Benjamin Franklin's Tangible Contributions to America

Benjamin Franklin Overview
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17th, 1706, in Boston Massachusetts. He worked in his Father’s candle and soap shop during his childhood, and became an apprentice to his older brother James, a printer, in his early teens. He ran away to Philadelphia at the age of seventeen and became employed as a printer. As an adult, he published his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette; he wrote a number of books, including his own autobiography and the many editions of Poor Richard's Almanack; he served as the American Minister to France; and he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, among many other things. Throughout his life, he was a master printer, writer, scientist, inventor, philanthropist, diplomat, philosopher, and political theorist.

Franklin, a brilliant scientific mind, constantly sought to understand how things worked and how they could be improved. He never patented any of his inventions, believing that they should serve to improve other peoples’ lives and benefit society as a whole. As he wrote in his autobiography, “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 this we should do freely and generously.” Some of Franklin’s most notable inventions were:

Bifocal Lenses - one of Franklin's many inventions.

Bifocal Lenses - Franklin himself was both nearsighted and farsighted. As such, he needed two pairs of glasses: one for reading, and another for everything else. Growing tired of constantly putting on and taking off his glasses, he took two pairs of glasses, cut the lenses in half, and put a half lens from each pair of glasses in a single frame, thereby creating a pair of glasses that would allow him to see both near and far.

Fins - An avid swimmer in his youth, Franklin fashioned a crude pair of fins by cutting thin boards of wood into ovular shapes and attaching them to his hands and feet.

The Lightning Rod - Franklin was fascinated by thunderstorms, specifically lightning. To prove his hypothesis that lightning was electricity, he attached a key to a kite and flew it during a storm in June 1752. When his hypothesis proved true, he did numerous further studies on lightning, in the process inventing many terms we use today to describe electricity - "conductor," "charge," and "positive/negative." Knowing lightning's destructive potential, Franklin created early lightning rods to protect houses and ships from damage.

An early Franklin Stove.

The "Franklin Stove"- During the Eighteenth Century, many people used fireplaces to warm their homes. Unfortunately, however, these fireplaces were inefficient and dangerous. They produced too much smoke, posed a fire hazard, and let heat escape quickly, requiring an inordinate amount of wood to be used to produce any kind of heating. To solve this problem, Franklin created a new iron furnace stove which improved airflow, used four times less wood than the old fireplaces, and generated twice as much heat.

A Flexible Urinary Catheter- When his brother John began to suffer from kidney stones, Franklin wanted to help. He created what is thought to be the first flexible urinary catheter in America. Today's catheters are roughly based on Franklin's early designs.

Education and Other Contributions
Benjamin Franklin was one of the greatest early American educational trailblazers. Though a poorly educated man, he built up a body of genius from the steadfast bricks of self-reliance, hard work, discipline, and tenacity, and fervently worked to translate those same virtues into schooling. He summed up his own educational philosophy in a letter to Samuel Adams: “I think with you, that nothing is more important for the public well, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of the state; much more so than riches or arms…”
Franklin despised the educational system of his time. Some of the nation's earliest universities, such as Harvard and Yale, inextricably coupled religion and education. Franklin, on the other hand, advocated a more secular form of education devoid of fear and shame. He epitomized these views in the famous "Silence Dogood Papers", a series of four articles written by a fictional "prudish housewife" that Franklin tricked his brother into publishing in his paper, The New England Courant.

Early on, the pragmatic Franklin envisioned a solution to this perceived wrongdoing in education: he would start his own academy in Philadelphia. The academy, as he planned, would offer a well-rounded, practical education on a campus that emphasized health, learning, and science. After recruiting many wealthy Philadelphians to fund and oversee the school, he opened the Philadelphia Academy in 1751. The school's curriculum was designed to include useful life skills, since most of the school's students wouldn't go to college. In 1755 the school was re-chartered as the College, Academy, and Charitable School of Philadelphia, and later grew into what is known today as the University of Pennsylvania. Among other things, the college instituted the nation's first medical school and school of botany. The first and foremost secular school in the country at the time, Franklin's academy was a stark divergence from the traditionally pious educational system - it was based on science instead of religion, and emphasized books, maps and scientific instruments instead of bibles, sermons, and prayer. As such, it was a pioneer in the separation of religion and education.
A statue of Franklin at the University of Pennsylvania.

Perhaps Franklin's most significant contribution to education in America was his support of the education of blacks and women. He observed many African-American schools and quickly discovered that blacks had no less of a learning capacity than whites. This same observation he made regarding women. He even went as far as to educate his daughter Sally thoroughly on anything that he thought she might ever need to know in her lifetime.

Franklin was also a major supporter of adult education through discussion. With this same idea in mind, he created the Junto in 1723. It was a group of average, self-educated men who wanted to better themselves through mutual scientific exploration, philosophical discussion, and topical debate. The Junto achieved many monumental achievement, including the nation's first public library, volunteer fire department, and public hospital. In 1741 it became the famous American Philosophical Society.

As mentioned above, one of the most significant contributions of the Junto to society was its pioneering of the membership library in America. Members of the Junto realized that, among all of them, they had enough money to purchase many volumes and amass a respectable collection. Books in this collection could then be loaned to members of the group, the principal idea being that the more members that had read the same book, the livelier of a discussion was likely to ensue. As the Junto expanded, so did their library. It grew so large, in fact, that it was used by both the Second Continental Congress and the delegates of the Constitutional Convention, thus making it the de facto first Library of Congress.

As the library began to gain notoriety, many other copycat lending libraries sprung up in big cities across the country. These new libraries continued the new anti-sectarian trend established by the Junto's library. Up until that time all of the major American libraries had been run by the major colleges or were private collections amassed by wealthy, pious individuals. Thus they contained largely theological texts. Franklin's public library succeeded in changing that imbalance, and by 1741 only 10% of the library's books were theological.

Clearly, Franklin was a key pioneer in education, philosophy, and social programs. He almost single-handedly changed the basic ideology of higher education, making it more secular, practical, and focused. His creation of the groundbreaking, issue toppling colossus that would become the American Philosophical Society helped to invent and enact many basic programs that are thought of as commonplace today: fire departments, police departments, libraries, among others. Overall, Benjamin Franklin helped lay the social framework that modern society built itself around. If this great and humble man had not strolled the streets of Philadelphia centuries ago, it is certain that the landscape of not only the United States, but the entire world, would look markedly different today.

Adams, Colleen. Benjamin Franklin: American Inventor. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2003. 4. Print.
"Benjamin Franklin and Electricity." Web. 25 Oct. 2010.
"Benjamin Franklin and His Inventions." Web. 14 Oct. 2010. <>
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Blinderman, Abraham. Three Early Champions of Education: Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Noah Webster. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1976. PDF.
Fisher, Sydney George. The True Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1899. Print.
Franklin, Benjamin, and Leonard Woods Labaree. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale UP, 1964. Print.
Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. Print.
Oates, Stephen B., and Charles J. Errico. Portrait of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.
Krasner-Khait, Barbara. "Survivor: The History of the Library." History Magazine Oct.-Nov.

Pictures: - Franklin Stove - old bifocals
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