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Saturday, January 31, 2015

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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Ben Franklin

As one of the leading figures of American history, Benjamin Franklin is certainly one of the most interesting as well. He enjoyed a long life filled with countless achievements and colorful adventures. Franklin truly was a polymath, wearing many different hats throughout his life: politician, businessman, civic leader, inventor, author, printer, scientist etc. It’s no surprise that someone with such a distinguished career has so many fascinating stories to tell.

1. He had a knack for pranks. Franklin was never above causing a bit of mischief for his friends and family. When he was a teenager, Ben worked for his older brother’s newspaper, The New-England Courant. When his brother refused to publish one of Ben’s letters, Ben adopted a false identity – that of a widow named Silence Dogood – and started writing letters in her name. These, of course, got published and became pretty popular. Eventually, he put an end to the prank when Mrs. Dogood started receiving marriage proposals from readers.

2. He was never President of the United States. Franklin is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “only U.S. President to have never been U.S. President”. This references the fact that many people even today mistakenly assume that Franklin served as President of the United States like other well-known Founding Fathers including Washington, Jefferson and John Adams. While he was never president, Franklin did serve as governor of Pennsylvania. He was also the first United States ambassador to France and Sweden and the first ever U.S. Postmaster General.

3. He was an avid chess player. In fact, Franklin was inducted in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 1999. Not only was Franklin a prolific player, he was also responsible for popularizing the sport in America. Franklin also wrote a highly-influential essay titled “The Morals of Chess” detailing the rules of conduct for playing the game.
4. He liked to mix business with pleasure. Early on, Benjamin Franklin founded a group known as the Junto. Initially consisting of 12 members with different backgrounds, the group would meet in taverns, have a drink and discuss philosophical matters. Eventually, they would also start to discuss societal issues. The Junto is where Franklin would come up with some of his best civic ideas like founding a public hospital, a lending library, the first American volunteer fire department and even the University of Pennsylvania.

5. One of his pranks turned out to be his most successful endeavor. Throughout his life, Ben Franklin managed to accrue quite a large wealth and one of its main drivers was Poor Richard’s Almanack, a best-selling pamphlet that was sold all over the colonies. Oddly enough, this publication first appeared as a prank inspired by writer Jonathan Swift. Swift created an alter ego named Isaac Bickerstaff who published an almanac which forecasted, among other things, the death of real almanac maker John Partridge who had annoyed Swift.
30 years later, Franklin did the same thing – he published an almanac predicting the death of publisher Titan Leeds under the guise of Richard Saunders. However, while Swift timed his prank to end on April 1st, Franklin’s almanac became very successful and continued to be published for over 25 years.

6. He could have been a lot richer if he wanted to. Franklin’s mind brought him wealth, but he could have made a lot more money if he had patented his inventions. However, he refrained from doing so, feeling that it was enough to know that others are helped by his creations. Because of this, other tinkerers were free to work and improve on Franklin’s designs which sometimes allowed for significant technological advances taking place in a short amount of time.

7. He created the first volunteer fire department in America. As mentioned above, the Junta inspired Franklin to come up with many ideas to help society. He initially started out by writing a series of articles in the Pennsylvania Gazette where he expressed the need for better fire prevention methods. This led to the formation of the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in December 1736. Unofficially, the department became better known as Benjamin Franklin’s Bucket Brigade.

8. He almost died trying to electrocute a turkey. As most of us know, Franklin was really into electricity. He performed a lot of experiments with it, including how electricity could be used to cook food. Eventually, he perfected a method of using electricity in order to kill and cook turkeys. On one occasion, he decided to show off his method at a party. He brought out the doomed bird and started setting up the charge when, all of a sudden, all the attendees saw a bright flash of light engulf Franklin. He had electrocuted himself, although in a later letter to his brother he confessed that his ego sustained the biggest injury.

9. He perfected the glass harmonica. Although sometimes it is claimed that Franklin was actually the inventor of this musical instrument, others had previously designed objects that were similar in function and purpose. Even so, Franklin’s glass harmonica was quite revolutionary and unique in its design, which is why the real inventor is still a bone of contention. Either way, it was Franklin’s creation that became popular and remained the blueprint for all future glass harmonica designs. Some of the biggest composers of all time—like Beethoven, Strauss and Mozart—composed pieces for this instrument.
10. He wasn’t a prude. Benjamin Franklin was definitely not one to shy away from the salacious or even obscene. He once wrote a letter titled Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress, which was considered obscene for that time and wasn’t published when his entire collection of papers was made available during the 19th century. The letter contained many sexual references and basically touted the virtues of choosing an older mistress over a younger one. Franklin also wrote an essay titled “Fart Proudly”. 


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