Benjamin Franklin made his money in the printing business, but his true calling was as a man devoted to understanding and improving all aspects of life. Franklin’s interests and innovations stretched from the areas of civics to morals to science to home improvements. His efforts left the world a better place.
Franklin was largely self-educated, having only received two years of formal schooling, but he recognized the need to improve one’s mind. In 1727, at the age of 21, Franklin established the Junto, or Leather Apron Club, in Philadelphia for the purpose of helping “like minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen improve themselves.”
From this group, Franklin conceived the idea of sharing books among the members to broaden their knowledge. This led to the creation of the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, an organization that today is a well-known research center.
The Junto succeeded so well that Franklin, in 1743, suggested an intercolonial society along the same lines but more focused on new scientific discoveries and theories. It provided a great forum for men of science and led to the creation of the American Philosophical Society.
Franklin was also instrumental in helping to establish higher education in Philadelphia. Specifically, in 1749, Franklin and others founded the Academy of Philadelphia, a secondary school. In 1755, he was granted a charter to establish the College of Philadelphia which grew into the University of Pennsylvania.
Besides all this, Franklin and his friend, Thomas Bond, in 1751, obtained a charter to establish Pennsylvania Hospital, the first hospital in what was to become the United States. In 1752, Franklin organized the first homeowner’s insurance company in America, the Philadelphia Contributionship. He also helped to organize the first volunteer fire company in the colonies. Clearly, this man never rested.
When not busy fixing societal ills, Franklin was one of the leading inventors of his day. Among his many creations are bifocals (created by putting two halves of different strength lenses together in the same frame), a stove (the famous Franklin stove), and the glass harmonica (a musical instrument used by both Beethoven and Mozart).
His most famous inventions and scientific discoveries came in the field of electricity. In the winter of 1746-47, Franklin began investigating electrical phenomena. Early on, he theorized that lighting was essentially electricity. His findings were published in Europe by Thomas Collinson in 1751 under the title Experiments and Observations of Electricity. From this book, Franklin’s fame spread.
Later, as Franklin continued his experiments with electricity, he invented the lightning rod and a battery to store electrical charges. Additionally, he invented terminology for numerous items in this field to include conductors, charge, discharge, condense, armature, and electrify.
Amazingly, this very gifted man refused to get a patent on any of his inventions. Franklin felt his creations should be shared and stated, “that as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and we should do this freely and generously.”
When it came to religion, Franklin considered himself a Christian, but he never followed any particular sect. Instead, he felt that there was a Divine God who played a role in our daily lives, including helping us to win our independence from England. He stated, “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth-that God governs in the affairs of men.”
In essence, Franklin thought the best way to serve God was to help our fellow man. He wrote, “the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man.” As noted above, Franklin lived out this credo by his continual improvements that benefitted society.
Finally, Franklin believed that a republican society must be firmly grounded in ethics and morals. To this end and to improve himself, Franklin devised a “virtue system” to help refine the soul. This program of self-improvement included thirteen virtues ranging from temperance to frugality to industry to humility.
By his own admission, Franklin struggled to hit all his virtuous targets, but he felt just making the effort improved him as a person. Even more remarkable is the fact Franklin created this system when he was just 20 years old.
WHY IT MATTERS
So why should Ben Franklin’s scientific and civic achievements and his efforts to make the world a
better place matter to us today?
Ben Franklin was a genius. Arguably, one of the smartest men our nation or the world has ever produced. His remarkable achievements were recognized in many parts of the world and brought fame to America. Europeans began to realize that great things could come from this largely unsettled and underdeveloped land.
Moreover, Ben Franklin provided an example to other Americans regarding the need to participate in improving our society wherever possible. Importantly, he did this both with his wealth and his time. His efforts helped to define who we are as a people and shape the American character. For that, we should be eternally grateful. SUGGESTED READING Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is an American classic and one of the most widely read books of its type. Franklin’s witticisms and insight are timeless. One can learn a lot of life’s lessons by reading this wonderful book.
PLACES TO VISIT
The oldest, and arguably most beautiful, church in Philadelphia is Christ Church.
Mostly built between 1727 and 1744, many of our Founding Fathers, including Ben Franklin, attended services here. It is wonderfully preserved; you will enjoy spending a few quiet moments in it.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus and lives on Ford Plantation. He has a website, americanacorner.com, where you can learn more.