Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


What didn't Ben Franklin do?

Benjamin Franklin, born 300 years ago Tuesday, was one of America's Founding Fathers. But he was also a printer, author, musician, and scientist.

By Steven Ellis / January 17, 2006



A thunderstorm is not the best weather for flying a kite. That is, of course, unless you're Benjamin Franklin.

Skip to next paragraph

One summer afternoon in 1752, Franklin and his son, William, did just that. As thunderclouds developed in the distance, the two ran to an open field to fly a kite.

You see, Franklin had a theory about electricity. He thought electricity and lightning might be the same thing. But he wasn't sure. So despite the possible danger, Franklin tested his theory on that stormy day with a special kite designed to attract lightning.

After all, that's what scientists do: They imagine the unthinkable, take risks, and try new things.

Benjamin Franklin might be best known as a politician and a printer. But he was also a scientist and an inventor. He was always tinkering with things. He was always experimenting.

When lightning struck his kite that day, sending sparks to a key in his hand, Franklin proved his theory. He now knew that lightning was an electrical phenomenon.

That discovery proved to be the beginning of other experiments and inventions.

Franklin invented lightning rods, which help keep houses and buildings safe from lightning; bifocal eyeglasses (with one part for close focus and another for distance); swim flippers, so people could swim faster in water; and a stove to efficiently heat small rooms.

Franklin was also one of the first people in the 13 Colonies to establish a lending library, a volunteer fire department, and a public hospital.

All of these innovations and improvements were the result of taking risks, challenging old ways of thinking, and looking for new ways to make everyday life easier. That's what Franklin did best.

But his true love was reading and writing. As a child, that often got him into trouble when he would skip church to read books and newspapers. But as he got older, it paved the way for his success in publishing and politics.

Born 300 years ago Tuesday - on Jan. 17, 1706 - Franklin grew up in a large, poor family in Boston.

From the age of 10 until he was 12, Ben worked in his dad's shop, helping make candles and soap. But he was smart, although he had attended only two years of school. So he was apprenticed to his brother, James, who was the publisher of a newspaper.

It was at his brother's newspaper that Ben created "Silence Dogood," a fictional widow whose name he used when writing opinion articles for the newspaper.

The Silence Dogood letters marked a turning point in Ben's life. Through them he publically expressed his political opinions for the first time.

Those letters, 14 in all, are still famous today. (You may have even seen a reference to them in the recent Disney movie, "National Treasure.")

Five years later, when he was 17, Ben had the courage to move to Philadelphia, where he started his own newspaper, the Philadelphia Gazette. He also printed the popular "Poor Richard's Almanack." Published annually, the book contained information on many subjects.

Some of Franklin's most famous sayings first appeared in that almanac: "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," and "If you would be loved, love and be lovable."

Through publishing, Franklin was able to achieve financial freedom and reach new audiences. That helped him devote much of his later life to politics.

Franklin was a skillful and energetic politician. He proved time and again that he wasn't afraid to take risks.

Franklin's first job as a politician was as Philadelphia's city clerk. From there, he rose to become Philadelphia's postmaster general and then deputy postmaster general for North America.

In 1775, the Revolutionary War began. The Colonies fought England for their independence.

At that time, Franklin was named a member of the Second Continental Congress. Over the next 13 months, he joined Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock, and others in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

Permissions