On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin flies a kite during a thunderstorm and collects a charge in a Leyden jar when the kite is struck by lightning, enabling him to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning. Franklin became interested in electricity in the mid-1740s, a time when much was still unknown on the topic, and spent almost a decade conducting electrical experiments. He coined a number of terms used today, including battery, conductor and electrician. He also invented the lightning rod, used to protect buildings and ships.
Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, to a candle and soap maker named Josiah Franklin, who fathered 17 children, and his wife Abiah Folger. Franklin's formal education ended at age 10 and he went to work as an apprentice to his brother James, a printer. In 1723, following a dispute with his brother, Franklin left Boston and ended up in Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer. Following a brief stint as a printer in London, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and became a successful businessman, whose publishing ventures included the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, a collection of homespun proverbs advocating hard work and honesty in order to get ahead. The almanac, which Franklin first published in 1733 under the pen name Richard Saunders, included such wisdom as: "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Whether or not Franklin followed this advice in his own life, he came to represent the classic American overachiever. In addition to his accomplishments in business and science, he is noted for his numerous civic contributions. Among other things, he developed a library, insurance company, city hospital and academy in Philadelphia that would later become the University of Pennsylvania.
Most significantly, Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States and had a career as a statesman that spanned four decades. He served as a legislator in Pennsylvania as well as a diplomat in England and France. He is the only politician to have signed all four documents fundamental to the creation of the U.S.: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris (1783), which established peace with Great Britain, and the U.S. Constitution (1787).
And of course, Benjamin Franklin was a very active Freemason. He very much wanted to join the Freemasons, but at first he had a difficult time getting invited to join. Much like Franklin, the Freemasons were dedicated to civic works and fellowship. They held a nonsectarian policy about religious toleration which mirrored his beliefs. Franklin also saw membership as a step on the social ladder. In hopes of currying favor with the Freemasons, he began to publish small, favorable pieces about the Freemasons in his newspaper. When that did not work, he tried a different tactic. In December of 1730, he published a long article in his paper claiming to have un-covered some of the secrets of the Freemasons. He claimed one of these secrets was that many of the so-called “secrets” were actually hoaxes. Within a couple of weeks, Benjamin Franklin was initiated into the St. John’s Lodge. Shortly after his initiation, his newspaper printed a retraction of the article and put in its place a glowing piece about the positive influences of Freemasonry.
Brother Benjamin Franklin became a Master Mason at St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a very active Freemason his entire life, eventually becoming Master of his Lodge and later, in 1734, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. In 1749, he was appointed Provincial Grand Master of Massachusetts. He also visited the Grand Lodge in England and was accepted as a member of the influential Lodge of the Nine Sisters (or Nine Muses) in Paris, where he assisted with the initiation of Voltaire as a Master Mason and helped in the election of such influential members as John Paul Jones. It seems unusual that a man such as Benjamin Franklin would join Freemasonry. He was an innovator, an inventor—someone who was always at the forefront of new ideas and new philosophies, yet the organization he joined, and so faithfully served, was an organization all about tradition and ancient ritual.
Perhaps Franklin saw Freemasonry as a model of what a proper governing body should be; in fact, inferences about Freemasonry and the development of the ideals in the United States have been made before. Lodges have always elected their own leaders and practiced tolerance of all religious beliefs. Whatever it was that Franklin admired in the organization, he never tried to change it. In fact, Franklin worked hard to preserve it by helping to create the by-laws of the St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia and by printing the American Constitutions for Freemasonry.
The epitaph he wrote for himself only very slightly disguises the Masonic theme of immortality which our legend attests and that he believed:
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work, shall not be wholly lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.
Franklin died at age 84 on April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia. He remains one of the leading figures in U.S. history.
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