B ENJAMIN FRANKLIN was the youngest member of a family of seventeen children. His father was a poor man, who made his living by boiling soap and making candles. He went to school barely two years, though all his life he was a hard student. There was never a boy more fond of books than he; he borrowed them from anybody who would lend them to him, and, oftentimes, sat up all night reading. In this way, he became one of the most learned men in the country.
He began life by working for his brother in a printing office, where he soon became an expert type-setter. He read all the articles printed in his brother's paper, and decided he could write better ones. He slipped his own articles under the door of the printing office, without signing them. His brother was so pleased with them that he printed every one. One day, he said, "Ben, whoever writes these articles has plenty of sense. I wish I knew who he was." But Franklin never told his secret.
After a while, Franklin and his brother had a quarrel, and they separated. Franklin tried to get work in Boston, but was refused everywhere, because his brother had sent the printers word not to hire him. Then he went to New York, but with no better success. Finally, he made his way to Philadelphia in search of his fortune.
He arrived with only a few pennies to his name, his clothing rumpled and soiled, and his pockets stuffed with his extra stockings and shirt. It was a most unpromising beginning for a great career. Many people turned in the street to look at him, for he was an awkward country boy.
Being hungry, he went into a baker's shop, and bought several rolls. He held them in his hands, and went along the street, munching one after another. A young girl, standing in the doorway of her home, laughed at him as he passed by, for he was indeed a comical sight. Her name was Deborah Reed. Years afterwards, she became the wife of this poor boy.
After several years of hard work in printing offices, and wandering back to Boston and even once to London, Franklin finally settled down in Philadelphia, in business for himself. He began printing a newspaper, which was the brightest journal in America. He also published a book each year, called "Poor Richard's Almanac," full of wise and witty sayings, as well as containing useful information.
Franklin was one of the most practical men of his day. He had many good ideas for the public welfare. He established a public library in Philadelphia. He invented the open Franklin stove, which stored up much of the heat that once was wasted up the chimney. He suggested paving the streets, in order to save the wear and tear on vehicles, and to gain more speed in going about. He also proposed lighting the streets with lamps at night in order to help belated citizens find their way home.
Every one has seen the flash of lightning and heard the roar of thunder. For a long time, people did not know that the lightning in the sky and the electricity made by an electric machine were the same thing. And nobody could think of a way to find out, until Benjamin Franklin undertook the problem.
After studying the electric machine, he came to the conclusion that lightning and electricity were the same in nature. To test it, he made a large kite of silk, tying the string to the metal frame. The part of the string near his hand was tied to a silk ribbon, and a metal key was fastened just above the ribbon. The silk was used to keep the electricity from passing into Franklin's body.
Franklin supposed that the electricity would come down the wet kite string when it rained during a thunder-storm, and would collect on the key. He calculated that it could not reach him because of the ribbon in his hand. Silk, he knew, was a non-conductor of electricity. He waited for a rainy night when the lightning was flashing. He did not wish to be bothered by people watching him in the daytime. The kite shot up in the air, and soon was lost to sight in the darkness. Franklin let out the string as far as it would go, so as to be sure the kite was well up in the clouds. He held on to the silk ribbon, and stood under a shed so as to keep off the rain. He had a lamp with him to watch the kite string and the key.
The lightning flashed, the rain came down, the string was wet, and the kite was pulling hard in the strong wind. Franklin held on to the silk ribbon with one hand, and carefully put out his other hand to touch the key at the end of the string beyond the ribbon. Instantly, he felt a shock that almost knocked him down. He tried it several times, until he was afraid to do so again. He then knew that he had drawn the lightning from the clouds, and had proved it to be the same as the electricity made by the electric machine.
One day, he had his kite in the air, and was trying various experiments with the electricity on the string, when he thought he would see what effect it would have on a turkey. He walked carefully around, following the turkey, but could not get sufficiently close to the bird for the string to touch it. At last he came near enough, as he thought, but, just as he reached over to bring the string to the turkey's head, his own hand touched the key, and, before he knew what had happened, he was knocked down and nearly stunned.
When he recovered from his surprise and shock, he said, "Instead of killing a turkey, I came near killing a goose."
It was Franklin's experiments with his kite that led him to invent the lightning-rod which protects our homes during a thunder-storm.
Franklin became one of our greatest American statesmen, noted for his wisdom and learning. He was sent abroad to gain the friendship of France in the War of the Revolution. When he appeared at Court, dressed in his plain, old-fashioned way, with his long, gray coat, big spectacles, and fur cap, he attracted a great deal of attention. The people soon learned to admire his humor and good sense, and everywhere he was greeted with enthusiasm.
After the Revolution, he helped form the Constitution of the United States, though he was over eighty years of age at the time. When he died, four years afterwards, it was said that twenty thousand people attended his funeral.