A scientist, politician and writer, Benjamin Franklin produced a number of major inventions and helped to found the United States of America. He was born into a modest Boston family on January 17, 1706. At 12, he dropped out of school and began working in his brother’s print shop. Together they started publishing the New England Courant, a newspaper with an emphasis on social and political satire. After a short stay in London, Franklin moved to Philadelphia in 1730. There, he married Deborah Read. The couple had two children. Already deeply and successfully involved in publishing, he opened one of America’s first public libraries in 1731.
Convinced that knowledge should always have a practical application, Franklin devoted himself to developing tools that might be useful in day-to-day life. He’s credited with inventing the bifocal lens, which permitted people with poor eyesight to see clearly both close and far away. He invented the first swimming flippers, the odometer, the swing and the glass harmonica. He also created a circulating fireplace with baffles that gave off more heat, an invention that was named after him. Beginning in 1740, Franklin turned his attention to electricity. He reached the conclusion, later proven true, that electricity is made up of a single “flow.” He called the amount of electricity contained in a single body a charge, distinguishing between positive and negative. Intrigued by the idea that lighting was an electrical charge, in 1752 Franklin decided to conduct a simple experiment that would put his theories to the test. He flew a metal-tipped kite into a Philadelphia thunderstorm. Whenever lightening struck, he’d touch the metal key he’d attached to the kite-string and receive a shock. The success of the experiment led him to invent the lightning rod a few months later. In 1753, The Royal Society in England honored him for his discoveries.
Elected to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1751, Franklin was invited to travel to London, where he spoke in Parliament in favor of independence for the 13 colonies. In 1765, he played a key role in repealing the Stamp Act, through which England had imposed heavy taxes on colonists. In 1776 he was among five statesmen selected to draft the American Declaration of Independence. The document, signed on July 4, 1776, was an official proclamation of the birth of the United States of America. In 1787, Franklin was a member of an elite group charged with writing the American Constitution. The author of a major autobiography, Benjamin Franklin died in Philadelphia on April 17, 1790. He was 84.