Benjamin Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin was born on Jan. 17, 1706, in Boston. His father, Josiah Franklin (1658-1745), a tallow chandler by trade, had 17 children; Benjamin was the 15th child and the 10th son. His mother, Abiah Folger (1667-1752), was his father's second wife. The Franklin family lived modestly, like most New Englanders of the time. After his attendance at grammar school from age eight to ten,

At age 13 he was apprenticed to his brother James who had recently returned from England with a new printing press. Benjamin learned the printing trade, devoting his spare time to the advancement of his education. His reading included Pilgrim's Progress by the British preacher John Bunyan, Parallel Lives, the work of the Greek essayist and biographer Plutarch, Essay on Projects by the English journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe, and the Essays to Do Good by Cotton Mather, the American Congregational clergyman. When he acquired a copy of the third volume of the Spectator by the British statesmen and essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, he set himself the goal of mastering its prose style.

In 1721 his brother James Franklin established the New England Courant, and Benjamin, at the age of 15, was busily occupied in delivering the newspaper by day and in composing articles for it at night. These articles, published anonymously, won wide notice and acclaim for their pithy observations on the current scene. Franklin eventually went to London to complete his training as a printer and to purchase the equipment needed to start his own printing establishment in Philadelphia. In 1729, he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette, a dull, poorly edited weekly newspaper, which he made, by his witty style and judicious selection of news, both entertaining and informative. In 1730 he married Deborah Read (1705-74), a Philadelphia woman whom he had known before his trip to England.

Franklin engaged in many public projects. In 1731 he founded what was probably the first public library in America, chartered in 1742 as the Philadelphia Library. He first published Poor Richard's Almanack in 1732, under the pen name Richard Saunders. This modest volume quickly gained a wide and appreciative audience, and its homespun, practical wisdom exerted a pervasive influence upon the American character. Always interested in scientific studies, he devised means to correct the excessive smoking of chimneys and invented, around 1744, the Franklin stove, which furnished greater heat with a reduced consumption of fuel.

In 1747 Franklin began his electrical experiments with a simple apparatus that he received from Peter Collinson (1694-1768) in England. He advanced a tenable theory of the Leyden jar, supported the hypothesis that lightning is an electrical phenomenon, and proposed an effective method of demonstrating this fact. His plan was published in London and carried out in England and France before he himself performed his celebrated experiment with the kite in 1752. He invented the lightning rod and offered what is called the "one-fluid" theory in explanation of the two kinds of electricity, positive and negative.

In 1748 Franklin sold his printing business and, in 1750, was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, in which he served until 1764. In 1776, he was chosen to be a member of the committee of five chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was also one of the signers of that historic document, addressing the assembly with the characteristic statement: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." In 1787 he was elected a delegate to the convention that drew up the U.S. Constitution.

Franklin's most notable service to his country was the result of his great skill in diplomacy. To his common sense, wisdom, wit, and industry, he joined great firmness of purpose, matchless tact, and broad tolerance. Both as a brilliant conversationalist and a sympathetic listener, Franklin had a wide and appreciative following in the intellectual salons of the day. For the most part, his literary reputation rests on his unfinished Autobiography, which is considered by many the epitome of his life and character.

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