On January 6th, 1705 (O.S.) / 17 January 1706 (N.S.), Benjamin Franklin was born on Milk Street, near the Old South Church in Boston, to Oxfordshire immigrant Josiah Franklin, and his second wife Abiah Folger, from Nantucket. Franklin was the tenth of his father's 17 children.
Josiah wanted Benjamin to join the clergy, but could only afford a year's worth of schooling. Clergymen needed more. Since Ben loved to read, Josiah had his brother James take him on as a printing apprentice. Twelve-year-old Ben had to help make and type-set pamphlets, then sell them in the street. It was hard work.
At 15, Ben's brother started The New England Courant. It was Boston's first "newspaper." Although there were two papers in the city, they rehashed news from abroad. James's paper had articles, opinion pieces by his friends, advertisements, and ship schedules.
Benjamin wanted to write for the paper too, but knew James wouldn't allow an apprentice. So Ben wrote letters at night, signing them with the name of a fictional widow, Silence Dogood. Then he would sneak them under the print shop door to hide his identity.
Dogood was filled with critical advice -- especially about the treatment of women -- and became a hit. Everyone wanted to find out who the real "Silence Dogood" was.
After 16 letters, Ben confessed. His brother's friends thought he was funny, but James got jealous and yelled at him. But before long, the Franklins were at odds with Boston's Puritan preachers, the Mathers.
Smallpox was deadly at this time. The Mathers supported inoculation, but the Franklins' believed it only made people sicker. While most of Boston agreed with the brothers, they didn't like the way James mocked the clergy during the debate.
Ultimately, James was thrown in jail for his views, and Ben was left to run the paper over several issues. But after his release, James was ungrateful to Ben ... harassing and occasionally beating him. So Ben ran away in 1723.
Running away was illegal. In early American culture, society demanded that people have a place. Runaways didn't fit, but Ben caught a boat to New York to find a job as a printer. It didn't work, so he walked across New Jersey, then hitched another boat to Philadelphia. Once he landed, he used the last of his money to buy some rolls. Wet, disheveled, and messy, he met his future wife Deborah Read, on October, 6, 1723. To her ... he looked strange, and never thought they'd be married seven years later.
Franklin found work as an apprentice printer, and did so well Pennsylvania's governor promised to set him up in business for himself, if he would go to London to buy fonts and printing equipment. Ben went, but the governor broke his promise and Ben had to spend several months in England doing print work.
Before his trip overseas, Franklin lived with the Reads. Yes. The same Deborah Read who saw him arrive in Philadelphia was now talking marriage. But Ben wasn't ready, and she married another man while he was gone.
Once he got back to Philadelphia, Franklin helped run a shop, but soon went back to printing. He did a better job than the man he worked for, so he borrowed money and got into the printing business. He worked so much, the citizens of Philadelphia began to notice. Government contracts started to pour in, and business began to thrive.
In 1728, Benjamin fathered William to an unknown woman. But by 1730, Deborah Read's husband ran off, leaving her free to marry one of America's founding fathers.
Mr. and Mrs. Franklin were an enterprising pair. The Franklins owned stores, on top of a print shop. Deborah sold everything from soap to fabric, while Ben ran a book store.
In 1729, Franklin bought the Pennsylvania Gazette. Not only did he print the paper, he wrote under pen names. It didn't take long before he owned the the most successful Colonial paper. Known for breaking new ground, the Pennsylvania Gazette ran the first political cartoon authored by Ben himself.
During the 1720s and 1730s, Franklin's devotion to public service started to show. He organized a group for young working-men. Called the Junto, its goal was self- and-civic improvement. He also became a Mason, and was active in social circles.
But Franklin thrived at work. In 1733 he started publishing Poor Richard's Almanack. Almanacs of the era were printed annually, and contained weather reports, recipes, predictions and homilies. Franklin published his under the guise of a poor man named Richard Saunders, who needed money to care for his carping wife. Its witty aphorisms and lively writing made it distinguished, and many famous phrases associated with Franklin -- like, "A penny saved is a penny earned" -- come from it.
Franklin continued civic contributions during the 1730s and 1740s. Agitating for environmental clean-up, he had a hand in launching projects to pave, clean and light Philadelphia streets.
Among his chief accomplishments at this time, was the Library Company in 1731. Scarce and expensive, Franklin recognized that pooling resources would make books from England affordable ... And so America's first library subscription was born.
In 1743, Ben helped found the first learned society in America: the American Philosophical Society. In 1751, he saw the city needed more help to treat the sick, so he organized a group who formed the Pennsylvania Hospital.
The Library Company, Philosophical Society, and Pennsylvania Hospital still exist today.
Fires were a threat to Philadelphians, so Franklin set out to remedy the situation. In 1736, he organized Philadelphia's Union Fire Company, the first in the city. His famous saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," was actually fire-fighting advice.
Fire damage to homes often caused irreversible economic loss. So, in 1752, Franklin helped found the Philadelphia Contribution for Insurance Against Loss by Fire. Those with insurance policies were not wiped out financially. The Contributionship is still in business today.
Franklin's printing business thrived in the 1730s and 1740s. He franchised across cities, but retired to concentrate on science, experiments, and inventions by 1749. Nothing new to Franklin, he already invented a heat-efficient stove — the Franklin stove — to warm houses in 1743. Intended to improve society, he refused patent it.
Among Franklin's other inventions are:
- swim fins
- the glass armonica (musical instrument)
- and bifocals.
In the early 1750's, he studied electricity. Observations, including the kite experiment verifying the nature of electricity and lightning brought Franklin international fame.
In 1784, he invented the concept of seeing with two different eye glass lenses. The top half for distance, and the bottom for reading. In use over 200 years later, bifocals are still one of his greatest ideas.
Other Franklin inventions include:
- flexible urinary catheter.
- lightening rod for buildings and ships to help prevent direct lightening strikes.
- odometer he developed to figure distance traveled in a carriage. He used this while he was in charge of postal routes.
- A long handled pole with a grasping claw to assist him and others who had difficulty reaching items high up.
He didn't patent his inventions, and profit a fortune from them.
Politics became more of an interest for Franklin in the 1750s. In 1757, he went to England to represent Pennsylvania in its fight with Penn family descendants over who should represent the Colony. He remained in England until 1775, as a Colonial representative ... not just for Pennsylvania, but Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts as well.
Early in his time abroad, Franklin considered himself a loyal Englishman. England had theater, fine thinkers, smart conversation and many other things America lacked. Tempted to stay forever, he kept asking Deborah to visit. But she was afraid to travel by ship.
In 1765, Colonial opposition to the Stamp Act caught Franklin by surprise. His testimony before Parliament helped persuade its repeal. Franklin had many friends in England, but grew tired of the corruption he witnessed in politics and royal circles. He started wondering if America should break free of England. Franklin, who proposed a plan for uniting the colonies in 1754, started working toward that goal.
The Hutchinson's Affair caused Franklin's break with England. Thomas Hutchinson was an English-appointed governor of Massachusetts. He pretended to side with the people of Massachusetts in their complaints against England, but worked for the King. Franklin got a hold of letters where Hutchinson called for "an abridgment of what are called English Liberties" in America, then sent them to an outraged Colonial population. After the leak, Franklin was called to Whitehall, the English Foreign Ministry, and publically condemned.
Franklin was a "small-scale" slave owner in Philadelphia, but he grew to see it as incompatible with "inalienable human rights." And as early as 1772 he expressed his hostility towards slavery in a letter to George Whitfield. He eventually became an abolitionist, and was eventually president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Franklin went home, and started working for Independence. He thought his son William, Royal governor of New Jersey, would agree but William did not. His son remained a Loyal Englishman, causing a rift that never healed between father and son.
Elected to the Second Continental Congress, Franklin worked on a committee of five to draft the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote most of it, but much of the contribution is Franklin's.
After Franklin signed the Declaration in 1776, he sailed to France as an ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI.
Even though he spoke French with a stutter, the French loved him. He was the man who tamed lightning ... The humble American who dressed like a backwoodsman with a sharp wit. And of course ... he was a favorite of the ladies. His wife Deborah, died years before and he was now a notorious flirt.
There's no doubt that Franklin's popularity helped persuade the French government to sign the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with Americans. He played a part in securing loans, and assuring the French they were doing the right thing. Franklin was also on hand to sign the 1783 Treaty of Paris, after the American Revolution.
Franklin finally returned to America in his late 70s where he became President of the Executive Council of Pennsylvania, served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and signed the Constitution. The 1789 anti-slavery treatise is one of his last public acts.
Franklin died 17 April 1790 at age 84. 20,000 people attended the funeral of the man who was called, "the harmonious human multitude." He is buried at Christ Church cemetery in Philadelphia, however his electric personality still lights the world.
For eighteen years, Ben Franklin, the great American inventor, diplomat, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a tenant in a beautiful four story Georgian house at 36 Craven Street in London, mere blocks from the River Thames. As ambassador from the colonies, he entertained, lived, and even allowed other intellectuals of the time to stay at the house while he lived there from 1757 through 1775.
In late 1998, a group calling itself Friends of Benjamin Franklin House began to convert the dilapidated building into a museum to honor Franklin, whose other home in Philadelphia had been razed in 1812 to make way for new construction (a "ghost house" frame now sits on the site). Work commenced, but only a month into the renovation, a construction worker named Jim Field made a startling discovery in the windowless basement: A human thigh bone sticking out of a dirt-filled pit. After further excavation (with the help of the London police), more than 1200 other bones – all dated from about 200 years prior – were discovered in this one meter wide and one meter deep pit. This begged the question, what were human bones doing in Ben Franklin’s house? Was one of our honored American heroes also the United States’ first serial killer?
The short answer to that latter question is no. Mr. Franklin was a lot of things, but “murderer” wasn’t one of them. After the discovery, the “Friends of Ben” called in Dr. Simon Hillson and his team from London’s Institute of Archaeology at University College London. After a bit of research, and analyzing the remains, they soon came to the conclusion that the bones once belonged to William Hewson, an anatomist pioneer and “father of hematology” – the study of blood and blood diseases. Dr. Hewson utilized the Craven House as an anatomy school. Since many of the bodies were gained by "body snatchers" there was not any other means of disposing of the dissected corpses. 
Twenty-three U.S. states have named counties in Benjamin Franklin's honor: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.
Have you taken a DNA test? If so, login to add it. If not, see our friends at Ancestry DNA.
Ben is 12 degrees from Anne Boleyn, 21 degrees from Christopher Crawley, 32 degrees from Peter Linders, 18 degrees from Brita Gustafsdotter, 11 degrees from Alice Lisle, 17 degrees from William Lemp, 14 degrees from Dorothy Townshend, 23 degrees from Julia Staab, 14 degrees from Kate Morgan, 16 degrees from Evelyn McHale, 20 degrees from Maud of England and 15 degrees from Connie Graves on our single family tree. Login to find your connection.
Categories: Signers of the United States Declaration of Independence | Signers of the United States Constitution | Pennsylvania Presidents | United States of America, Notables | US Ambassadors to France | Franklin Name Study | Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, Slave Owners | Abolitionists | Boston, Massachusetts | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Signers of Treaty of Paris (1783) | Printing History | Pennsylvania, Inventors | Scientists | Smallpox | Printers | This Day In History April 17 | This Day In History January 17 | Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania | Namesakes US Counties | Fellows of the Royal Society | Copley Medal | Royal Society of Arts | American Founding Fathers | Activists and Reformers