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Benjamin Franklin: A Biography of a Scientist Series

Updated on October 16, 2015
Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin's Early Life

Most people remembered Benjamin Franklin as one of the “Founding Fathers of the United States” in their history classes. But there was another side to Franklin than being a statesman, he was also a scientist. He made numerous contributions in many areas of science.

Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts as the 15th child of 17 children by Josiah Franklin and Abiah Folger. Seven of his children were by his first wife Anne Child. Ben Franklin did not receive much of a formal education because his father took him out of the Boston Latin School after two years to work with him in his candle making business but he continued his own education by reading.

Benjamin did not like the idea of being a candle maker under his father so he tried working as an apprentice in cutlery. Unfortunately, that did not work out well for him and he was offered a printer apprenticeship under his brother James at the age of 12. Benjamin later fled to Philadelphia after his brother refused to allow him to write for his newspaper and he would eventually become one of the most well known printers and publishers in the original thirteen colonies.

Deborah Read Franklin, wife of Ben Franklin
Deborah Read Franklin, wife of Ben Franklin
William Franklin, Illegitimate son of Franklin
William Franklin, Illegitimate son of Franklin

By 1730 Franklin went into a common law marriage with Deborah Read with whom he fathered two children, Francis and Sarah, and he also had an illegitimate son named William by an unknown woman. William would become one of the governors of New Jersey. In the same year, since he was unable to write in his brother’s newspaper, Franklin created “The Pennsylvania Gazette” to publish his essays and articles. He also published a yearly almanac from 1732 to 1757 called “Poor Richard’s Almanack”. This almanac is the precursor to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” which has be published yearly since 1792.

As a Scientist And Inventor

Even though Franklin’s main occupation was as a publisher and printer, he had a strong fascination with science. In 1748 he retired at the age of 42 from his successful printing business to spend more time pursuing his science interest. Franklin’s most famous scientific experiment was his kite experiment. It was an extremely dangerous experiment nonetheless but he did live to tell about it. He performed this experiment by using a kite, string, and a key during a thunderstorm in June 1752 to prove his theory that lightning and electricity are the same thing. However, he was not the first to prove this theory as most people believed. The honor went to some French experimenters who proved it in May 1752 after reading his publication on his theory which he published in 1748. Franklin also invented lightning rods which protect buildings from fire after a lightning strike and coined some familiar terms related to electricity such as battery, condenser, charge, armature and conductor.

During his trips across the Atlantic ocean to Europe Franklin became curious about why his return trips eastward to Europe were faster than his trips back to the colonies. His curiosity led him to become the first person to map the current originating from the Gulf of Mexico which made it way along the east coast up into the North Atlantic ocean. He named this major current the Gulf Stream. Franklin published his Gulf Stream chart in 1770 while in England. The chart was lost and was not found until 1980 in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. He published additional prints of the chart in France in 1778 and in the U.S. in 1781.

Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream current
Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream current
Bifocal invented by Franklin
Bifocal invented by Franklin
Franklin and his famous kite experiment
Franklin and his famous kite experiment

Franklin made significant contributions in the science of population growth. His work “Observations on the Increase of Mankind” in 1755 was one of the leading works of eighteen century demographic studies. During the 1730s and 1740s based on his notes he concluded that America had the fastest population growth rate in the world and believed it was due to the abundance of food and land in America. He also studied the demographic of the slave population.

While sweating on a hot day Franklin discovered the principle of cooling. He noticed he was much cooler in a wet shirt in a breeze than he did in a dry shirt. To understand what was happening he conducted an experiment using two mercury thermometers. He wetted the bulb of one thermometer with ether continuously and left the other thermometer’s bulb dry and using bellows to blow a breeze over both thermometer bulbs. What he observed was that the temperature readings from the thermometer with the ether soaked bulb was much lower than the readings the from the thermometer with the dry bulb. He had learned that evaporation occurs because heat is used in the process to convert liquid to gas thus removing the heat from the surface that the liquid was on initially.

Finally, after a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783, Franklin made a scientific observation in the area of meteorology. There was a severe European winter the following year after the eruption. He realized the eruption and the cold harsh winter there were connected. He presented this observation in several lectures.

Franklin died on April 20, 1790, at the age of 84. His funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners and his interment took place at Christ Church Burial Grounds in Philadelphia. Today Franklin is honored in many ways. The most familiar one is the appearance of his portrait on the U.S. $100 bill and there is a bridge and parkway in Philadelphia named in his honor.

© 2012 Melvin Porter


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