What do the study of electricity, the Gulf Stream, public libraries, bifocal lenses, and the United States Declaration of Independence have in common? Benjamin Franklin, a true Renaissance man, made significant contributions to them all

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 in the town of Boston in the British colony of Massachusetts. His father, Joshua Franklin, immigrated to America twenty years before Benjamin was born, and became a tallow chandler, manufacturing wax candles and soap to support his growing family. As testified by Franklin himself in his famous autobiography, Benjamin was the fifteenth child in a family of seventeen children and the “youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back”.

In the large Franklin family, the father intended each of his children to a specific occupation, and Benjamin was sent to school to become a clergyman. However, he left school at the age of ten, apparently due to financial constraints, and began assisting his father in manufacturing candles and soaps. Franklin describes that during his short stay at school he learned how to write reasonably well, but was unable to advance in math. This failure at mathematics at a young age did not prevent him from making a great contribution to the understanding of the principles of electricity decades later.

At the age of 12, Franklin began working at the printing house owned by his brother James, where he learned the secrets of the printing trade. Through his work in the printing house Benjamin was exposed to books and newspapers coming from Europe, which expanded his horizons on the contemporary cultural and intellectual developments that took place on the continent. This was also where he initially tried his hand at writing, publishing a series of articles in the newspaper owned by his brother under the pseudonym Silence Dogood - a fictional middle-aged Boston widow. 

The time spent in his brother’s printing house taught Franklin about the power of the written word in spreading ideas and creating social organizations, an insight he would make good use of throughout his life.

כוחה של המילה המודפסת העשיר את רוחו ואת חשבון הבנק שלו. פרנקלין בבית הדפוס | מקור: Science Photo Library
The power of the written word enriched his spirit – and bank account. Franklin at the printing house | Source: Science Photo Library

Philadelphia, round one

At the age of 16, Benjamin left his brother’s printing house and moved to Philadelphia, remaining in the printing business, where his reputation preceded him. The governor of Philadelphia was so impressed by Franklin’s abilities that he sent him to London, promising to write him letters of recommendation that would help him form new commercial connections in London. However, upon his arrival in London, Franklin, aged 18, found out that the governor had failed to live up to his promise, and no warm letters of recommendation awaited him in the English capital. Franklin worked as a typesetter in London for a few months, returning to Philadelphia and eventually establishing his own printing house there. His printing business flourished and he quickly secured a number of governmental contracts, including a contract for printing the currency bills of Pennsylvania and nearby colonies. His success in the printing business provided Franklin with enough money to invest in interest-bearing loans as well as in local real estate. In 1740, at only 34 years of age, he was one of the wealthiest people in North America. 

Second only to the bible

To Franklin, the printing business was not only an excellent source of income. In 1729 he purchased a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette, which was one of the most highly regarded newspapers in the American colonies, and used it to spread various ideas. In 1754, for instance, the newspaper published a political cartoon, calling for the unification of the American colonies, entitled “Join or Die”. In addition, from 1732 onwards Franklin also published an annual journal entitled “Poor Richard’s Almanack”, which was a sort of calendar that contained musings and some astrology for the general public. Printed in 10,000 copies, one copy for every 50 Americans at the time, the Almanack was a bestseller, second only to the Bible. The ideas conveyed by Franklin in the Almanack had a major influence on the colonists and some of the aphorisms published in it are well-known to this day, such as “He that lieth down with dogs shall rise up with fleas”, “A penny saved is a penny earned” or “Love your enemies, for they tell you your faults”. In 1758 Franklin assembled his best adages and words of advice in the book “The Way to Wealth”, which soon became a worldwide bestseller. The book was printed in dozens of editions in English, as well as in French, German and Spanish and in many other languages.  

Books, Ladies and Gentlemen, books!

Alongside his extensive publishing work, Franklin was involved in a variety of social initiatives in Philadelphia. In 1727 he co-founded the “Leather Apron Club” (also known as the Junto), whose members gathered on Friday nights to discuss moral issues, politics and science. The club was so named since its members were craftsmen, such as typesetters, who wore aprons. To expand club members' access to books, Franklin founded the first lending library in history. Each member had to pay a registration fee of 30 shillings, followed by a yearly subscription fee of 10 shillings, in order to be able to borrow books from the library.  Other ventures that he promoted at the time were the founding of a local police force and a volunteer fire brigade. Franklin also founded the Academy and College of Philadelphia that would later become the University of Pennsylvania, and the “American Philosophical Society” (1743) - a sort of a ‘Leather Apron Club’ that also included members from other colonies. The society’s policy dictated inclusion of members of specific professions, such as a physician, a botanist, a mathematician, a chemist. The “American Philosophical Society” exists and remains active to this day.

תרומה נרחבת בשלל תחומים. תעודת החברות של פרנלקין באקדמיה האמריקאית למדעים | מקור: Science Photo Library
A vast contribution in numerous fields. Franklin's membership certificate in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences | Source: Science Photo Library

Electricity is in the air

Franklin’s excellent financial situation enabled him to proclaim himself a gentleman, to leave the management of his business in the hands of others and to begin engaging in questions that truly intrigued him. One natural  phenomenon that was known but not fully understood in those days was electricity.  

In 1745, Franklin received a letter from a London friend, Peter Collinson. In this letter Collinson described to Franklin how the dutch physicist Pieter Van Musschenbroek, from Leiden University, was able to store electricity within a special vessel, which would later become known as the “Leyden Jar”, the original form of the capacitor. This jar was coated on both the inside and the outside with thin pieces of metal capable of conducting electricity. A metal rod that protruded from the mouth of the jar and was connected to a device that generated static electricity, facilitated its charging. The Leyden Jar’s basic structure of two conducting materials separated by an insulating material, is used to this day in the manufacture of modern capacitors - means for storing electricity. 

Franklin realized that Van Musschenbroek’s jar would enable one to conduct various experiments with electricity, and was quick to order several  such jars from europe. 

Existing conceptions of electricity, present at the time, failed to explain how the  Leyden Jar worked - and so, Franklin was set on developing a new theory. While the common perception was that electricity was composed of two types of fluids, Franklin exclaimed that it was in fact only one type of fluid, which he termed “Electric fire”. He claimed that “Electric fire” could be either positive or negative, but that a negative “fire” meant merely the absence of a positive “fire” but was not in itself a different type of “fire”. Franklin’s claim is an early version of what is known in physics today as the law of “charge conservation”, which came 150 years before the discovery of the electron. 

Franklin had also created, seemingly out of thin air, a new vocabulary to describe electric phenomena. The terms “charge”, “positive”, “negative” and “conductor” were all coined by him. Even the familiar markings on batteries, a (+) at one end and a (-) at the other, are Franklin’s invention. The word “Battery” is in itself also one of his innovations - he used it to describe a battery of Leyden Jars connected to one another, all of which could be charged or discharged simultaneously.

מקור המילה "סוללה": מערך צנצנות הקבלים שהעמיד פרנקלין כדי לחקור חשמל | מקור: Science Photo Library
The origin of the word "battery":  an array of capacitator jars that Franklin installed for studying electricity | Source: Science Photo Library

Harnessing electricity

Having attained a better understanding of electricity, Franklin set out to find out whether lightning, which was commonly considered to be a completely separate phenomenon from the “fluid” in the Leyden Jars and believed to be a form of divine retribution, was also a type of electricity. In 1749 Franklin summarised the properties that were shared by both electricity and lightning: both travel quickly, emit light of a similar color and are capable of killing people or animals. From this Franklin surmised that another property that he knew existed in electricity would also exist in lightning: attraction to pointed objects. As he described in a letter from March 18, 1755 to John Lining: “The electric fluid is attracted by points. We do not know whether this property is in lightning. But since they agree in all the particulars wherein we can already compare them, is it not probable they agree likewise in this? Let the experiment be made.”

The mere fact that Franklin both formulated a hypothesis and conceived of an experimental method to test it was sensational. 

His proposition included the construction of a high tower, with an iron rod protruding from it to a height of at least ten meters. The conductor of the experiment will hold a conducting wire attached to the ground, and will bring it closer to the iron rod. If the iron rod is charged by the electricity in the clouds, a spark should pass from the pole to the wire. The actual experiment was conducted in a town near Paris on May 10, 1752, by a discharged soldier of the French Royal Army, under the guidance of physicist Thomas-François Dalibard. As the man drew the wire closer to the iron rod, sparks began bouncing from the wire to the rod, emitting a tremendously loud noise. Alarmed, the soldier fled the scene and the experiment was instead completed by a local clergyman, who testified having repeated it six times. Thus, using Franklin’s experimental design, the French experimenters were able to prove his hypothesis that lightning and electricity are the same physical phenomenon. 

News of the success of Franklin's lightning experiment soon spread widely across Europe, and the experiment was repeated multiple times, by scientists and homeowners alike.

Franklin himself was unable to carry out the experiment in Philadelphia in its original format, and so, to check for himself for the presence of electricity in storm clouds, he conducted a different experiment, using a kite attached to a small wire. Franklin figured out that once the silk string attached to the kite gets wet, it will conduct electricity from the kite to the ground and will thus confirm the presence of electricity in the clouds, similar to the tower experiment. Joseph Priestley, an English chemist who was renowned for his discovery of oxygen, described Franklin’s kite experiment. 

“The kite being raised, a considerable time elapsed before there was any appearance of its being electrified. One very promising cloud had passed over it without any effect; when, at length, just as he was beginning to despair of his contrivance, he observed some lose threads of the hempen string to stand erect, and to avoid one another, just as if they had been suspended on a common conductor. Struck with this promising appearance, he immediately presented his knucle to the key, and (let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment) the discovery was complete. He perceived a very evident electric spark.”

In addition to his dramatic contribution to the understanding of electricity, Franklin also invented several devices familiar to us today, including bifocals - lenses that enable the viewer to see to both short and long distances using the same lenses (1784), an improved stove (1741) and an odometer (1749). Franklin had also mapped the Gulf Stream (1764) during one of his voyages from Europe to America.    

Franklin’s scientific discoveries and his popular Almanacs made him a true celebrity, and perhaps one of the best-known Americans in the world at the time. His celebrity status would later turn out to be a first-rate strategic asset in the American colonies’ struggle for independence from the British Empire.

אחד הניסויים המפורסמים בהיסטוריה. פרנקלין בוחן את החשמל בעננים בעזרת עפיפון | מקור: Science Photo Library
One of the most famous experiments in history. Franklin testing the electricity in the clouds using a kite | Source: Science Photo Library

Join or die!

Franklin’s impressive writing skills, coupled with his success as a businessman and his concern for the general public, led him to hold a long list of public positions throughout his life. As early as 1736, at the age of 30, he was appointed secretary of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. A year later he was also appointed as postmaster of Philadelphia - an important position at the time, since mail was the only means of communication between cities. In 1753 he was appointed Deputy Postmaster-General for the British colonies of North America, and had improved the postal service to such an extent that it took only two days for mail to be delivered from Boston to Philadelphia. Many of today's postal companies could only wish to provide the service level achieved by Franklin nearly 300 years ago.

In 1757 Franklin set out to represent the residents of Pennsylvania before the English government in a struggle against the descendants of William Penn, one of the founders of the Province of Pennsylvania, for the right to represent the colony. He remained in England until 1775, during which time he represented not only Pennsylvania but also Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetss. During his long stay in England, Franklin met many European scientists and philosophers, including Priestley, Scottish philosopher David Hume, French philosopher Voltaire and the renowned Scottish sociologist and economist Adam Smith. During his many travels in Europe he gained recognition for his important contribution to science and was awarded an honorary doctorate from several institutions, the most prominent of which were University of Oxford in England, and University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  

In 1765, having learned of the fierce opposition of the colonies he represented to the new tax laws established by the British Crown, Franklin did his best to remove the decree. Hoping to restore the relationship between the colonies and the Crown, in 1772 he leaked to the Americans letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts, trying to blame the heavy taxation on the governor and not on the English government. This step was an utter failure, leading to Franklin's dismissal from all the official positions he held in England. He returned to Philadelphia in 1775 and began vigorously promoting the colonies’ independence.

Upon his return, Franklin was elected to hold a position in the Second Continental Congress as the Pennsylvania delegate and was appointed a member of the “Committee of Five” that drafted the American Declaration of Independence. However he did not stay in his homeland for long: In 1776, after signing the Declaration of Independence (which was officially announced on the 4th of July that year), Franklin left on a mission to France on behalf of the colonies, to obtain military and political assistance in the struggle against the British. Franklin’s name preceded him in France, owing to his scientific and publishing activities and in 1778, largely thanks to his efforts, the French signed a Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the American colonies. In 1783 Franklin also contributed to the drafting of the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American War of Independence. 

The inventor and diplomat returned to Pennsylvania at the age of 77, and continued to be active in the public arena, taking part, amongst other things, in the drafting of the Constitution of the United States, and was one of its signatories. One of his last public actions was the publication of a petition against slavery in 1789. Benjamin Franklin passed away on April 17, 1790, and was buried in Philadelphia.   

Throughout his 84 years of life, Benjamin Franklin broke boundaries and innovated in almost every possible field: the media, community institutions, the exact sciences and political science. These fields have changed beyond recognition during his lifetime, largely owing to him. What was Franklin’s most important invention, discovery or public activity? It's hard to say. Undoubtedly, his involvement in the advances in the study of electricity and his crucial contribution to the founding of the United States of America are at the top of the list of his contributions to mankind, which we enjoy to this day.

A song by The Decemberists about Benjamin Franklin and his lifetime achievements (contains explicit content):

This article was Translated by: Ofir Kuperman and Elee Shimshoni