Born: January 17 [Jan. 6, Old Style],
Died: April 17, 1790
Benjamin Franklin is many things: a printer, writer,
scientist, inventor, statesman, civic leader, and
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.
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
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
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
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).
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 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
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."