fluid will attract the particles in the electric atmosphere of a positively charged body, until the two draw concept of “electrical atmospheres” to explain the unequal distribution of charge in bodies that were not completely symmetrical, such as those which might be pointed or pear-shaped. These explanations were qualitatively successful, but they do not always appear convincing and certainly constitute one of the weakest and least satisfactory parts of the theory. Even more important, the doctrine of “electric atmospheres” could not contribute to the solution of one outstanding unsolved problem in the Franklinian explanation of electrical phenomena: the “apparent” repulsion between negatively charged bodies. We shall see below that this major defect in the theory was remedied by the addition of a new and very radical postulate by Aepinus.

One of the major advantages of the Franklinian theory was that it enabled “electricians” to distinguish clearly between the concept of a “repelling force” which could act even through a sheet of glass, although the electric fluid itself does not penetrate through glass. This basic concept was used in the explanation of the action of the condenser, wherein Franklin explained clearly—for what was, so far as I know, the first time—the mechanism of induced charges, the phenomenon of a negative charge being induced on a grounded conductor when a positively charged conductor is brought near it, or when a nearby conductor acquires a positive charge.

In the Leyden jar, according to Franklin’s doctrine, the application of a positive charge to the conductor on one side of the glass will not cause the jar to be charged until or unless the conductor on the other side can lose some of its normal electric fluid, that is, until or unless it is grounded. Then and only then will electric fluid move away from that grounded conductor, leaving it negatively charged. Franklin thus naturally predicted, and proved by experiment, that the jar could be charged through its outer coating when the wire leading into the water is grounded, just as easily as in the normal manner—when a positive charge is applied to the inner conductor (water and wire) and the outside is grounded.

Later, in a famous series of experiments and explanations based upon some earlier ones made by John Canton, Franklin developed more fully this explanation of what we call today induced charges, or the phenomenon of charging by (electrostatic) induction. There is no doubt that it was Franklin’s clear understanding of this process that caused his theory to be so highly valued in the eighteenth century. The theory is still used, with slight modifications, in all laboratory circumstances when charged objects are moved in the neighborhood of conductors which may be grounded or insulated or which can undergo a change in their condition of grounding or insulation. Only Franklin, and those who accepted his doctrine, could easily explain such phenomena as this: A positively charged body is brought near a conducting metal object placed on an insulating base and temporarily grounded; then the grounding is interrupted before the charged body is removed; the effect will be to induce in that object a negative charge. Now let the second object be an insulated cylinder; it will plainly display an unequal charge distribution, the end near the first body becoming negative and the far end positive; when the first body is withdrawn, the cylinder returns to its normal state and no longer shows any indication of charge. In the eighteenth century many scientists adduced this feature of the Franklinian theory (its ability to predict exactly the outcome of such experiments) as its major asset. In our own time J. J. Thomson has explained that the service of the onefluid theory “to the science of electricity, by suggesting and co-ordinating researches, can hardly be overestimated.” We still use this theory in the laboratory, Thomson said: “If we move a piece of brass and want to know whether that will increase or decrease the effect we are observing, we do not fly to the higher mathematics, but use the simple conception of the electric fluid which would tell us as much as we wanted to know in a few seconds” (in Recollections and Reflections [London, 1936], p. 252).

Dissemination of Experiments and Theories

Franklin’s experiments on pointed conductors, grounding, the Leyden jar, and the conservation of charge, together with the statement of his theory of electrical action, based on the principle of conservation of charge, were all assembled by Collinson into a ninety-page book issued by E. Cave of London in 1751, with an unsigned preface written by Dr. John Fothergill. Buffon, who had recently stated that in electrical phenomena there seemed to be on one law governing the outcome of experiments, and that indeed the subject was characterized more by “bizzareries” than by regularities, came upon the book and had it translated into French in the following year; the French version was done by the natuiralist Dalibard.

Thus, within two years Franklin’s concepts and experiments were available to “electriciants” on both sides of the Channel—and but for a number of minor revisions and extensions to new phenomena—all the main elements of Franklin’s contributions to electrical theory had appeared in print.

One of the most challenging parts of Franklin’s book was his discussion of thunder, lightning, and the formation of clouds. In a letter addressed to John Mitchel in London, dated 29 April 1749, Franklin wrote out some “Observations and Suppositions” that had led him to the hypothesis that clouds tend to become electrified through the vaporization effect on water of “common fire” (or ordinary heat) and “electrical fire.” Rain, dew, and flashes of lightning between land clouds and sea clouds formed part of Franklin’s suppositions, but six years later he freely admitted that he was “still at a loss” about the actual process by which clouds “become charged with electricity; no hypothesis I have yet formed perfectly satisfying me.” Nevertheless, before April 1749 Franklin had assumed that clouds are electrified and that the lightning discharge is a rapid release of electric fluid from clouds.

On 7 November 1749, Franklin drew up a list of twelve observable similarities between the lightning discharge and the ordinary spark discharges produced in the laboratory. Notably, he concluded that since the “electric fluid is attracted by points,” we might find out “whether this property is in lightning. . . . Let the experiment be made.” But even before this experiment could be performed, Franklin assumed a favorable outcome. Convinced that lightning must be an electrical phenomenon, he warned his readers that high hills, trees, towers, spires, masts, and chimneys will act “as so many prominencies and points” and so will “draw the electrical fire” as a “whole cloud discharges there.” He therefore advised his readers never “to take shelter under a tree, during a thunder gust.”

In the paper entitled “Opinions and Conjectures,” sent to Collinson in July of 1750 (containing the full statement of his theory of electrical action), Franklin also discussed the possible electrification of clouds and the nature of the lightning discharge. Immediately following the presentation of the property of pointed bodies to “draw on” and f“throw off” the electric fluid at great distances, Franklin indicated that this knowledge of the “power of points may possibly be of some use to mankind, though we should never be able to explain it.” Just as a grounded needle with its point upright could discharge a charged body and prevent a “stroke” to another nearby body, so Franklin argued that sharpened upright rods of iron, gilded to prevent rusting, fixed “on the highest parts of . . . edifices” and run down the outside of a building into the ground, or down “one of the shrouds of a ship” into the water, would “probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief.” Later, when the experiments were made, Franklin found that another function of the lightning rod, apart from “disarming” a passing cloud, would be to conduct a lightning stroke safely into the ground.

The experiment that Franklin devised required a sentry box large enough to contain a man and “an electrical [insulating] stand.” The sentry box was to be placed on a high building; a long, pointed rod was to rise out through the door, extending twenty or thirty feet in the air, terminating in a point. This rod was to be affixed to the middle of the insulated stand, which was to be kept clean and dry so as to remain an insulator. Then when clouds, possibly electrified, would pass low, the rod “might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to” the experimenter, “from a cloud.” To avoid danger, Franklin advised the man to be well insulated and to hold in his hand a wax handle affixed to a “loop of a wire” attached to the ground; he could bring the loop to the rod so that “the sparks, if the rod is electrified, will strike from the rod to the wire, and not affect him.” Some years later, when Richmann performed this experiment in St. Petersburg, he did not fully observe all of Franklin’s warnings and was electrocuted.

The sentry-box experiment was first performed at Marly, France, in May 1752. After Franklin’s book had appeared in a French translation in 1752, the experiments he described were performed for the king and court; Buffon, Dalibard, and De Lor were then inspired to test Franklin’s conjectures “upon the analogy of thunder and electricity.” On 13 May 1752 Dalibard reported to the Paris Academy of Sciences: “In following the path that Mr. Franklin has traced for us, I have obtained complete satisfaction.”

The account of this experiment was printed in the second French edition of Franklin’s book on electricity and was later included in the English editions. A letter addressed from France to Stephen Hales, describing both the presentation of the Philadelphia experiments to the king of France and the success of the sentry-box experiment, was published in the Philosophical Transactions and was also reprinted in Franklin’s book. Soon the lightning experiments were repeated by others in France, Germany, and England; and Franklin had the satisfaction of achieving an immediate and widespread international renown.

Later, Franklin devised a second experiment to test the electrification of clouds, one which has become more popularly known: the lightning kite. Franklin reported this experiment to Collinson in a letter of 1 October 1752, written after Franklin had read “in the publick papers from Europe, of the success of the Philadelphia-Experiment for drawing the electrick fire from clouds by means of pointed rods of iron erected on high buildings. . . .” Actually, Franklin appears to have flown his electrical kite prior to having learned of Dalibard’s successful execution of the sentry-box experiment. The kite letter, published in the philosophical Transactions, referred to the erection of lightning rods on public buildings in Philadelphia.

The lightning experiments caused Franklin’s name to become known throughout Europe to the public at large and not merely to men of science. Joseph Priestley, in his History . . . of Electricity, characterized the experimental discovery that the lightning discharge is an electrical phenomenon as “the greatest, perhaps, since the time of Sir Isaac Newton.” Of course, one reason for satisfaction in this discovery was that it subjected one of the most mysterious and frightening natural phenomena to rational explanation. It also proved that Bacon had been right in asserting that a knowledge of how nature really works might lead to a better control of nature itself: that valuable practical innovations might be the fruit of pure disinterested scientific research.

No doubt the most important effect of the lightning experiments was to show that the laboratory phenomena in which rods or globes of glass were rubbed, to the accompaniment of sparks, and induced charges and electrical shocks, belong to a class of phenomena occurring naturally. Franklin’s experiments thus proved that electrical effects do not result exclusively from man’s artifice, from his intervention in phenomena, but are in fact part of the routine operations of nature. And every “electrician” learned that experiments performed with little toys in the laboratory could reveal new aspects of one of the most dramatic of nature’s catastrophic forces. “The discoveries made in the summer of the year 1752 will make it memorable in the history of electricity,” William Watson wrote in 1753. “These have opened a new field to philosophers, and have given them room to hope, that what they have learned before in their museums, they may apply, with more propriety than they hitherto could have done, in illustrating the nature and effects of thunder; a phaenomenon hitherto almost inaccessible to their inquiries.”

Franklin’s achievement of a highly successful career wholly in the field of electricity marked the coming of age of electrical science and the full acceptance of the new field of specialization. On 30 November 1753, awarding Franklin the Royal Society’s Sir Godfrey Copley gold medal for his discoveries in electricity, the earl of Macclesfield emphasized this very point: “Electricity is a neglected subject,” he said, “which not many years since was thought to be of little importance, and was at that time only applied to illustrate the nature of attraction and repulsion; nor was anything worth much notice expected to ensue from it.” But now, thanks to the labors of Franklin, it “appears to have a most surprising share of power in nature.”

Some Later Contributions to Electricity

Spurred on by the success of the sentry-box and kite experiments, Franklin continued to make investigations of the lightning discharge and the electrifi cation of clouds. He erected a test rod on his house, so as to make experiments and observations on clouds passing overhead. One of the results was most interesting, because he discovered: “That the clouds of a thunder-gust are most commonly in a negative state of electricity, but sometimes in a positive state.” This statement led him to the following astonishing conclusion: “So that, for the most part, in thunderstrokes, it is the earth that strikes into the clouds, and not the clouds that strike into the earth.” Of course, this discovery did not alter the theory or practice of lightning rods, which Franklin found perform two separate functions. One is to disarm a cloud and to prevent a stroke, while the other is to conduct a stroke safely to the ground. His theory of the direction of the stroke (from clouds to earth or from earth to clouds) depends upon the identification of vitreous electrification (glass rubbed with silk) with the positive state and of resinous electrification (amber rubbed with wool or fur) with the negative. Franklin was aware that he had no definitive evidence for this identification, and hoped that others might provide a crucial experimental test.

To this day one still talks of a “Franklinian” fictitious “positive” current in circuit theory, and also thinks physically of a flow of electrons in the opposite direction.

One question of great interest to Franklin was whether the gross dimensions or the mass of a body may be the determining factor in the amount of “electric fluid” it can acquire. He discovered that an “increase of surface” makes a given mass or quantity of matter “capable of receiving a greater amount of charge.” The surface is what counts, not the mass. As usual, Franklin had a pretty experiment to support his conclusion. In this case he used a small silver can on an insulating wine glass; in the can there were three yards of brass chain, one end of which was attached to a long silk thread that went over a pulley in the ceiling so that the chain could be drawn partly or completely out, thereby increasing the “surface” and making the body (can and chain) capable of receiving an additional charge.

In a closely related experiment Franklin studied the distribution of charge on a metal can placed on an insulated base. He showed that the charge “resides” wholly on the outside of the can; that there is no charge inside. He did not know the reason at first, but he later concluded that the symmetry of the situation produced mutual repulsion that drove any charge from the inside surface of the can to the outer one. Joseph Priestley, arguing from the analogy of a cylinder to a sphere, showed that by the reasoning of Isaac Newton’s Principia, it would be possible for one to conclude that the law of electrical force must, like gravitation, be a law of the inverse square of the distance.

A Major Defect Remedied by Aepinus

Franklin’s theory failed to give a satisfactory explanation of the observed phenomenon of the mutual repulsion of two negatively charged bodies. This defect was remedied by Franz Aepinus. Perplexed by the difficulties in explaining repulsion, Kinnersley thought that perhaps one could get rid of the doctrine of repulsion altogether. Franklin disagreed, putting forth the argument that repulsion occurs “in other parts of nature.”

Aepinus, who altered Franklin’s system, was an ardent Franklinian and a teacher of and collaborator with J. C. Wilcke, who translated Franklin’s book on electricity into German. Wilcke made the first major table of what we would call today a triboelectric series, thus accounting for the production of joint negative and positive charges in different combinations of two materials.

Aepinus aimed to establish a theory of magnetic phenomena based upon “principles extremely similar to those on which the Franklinian electric theory is built,” that is, using the concept of a magnetic fluid, with laws of action much like those of Franklin’s electric theory. To complete his analogy, however, Aepinus introduced the revolutionary idea that in solids, liquids, and gases the particles that Franklin called “common matter” would—in the pure sate—repel one another just as the particles of the electric fluid did. Aepinus’ revision introduced a complete duality, the particles of common matter and the particles of electric matter each having the property of repelling particles of their own kind while having the additional property of attracting particles of the other kind. Normally one does not encounter particles of pure matter repelling one another, because their natural repulsion is reduced to zero by the presence of the magnetic or the electric fluid in the normal state of bodies. Hence, the Newtonian universal gravitation remains unaffected by the new postulate. Repulsion exists only when we deprive bodies of a part of their normal complement of either electric fluid or magnetic fluid.

Furthermore, certain experiments devised by Aepinus and Wilcke, using condensers separated by air instead of glass, showed that the Franklin doctrine of “atmospheres” could not exist in a physical sense. This was a position that Franklin himself had eventually more or less adopted, coming to conceive that the concept of “electrical atmospheres” was no more than a way of describing collections or distributions of electric charge whose parts have repulsive forces acting at a distance.

In one set of experiments to test the effect of “electrical atmospheres,” Aepinus blew a stream of dry air on a charged body and found, just as Franklin had, that the charge of the body was not diminished. Franklin had then assumed that such experiments indicated only that the “atmosphere” of a charged body is an integral part of it, and he even thought to make the atmosphere “visible” by dropping rosin on a hot piece of iron near a charged body. Aepinus carried the matter through to its logical conclusion, saying that by “electrical atmosphere” one intended only to denote the “sphere of action” of the electrical charge on a body. Franklin, in commenting on Aepinus’ book, expressed admiration for the magnetic theory which Aepinus had constructed along lines analogous to his own electrical theory, and he himself began to write of a magnetic fluid in the terms introduced by Aepinus. We do not know whether Franklin read the book very thoroughly, since he never referred to the great revision of his theory which Aepinus introduced. Indeed, by the time Aepinus’ book (1759) reached him, Franklin was no longer actively pursuing his researches into electricity.

Gulf Stream, Convection Currents, and Storms

From his boyhood days Franklin had a passion for the sea. In his eight crossings of the Atlantic, he was always fascinated by problems of seamanship, ship design, and the science of the seas; and he made careful observations of all sorts of marine phenomena. He made experiments to see if oil spread on the waters would still the waves, and he put on a spectacular exhibition of this phenomenon for a group of fellows of the Royal Society in Portsmouth harbor.

Franklin’s name is associated with the Gulf Stream, of which he printed the first chart. His interest in this subject began about 1770, when the Board of Customs at Boston complained that it seemed to require two weeks more for mail packets to make the voyage to New England from England than the time of voyage for merchant ships. Franklin, then still postmaster general, discussed the matter with a Nantucket sea captain, who explained that the Nantucketers were “well acquainted with the Stream, because in our pursuit of whales, which keep to the sides of it but are not met within it, we run along the side and frequently cross it to change our side, and in crossing it have sometimes met and spoke with those packets who are in the middle of it and stemming it.” Franklin asked the caption, Timothy Folger, to plot the course of the Gulf Stream; this was the basis of the chart he had engraved and printed by the General Post Office. As early as 1775 Franklin had conceived of using a thermometer as an instrument of navigation in relation to the Gulf Stream, and he made several series of surface temperature measurements during the Atlantic crossings. In 1785, on his last return voyage from France, Franklin devised a special instrument to attempt to measure temperatures below the surface to a depth of 100 feet.

Franklin’s studies of cloud formation and the electrification of clouds constitute a major contribution to the science of meteorology. He appears to have been the earliest observer to report that northeast storms move toward the southwest. He is also the first to have observed the phenomenon of convection in air.

Heat and Light

Franklin rejected the currently accepted corpuscular theory of light because of a mechanical argument. If “particles of matter called light” be ever so small, he wrote, their momentum would nevertheless be enormous, “exceeding that of a twenty-four pounder, discharged from a cannon.” And yet, despite such “amazing” momentum, these supposed particles “will not drive before them, or remove, the least and lightest dust they meet with.” The sun does not give evidence of a copious discharge of mass, since its gravitational force on the planets is not constantly decreasing.

Franklin’s arguments were long considered the primary statement of the mechanical inadequacy of the “emission” theory and were still cited in 1835 in Humphrey Lloyd’s report on optical theories to the British Association. Bishop Horsley, editor of Newton’s Opera, made the official Newtonian reply in the Philosophical Transactions in 1770, noting that: “Dr. Franklin’s questions are of some importance, and deserve a strict discussion.” And when Thomas Young revived the wave theory toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, he cited Franklin as one of those predecessors who had believed in the wave theory: “The opinion of Franklin adds perhaps little weight to a mathematical question, but it may tend to assist in lessening the repugnance which every true philosopher must feel, to the necessity of embracing a physical theory different from that of Newton.”

Franklin was perhaps more successful in his doctrine of fire. Here he tried to apply the principle of conservation to heat, assuming that there is a constant amount of heat, which is simply distributed, redistributed, conducted, or nonconducted, according to the kind of material in question. Interested in problems of heat conductivity, he designed a famous experiment, still performed in most introductory courses, in which a number of rods of different metals are joined together at one end and fanned out at the other, with little wax rings placed on them at regular intervals. The ends that are joined together are placed in the flame, and the “conductivity” is indicated by the relative speeds with which the wax rings melt and fall off. Franklin (in France) never had the occasion to perform the experiment, although he did obtain the necessary materials for doing so, and he suggested that Ingenhousz and he might do the experiment together. Ingenhousz, however, did it on his own. Franklin’s experiments on heat were not fully understood until Joseph Black introduced the concepts of specific heat and latent heat.

Franklin’s only major contribution to the theory of heat is in the specific area of differential thermal conduction. The success of his fluid theory of electricity, and his writings on heat as a fluid, did, however influence the later development of the concept of “caloric.” Lavoisier wrote in 1777 that if he were to be asked what he understood by “matter of fire,” he would reply, “with Franklin, Boerhaave, and some of the olden philosophers, that the matter of fire or of light is a very subtle and very elastic fluid . . . .”

Medicine and Hospitals

Throughout his life Franklin had a passion for exercise (notably swimming), for which he was an active propagandist. He was always an advocate of fresh air and had many arguments in France with those who held the night air to be bad for health and who believed—then as how—in the evil effects of drafts. I have referred to his invention of bifocal glasses; he also designed a flexible catheter. He wrote on a variety of medical subjects: lead poisoning, gout, the heat of the blood, the physiology of sleep, deafness, nyctalopia, infection from dead bodies, infant mortality, and medical education.

Although Franklin at one time had opposed the practice of inoculation, he later regretted his action and lamented the death of his own son from smallpox—which he publicly admitted might have been prevented by inoculation. He gathered a set of impressive statistics in favor of the practice, which were published in a pamphlet (London, 1759) on the benefits of inoculation against smallpox, accompanying William Heberden’s instructions on inoculation.

Like others of his day, Franklin gave electric shocks in the treatment of paralysis. He concluded from his experiences that “I never knew any advantage from electricity in palsies that was permanent.” He would not “pretend to say’ whether—or to what degree— there might have been an “apparent temporary advantage” due to “the exercise in the patients’ journey, and coming daily to my house” or even—we may note with special interest today—the “spirits given by the hope of success, enabling them to exert more strength in moving their limbs.”

Franklin’s opinion that the beneficial effects of electrotherapy might derive more from the patient’s belief in the efficacy of the cure than from any true curative powers of electricity is very much like one of the conclusions of the royal commission appointed in 1784 to investigate mesmerism, of which he was a member. This Commission was composed of four prominent members of the faculty of medicine and five members of the Royal Academy of Sciences (Paris), including Franklin, Bailly, and Lavoisier. Its report gave the death blow to mesmerism, and Mesmer had to leave Paris. The commission, apparently, did not see the psychological significance of their finding that “The imagination does everything, the magnetism nothing.”

Later Life and Career

In spite of his extraordinary scientific accomplishments, the public at large knows of Franklin primarily as a statesman and public figure, and as an inventor rather than as a scientist—possibly because he devoted only a small portion of his creative life to scientific research. One of the three authors (along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) of the Declaration of Independence, he was a member of the Second Continental Congress and drew up a plan of union for the colonies. Sent to Paris in 1776 as one of three commissioners to negotiate a treaty, his fame preceded him, both for his personification of many ideas cherished in the Age of Enlightenment and for his great reputation in electricity; in 1773 he had been elected one of the eight foreign associates of the Royal Academy of Sciences. To many Frenchmen, his simplicity of dress, his native wisdom, and his gentle manners without affectation seemed to indicate the virtues of a “natural man”. In September 1778 he was appointed sole plenipotentiary, and in 1781 he was one of three commissioners to negotiate the final peace with Great Britain.

In France, Franklin enjoyed contact with Great Britain. scientific and made the acquaintance of Volta, a strong supporter of Franklin’s one-fluid theory; Volta began the next stage of electrical science with his invention of the battery, which made possible the production of a continuous electric current. Franklin appears to have been the first international statesman of note whose international reputation was gained in scientific activity.

Franklin returned to America in 1785, served the state of Pennsylvania, and was a member of the Constitutional Convention. He died on 17 April 1790 and was buried in Christ Church burial ground, Philadelphia.


I. Original Works. Franklin’s scientific communications consist of pamphlets, reports, articles, and letters, published separately or in journals, especially Gentleman’s Magazine and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. His major scientific publication, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America, was assembled by his chief correspondent, Peter Collinson, and published with an unsigned preface by John Fothergill (London, 1751); supps. are Supplemental Experiments and Observations . . . (London, 1753) and New Experiments and Observations . . .(London, 1754), the latter with a paper by John Canton and a “Defence of Mr Franklin against the Abbe Nollet” by D. Colden. Subsequent eds. are described in Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments: A New Edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, ed., with a critical and historical intro., by I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge, Mass., 1941). In addition to five eds. in English (1753–1774), translations appeared in French (1752, 1756, 1773), German (1758), and Italian (1774). See, further, Paul Leicester Ford, Franklin Bibliography: A List of Books Written by, or Relating to Benjamin Franklin (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1889), a work that is useful as a guide, although incomplete.

Franklin’s complete writings and correspondence are in publication as The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Leonard W. Labaree, inaugural ed. (New Haven, Conn., 1959- ). Three earlier eds. of Franklin’s works may be noted: Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin . . ., 10 vols. (Boston, 1836–1840); John Bigelow, The Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols. (New York-London, 1887–1888; a “Federal Edition” in 12 vols., 1904); and Albert Henry Smyth, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 10vols. (New York, 1905–1907).

Information on Franklin MSS is available in Henry Stevens, Benjamin Franklin’s Life and Writings: A Bibliographical Essay on the Stevens’ Collection of Books and Manuscripts Relating to Doctor Franklin (London, 1881); Worthington C. Ford, List of the Benjamin Franklin Papers in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C., 1905); and I. Minis Hays, Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society [and University of Pennsylvania], 5 vols. (Philadelphia, 1908). See also Francis S. Philbrick, “Notes on Early Editions and Editors of Franklin,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 97 (1953), 525–564.

Selections from Franklin’s writings include Nathan G. Goodman, The Ingenious Dr. Franklin, Selected Scientific Letters of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1931); Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings (New York, 1945); and I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin: His Contribution to the American Tradition (Indiapolis-New York, 1953). See also The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks Published by Benjamin Franklin, Reproduced in Facsimile, intro. by Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., 2 vols. (Barre, Mass., 1970).

A parallel text ed. of Franklin’s autobiographical writings, containing the text of the original MS, is Max Farrand, Benjamin Franklin’s Memories (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1949); the most recent and scholarly ed. based on MS sources is Leonard W. Labaree. Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman, eds., The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven-London, 1964).

I. Bernard Cohen has published, with an intro., a facs. ed. of Franklin’s Some Account of the Pennsylvania Hospital (Baltimore, 1954).

II. Secondary Literature. The standard biography is Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1938), possibly the best biography of a scientist in English. An admirable shorter biography is Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (Boston, 1954). Paul Leicester Ford, The Many-sited Franklin (New York, 1899) is still useful, esp. ch. 9, “The Scientist” Bernard Faÿ, Franklin the Apostle of Modern Times (Boston, 1929), lacks the valuable “Bibliographic et etude sur les sources historiques relatives a sa vie” included in vol. III of the French ed. (Paris, 1929–1931).

On Franklin in Europe, see Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries (New York, 1957); Edward E. Hale and Edward E. Hale, Jr., Franklin in France, 2 vols. (Boston, 1888); and Antonio Pace, Benjamin Franklin and Italy (Philadelphia, 1958).

On Franklin and medicine, see Theodore Diller, Franklin’s Contribution to Medicine (Brooklyn, N. Y., 1912); and William Pepper, The Medical Side of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1911).

On lightning rods, see I. B. Cohen, “Prejudice Against the Introduction of Lightning Rods,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 253 (1952), 393–440; “Did Divis Erect the First European Protective Lightning Rod, and Was His Invention Independent?.” in Isis, 43 (1952), 358–364, written with Robert E. Scholfield; and “The Two Hundredth Anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s Two Lightning Experiments and the Introduction of the Lightning Rod,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 96 (1952), 331–366.

Some other specialized studies of value are Cleveland Abbe, “Benjamin Franklin as Meteorologist,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 45 (1906), 117–128; Lloyd A. Brown. “The River in the Ocean,” in Essays Honoring Lawrence C. Wroth (Portland, Me., 1951), pp. 69–84; N. H. de V. Heathcote, “Franklin’s Introduction to Electricity,” in Isis, 46 (1955), 29–35; Edwin J. Houston. “Franklin as a Man of Science and an Inventor,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute161 (1906), 241–316, 321–383; Henry Stommel, The Gulf Stream (Berkeley-Los-Angeles, 1958), ch, 1, “Historical Introduction”: Francis Newton Thorpe Benjamin Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania (Washington, D. C., 1893); and Conway Zirkle, “Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Malthus and the United States Census,” in Isis, 48 (1957), 58–62.

A bibliography up to 1956 may be found in I. Bernard Cohen, Franklin and Newton, an Inquiry Into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin’s Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof (Philadelphia, 1956; Cambridge, Mass., 1966; rev. repr. 1972).

I. Bernard Cohen

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Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a leader of America's Revolutionary generation. His character and thought were shaped by a blending of Puritan heritage, Enlightenment philosophy, and the New World environment.

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston into a pious Puritan household. His forebears had come to New England in 1683 to avoid the zealous Anglicanism of England's Restoration era. Franklin's father was a candle-maker and skillful mechanic, but, his son said, his "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment." Benjamin praised his mother as "a discreet and virtuous Woman" who raised a family of 13 children. In honoring his parents and in his affection for New England ways, Franklin demonstrated the permanence of his Puritan heritage.

His Philosophy

Rejecting the Calvinist theology of his father, Franklin opened himself to the more secular world view of Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. He read the deist philosophers, virtually memorized the English paper Spectator, and otherwise gave allegiance to the Enlightenment. Like his favorite author, Joseph Addison, Franklin sought to add the good sense and tolerance of the new philosophy to his Puritan earnestness. Thus, by the time he left home at the age of 17, his character and attitude toward life had already achieved a basic orientation.

The circumstances of his flight from home also reveal essential qualities. Denied a formal education by his family's poverty, Franklin became an apprentice to his brother James, printer of a Boston newspaper. While learning the technical part of the business, Franklin read every word that came into the shop and was soon writing clever pieces signed "Silence Dogood," satirizing the Boston establishment. When the authorities imprisoned James for his criticisms, Benjamin continued the paper himself. Having thus learned to resist oppression, he refused to suffer his brother's petty tyrannies and in 1723 ran away to Philadelphia.

Successful Businessman

Penniless and without friends in the new city, Franklin soon demonstrated his enterprise and skill as a printer and gained employment. In 1724 he went to England, where he quickly became a master printer, sowed wild oats, and lived among the aspiring writers of London. He returned to Philadelphia and soon had his own press, publishing a newspaper (Pennsylvania Gazette), Poor Richard's Almanack, and a good share of the public printing of the province. He became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia, at the same time operating a bookshop and entering partnerships with printers from Nova Scotia to the West Indies. He was so successful that at the age of 42 he retired. He received a comfortable income from his business for 20 more years.

Franklin philosophized about his success and applied his understanding to civic enterprises. The philosophy appears in the adages of "Poor Richard" and in the scheme for moral virtue Franklin explained later in his famous Autobiography. He extolled hard work, thriftiness, and honesty as the poor man's means for escaping the prison of want and explained how any man could develop an exemplary character with practice and perseverance. Though sayings like "Sloth maketh all things difficult, but Industry all easy" do not amount to a profound philosophy of life (as Franklin knew perfectly well), they do suggest useful first steps for self-improvement. The huge circulation of both the sayings of "Poor Richard" (under the title "The Way to Wealth") and the Autobiography, plus their distorted use by miserly and small-minded apostles of thrift, led later to scathing assaults on Franklin by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and D. H. Lawrence—but they in fact criticize a caricature, not the whole Franklin.

Civic Leader

Franklin became involved in civic improvement in 1727 by organizing the Junto, a club of aspiring tradesmen like himself, that met each week. In the unformed society of Philadelphia it seemed obvious to these men that their success in business and improvement of the city's life required the same thing: plans and institutions to deal with needs cooperatively. Thus, Franklin led the Junto in sponsoring civic improvements: a library, a fire company, a learned society, a college, an insurance company, and a hospital. He also made effective proposals for a militia; for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets; and for a night watch. His simple but influential social belief that men of goodwill, organizing and acting together, could deal effectively with civic concerns remained with him throughout his life.

Work in Science

Franklin next turned to science. He had already invented the Pennsylvania fireplace (soon called the Franklin stove). His attention fastened primarily on electricity. He read the new treatises on the subject and acquired ingenious equipment. In his famous kite experiment, proving that lightning is a form of electricity, he linked laboratory experiments with static electricity to the great universal force and made a previously mysterious and terrifying natural phenomenon understandable. Franklin's letters concerning his discoveries and theories about electricity to the Royal Society in London brought him fame. The invention of the lightning rod, which soon appeared on buildings all over the world, added to his stature. His scientific ingenuity, earning him election to the Royal Society in 1756, also found outlet in the theory of heat, charting the Gulf Stream, ship design, meteorology, and the invention of bifocal lenses and a harmonica. He insisted that the scientific approach, by making clear what was unknown as well as what was known, would "help to make a vain man humble" and, by directing the experiments and insights of others to areas of ignorance and mystery, would greatly expand human knowledge. Franklin the scientist, then, seemed to epitomize the 18th-century faith in the capacity of men to understand themselves and the world in which they lived.

Political Career

Competing with science for Franklin's attention was his growing involvement in politics. His election in 1751 to the Pennsylvania Assembly began nearly 40 years as a public official. He used his influence at first mainly to further the cause of his various civic enterprises. But he also became a leader in the long-dominant Quaker party, opposing the Proprietary party, which sought to preserve the power of the Penn family in affairs of Pennsylvania. Franklin devised legislative strategy and wrote powerful resolves on behalf of the Assembly, denying Proprietary exemption from taxation and otherwise defending the right of the elected representatives of the people to regulate their own affairs.

Colonial Rights within the Empire

At first Franklin had not the slightest thought about America's separation from Great Britain. He had grown up with allegiance to Britain and had a deep appreciation of the culture of the country of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope. In 1751 he celebrated the rapid increase of colonial population as a great "accession of power to the British Empire," a big and happy family wherein the prosperity of the parent and the growth of the children were mutually beneficial.

Franklin expressed his patriotism by proposing a Plan of Union within the empire at Albany in 1754, and a year later in giving extensive service to Gen. Edward Braddock's expedition to recapture Ft. Duquesne from the French. To defend the empire during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Franklin persuaded the Quaker Assembly to pass the first militia law in Pennsylvania, appropriate money for defense, and appoint commissioners (including himself) to carry on full-scale war. As the war progressed, he worked with British commanders to win a North American empire for Britain. For 3 decades or more Franklin allied himself in thought and deed with such men as William Pitt, who conceived of Britain as a vital, freedom-extending realm as dear (and useful) to its subjects in Boston and Philadelphia as to those in London or Bristol.

Even in this patriotism of empire, however, the seeds of disaffection appeared. The Albany plan, Franklin noted, dividing power between the king and the colonial assemblies, was disapproved by the Crown "as having placed too much weight in the democratic part of the constitution, and [by] every assembly as having allowed too much to [Royal] Prerogative." Franklin also thought it incredibly selfish for the proprietor of Pennsylvania to try to avoid taxation of his vast lands. He sided, he declared in 1756, with "the people of this province … generally of the middling sort." Thus, when he went to England in 1757 as agent of the Assembly, he was alarmed to hear the president of the Privy Council declare: "You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend the King's instructions to his governors are not laws…. But those instructions … are … the Law of the Land; for the King is the Legislator of the Colonies." Though Franklin worked within the empire to resist this presumption, it was clear from the start that if it continued to dominate, Franklin's empire loyalty would wither and die.

Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, seeking aid in restraining Proprietary power in Pennsylvania, meanwhile enjoying English social and intellectual life. He attended meetings of the Royal Society, heard great orchestras play the works of George Frederick Handel, made grand tours of the Continent, and was awarded honorary doctor's degrees by St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762).

Back in America for nearly 2 years (1762-1764), Franklin traveled through the Colonies as deputy postmaster general for North America. In 20 years Franklin vastly improved postal service and at the same time made his position lucrative. He also continued his aid to poorer members of his family, especially his sister, and to the family of his wife, the former Deborah Read, whom he had married in 1730. They had two children, Frankie, who died at 4, and Sally, who married Richard Bache. Deborah Franklin also reared her husband's illegitimate son, William, often his father's close companion, who was appointed governor of New Jersey and was later to be notable as a loyalist during the Revolution. Franklin considered Deborah, who died in 1774, a good wife, mother, and helpmate, though she did not share his intellectual interests or even much of his social life.

Politics occupied most of Franklin's busy months at home. He opposed the bloody revenges frontiersmen visited on innocent Native Americans in the wake of Chief Pontiac's Conspiracy, and he campaigned to further restrict the proprietor's power. On this and other issues Franklin lost his seat in the Assembly (after 13 consecutive victories) in an especially scurrilous campaign. His Quaker party retained enough power, however, to return him to England as agent, commissioned especially to petition that Pennsylvania be taken over as a royal colony—a petition Franklin set aside when the perils of royal government loomed ever larger.

More Radical Position

Franklin played a central role in the great crises that led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He first advised obedience to the Stamp Act. But learning of the violent protest against it in America, he stiffened his own opposition, notably in a dramatic appearance before Parliament in 1766, when he outlined, plainly and bluntly, American insistence on substantial self-government. Encouraged by repeal of the act, Franklin again expressed his faith in the grand prospects for America within the empire and worked with Pitt, Lord Camden, and other Englishmen who wanted to liberalize both government at home and relations with the Colonies.

Yet Franklin mounted a strong propaganda assault on the Townshend Duties of 1767. In fact, Franklin's position was increasingly untenable. He was in countless official, personal, and sentimental ways committed to the British Empire, but he was more committed to the life-style he knew in America and which he now began to record in his Autobiography. The ideal solution, of course, was to find fulfillment for the life-style under the British flag. He only slowly realized that, at least under the policies of George III and Lord North, the two were incompatible.

Franklin's personal fame, as well as his appointment as agent for Georgia (1768) and for Massachusetts (1770), made him the foremost American spokesman in Britain for 10 crucial years, from 1765 to 1775. Protesting the Tea Act in 1773, he wrote two of his most skillful and famous political satires, An Edict by the King of Prussia and Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One. These were merely the best of hundreds displaying Franklin's clever pen in aid of his chosen causes.

In 1774-1775 Franklin's agency in England came to an unhappy end. His friends in Massachusetts, against his instructions, published letters of Governor Thomas Hutchinson that Franklin had obtained in confidence. Exposed as an apparently dishonest schemer, Franklin was chastised before the Privy Council in 1774 and simultaneously deprived of his postmaster general's office. Then, in danger of being imprisoned as a traitor, Franklin continued to work with Pitt and others for conciliation, but the Boston Tea Party, the Coercive Acts, and the buildup of British troops in America doomed such efforts. When Franklin left England in March 1775, he was sure that "the extream corruption … in this old rotten State" would ensure "more Mischief than Benefit from a closer Union" between England and the Colonies.

The Revolutionary

In the next 18 months in America, Franklin reveled in the "glorious public virtue" of his compatriots. He served on the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety and in the Continental Congress, submitted articles of confederation for the united colonies, and helped draft a new constitution for Pennsylvania. He even went to Montreal to entice Canada to join the new union. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was among those who readily subscribed his name to it—at the age of 70 he had become a fervent revolutionist.

Franklin's skill was most in demand, though, as a diplomat to secure desperately needed aid for the new nation. In October 1776, appointed commissioner to France, he embarked with his two grandchildren. In France he began the most amazing personal success story in the history of diplomacy. His journey to Paris was a triumphal procession, and in the capital the literary and scientific community greeted him as a living embodiment of all the virtues the philosophes extolled.

Franklin played the role of the simple Quaker, exalted by his plainness amid the gaudy pomp of the court of Louis XVI. In a dramatic encounter at the French Academy, Franklin and the aged Voltaire embraced amid cheers. French intellectuals lionized Franklin, who, still a minister of an unrecognized country, established residence in the suburb of Auteuil, where he created friendships that became part of the legend of Franklin among the ladies of Paris. As usual, Franklin wrote witty letters, printed bagatelles, told stories, and otherwise displayed his brilliant personality.

Diplomatic Tasks in France

Franklin's diplomatic tasks proved more difficult. Though France was anxious that England be humbled, it could not afford openly to aid the American rebels unless success seemed probable. For a year (1777) Franklin worked behind the scenes to hasten war supplies across the Atlantic, block British diplomacy, and ingratiate himself with the French foreign minister and others who might help the United States. He also worked with the other American commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, as those two strange compatriots quarreled with increasing bitterness. In December 1777 news of the American victory at Saratoga persuaded Louis XVI and his ministers to enter into an alliance with the United States, finally signed by Franklin and the other commissioners. Lee and Deane soon returned, quarreling, to America, leaving Franklin behind as the first American minister to the court of Versailles.

For 7 years Franklin was the premier American representative in Europe, conducting normal diplomacy and acting as purchasing agent, recruiting officer, loan negotiator, admiralty court, and intelligence chief. Nearly 80, Franklin carried his immense and varied burden effectively and in a way that retained French goodwill. He helped get French armies and navies on their way to North America, continued his efforts to supply American armies, outfitted John Paul Jones and numerous American privateers, and secured virtually all the outside aid that came to the American rebels.

Peace Commissioner

When, after Yorktown (1781), peace with independence became possible, Franklin made the first contact with British emissaries. During the summer of 1782 as the other peace commissioners, John Adams and John Jay, made their way to Paris, Franklin set terms close to those finally agreed to: independence, guaranteed fishing rights, evacuation of all British forces, and a western boundary on the Mississippi. Though Franklin insisted on working closely with French negotiators, he never subordinated American to French interests as his critics have claimed. In fact, the subtle Franklin, the intrepid Adams, and the resourceful Jay made an ideal team, winning for the United States a peace treaty of genuine national independence in 1783.

Viewing America's place in the world as his mission to France drew to a close, Franklin combined realism with idealism. "Our firm connection with France," he noted, "gives us weight with England, and respect throughout Europe." Thus balancing between the great nations, Franklin thought "a few years of peace will improve, will restore and increase our strength; but our future safety will depend on our union and our virtue." He stated many times there was "no such thing as a good war or a bad peace." Not the least isolationist or aggressive, he thought the peaceful needs of the United States required it to trade and cooperate honorably with nations all over the world.

Franklin left France in 1785 and landed in Philadelphia to the cheers of his countrymen. Honored as a living sage, he accepted election for 3 years as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and resumed his activity in the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, and other civic projects. Though suffering from a physical disorder, he also maintained his large correspondence, wrote essays, and finished the last half of his Autobiography.

Framing of a New Government

Franklin's most notable service, however, was his attendance at the daily sessions of the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. Too infirm to speak much in debate and less creative in political philosophy than some of his younger colleagues, he bolstered the confidence of the convention and, through good humor and suggestions for compromise, helped prevent its disruption in animosity. He gave decisive support to the "Great Compromise" over representation and dozens of times calmed volatile tempers and frayed nerves. At the convention's close, he asked each member, who like himself might not entirely approve of the Constitution, to "doubt a little of his own infallibility" and sign the document to give it a chance as the best frame of government human ingenuity could at that time produce. His last public service was to urge ratification of the Constitution and to approve the inauguration of the new government under his longtime friend George Washington. Franklin died peacefully on April 17, 1790.

Further Reading

Franklin's writings are in Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writings of Benjamin Franklin (10 vols., 1905-1907), and Leonard Labaree and others, eds., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (11 vols. to date, 1959-1968) and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1964). The best biography is Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (1938). For special studies see Carl and Jessica Bridenbaugh, Rebels and Gentlemen: Philadelphia in the Age of Franklin (1942); Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (1954), on Franklin's politics; Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (1954); I. Bernard Cohen, Franklin and Newton (1956), on Franklin's scientific work; Alfred O. Aldridge, Franklin andHis French Contemporaries (1957); Ralph L. Ketcham, Benjamin Franklin (1965), for Franklin's thought; and Claude A. Lopez, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1966). □

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Franklin, Benjamin


As the only person to have signed the three most significant founding documents of the United States—the declaration of independence (1776), the treaty of paris (1783), and the U.S. Constitution (1787)—Benjamin Franklin holds a revered place in the history of U.S. law. Through his great success as a newspaper publisher, journalist, writer, civic leader, scientist, politician, and diplomat, and as an inventor, Franklin became an international celebrity in his day and an icon of the American character to later generations.

Franklin's varied career had a lasting effect on U.S. law and politics. As a leading local figure, he established and shaped many of the fundamental institutions of Philadelphia and colonial Pennsylvania. Before the Revolutionary War (1775–83), Franklin served as envoy to Great Britain for several colonies. Though he first advocated reconciliation with Britain, he eventually supported the cause of American independence. He was assigned the task of securing an alliance with France during the war, and his political skill and prestige helped gain vital support for his young country as it fought the world's greatest military power. After the war, Franklin used his diplomatic ingenuity to negotiate a successful peace treaty with Britain. Franklin also helped persuade the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to reach important compromises on the particulars of the Constitution, and his support of that document greatly improved its chances of ratification.

Franklin was born January 17, 1706, in Boston, into a devout Puritan household. His only formal education consisted of two years of grammar school, after which he began work for his father, who was a tallow chandler, or candle maker. At age twelve, he was apprenticed to his half-brother, James Franklin, a printer and the founder of the New England Courant, the fourth newspaper established in the British colonies. In his teenage years, Franklin began to improve himself by reading on his own, including the works of such authors as John Bunyan, Plutarch, Daniel Defoe, Cotton Mather, Joseph Addison, and john locke. Franklin employed his literary talents early, and wrote for the Courant articles satirizing Boston life and politics. He became a manager of the newspaper, but then abruptly moved to Philadelphia in 1723 after disagreements with his brother.

Franklin arrived in Philadelphia at age seventeen with only one Dutch dollar and a copper shilling in his pocket. He found work in a print shop and prospered enough to start his own printing business in 1728. In 1730, Franklin became sole owner of the Pennsylvania Gazette, which he transformed from a failing enterprise

into a very influential newspaper. He also had success in other publishing ventures, including Poor Richard's Almanack (1732–57), an annual that presented practical information, satire, proverbs, and aphorisms. In 1730, Franklin married Deborah Read, with whom he had two children. He also had two illegitimate children, one of whom, William Franklin, later became governor of New Jersey.

In 1727, still a rising young businessman, Franklin formed a club of tradesmen called the Junto, which met each week for discussion. This group became highly influential in the life of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Under his leadership, it founded a circulating library, the first of its kind in the colonies, in Philadelphia in 1731; the American Philosophical Society in 1743; a city hospital in 1751; and an academy that developed into the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin led the group in making many other civic improvements as well.

In 1748, now wealthy from his printing and publishing interests, Franklin retired from business. He devoted the rest of his life to natural philosophy, writing, politics, and diplomacy. In the area of natural philosophy, or science, Franklin's ingenuity and curiosity gained him world renown as both an inventor and a theoretician. He designed an improved stove, later dubbed the Franklin stove, that was widely used, as well as bifocal glasses and a new type of clock. He began to study electricity in 1746. His ideas and experiments on this subject—including the famous experiment that involved a kite with a metal key attached to it—identified the electrical nature of lightning. His work with electricity gained him many honorary degrees, including membership in the Royal Society in 1756 and in the French Academy of Sciences in 1772. He also developed a theory of heat absorption and was among the first to describe the Gulf Stream ocean current.

Franklin's study of natural philosophy was interrupted by an involvement in politics and diplomacy that ultimately dominated the last part of his life. In Pennsylvania, he was a member of the Quaker party, which sought to democratize the colony's politics and wrest power from its original founders, the Penn family. He served as a representative to the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1751 to 1764. In 1754, he represented Pennsylvania at the Albany Congress, which had been called to unite the colonies in a war against the French and Indians. There, he unsuccessfully

presented the Plan of Union, which would have established partial self-government for the colonies. The British did not approve of Franklin's plan because they felt it gave too much power to the colonies, and the colonial assemblies rejected it because they felt it gave the British monarch too much power. Franklin also shared with another person the office of deputy postmaster for the colonies, from 1753 to 1774. In this office, he did a great deal to increase the frequency and efficiency of mail delivery.

Franklin began a long and successful diplomatic career when he went to England in 1757 as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. He remained in Britain through 1762 and met many leading figures of British society, including the philosopher david hume and the author Dr. Samuel Johnson. After spending two more years in Pennsylvania, he returned to England in 1764 to serve again as the Pennsylvania Assembly's agent, and remained in Britain as an agent for various colonies in turn, until 1775. During his years abroad, he witnessed firsthand the growing rift between Britain and the colonies.

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty or Safety."
—Benjamin Franklin

In the controversy over the 1765 stamp act, Franklin emerged as the American colonies' chief spokesperson and defender. The act imposed a tax on publications and papers and provoked an outrage in the colonies. As the first of a series of major disputes between the colonies and Britain, the Stamp Act catalyzed the American colonies' desire for independence and united them in opposition to Britain. Franklin opposed the Stamp Act before Britain's House of Commons. His articulate answers before Parliament were published widely and earned him much admiration in America and abroad. Franklin also opposed such controversial acts of Parliament as the townshend acts (1767) and the Tea Act (1773). Although he originally worked for reconciliation with Britain, Franklin left for America in March 1775 convinced of the need for American independence.

Immediately upon his return to Philadelphia, Franklin was chosen to be a member of the Second continental congress. He again sketched a plan of union for the colonies. He also was one of a committee of five, including john adams and thomas jefferson, appointed in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, the document that formally announced the colonies' break from Britain. Franklin signed the document, thereby becoming a revolutionary at age seventy. Soon after, the Continental Congress sent Franklin and two others to negotiate a critical treaty with France. Before he left, the wealthy Franklin also loaned the struggling Congress several thousand pounds.

Franklin was greeted as a hero in France, where translations of his scientific and literary works had gained him much admiration. He was treated by all classes of society as a great oracle, and his image was reproduced widely in prints, medallions, jewelry, and snuffboxes. "His reputation in Europe," Adams commented, "was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them."

During the first years of the Revolutionary War, Franklin worked in France to secure war supplies and build credibility with the French, who were reluctant at first to cast their lot with an untested new country. France and the United States finally signed an alliance in 1778, after which Franklin became the first U.S. minister to France. Fulfilling the myriad duties of that office with great diplomatic skill, he continued to gain crucial supplies and money for the U.S. cause. In 1781, after defeat at the Battle of Yorktown had persuaded the British to give up the war, Franklin participated in delicate peace talks with Britain. He had much to do with the favorable terms of peace set forth in the Treaty of Paris, which finally gave the United States complete independence from Britain.

Franklin returned to the United States in 1785. After serving three years as president of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, he was chosen as a member of the Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia in 1787. Now eighty-one, he attended the convention regularly for over four months and served as unofficial host to the delegates. Although Franklin's calls for a single national legislative chamber and for an executive board (as opposed to a president) were not honored, his arguments helped the convention reach the important compromises that were necessary to secure agreement on the document. In particular, Franklin called for mutual compromise on the sticky issue of the number of representatives to be allotted to each state in the national legislature. Of this disagreement, which pitted small states against large states, Franklin commented,

If a property representation takes place, the small states contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large states say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint.

Later, Franklin urged other members of the convention to approve the final version of the Constitution. "I consent, Sir, to this Constitution," he declared to the convention, "because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The Opinions I have had of its Errors, I sacrifice to the Public Good." In the following battle for ratification of the Constitution, Franklin used his considerable reputation to promote its success.

For the last few years of his life, Franklin retired to Philadelphia. In his last public act, he signed a memorial to Congress for the abolition of slavery. He died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790, at the age of eighty-four. Among his many lasting literary works is his autobiography.

further readings

Brands, H.W. 2000. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday.

Franklin, Benjamin. 1993. Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography and Other Writings. Edited by Ormond Seavey. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Franklin, Benjamin. 1993. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Edited by Louis P. Masur. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Isaacson, Walter. 2003. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lemay, J.A. Leo. 1993. Reappraising Benjamin Franklin. Univ. of Delaware Press.

Murrey, Christopher J., ed. 2002. Benjamin Franklin: Biographical Overview and Bibliography. New York: Nova Science.


Constitution of the United States.

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Franklin, Benjamin

Benjamin Franklin

Born: January 17, 1706
Boston, Massachusetts
Died: April 17, 1790
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

American scholar, diplomat, author, scientist, and inventor

B enjamin Franklin was a leader of America's revolutionary generation. His character and thought were shaped by his religious upbringing, the philosophy of the historical era known as the Enlightenment, and the environment of colonial America.

Youthful character

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, into a devoted Puritan household. (The Puritans were a religious group that stood against the practices of the Church of England.) In 1683 his family had left England and moved to New England in search of religious freedom. Franklin's father was a candlemaker and a mechanic, but, his son said, his "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding, and solid Judgment." Franklin also praised his mother, who raised a family of thirteen children.

Young Franklin was not content at home. He received little formal schooling and by age eleven went to work making candles and soap at his father's shop. However, he hated this tradeespecially the smell. Franklin eventually left his father's shop and went to work for his brother James, who was the printer of a Boston newspaper. While learning the business Franklin read every word that came into the shop and was soon writing clever pieces that criticized the Boston establishment. He loved to read and even became a vegetarian in order to save money to buy books. When authorities imprisoned James for his own critical articles, Benjamin continued the paper himself. In 1723 at age seventeen Franklin left home and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

By this time Franklin had begun to embrace the ideas of such Enlightenment thinkers as the physicist Sir Isaac Newton (16421727) and the philosopher John Locke (16321727). The Enlightenment, which began in the sixteenth century and lasted until the late seventeenth century, was a movement that promoted the use of reason to learn truth. During this time period, many important scientific advances and discoveries were made through the use of observation and experimentation.

Civil and scientific interests

In Philadelphia, Franklin began working as a printer. In 1724 he went to England, where he quickly became a master printer and lived among the writers of London. He returned to Philadelphia and started his own press, publishing a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette and a publication called Poor Richard's Almanack, which contained advice and sayings that are still popular in America today. He then became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia. At the same time he operated a bookshop and developed partnerships with other printers. Franklin also became involved in community improvement in 1727. He organized the Junto, a club of tradesmen whose activities included sponsoring a library, a fire company, a college, an insurance company, and a hospital.

Next, Franklin turned to science. Having already invented what became known as the Franklin stove (a metal stove used for heating a room), he now became fascinated with electricity. In a famous experiment he used a kite to prove that lightning is a form of electricity. The mysterious and terrifying natural occurrence now had an explanation. Franklin's letters concerning his discoveries and theories about electricity brought him fame. His invention of the lightning rod (a metal rod that is set on top of a building to protect it from being damaged if it is struck by lightning) added to his reputation.

Political career

Franklin's 1751 election to the Pennsylvania Assembly began his nearly forty years as a public official. He became a leader in the long-dominant Quaker political party, which opposed the Proprietary party (a political party made up of people who sought to preserve the power of the Penn family, the founding family of Pennsylvania). In the Assembly, Franklin created lawmaking strategies and wrote powerful statements defending the right of the people's elected representatives to regulate the government of Pennsylvania.

As a representative in the Assembly, Franklin was initially loyal to the British empire. He was on the side of the empire during the French and Indian War (175463; a war fought between France and Great Britain, which resulted in British control of land in North America east of the Mississippi River). In order to defend the British empire, he persuaded the Assembly to pass Pennsylvania's first militia law, set aside budget money for defense, and appoint government representatives to carry on a full-scale war. For three decades or more Franklin had considered Britain a vital, freedom-extending country as dear and useful to its people in America as to those in England. Nevertheless, he was occasionally alarmed by British indifference toward the desires of people living in the colonies.

Franklin lived in England from 1757 to 1762, seeking aid in restraining the power of the Penn family in Pennsylvania. Returning to America for nearly two years, he traveled through the American colonies as deputy postmaster general for North America. In this position, which he held for twenty years, Franklin greatly improved the postal service. He also continued his aid to poorer members of his family and to the family of his wife, Deborah. They had two children, Frankie, who died at four, and Sally. Deborah Franklin also raised her husband's illegitimate son, William.

In 1764 Franklin lost his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly. However, he returned to England as Pennsylvania's agent, with a special assignment to request that Pennsylvania be taken over as a royal colony. When the dangers of royal government began to increase, Franklin decided not to make the request.

More radical position

Franklin played a central role in the great crises that led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1765 the Stamp Act placed a tax on all business and law papers and printed materials in the American colonies. Many colonists opposed the tax as taxation without representation. After learning of the violent protest against the Stamp Act, Franklin stiffened his own stand against the measure. In a dramatic appearance before Parliament in 1766, he outlined American insistence on self-government. Nevertheless, when the tax was removed Franklin again expressed his faith in America's prospects within the British empire.

Franklin was the foremost American spokesman in Britain for the next nine years. However, in 1775 his service in England came to an unhappy end. Against his instructions, his friends in Massachusetts published letters by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson (17111780) that Franklin had obtained on a confidential basis. Exposed as a dishonest schemer, Franklin was reprimanded (scolded) by the British in 1774 and removed from his position as postmaster general. Although he was in danger of being jailed as a traitor, Franklin continued to work for better relations. Radical protests in America and the buildup of British troops there doomed such efforts.

The revolutionary

Franklin left England in March 1775. The American Revolution (177583; a war in which American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain) had begun on April 19, 1775, with the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. During the next several months in America, Franklin enjoyed the surge for independence. In 1776 he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was among those who readily signed his name to it. At the age of seventy he had become a passionate revolutionary.

Franklin's skill was most in demand as a diplomat (someone who is skilled at handling difficult affairs) to secure desperately needed aid in the American war for independence. In 1776 he was appointed as a representative to France. There he gained astonishing personal success, winning the admiration of French intellectuals and the Parisian society. However, Franklin's diplomatic tasks proved more difficult. Though France was anxious for England to be defeated, it could not afford openly to aid the American rebels unless success seemed likely.

In 1777 Franklin worked behind the scenes to speed war supplies across the Atlantic and win support from French political leaders who might help the United States. In December 1777 his efforts were rewarded when France's King Louis XVI (17541793) entered into an alliance with the United States. As the leading American representative in Europe, Franklin helped get French armies and navies on their way to North America, continued his efforts to supply American armies, and secured almost all of the outside aid that came to the American rebels.

Peace commissioner

After the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, Franklin made the first contact with representatives of the British government. During the summer of 1782 as the other peace commissioners, John Adams (17351826) and John Jay (17451829), made their way toward peace negotiations in Paris, Franklin set the main terms of the final agreement. These included independence, guaranteed fishing rights, removal of all British forces, and a western boundary on the Mississippi River. Franklin, Adams, and Jay made an ideal team, winning for the United States a peace treaty of genuine national independence in 1783.

Franklin returned to Philadelphia from France in 1785. He accepted election for three years as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and was active in various projects and causes. Although ill, he also finished his autobiography.

Framing a new government

Franklin's most notable service at this time was his attendance at the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787. At the convention's close he asked each member, who like himself might not entirely approve of the Constitution, to sign the document to give it a chance as the best frame of government that could be produced at the time. His last public service was to urge ratification (approval) of the Constitution and to approve the inauguration (swearing into office) of the new government under his old friend George Washington (17321799). Franklin died peacefully in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790.

For More Information

Adler, David A. Benjamin FranklinPrinter, Inventor, Statesman. New York: Holiday House, 1992.

Clark, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.

Fish, Bruce, and Becky Durost Fish. Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

Foster, Leila Merrell. Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father and Inventor. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.

Fradin, Dennis B. Who Was Ben Franklin? New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 2002.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964.

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Franklin, Benjamin

Benjamin Franklin, 1706–90, American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer, b. Boston. The only American of the colonial period to earn a European reputation as a natural philosopher, he is best remembered in the United States as a patriot and diplomat.

Printer and Writer

The son of a tallow chandler and soapmaker, Franklin left school at 10 years of age to help his father. He then was apprenticed to his half-brother James, a printer and publisher of the New England Courant, to which young Ben secretly contributed. After much disagreement he left his brother's employment and went (1723) to Philadelphia to work as a printer. Industry and thrift—qualities he was to praise later—helped him to better himself.

After a sojourn in London (1724–26), he returned and in 1729 acquired an interest in the Pennsylvania Gazette. As owner and editor after 1730, he made the periodical popular. His common sense philosophy and his neatly turned phrases won public attention in the Gazette, in the later General Magazine, and especially in his Poor Richard's Almanack, which he published from 1732 to 1757. Many sayings of Poor Richard, praising prudence, common sense, and honesty, became standard American proverbs.

Franklin also interested himself in selling books, established a circulating library, organized a debating club that developed into the American Philosophical Society, helped to establish (1751) an academy that eventually became the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and brought about civic reforms. His writings are still widely known today, especially his autobiography (covering only his early years), which is generally considered one of the finest autobiographies in any language and has appeared in innumerable editions.


Franklin had steadily extended his own knowledge by study of foreign languages, philosophy, and science. He repeated the experiments of other scientists and showed his usual practical bent by inventing such diverse things as the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses, and a glass harmonica (which he called an armonica; see harmonica2). The phenomenon of electricity interested him deeply, and in 1748 he turned his printing business over to his foreman, intending to devote his life to science. His experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm, which showed that lightning is an electrical discharge (but which he may not have personally performed), and his invention of the lightning rod were among a series of investigations that won him recognition from the leading scientists in England and on the Continent.


Diplomat from Pennsylvania

Franklin held local public offices and served long (1753–74) as deputy postmaster general of the colonies. As such he reorganized the postal system, making it both efficient and profitable. His status as a public figure grew steadily. A Pennsylvania delegate to the Albany Congress (1754), he proposed there a plan of union for the colonies, which was accepted by the delegates but later rejected by both the provincial assemblies and the British government. He worked for the British cause in the French and Indian War, especially by providing transportation for the ill-fated expedition led by Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne. Franklin was a leader of the popular party in Pennsylvania against the Penn family, who were the proprietors, and in 1757 he was sent to England to present the case against the Penns. He won (1760) for the colony the right to tax the Penn estates but advised moderation in applying the right.

He returned to America for two years (1762–64) but was in England when the Stamp Act caused a furor. Again he showed prudent moderation; he protested the act but asked the colonists to obey the law, thus losing some popularity in the colonies until he stoutly defended American rights at the time of the debates on repeal of the act. He was made agent for Georgia (1768), New Jersey (1769), and Massachusetts (1770) and seriously considered making his home in England, where his scientific attainments, his brilliant mind, and his social gifts of wit and urbanity had gained him a high place.

Revolutionary Leader

As trouble between the British government and the colonies grew with the approach of the American Revolution, Franklin's deep love for his native land and his devotion to individual freedom brought (1775) him back to America. There, while his illegitimate son, William Franklin, was becoming a leader of the Loyalists, Benjamin Franklin became one of the greatest statesmen of the American Revolution and of the newborn nation. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, was appointed postmaster general, and was sent to Canada with Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll of Carrollton to persuade the people of Canada to join the patriot cause. He was appointed (1776) to the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, which he signed.

Late in 1776 he sailed to France to join Arthur Lee and Silas Deane in their diplomatic efforts for the new republic. Franklin, with a high reputation in France well supported by his winning presence, did much to gain French recognition of the new republic in 1778. Franklin helped to direct U.S. naval operations and was a successful agent for the United States in Europe—the sole one after suspicions and quarrels caused Congress to annul the powers of the other American commissioners.

He was chosen (1781) as one of the American diplomats to negotiate peace with Great Britain and laid the groundwork for the treaty before John Jay and John Adams arrived. British naval victory in the West Indies made the final treaty less advantageous to the United States than Franklin's original draft. The Treaty of Paris was, in contradiction of the orders of Congress, concluded in 1783 without the concurrence of France, because Jay and Adams distrusted the French.

Constitutional Convention Delegate

Franklin returned in 1785 to the United States and was made president of the Pennsylvania executive council. The last great service rendered to his country by this "wisest American," as he is sometimes called, was his part in the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787. Although his proposals for a single-chamber congress and a weak executive council were rejected, he helped to direct the compromise that brought the Constitution of the United States into being. Though not completely satisfied with the finished product, he worked earnestly for its ratification.


See the definitive edition of Franklin's papers, ed. by L. W. Labaree et al. (40 vol., 1959–). See biographies by J. Parton (1864, repr. 1971), S. G. Fisher (1899), P. L. Ford (1899, repr. 1972), B. Faÿ (1933, repr. 1969), C. Van Doren (1938, repr. 1973), P. W. Conner (1965), A. O. Aldridge (1965), T. J. Fleming (1971), H. W. Brands (2000), E. S. Morgan (2002), W. Isaacson (2003), and J. A. L. Lemay (2 vol., 2005–); C.-A. Lopez, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1966); C.-A. Lopez and E. W. Herbert, The Private Franklin (1975); I. B. Cohen, Benjamin Franklin's Science (1990); T. Tucker, Bolt of Fate (2003); G. S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004); S. Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America (2005); P. Dray, Stealing God's Thunder (2005); J. Weinberger, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought (2005).

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Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)

Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)

American scientist and statesman

Before serving his fledgling country during time of revolution, Benjamin Franklin also achieved international recognition for his scientific acumen, especially in his experimentation with electricity .

Born in the British colony of Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin was the fifteenth of seventeen children. His father was an impoverished candlemaker, unable to afford to send young Benjamin to school. As a result, he received only two years of formal education. Franklin was working in his father's shop at the age of ten, and later was apprenticed to his brother, a printer, where he developed a love for books. In 1724, he went to London where he became skilled at printing, returning to Philadelphia two years later. In Philadelphia he made a name for himself, as well as a small fortune, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack.

In addition to his pursuit of printing, Franklin became interested in the study of electricity in 1746. During this period, scientists around the globe, many of whom had advanced degrees, were investigating the phenomena of static electricity. A less confident man might have felt inadequate to compete, but Franklin, who was essentially self-educated, obtained a Leyden jar and began his own research.

The Leyden jar, invented by Musschenbroek, was a water-filled bottle with a stopper in the end. Through the stopper was a metal rod that extended into the water . A machine was used to create a static electric charge, which could be stored in the jar. A person who touched the end of the charged rod received an electrical jolt. Public demonstrations, in which many people joined hands and received a simultaneous shock, were very popular. Franklin saw such a demonstration, and that initiated his interest in electricity.

It was Franklin's originality and tenacity that earned him the reputation as a leading scientist. He was the first person to wonder how the Leyden jar actually worked, and performed a series of experiments to find the answer. He poured the "charged" water out of the jar into another bottle, and discovered the water had lost its charge. This indicated that it was the glass itself, the material that insulated the conductor, which produced the shock. To verify this, Franklin took a windowpane and placed a sheet of lead on each side. He "electrified" the lead, removed each sheet one at a time, and tested for a charge. Neither sheet gave so much as a single spark, but the windowpane had been charged. Franklin had unknowingly invented the electrical condenser. The condenser, also known as a capacitor, was destined to be one of the most important elements in electric circuits. Today the condenser, which received its name from Alessandro Volta, is used in radios, televisions, telephones, radar systems, and many other devices.

Drawing a parallel between the sparking and crackling of the charged Leyden jar and lightning and thunder , Franklin wondered if there was an electrical charge in the sky. He planned to erect a long metal rod atop Christ Church in Philadelphia to conduct electricity to a sentry box in which a man, standing on an insulated platform, would be able to collect an electric charge. Because he was a proponent in the free exchange of ideas, Franklin had written a book outlining his theories, which received wide circulation in Europe . A French scientist named D'Alibard used Franklin's idea and performed the experiment himself on May 10, 1752, charging a Leyden jar with lightning. Franklin generously gave D'Alibard credit for being the first to "draw lightning from the skies." If nothing else, Franklin did receive credit for the invention of the lightning rod.

While waiting for the rod to be installed atop Christ Church, Franklin had come up with an idea of a faster way to get a conductor into the sky. He tied a large silk handkerchief to two crossed wooden sticks, attached a long silken thread with a metal key at the end, and waited for a thunderstorm. The rain made the thread an excellent conductor, and the static charge traveled down to the key. When Franklin brought his knuckle to the key, a spark jumped from the key to his hand, proving the existence of electricity in the sky.

Franklin had been wise enough to connect a ground wire to his key; two other scientists, attempting to duplicate the experiment but neglecting the ground wire, were killed when they were actually struck by lightning. Still, Franklin was lucky he was not hit by lightning himself. Franklin invented the lightning rod from his work with electricity. The lightning rod became indispensable for protecting buildings from the destructive force of lightning. Because he had discovered he could get the Leyden jar to spark over a greater distance with a sharply pointed rod, Franklin's lightning rods had very sharp points. (In 1776, after the conflict between the Colonies and King George III had erupted, the king ordered that lightning rods with blunt ends be installed on his palace.) By 1782, there were four hundred lightning rods in Philadelphia.

His discovery of sky-borne electricity led Franklin to speculate on the nature of the aurora borealis , the "northern lights" that illuminate the sky. Franklin thought they might be electrical in nature, and suggested that conditions in the upper atmosphere might be responsible.

His work on electricity led to a plethora of new words (battery, condenser, conductor, armature, charge, and discharge to name a few) and concepts. He suggested that electrical charge was due to the abundance or lack of "something" that resulted in attraction and repulsion, and he established the concept of positive and negative charges, believing (incorrectly) that electrical flow went from positive to negative. In fact, the opposite is true.

Continuing his observations of the weather , he noticed there was a prevailing pattern as it moved from west to east and suggested the circulation of air masses was responsible, establishing the concept of high and low pressure. He went on to show that the boiling point of water was affected by air pressure; as he created a vacuum in a sealed water bottle, the temperature needed to boil the water dropped. He also charted the flow on the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean.

Volumes have been written about Franklin's life as a statesman. He founded service organizations, became Postmaster of Philadelphia, and established a college that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to London in 1757 as an Agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly and remained there until 1775. After warning that the "Stamp Tax" was not a good way to obtain revenue from the American Colonies, he returned and joined the committee drafting the Declaration of Independence.

During Franklin's long life he developed many inventions (such as bifocal lenses and the Franklin stove), received numerous honors and achieved an international reputation, becoming one of few Americans of colonial days to do so. He died in Philadelphia, at the age of eighty-four.

See also Atmospheric pressure; Electricity and magnetism

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Franklin, Benjamin

Franklin, Benjamin 1706-1790


Benjamin Franklin was not only one of the best-known founding fathers of the United States, he was a leading politician, diplomat, writer, publisher, librarian, and philosopher. He was also a scientist renowned for his experiments with electricity and lightning, as well as an inventor credited with inventing the lightning rod, the heat-efficient Franklin stove, bifocals, swim fins, and numerous useful gadgets. His famous scientific experiment with a kite in a thunderstorm proved the presence of electricity in lightning.

Born into the family of a Boston soap maker and having received almost no formal education, in 1723 Franklin ran away to Philadelphia where he made his fortune first as a printer and later as the publisher and editor of the widely read Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper. He wrote numerous editorials, opinion pieces (usually under aliases), essays, and pamphlets about politics, economics, science, ethics, and civic self-improvement. He attracted attention for his wit and commonsense philosophy, especially as reflected in his proverbs in Poor Richards Almanack, a popular yearbook on science and technology, which he published between 1733 and 1757 under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.

In 1731 Franklin helped launch the Library Company, the first subscription library in the United States. Twelve years later he helped found the American Philosophical Society, the nations first learned society (a society that exists to promote an academic discipline or group of disciplines). While serving as a Pennsylvania assemblyman, he helped establish a local academy in 1751 that became the present-day University of Pennsylvania. He was a member of the Continental Congress, which appointed him to serve as deputy postmaster-general in 1753. At the 1754 Congress of Commissioners from the several American colonies held in Albany, New York, Franklin, though a loyalist, proposed a plan for the union of all the colonies under one government for the purpose of common defense and other general purposes.

In 1757 Franklin became a diplomatic agent in London representing Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, but he returned home in 1775 because of the revolutionary unrest in America and the so-called Hutchinson affair. Thomas Hutchinson (17111780) was the British-appointed governor of Massachusetts, who wrote to his friends in London to recommend curtailing the liberties of the American colonists. When Franklin obtained Governor Hutchinsons letters, he leaked them to the press, causing public uproar in America. The British government angrily denounced Franklin in public and in 1774 removed him from the office of deputy postmaster-general and agent for the colonies, resulting in his final break with Britain (which he otherwise deeply admired). He served as a member of the Committee of Five, which had been instructed by the Second Continental Congress to draw up a document declaring independence from Britain. He helped Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two other members of the committee, to draft the Declaration of Independence, which Congress unanimously adopted in 1776.

During the War of Independence (17751783) Franklin was the most popular foreign diplomat in the court of Louis XVI (17541793) in Paris, signing the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, which secured a close military-political alliance with France as well as substantial French military and financial help that made American victory possible. In 1783 he signed the Treaty of Paris, a peace treaty ending the war with Britain. Franklin came home in 1785 to serve as the appointed president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was a delegate to the federal Constitutional Convention and signed the Constitution in 1787. His last great public service was authoring a major abolitionist pamphlet in 1789. His autobiography, first published in 1791, is acclaimed today as the greatest autobiographical work produced in colonial America.

Franklin was the most illustrious American of his time. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century philosophical movement that rejected traditional ideas held at the time, he cast off all religious dogma but saw order and harmony in the universe. Rationalism, materialism, and belief in progress and social evolution mark all his publications. Prior to the revolution he believed that progress could be achieved under an enlightened monarchespecially through the inspiration and guidance provided by his own teachings, maxims, and aphorisms. Later he abandoned his doubts about democratic politics, rejecting the British monarchy and aristocracy in favor of the egalitarian view that all men are equal. In order to achieve progress and social harmony, he advocated the cultivation of practical virtues such as temperance, frugality, resolve, industry, sincerity, moderation, chastity, humility, and cleanliness. After the revolution he argued against the rule of the wealthy, taxation without representation, and slavery. He championed universal male suffrage, which he believed would encourage loyalty and respect for the law, as well as a unicameral federal legislature (without a Senate), which could prevent the rich from dominating political life and provide for a united, more efficient government. Scholars have also suggested that Franklins philosophy embodies the moral and political pragmatism of the American business class.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Constitution, U.S.; Democracy; Enlightenment; Jefferson, Thomas; Liberalism; Loyalists; Pragmatism


Amacher, Richard E. 1962. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Twayne.

Conn, Peter, ed. 2005. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Isaacson, Walter. 2003. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Roop, Peter, and Connie Roop. 2000. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Scholastic.

Zall, Paul M., ed. 2000. Franklin on Franklin. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Rossen Vassilev

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Franklin, Benjamin


Benjamin Franklin (17061790) was an American Renaissance man, knowledgeable on a variety of subjects and active in many careers throughout his lifetime. Famous for his involvement in writing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, as well as for his experiments with lightning, Franklin's lesser known accomplishments include work as a writer, a publisher, and a businessman.

Benjamin Franklin was born January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, the fifteenth child and youngest son in a family of seventeen children. Because his family was not wealthy, young Franklin was only afforded two years of formal schooling. At age ten he was apprenticed to his father's business, a tallow shop, where he was to learn the craft of candle and soap making. Franklin disliked the work and sought an apprenticeship as a printer with his older brother, James. Franklin spent five years working and learning under James and became an expert printer.

Franklin described himself as a printer for the rest of his life. In the eighteenth century printers were more like today's publishers than simple typesetters. A successful printer needed to be a researcher, writer, and editor as well as the technician who set the type and printed the page. Franklin excelled at this craft and learned to write well on many subjects. He published at age twelve his first of many works and continued to write until his death.

At age seventeen Franklin left his work with brother James and moved to Philadelphia. His brother had spent time in prison for criticizing the government and Franklin learned to love the freedom he found running the paper in James' absence. Franklin found employment as a printer in Pennsylvania, but left for England in 1724. He lived there for five years, writing and improving his skills as a printer. Franklin was a supporter of the English crown in his early years and appreciated the lifestyle of London and the European continent.

But Franklin did not make his life in Europe. He returned to Philadelphia in 1729 and purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette, a bankrupt newspaper that he turned into the principle publishing house in the state. Franklin's printing business extended to partnerships with printers from Nova Scotia to the West Indies. He began a famous publication, Poor Richard's Almanack, which was very popular with the public. Franklin also operated a bookstore, became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and served as postmaster for Philadelphia.

During his business career and later in life Franklin maintained an avid interest in science. His curiosity and inventiveness produced the Franklin Stove, a practical device that allowed the more efficient heating of larger rooms during winter. His study of electricity included the famous kite experiment by which he proved that lighting was electricity. This discovery led to his invention of the lightning rod, which soon appeared on buildings all over the world. His scientific efforts also included works in ship design and meteorology, and a theory of heat. In addition, he invented bifocal vision lenses and even a harmonica.

The child of humble origins and with only two years of formal schooling, Franklin achieved much of success. He was awarded multiple honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning. He took great pride in these awards, which included Masters of Arts from Harvard (1753), Yale (1753), and The College of William and Mary (1756), and doctorates from St. Andrews (1759) and Oxford (1762). As a result of his scientific labors, he was elected to the Royal Society in 1756.

Franklin became involved in civic affairs in 1727. He formed a club of tradesmen called "Junto" to work on civic improvements. Under Franklin's leadership, Junto sponsored a library, a fire company, an insurance company, a hospital, and a college to help bring about improvements within the community. In addition, the streets were paved, cleaned, and lighted because of Franklin's efforts.

Deborah Read became Ben Franklin's common-law wife on September 1, 1730. In a practical manner typical of Franklin, he refused to formally marry her in order to avoid responsibility for Read's debts from her first marriage. Franklin and Read had two children together: Francis Folger, who died of smallpox in 1736 at age four, and Sarah, born in 1743. Read and Franklin also raised an illegitimate son, William, fathered by Franklin around 1729 or 1730.

Franklin's business interests were so successful that he was able to sell them at age 42 and live comfortably on the proceeds for the next twenty years. From this retirement Franklin pursued civic and governmental affairs for the remainder of his life. He represented Pennsylvania interests in the English parliament and served as the colonial agent for Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. After serving in the Second Continental Congress and assisting in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was sent to Paris to negotiate a treaty of alliance with France at the start of the American Revolution (17751783). He served as a liaison in France for nine years before returning to Philadelphia, where he assisted in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Benjamin Franklin spent his final days living with his daughter and her family on Market Street in Philadelphia. He died on April 17, 1790. Twenty thousand people honored him in attendance at his funeral.

See also: American Revolution, Continental Congress (Second)


Becker, Carl L. Benjamin Franklin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1946.

Commire, Anne, ed. Historic World Leaders. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994, s.v. "Franklin, Benjamin."

Garraty, John A., and Jerome L Sternstein. Encyclopedia of American Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1996, s.v. "Franklin, Benjamin."

Hutson, James H. The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1998, s.v. "Franklin, Benjamin."

Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Viking, 1938.

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"Franklin, Benjamin." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. 1999. 1 Jun. 2016 <>.

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Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Scientist and inventor


The American. The life of Benjamin Franklin best represents the American scientific character. He was a self-made man who was not against making money from his scientific achievements. A native Bostonian, Franklin as a teenager ran away to Philadelphia and started his own printing business. He retired a rich man in 1748. Franklins scientific interests were universal. His annual Poor Richards Almanack was a cornucopia of astronomical data, advice about medicine, rhymes and anecdotes to teach morals, and meteorological predictions. Franklin was the most famous American scientist of his time because of his experiments with electricity. Yet he remained an amateur, a tinkerer rather than a theorist. He respected but could not completely comprehend Sir Isaac Newtons Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). Franklins interests tended toward applied science: how knowledge of natural phenomena could yield useful technology. To this end, in 1744 he began the American Philosophical Society, the first scientific society in America. Franklin modeled it in part on the Royal Society of London, of which he became a fellow in 1757.

Approach to Life. The best source of information for the life of Benjamin Franklin is his Autobiography, first published in 1868. In the Autobiography Franklin discussed his scientific interests and inventions. The book also reveals how Franklins scientific thinking pervaded all aspects of his life. Franklin wrote that as a young man I conceivd of the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. He listed thirteen virtues to which he aspired: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility. He drew up a chart that listed all virtues according to the days of the week. At the end of each day he contemplated his behavior; if he failed to accomplish one or more virtues, he made a star in the appropriate column. By charting his behavior Franklin recorded the data of his faults, systematically studied the trends of vice over time, and worked to correct his behavior. He had a scientific approach to morality. Franklin also made a daily schedule that fitted all of his activities to the time of day. Each day he set out in an orderly fashion to accomplish the daily goal. He planned his meals and entertainment and thought that six hours of sleep would be sufficient. From the application of science to his own life, Franklin hoped to prepare himself for more public scientific pursuits.

Universal Thinker. All branches of science interested Benjamin Franklin. His fame rested on his experiments in electricity, which he undertook in the 1740s and 1750s. Franklins description of his experiments in letters to Peter Collinson, published in 1751, made his name known all over Europe. Franklin also studied astronomy, being particularly fascinated with solar and lunar eclipses. He made preparations to observe the transit of Mercury across the disk of the sun in 1753, but a cloudy sky intervened. He speculated on the cause and character of comets and wondered whether or not they were inhabited. Poor Richards Almanack was Franklins chief medium to spread his interest in astronomy. Likewise he used his almanac to inform his readers about remedies for illnesses. In the 1737 almanac Franklin included a long description of a so-called Rattle-snake Herb, an antidote to rattlesnake venom. Reputedly Native Americans chewed the herb, boiled it, and either drank the resulting concoction or bound wounds with it. The 1740 almanac contained Dr. Tennents Infallible Cure for the Pleurisy. The cure involved bleeding as well as heavy doses of Rattle-snake Root. In the 1742 almanac Franklin discussed his Rules of Health and long Life, and to Preserve from Malignant Fevers, and Sickness in general. The theme of the treatise was that moderation in eating and drinking prevented illness and resulted in long life.

Inventions. Franklin used science as a means to acquire useful knowledge; gaining it for its own sake was less important. Franklin applied his knowledge of medicine to create technology that could help humans live longer, happier lives. He invented a urinary catheter as well as bifocal lenses for glasses. He studied the effects of electricity on the human body and experimented with electric-shock therapy. A visitor of the aged Franklin found the old man, afflicted with rheumatism and other ailments, sitting in a shoelike bathtub of his own design. Franklin built the tub for his own comfort. A platform attached to the tub extending over the water allowed the scientist to read his favorite book while he soaked in hot water. A result of Franklins studies of heat was the Franklin stove, which was an ingenious iron fireplace that warmed and circulated air while disposing of smoke. The practical side of Franklins experiments in electricity was the invention of the grounded lightning rod. In response to one critic of his experiments and inventions, Franklin reputedly asked, Of what use is a new-born babe? Franklins mind was always working, thinking about current problems and future solutions.


I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklins Science (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990);

William and Julia Cutler, eds., Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D., 2 volumes (Cincinnati: R. Clerke, 1888);

George Daniels, Science in American Society: A Social History (New York: Knopf, 1971);

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1962);

Franklin, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks,2 volumes (Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1970).

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Franklin, Benjamin

Franklin, Benjamin (1706–90). Journalist, scientist, and diplomat. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in a family from Northamptonshire, Franklin began in his father's tallow business before apprenticeship as a printer. In 1728 he opened his own printing-office in Philadelphia, and two years later purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette. In 1731 he began printing Poor Richard's Almanack, a mixture of information, forecasts, advice, and proverbs. The electrical experiments which made him famous—harnessing lightning through a kite—were conducted in the 1740s and resulted in his election to the Royal Society in 1756. His political interests developed from 1751 when he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. From 1757 to 1762 he was in Britain as agent for the colony, and in 1766 returned, giving evidence before the House of Commons against the Stamp Act. In 1772 he passed on private letters of Governor Hutchinson, which resulted in the Massachusetts Assembly demanding the governor's recall. After the Boston Tea Party, Franklin was brought before the Privy Council, and denounced by Wedderburn, the solicitor-general, as a mischievous incendiary and a man no one could trust. Returning to America, Franklin took a prominent part in resistance, being one of five to sign the Declaration of Independence. He subsequently represented the new republic in France and obtained the alliance which won American independence. Franklin's Autobiography was published in French the year after his death.

J. A. Cannon

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Franklin, Benjamin

Franklin, Benjamin (1706–90) US statesman, scientist, and inventor. A successful printer in Philadelphia, where he published Poor Richard's Almanac (1732–57), he gave the business up to devote his life to scientific research. His experiments in electricity, which he identified in lightning, were influential. Franklin was deputy paymaster general (1753–74) of the colonies. At the Albany Congress (1754), he proposed a union of the colonies. Franklin argued for moderate opposition to the Stamp Act (1768). A leading delegate to the Continental Congress, he became an architect of the new republic. When war broke out, Franklin went to Paris and negotiated a treaty of alliance (1778). His peace proposals formed the basis of the final Treaty of Paris (1783) with Great Britain. Franklin was president of Pennsylvania's executive council (1785–88) and, as a member of the Constitutional Convention (1787), helped form the US constitution.

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Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)

Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790)

A versatile statesman, printer, inventor, scientist, and diplomat, Franklin was also associated with the occult doctrine of his time, although his attitude was largely skeptical. He was familiar with astrology, and while at college he calculated the horoscope of another student named Titus Leads, allegedly predicting the exact time of his death.

In 1784 Franklin was a member of the committee of the Academie des Sciences in Paris, which reported on the phenomena of Franz Anton Mesmer during the furor created by animal magnetism. Although certain aspects of animal magnetism were acknowledged by the committee, the report attributed these to other causes. Franklin associated with Rosicrucians and became a Freemason in February 1730, a member of the Lodge of the Nine Muses, which was said to have influenced the French Revolution.

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