Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. He was the tenth son of soap maker, Josiah Franklin. Benjamin's mother was Abiah Folger, the second wife of Josiah. In all, Josiah would father 17 children.
Josiah intended for Benjamin to enter into the clergy. However, Josiah could only afford to send his son to school for one year and clergymen needed years of schooling. But, as young Benjamin loved to read he had him apprenticed to his brother James, who was a printer. After helping James compose pamphlets and set type which was grueling work, 12-year-old Benjamin would sell their products in the streets.
When Benjamin was 15 his brother started The New England Courant the first "newspaper" in Boston. Though there were two papers in the city before James's Courant, they only reprinted news from abroad. James's paper carried articles, opinion pieces written by James's friends, advertisements, and news of ship schedules.
Benjamin wanted to write for the paper too, but he knew that James would never let him. After all, Benjamin was just a lowly apprentice. So Ben began writing letters at night and signing them with the name of a fictional widow, Silence Dogood. Dogood was filled with advice and very critical of the world around her, particularly concerning the issue of how women were treated. Ben would sneak the letters under the print shop door at night so no one knew who was writing the pieces. They were a smash hit, and everyone wanted to know who was the real "Silence Dogood."
After 16 letters, Ben confessed that he had been writing the letters all along. While James's friends thought Ben was quite precocious and funny, James scolded his brother and was very jealous of the attention paid to him.
Before long the Franklins found themselves at odds with Boston's powerful Puritan preachers, the Mathers. Smallpox was a deadly disease in those times, and the Mathers supported inoculation; the Franklins' believed inoculation only made people sicker. And while most Bostonians agreed with the Franklins, they did not like the way James made fun of the clergy, during the debate. Ultimately, James was thrown in jail for his views, and Benjamin was left to run the paper for several issues.
Upon release from jail, James was not grateful to Ben for keeping the paper going. Instead he kept harassing his younger brother and administering beatings from time to time. Ben could not take it and decided to run away in 1723.
Franklin's printing business was thriving in this 1730s and 1740s. He also started setting up franchise printing partnerships in other cities. By 1749 he retired from business and started concentrating on science, experiments, and inventions. This was nothing new to Franklin. In 1743, he had already invented a heat-efficient stove — called the Franklin stove — to help warm houses efficiently. As the stove was invented to help improve society, he refused to take out a patent.
Among Franklin's other inventions are swim fins, the glass armonica (a musical instrument) and bifocals.
In the early 1750's he turned to the study of electricity. His observations, including his kite experiment which verified the nature of electricity and lightning brought Franklin international fame.
He started working actively for Independence. He naturally thought his son William, now the Royal governor of New Jersey, would agree with his views. William did not. William remained a Loyal Englishman. This caused a rift between father and son which was never healed.
Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and worked on a committee of five that helped to draft the Declaration of Independence. Though much of the writing is Thomas Jefferson's, much of the contribution is Franklin's. In 1776 Franklin signed the Declaration, and afterward sailed to France as an ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI.
The French loved Franklin. He was the man who had tamed lightning, the humble American who dressed like a backwoodsman but was a match for any wit in the world. He spoke French, though stutteringly. He was a favorite of the ladies. Several years earlier his wife Deborah had died, and Benjamin was now a notorious flirt.
In part via Franklin's popularity, the government of France signed a Treaty of Alliance with the Americans in 1778. Franklin also helped secure loans and persuade the French they were doing the right thing. Franklin was on hand to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, after the Americans had won the Revolution.
Now a man in his late seventies, Franklin returned to America. He became President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania. He served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and signed the Constitution. One of his last public acts was writing an anti-slavery treatise in 1789.
Franklin died on April 17, 1790 at the age of 84. 20,000 people attended the funeral of the man who was called, "the harmonious human multitude."
His electric personality, however, still lights the world.