Benjamin Franklin FRS, was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and in many ways was “the First American”. A world-renowned polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He facilitated many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and a university.
There are several little know facts and misconceptions about the life and discoveries of Benjamin Franklin. Some of them quite major and provide to be brilliant and interesting. Franklin had an interest in a variety of subjects and was truly a man of the everyday man. Besides the discovery of electricity and his role as a founding father of the US, he helped shape our country in fundamental ways that are still in use to this day.
Dear Mrs. Dogood,
Ben Franklin’s family wanted him to join the clergy of the church, he did not want this but rather wanted a career in the newpaper business. He learned from his brothers and became an apprentice at the age of 12. When denied the chance to write a letter to the paper for publication, Franklin adopted the pseudonym of “Mrs. Silence Dogood“, a middle-aged widow. “Mrs. Dogood”‘s letters were published, and became a subject of conversation around town. Neither James nor the Courant’s readers were aware of the ruse, and James was unhappy with Ben when he discovered the popular correspondent was his younger brother. Franklin was an advocate of free speech from an early age. When his brother was jailed for three weeks in 1722 for publishing material unflattering to the governor, young Franklin took over the newspaper and had Mrs Dogood (quoting Cato’s Letters) proclaim: “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” Franklin left his apprenticeship without his brother’s permission, and in so doing became a fugitive.
First Library for the Common Man and Woman
In 1727, Benjamin Franklin, then 21, created the Junto, a group of “like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community.” The Junto was a discussion group for issues of the day; it subsequently gave rise to many organizations in Philadelphia.
Reading was a great pastime of the Junto, but books were rare and expensive. The members created a library, initially assembled from their own books. This did not suffice, however. Franklin conceived the idea of a subscription library, which would pool the funds of the members to buy books for all to read. This was the birth of the Library Company of Philadelphia: its charter was composed by Franklin in 1731. In 1732, Franklin hired the first American librarian, Louis Timothee.
Originally, the books were kept in the homes of the first librarians, but in 1739 the collection was moved to the second floor of the State House of Pennsylvania, now known asIndependence Hall. In 1791, a new building was built specifically for the library. The Library Company is now a great scholarly and research library with 500,000 rare books, pamphlets, and broadsides, more than 160,000 manuscripts, and 75,000 graphic items.
In 1730, at the age of 24, Franklin publicly acknowledged an illegitimate son named William, and raised him in his household. His mother’s identity is not known. He was educated in Philadelphia.
In 1731, Franklin was initiated into the local Masonic Lodge. He became Grand Master in 1734, indicating his rapid rise to prominence in Pennsylvania. That same year, he edited and published the first Masonic book in the Americas, a reprint of James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons. Franklin remained a Freemason for the rest of his life. His role as a free mason and his role in the formation of the United States may be no coincidence. It is speculated that a Sir Francis Bacon was also was also a free mason wrote a book entitled,” New Atlantis” which the plot was based on a new conceptual society, both free and of moral quality. Some historians believe this book was in some relation to the formative idea of the United states among the free masons of the time. An exert from the book may point to this;
But hear me now, and I will tell you what I know. You shall understand that there is not under the heavens so chaste a nation as this of Bensalem; nor so free from all pollution or foulness. It is the virgin of the world. I remember I have read in one of your European books, of an holy hermit amongst you that desired to see the Spirit of Fornication; and there appeared to him a little foul ugly Aethiop. But if he had desired to see the Spirit of Chastity of Bensalem, it would have appeared to him in the likeness of a fair beautiful Cherubim. For there is nothing amongst mortal men more fair and admirable, than the chaste minds of this people. Know therefore, that with them there are no stews, no dissolute houses, no courtesans, nor anything of that kind.
Benjamin Franklin was known to be an avid reader, and New Atlantis written in 1627 may point to some of his motivations for his role as founding father of the the ‘New’ world. Note, this can only be speculated.
William his illegitimate Son
Beginning at about age 30, William studied law in London in the early 1760s. He fathered an illegitimate son, William Franklin, born February 22, 1762. The boy’s mother was never identified, and he was placed in foster care. Franklin later that year married Elizabeth Downes, daughter of a planter from Barbados. After William passed the bar, his father helped him gain an appointment in 1763 as the last Royal Governor of New Jersey.
Understanding Ocean Currents
Franklin became interested in the North Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns. While in England in 1768, he heard a complaint from the Colonial Board of Customs: Why did it take British packet ships carrying mail several weeks longer to reach New York than it took an average merchant ship to reach Newport, Rhode Island? The merchantmen had a longer and more complex voyage because they left from London, while the packets left from Falmouth in Cornwall.
Franklin put the question to his cousin Timothy Folger, a Nantucket whaler captain, who told him that merchant ships routinely avoided a strong eastbound mid-ocean current. The mail packet captains sailed dead into it, thus fighting an adverse current of 3 miles per hour (5 km/h). Franklin worked with Folger and other experienced ship captains, learning enough to chart the current and name it the Gulf Stream, by which it is still known today.
Franklin published his Gulf Stream chart in 1770 in England, where it was completely ignored. Subsequent versions were printed in France in 1778 and the U.S. in 1786. The British edition of the chart, which was the original, was so thoroughly ignored that everyone assumed it was lost forever until Phil Richardson, a Woods Hole oceanographer and Gulf Stream expert, discovered it in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1980. This find received front page coverage in the New York Times.
It took many years for British sea captains to adopt Franklin’s advice on navigating the current; once they did, they were able to trim two weeks from their sailing time. In 1853, the oceanographer and cartographerMatthew Fontaine Maury noted that Franklin only charted and codified the Gulf Stream, he did not discover it:
Though it was Dr. Franklin and Captain Tim Folger, who first turned the Gulf Stream to nautical account, the discovery that there was a Gulf Stream cannot be said to belong to either of them, for its existence was known to Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, and to Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the 16th century.
Discovery of Electricity; He Didn’t fly a kite
In 1750 he published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is electricity by flying a kite in a storm that appeared capable of becoming a lightning storm. On May 10, 1752, Thomas-François Dalibard of France conducted Franklin’s experiment using a 40-foot-tall (12 m) iron rod instead of a kite, and he extracted electrical sparks from a cloud. On June 15 Franklin may possibly have conducted his well known kite experiment in Philadelphia, successfully extracting sparks from a cloud. Franklin’s experiment was not written up with credit until Joseph Priestley‘s 1767 History and Present Status of Electricity; the evidence shows that Franklin was insulated (not in a conducting path, where he would have been in danger of electrocution). Others, such as Prof. Georg Wilhelm Richmann, were indeed electrocuted during the months following Franklin’s experiment.
In his writings, Franklin indicates that he was aware of the dangers and offered alternative ways to demonstrate that lightning was electrical, as shown by his use of the concept ofelectrical ground. If Franklin did perform this experiment, he may not have done it in the way that is often described—flying the kite and waiting to be struck by lightning—as it would have been dangerous. Instead he used the kite to collect some electric charge from a storm cloud, which implied that lightning was electrical. On October 19 in a letter to England with directions for repeating the experiment, Franklin wrote:
When rain has wet the kite twine so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it streams out plentifully from the key at the approach of your knuckle, and with this key a phial, or Leiden jar, may be charged: and from electric fire thus obtained spirits may be kindled, and all other electric experiments [may be] performed which are usually done by the help of a rubber glass globe or tube; and therefore the sameness of the electrical matter with that of lightening completely demonstrated.
Franklin’s electrical experiments led to his invention of the lightning rod. He noted that conductors with a sharp rather than a smooth point could discharge silently, and at a far greater distance. He surmised that this could help protect buildings from lightning by attaching “upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground; … Would not these pointed Rods 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!” Following a series of experiments on Franklin’s own house, lightning rods were installed on the Academy of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) and the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in 1752.
Franklin was, along with his contemporary Leonhard Euler, the only major scientist who supported Christiaan Huygens‘ wave theory of light, which was basically ignored by the rest of the scientific community. In the 18th century Newton’s corpuscular theory was held to be true; only after Young’s well known slit experiment in 1803 were most scientists persuaded to believe Huygens’ theory.
On October 21, 1743, according to popular myth, a storm moving from the southwest denied Franklin the opportunity of witnessing a lunar eclipse. Franklin was said to have noted that the prevailing winds were actually from the northeast, contrary to what he had expected. In correspondence with his brother, Franklin learned that the same storm had not reached Boston until after the eclipse, despite the fact that Boston is to the northeast of Philadelphia. He deduced that storms do not always travel in the direction of the prevailing wind, a concept that greatly influencedmeteorology.
After the Icelandic volcanic eruption of Laki in 1783, and the subsequent harsh European winter of 1784, Franklin made observations connecting the causal nature of these two separate events. He wrote about them in a lecture series.
Franklin was an avid chess player. He was playing chess by around 1733, making him the first chess player known by name in the American colonies. His essay on “The Morals of Chess” in Columbian magazine in December 1786 is the second known writing on chess in America. This essay in praise of chess and prescribing a code of behavior for the game has been widely reprinted and translated. He and a friend also used chess as a means of learning the Italian language, which both were studying; the winner of each game between them had the right to assign a task, such as parts of the Italian grammar to be learned by heart, to be performed by the loser before their next meeting. Franklin was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 1999.
He also helped form the first University where anyone could attend, not just people of money and stature in the community. Franklin also started the first of its kind, a modern day police department to protect the towns folk from roaming bands of Indians. This first police force was built on the idea of not being controlled by a King or Queen, but by the people and for the people. Our modern day police forces are still to this day set in his original structure. He was the first to stand up and fight for the abolishment of slavery in the US.
Franklin sought to cultivate his character by a plan of 13 virtues, which he developed at age 20 (in 1726) and continued to practice in some form for the rest of his life. Hisautobiography lists his 13 virtues as:
- “Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
- “Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
- “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
- “Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
- “Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
- “Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
- “Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
- “Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
- “Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
- “Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
- “Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
- “Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
- “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”
Franklin did not try to work on them all at once. Instead, he would work on one and only one each week “leaving all others to their ordinary chance.” While Franklin did not live completely by his virtues, and by his own admission he fell short of them many times, he believed the attempt made him a better man contributing greatly to his success and happiness, which is why in his autobiography, he devoted more pages to this plan than to any other single point; in his autobiography Franklin wrote, “I hope, therefore, that some of my descendants may follow the example and reap the benefit.”
Franklin bequeathed £1,000 (about $4,400 at the time, or about $112,000 in 2011 dollars) each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, in trust to gather interest for 200 years. The trust began in 1785 when the French mathematician Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour, who admired Franklin greatly, wrote a friendly parody of Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” called “Fortunate Richard”. The main character leaves a smallish amount of money in his will, five lots of 100 livres, to collect interest over one, two, three, four or five full centuries, with the resulting astronomical sums to be spent on impossibly elaborate utopian projects. Franklin, who was 79 years old at the time, wrote thanking him for a great idea and telling him that he had decided to leave a bequest of 1,000 pounds each to his native Boston and his adopted Philadelphia. By 1990, more than $2,000,000 had accumulated in Franklin’s Philadelphia trust, which had loaned the money to local residents. From 1940 to 1990, the money was used mostly for mortgage loans. When the trust came due, Philadelphia decided to spend it on scholarships for local high school students. Franklin’s Boston trust fund accumulated almost $5,000,000 during that same time; at the end of its first 100 years a portion was allocated to help establish a trade school that became the Franklin Institute of Boston, and the whole fund was later dedicated to supporting this institute.