Benjamin Franklin: Biography, Inventions & Facts

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Benjamin Franklin: Biography, Inventions, & Facts.

Benjamin Franklin: Biography, Inventions & Facts 

-P.K. Mukherjee 

We know of Benjamin Franklin as a scientist who performed the famous kite experiment in a stormy weather that led to the discovery of static electricity. But, all the same, he was a versatile personality. He was a printer, writer, philosopher, statesman and a politician par excellence. Today, he is remembered in America as one of the founding fathers of the nation who was also a signatory to the draft of the Declaration of Independence. However, long before the idea of independence, Franklin had already outlined how a union of colonies might be achieved. He have had the privilege of representing Pennsylvania and eventually several colonies at the Court of King George II of England, and when the king died, his son George III. His modest dress and workman’s background, together with his benign and quiet manner, were deceptive to those used to grand gestures and obfuscating talks. But, he was an epitome of simple living and high thinking.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was born on 17 th January, 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father Josiah Franklin, had emigrated from the village of Ecton in the English midlands in 1685. At Boston, his father started his career as a soap and candle maker. His mother, Abiah Folger, was a discreet and virtuous woman. Benjamin was the eighth child of his parents.

Benjamin’s father sent him to the Boston Latin School at the age of eight. But, after a year because of financial stringency his father withdrew him and sent him to a local schoolmaster who taught him grammar, writing and mathematics.

At the age of twelve, Benjamin joined as an apprentice to his brother James who as a printer and used to bring out the newspaper Courant. Benjamin not only helped James in printing and publishing but also used to write articles for the newspaper. His articles were in the form of letters, which he wrote by the ghost name of a fictional middle – aged widow, Silence Dogood. On 2 July 1722, when Benjamin was 16 years old, his eighth letter appeared in print which reflected his philosophy and his discreet political wisdom. “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as Public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech, which is the Right of every Man”, wrote Benjamin.

In 1723, Benjamin left Boston for Philadelphia. In fact a deep seated inner urge had prompted him to do so. He, therefore, decided to change the way of his life. Consciously, he was inducted to the patterns of science and resolved to make his own life his first experiment. He had read The Way to Health by Thomas Tryon. After reading the book Benjamin became a vegetarian for a while, began a regular exercise programme and started taking bath regularly. He also became concerned with ventilation, proper breathing and good air.

These decisions flowed in part from the idea that respecting his body made his a better, more productive persons. He firmly held the view that better individuals made better citizens, and better citizens made for a more civil society. In 1727, Benjamin proposed to a group of friends that they join together to start what he called the “Junto”. It was his first experience with the power of small associations. This junto model later on came in handy and was particularly effective in the creation of a hospital, an insurance company, a college, fire companies, libraries, learned societies, sanitation programmes, and police departments. Benjamin indeed became successful in transforming Philadelphia with the creation of the above facilities. His weekly newspaper Pennsylvania Gazette (whose name was later changed to Saturday Evening Post), which he started in 1729, and his earlier journal Poor Richard’s Almanac were also highly instrumental in moulding public opinion. These publications were brought out from his own printing house which was situated on the Market Street in Philadelphia.

Benjamin chanced to meet Deborah Read Rogers, a carpenter’s daughter, and married her in September, 1730. However, it is said that before he got married to Deborah he fathered a child, William whose mother’s identity was never known. In 1732, a son, Francis, was born to the Franklin couple. But, he unfortunately died from smallpox at the age of four which distressed Benjamin very much . However, to his delight, in 1743 a daughter, Sarah, known as Sally, was born. Benjamin used to adore her very much.

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Before marriage, Benjamin had compiled a list of thirteen virtues which were Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. He tried to follow these virtues but sometimes he fell short of his own standards. He then wouldtry to improve upon them.

Benjamin not only excelled as a journalist, he was a good writer too. The Autobiography authored by him is now regarded a classic book. He also learnt many languages. He was very fluent in French, Spanish and Italian languages. He rode well, loved good food and made a wonderful company. He loved to travel as well and was willing to take up any challenge. That is why when in 1753, he was made the deputy postmaster general of North America, he took up the appointment with delight. Benjamin was a great humanitarian too. He was instrumental in eliminating the institution of slavery the country he helped found. Although he had owned slaves, advertised their sale in his newspaper and even traded in human beings, by 1971 he had begun to think that the institution was philosophically and economically unsound. In 1787, he helped reinvigorate the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such society in America, by becoming its President.

Benjamin was dedicated to the cause of independence of his nation. His dream was to see America as a democratic republic whose political power flowed form its citizens. He was one of the five men who drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the remaining four being Thomas Jefferson, Jonn Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. In late October, 1776, at the age of seventy, Benjamin sailed for France in the American ship Reprisal to secure support of the Fraench government to the cause of American independence. Benjamin had no idea at that time this task would keep him in France for almost ten years.

It might sound strange that under the terrible pressure of his wide- ranging activities and busy schedule how he could spare time for science. But all said and done, Benjamin was a compulsive scientist. Insatiably curious as he was, he could not cross an ocean without measuring currents, nor could he look at a stream without considering the fish that swam within. In 1743, he began his work on the formation of the American Philosophical Society that was modelled on the London’s Royal Society. He invited the leading colonial natural scientists to join him in this noble venture.

As a scientist, Benjamin is mainly recognized for his experiments in electricity. But his contributions ranged across disciplined – from climatology to oceanography to geology to medicine to what today we would call physics. It is said that Benjamin’s kite experiment was inspired by his experiments on Leyden jars during which he had noticed sparks of light and crackling sound. He used to wonder whethen what he had observed on the mini laboratory scale could be duplicated on a larger scale. It was a stormy day of 1752 the sky was badly overcast. With his son William, he designed a kite made of a large silk handkerchief. A pointed wire was attached to the tip of the Rite. A sting attached to the kite whose lower end was tied to a metallic key. This, in turn, was attached to a silk ribbon. The kite was flown high up in the air. Benjamin held it with the help of the silk ribbon. Both father and the son stood beneath a cowshed so that the ribbon would not get wet in the rain.

Some of the electricity in the thundercloud travelled down the wet string to the metallic key. But, it was not safe to touch the key. Nonetheless, Benjamin mustered courage and finally decided to touch he key. Carefully, he extended his hand towards the key. But, he had to withdraw his hand immediately as he had received a stinging shock. This proved that (static) electricity was produced during lightning.

This discovery took Benjamin to a plateau of celebrity. The Royal Society honoured him by making him its member in 1756. He was later also made member of the French Academy of Science in 1772. Benjamin put his discovery to practical use by inventing the lightning conductor. A lightning conductor is a pointed metal rod, placed above the roof of large buildings, the lower end of which is buried under the ground. This protects the buildings and houses form lightning bolts by discharging the clouds safely through it. Although Benjamin discovered electricity in lightning, his understanding about electricity was limited. He regarded electricity as fluid; and proposed one- fluid theory for it which had to be later abandoned.

He also delved in many diversified fields, such as, geology, meteorology, navigation and even artificial fertilizers. He pioneered the study of oceanography by mapping the course of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean. He also experimented with the heat absorption of different colours and proved that the reflection of the sun rays by the white colour was maximum while the black colour maximally absorbed the sun’s rays.
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