What do electricity, the Gulf Stream, public libraries, bifocal lenses, and the United States' Declaration of Independence have in common? Benjamin Franklin, born on this day 313 years ago, was a significant contributor 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 20 years before Benjamin was born, and began manufacturing wax candles and soap to support his growing family. As Benjamin wrote in his famous autobiography, he was the fifteenth son in a family of seventeen children, and "the youngest Son of the youngest Son for five Generations back."

The father of the large Franklin family intended each of his children to a specific occupation, and Benjamin was sent to school to become a pastor. However, he left school at the age of 10, probably for financial reasons, and began assisting his father in manufacturing candles and soap. Franklin said that during his short time in school, he learned how to write at a reasonable level, but was not able to get very far in math. This early failure in math did not prevent his great contribution to understanding the fundamentals of electricity, decades later.

At the age of 12, Franklin began working at his brother James's printing house, where he was exposed to books and newspapers from Europe, which revealed to him contemporary cultural and perceptual developments on the continent. This was also the first time he attempted to write, and he published a series of articles in his brother's newspaper under the penname Silence Dogood, who was an elderly Bostonian widow.

The time he spent in his brother's printing house taught Franklin a lesson about the power of the written word in spreading ideas and creating social organizations, which he went on to use extensively 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 as an expert preceded him. Philadelphia’s governor was so impressed by Franklin's abilities that he sent him to London, with the promise of writing him letters of recommendation to help him form new connections in London. However, upon his arrival to London, Franklin, aged 18, found that the would-be patron failed to live up to his word, and no warm letter of recommendation awaited him in the British capital. Franklin worked as a printmaker in London for several months, then returned to Philadelphia to establish his own printing house. His printing business was very successful, and soon he also signed a number of governmental contracts, including a contract for printing the currency bills of Pennsylvania and nearby colonies. Franklin’s success provided him with sufficient funds to invest in interest-bearing loans and in local real estate. In 1740, at only 34, he was one of the wealthiest people in North America.

Second only to the bible

To Franklin, the printing business was more than just a source of excellent income. In 1729, he purchased a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette, was one of the most prominent newspapers in the American colonies, and used it to spread various ideas. In 1754, for instance, the paper published a political cartoon  that called for colonial union, titled "Join, or Die." In addition, in 1732 Franklin started publishing an annual journal called Poor Richard's Almanack, which was a calendar containing thoughts and some astrology for the general public. Printed in 10,000 copies, one per 50 Americans at the time, the Almanack  was a bestseller, second only to the Bible. The ideas portrayed by Franklin in the Almanack had immense influence on the colonists, and some of the proverbs published in it are well-known to this day – e.g., "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 sayings and words of advice in the book The Way to Wealth, which soon became a worldwide bestseller. The book was published in dozens of editions in English, French, German, Spanish, and numerous other languages.

Come get your books!

Along with his diverse publishing activities, Franklin was involved in various social initiatives in Philadelphia. In 1727, he was one of the founders of the Leather Apron Club (aka Junto), whose members gathered on Friday nights to discuss moral issues, politics, and science. The club was so named as all of its members were craftsmen, such as typesetters, who wore aprons. To expand members' access to books, Franklin founded the first lending library in history. Each member had to pay a registration fee of 30 Shillings and an annual subscription fee of 10 Shillings, to be eligible to borrow books from the library. Additional projects he promoted at the time included establishing a local police force and a volunteer firefighting association. Franklin also founded the Academy and College of Philadelphia, which later became the University of Pennsylvania, and, in 1743, the American Philosophical Society, which was similar to the Leather Apron Club, but also included members from other colonies. The society's regulations dictated the inclusion of members of specific professions, such as a physician, a botanist, a mathematician, and a chemist. The American Philosophical Society exists and is 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 in the air

Franklin's excellent financial situation allowed him to declare himself a gentleman, to leave the management of his businesses to others and begin engaging in the questions that really intrigued him. One natural phenomenon known but not fully understood in his time was electricity.

In 1745, Franklin received a letter from a friend in London, Peter Collinson. Collinson describes in the letter how the Dutch physicist Pieter Van Musschenbroek from Leiden University was able to keep electricity inside a special vessel, which later became known as the Leyden jar. This jar was coated on the inside and outside with small metal pieces that can conduct electricity. A metal rod sticking out of the jar's opening was connected to a machine that produces static electricity and allowed it to charge. The Leyden jar’s basic structure, two conducting materials with an insulator between them, is to this day used to build modern capacitators – means for storing electricity.

Franklin understood that Van Musschenbroek's jars could be used for conducting various experiments with electricity, and quickly ordered some from Europe.

Common perceptions of electricity at the time were not able to explain how the Leyden jar worked – so Franklin developed a new theory. While Electricity was thought to be comprised of two different types of "fluids", Franklin suggested that this is actually only one type, which he termed "electric fire". This "fire" could be either positive or negative, but "negative fire" just meant the lack of positive fire, and not a different kind of fire. Franklin’s claim is an early version of what is termed today the law of charge conservation, which came 150 years before the discovery of the electron.

Franklin also created a new vocabulary to describe electrical phenomena: "charge," "positive," "negative," and "conductor" are all new terms that he coined. Even the familiar marks in batteries, + on one end and - on the other, are his invention. He also coined the word "battery" to describe a battery of Leyden jars connected to one another, which could all be either electrically 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

Taming electricity

Once Franklin obtained a better grasp of electricity, he tried to determine whether lightning, considered at the time to be a separate phenomenon from the "fluid" in the Leyden jars – and a divine punishment upon men – was also a type of electricity. In 1749, he summarized the similarities between electricity and lightning: Both move rapidly, emit light of the same color, and can be lethal to people and animals. This led him to conclude that any additional property he knew existed in electricity would also exist in lightning, as he described in a letter from March 18, 1755 to John Lining: "Points attract the electric fluid. We do not know whether this property is in lightning. But since they agree in all particulars wherein we can already compare them, is it not probable they agree likewise in this? Let the experiment be made."

The fact that Franklin both formulated a hypothesis and conceived an experimental way to examine it was sensational.

His suggestion included building a tall tower, with a jutting 10-meter-tall iron rod. The person conducting the experiment would hold a grounded conducting wire, bringing it close to the iron rod. If the iron rod would have been charged by the electricity in the clouds, a spark will pass from the rod to the wire. The experiment was conducted in a town near Paris, on May 10, 1752, by a French veteran, who was guided by physicist Francois Dalibard. As the veteran brought the wire close to the iron rod, sparks began to jump from the wire to the rod, emitting loud noises. Alarmed, the veteran fled the scene. A local priest took his place and reported he was able to repeat the experiment six times. Thus the French experimenters successfully performed Franklin's experiment and proved his hypothesis: Lightning and electricity are the same physical phenomenon.

News of the success of Franklin's lightning experiment quickly spread throughout Europe, and subsequently numerous scientists and house owners throughout the continent repeated it.   

Franklin himself was not able to conduct the experiment in Philadelphia in its original form, so to see for himself whether there is electricity within storm clouds, he devised another, using a kite connected to a small wire. He understood that when the silk string connecting the kite would get wet, it would conduct electricity from the kite to the ground, reaffirming the presence of electricity in the clouds, just like in the tower experiment. The English chemist, Joseph Priestley, who became famous for discovering oxygendescribed Franklin's kite experiment:

"The kite being raised, a considerable time elapsed before there was any appearance of its being electrified… when, at length, just as he was beginning to despair of his contrivance, he observed some loose 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 knuckle to the key, and (let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment.)"

Beyond his dramatic contribution to understanding electricity, Franklin also invented several appliances familiar to us to this day, including bifocal lenses, which enable people to see both near and far using a single lens (1784), an improved stove (1741), and an odometer (1749). He also mapped the Gulf Stream on one of his sailing journeys from Europe to America.

His scientific discoveries and popular Almanacks earned Franklin fame, and he was probably one of the most well-known Americans in the world at the time. Franklin's celebrity status would later serve as a profound strategic asset in the 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, along with his business success and concern for the public, led him to fulfill a long list of public positions throughout his life. As early as 1736, at the age of 30, he was appointed as the Clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. A year later, he was appointed Postmaster General – a very important role at the time, since mail was the single means of communication between cities. In 1753, he was appointed Deputy Postmaster General of North America, and improved the postal service to such an extent that it took only two days to send mail from Boston to Philadelphia. Today's Israel Postal Company can only wish to provide the service level that Franklin achieved nearly 300 years ago.

In 1757, Franklin was sent to represent the people of Pennsylvania before the government in England in their battle with the descendants of William Penn, one of Pennsylvania’s founders, over the right to represent the colony. Remaining in England until 1775, he represented not only Pennsylvania, but also Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. During his long sojourn in England, Franklin met European scientists and philosophers, including Priestley, Scottish philosopher David Hume, French philosopher Voltaire, and world-famous Scottish sociologist and economist, Adam Smith. In his travels throughout Europe, Franklin was recognized for his immense contributions to science and received honorary doctorates from a number of institutions, most prominently, the University of Oxford in England and the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

In 1765, having learned of the colonials' opposition to the new tax edicts inflicted upon them by the British Empire, Franklin did his best to remove the detrimental decree. Hoping to put the relations between the colonies and the Crown back on track, in 1772, he leaked letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, governor of Massachusetts, to try and place the blame of the heavy taxation on the governor rather than on the government in England. This attempt failed completely, and led to his dismissal from all the official positions in England. He returned to Philadelphia in 1775 and began actively promoting the colonies’ independence.

Upon his return, Franklin was elected to serve in the Second Continental Congress as the Pennsylvania delegate and became a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the American Declaration of Independence. But he did not remain in his homeland for long: In 1776, Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence (officially declared on July 4 of that year), and was dispatched to France as the colonies’ emissary to obtain military and political support in their battle against the British. Franklin's name preceded him in France, thanks to his scientific and publishing activities, and, in 1778, to a great extent due to his efforts, the French signed a military aid agreement with the American colonies. He also contributed to drafting the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the American War of Independence.

The inventor and diplomat returned to Pennsylvania at the age of 77, and continued his public activity, including his participation in the drafting of the United States’ Constitution, of which he was one of the signers. One of his final public activities 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, Benjamin Franklin was a groundbreaking innovator 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 thanks to him. What was Franklin's most important invention, discovery, or public activity? It is difficult to say. But there is no doubt that the advances in electricity research and his crucial contribution to the establishment of the United States of America top the list of his contributions to mankind, which we enjoy to this very day.

The Decemberists’ song about Franklin and his lifetime achievements (contains explicit content):


Translated by Elee Shimshoni