Benjamin Franklin

6/17 January 1706 - 17 April 1790

Benjamin Franklin was born into a large Puritan family in Boston, Massachusetts on 6 January 1706 by the Julian calendar (17 January by the Gregorian). He left school at age 10 and at age 12 was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer, but at 17 ran away to Philadelphia, and then to London where he worked 1724-6 as a typesetter in Smithfield. Back in Philadelphia he soon became deeply involved in civic afairs, forming groups to set up numerous organisations that still exist in some form, among them the Pennsylvania Gazette (1728) and the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731).

Franklin rejected much of his family's Puritan dogma, but retained a belief in a "superintending providence". In 1731 he joined the local Masonic Lodge, becoming Grand Master in 1734 and remaining a Freemason for the rest of his life. During 1732-58 he published the annual Poor Richard's Almanack (under the pen-name Richard Saunders) in which he coined many now well known aphorisms. Franklin made numerous inventions but never patented them. In his autobiography he wrote: "as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously".

In 1743 he founded the American Philosophical Society, for discussion of scientific discoveries, such as his own in electricity. It was at this time that he proposed his famous kite-flying experiment to show that lightning was an electrical phenomenon and led to his invention of lightning conductors. In recognition of this work he was awarded the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1753 and was elected as a Fellow of the Society in 1756.

In 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and in 1757-62, he was sent to England as a colonial agent to protest against the political influence of the Penn family, and again in 1764-75. In London, Franklin opposed the 1765 Stamp Act, but was unable to prevent its passage, however his testimony before the House of Commons led to its repeal and he became the leading spokesman for American interests in England. Three states appointed him as their agent to the Crown, but by this time the situation was beyond diplomacy. He left London in March 1775, and by the time he arrived in May the American Revolution had begun.

The Pennsylvania Assembly chose Franklin as their delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In June 1776, he was appointed a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence. At the signing, he is quoted as having replied to a comment by Hancock that they must all hang together: "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

In December 1776, Franklin was dispatched to France as commissioner for the United States. Franklin remained in France until 1785. After his return, he became an abolitionist, freeing both of his slaves. He eventually became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Whilst in Britain Franklin travelled widely, meeting such figures as Richard Price in London, Joseph Priestley in Leeds, Erasmus Darwin at Litchfield, Thomas Percival the medical ethicist in Manchester. In Birmingham he met John Baskerville and, as a printer, recognised the utility and beauty of his new typeface and printing methods, which he took back with him to America. In Scotland, he stayed for three weeks with David Hume in Edinburgh. He also provided Thomas Paine with a letter of introduction to friends in Philadelphia in 1774. While in London he became a member of what later became the Royal Society of Arts. His residence in Craven Street (alongside Charing Cross station) was opened as a museum in 2006.

Sources and Links

Wikipedia biography
Text of Autobiography
Franklin House London
Franklin's Kite Experiment