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The Life of Benjamin Franklin

Unlike the bronze statue of William Penn perched atop City Hall, a marble likeness of Benjamin Franklin is within The Franklin Institute. Perhaps that's as it should be: noble-born Penn above the people and common-born Franklin sitting more democratically among them.

Franklin (1706–90) was anything but a common man. In fact, biographer Walter Isaacson called him "the most accomplished American of his age." Franklin's insatiable curiosity, combined with his ability to solve problems in his own life, inspired his invention of bifocals, an odometer to measure postal routes, a "long arm" to reach books high on his shelves, and a flexible urinary catheter for his brother who was suffering with kidney stones. His great intellect inspired his launching of the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in America. He was the only Founding Father who shaped and signed all of the nation's founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and treaties with France and England. He was a citizen of the world—a representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a minister to France.

It's fortunate for Philadelphians that Franklin spent so many of his 84 years here. That might have been an act of fate or early recognition that "time is money," as he wrote in Advice to a Young Tradesman in 1748. Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin ran away from home and the oppression of his job as a printer's apprentice at his brother's shop. When he couldn't find work in New York, he didn't waste time; he moved on to Philadelphia. Within 10 years Franklin had opened his own printing office. His Pennsylvania Gazette was the most successful newspaper in the colonies; his humor propelled his Poor Richard: An Almanack to best-seller status in the colonies. In Franklin's Print Shop in the Franklin Court complex, site of Ben's first permanent home in Philadelphia, you can get a letter hand-stamped with a "B. Free Franklin" cancellation.

Franklin had time and passion for civic duties. As postmaster, he set up the city's postal system. He founded the city's first volunteer fire company and the Library Company of Philadelphia, its first subscription library. After his famous kite experiment, he opened the first fire-insurance company, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire. He proposed the idea for the University of Pennsylvania and personally raised money to finance Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first.

Franklin was laid to rest alongside his wife, Deborah, and one of his sons, Francis, in the Christ Church Burial Ground.

Updated: 08-2013

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