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Benjamin Franklin

Born: January 17 [Jan. 6, Old Style], 1706
Died: April 17, 1790

History powered by Prof. WalterBenjamin Franklin is many things: a printer, writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, civic leader, and diplomat.

As a scientist, he is best known for his experiments with electricity. As a writer, he is known for Poor Richard's Almanac and his autobiography. He is the oldest figure of the American Revolution. Franklin also is the only person to sign the three documents that established the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the peace treaty with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War, and the Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin and Electricity
Electricity is on people's minds in the 1740s, but not in the way we think about it today. People use electricity for magic tricks by creating sparks and shocks. Scientists conduct experiments with electricity, but scientific thinking about electricity has not changed much in hundreds of years. Electricity isn't "useful" yet.

Benjamin Franklin is interested in electricity. Being a curious and inventive thinker, Franklin wants to know more than just the popular tricks. He keeps thinking about electricity and comes up with a very important idea.

His idea is about electricity and lightning. Franklin notices several similarities between the two: They both create light, make loud crashes when they explode, are attracted to metal, have a particular smell, and more. Based on these observations, Franklin thinks electricity and lightning are the same thing. A few people share his belief, but no one has ever tested it.

Franklin writes up his thoughts on electricity in several letters to a fellow scientist who lives in London. This scientist and other scientists in London think Franklin's letters contains valuable information, so in 1751 they publish them in a little book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity.

One of the letters contain Franklin's plan for how to prove that electricity and lightning are the same. His plan requires something tall, like a hill or a tall building, but Philadelphia has neither at the time. While Franklin is waiting for a tall building to be built, he comes up with another plan. This one involves a key and a kite.

Franklin needs something to get close enough to the clouds to attract the lightning. He can not get up there since Philadelphia doesn't have any hills or tall buildings. He does have a silk handkerchief, a couple of sticks and some string, so instead of getting himself up near the lightning, he flies a kite up to it. And it works! Franklin and a few other scientists in Europe (who do their own experiments) prove that lightning and electricity are the same thing.

But that isn't enough for Franklin. He believes that this knowledge should be used for practical purposes

What can be practical about lightning? Many folks knew what isn't practical: having your house burn down because it is struck by lightning. Franklin thinks he can help. He knew that lightning usually hit the highest part of a building. He also knew that the electrical current in lightning can start a fire. So he invents the lightning rod. A lightning rod is made of metal and is attached to the highest point on a house. The lightning hits the rod instead of the house, and the electrical current from the lightning goes into the ground and leaves the house undamaged. Franklin thinks the lightning rod is his most important invention.

Benjamin Franklin, the Printer
What will Benjamin Franklin be when he grows up? In the 18th century it is up to a boy's father to decide. Benjamin's father first thought he should be a preacher and sent him to school. But school is expensive and will take many years. So his father takes him out of school after only two years and he put 10-year-old Benjamin to work at the family business, making soap and candles.
What Benjamin really wants is to go to sea. He is an excellent swimmer, loves the ocean, and dreams of working on a ship, but an older brother has died at sea so his father will not allow it. When another brother, James, returns from England to set up a printing business, their father knows what to do. Benjamin loves to read, so why not become a printer? To make sure he doesn't run off to sea, his father convinces Benjamin to become his brother's apprentice (helper).

Apprentices have to sign papers that says they will obey and work for their "master" (boss) for a certain amount of time. Benjamin reluctantly signs up to be his brother's apprentice for nine long years, from when he was 12 until he is 21.

James put Benjamin to work setting type, cleaning up, and making deliveries, just like any other apprentice. They print all kinds of things, from almanacs to sermons. Benjamin works hard and learns quickly.

In 1721 James decides to start a newspaper. At the time there are already two newspapers in Boston, but this newspaper, the New England Courant, is different. Instead of reporting on news from Europe, the Courant reports on local news with clever reporting and contributions from its readers. This combination often means that some of their material is controversial. Unfortunately, not everyone think this is a good idea.

After a couple of especially controversial stories in 1723, the Massachusetts legislature decides that the Courant has mocked religion and the government and should be punished. They put James in jail and pass an order that "James Franklin should no longer print the paper."

But James and his friends figure out a good way around the order. They publish the paper under the name "Benjamin Franklin." And suddenly, Benjamin, at age 17, is the publisher of the New England Courant. To make sure it looks legitimate, James officially ends Benjamin's apprenticeship, but he replaces it with a new secret apprenticeship agreement.

While Benjamin likes being the publisher, he likes the idea of freedom better. Not freedom for the states (yet), but freedom for himself. Officially, Benjamin no longer has to obey and work for James, his "master." Benjamin guesses that James will not want to reveal the secret apprenticeship agreement and so he takes advantage of the situation. Benjamin runs away to try to make it on his own.

And Benjamin does make it on his own. Eventually he opens his own printing shop in Philadelphia. Benjamin's shop prints all kinds of things including Pennsylvania's currency (money), his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and his Poor Richard's Almanac. For the rest of his life, regardless of his other accomplishments, Benjamin always considers himself a printer.

Benjamin Franklin, the Writer
Benjamin Franklin loves to read. When he is young, he borrows books from anyone who will lend them. He read about all kinds of subjects. Franklin also wants to write, but he didn't know how. He only has two years of school, so he taught himself. He finds stories that he likes and rewrite them. Some he rewrites from memory. Others he turn into poetry and then rewrites back into stories. Sometimes he takes notes on a story, then mix up his notes and tries to put them back in the correct order.

His hard work pays off. When he is 16 years old, he submits 14 letters to his brother's newspaper, the New England Courant, and his brother publishes them. But the story isn't quite that simple. Have you ever heard of "Silence Dogood"?

Silence Dogood is the name Franklin uses to write the letters. In the 18th century many people writes using pseudonyms (fake names used in writing). Franklin makes up a whole character who goes by the name Silence Dogood and write the letters as though he was she.

Dogood claims to be a middle-aged widow with some funny and intelligent things to say. People suspect that Dogood is not who she said she is, but many are surprised to find out that young Franklin had written the letters.

Franklin's most famous pseudonym (pronounced SOO-Doe-Nim) is Richard Saunders, also known as Poor Richard of Poor Richard's Almanac. Have you ever used an almanac?

An almanac is a reference book for everyday life. It's filled with information like calendars and weather forecasts. Almanacs have been around for centuries and became especially widespread after printing is invented. Before the Internet, television, and radio, many people will buy an almanac every year so they can look up things like holidays and the moon cycles.

Franklin knew lots of things about lots of things, so in 1732 he decides to write his own almanac. He called it Poor Richard's Almanac. The "author" is Richard Saunders, but it is really Franklin using another pseudonym.

Poor Richard presented himself as a slightly dull, but often funny, country fellow who believes in hard work and simple living. Many of Franklin's most famous quotes are from Poor Richard's, such as "haste makes waste" and "early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

Poor Richard's is an immediate success. Franklin publishes one each year for the next 26 years and sells almost 10,000 copies every year. But that isn't all Franklin writes.

Franklin writes many things during his lifetime: articles for his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, letters about his life (later published as his Autobiography), letters on an amazingly wide range of subjects, including politics, science, libraries, even fire stations.

He also helps with changes to the Declaration of Independence. Some things he writes using his own name, others he writes using pseudonyms like Silence Dogood. Sometimes he is humorous, and other times serious, but he always follows his own rule for writing: make it "smooth, clear and short."

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