A Complete Benjamin Franklin Timeline, Chronicling His 84 Years
During his 84 years,
achieved an astonishing record of accomplishments, in a dizzying array of diverse fields. They included - but were not limited to - his work as a scientist, diplomat, journalist, printer, statesman, philosopher, community activist, and leader of philanthropic civic causes. On this page, you'll find a comprehensive Benjamin Franklin Timeline, as an overview of his incredible life, which spanned most of the 18th century.
Fully chronicling the extraordinary life of Benjamin Franklin, would take - and has taken - many books. However, we've created this timeline as a basic resource, to get you started on learning more about his life...
January 17, 1706 - Born in Boston, Massachusetts, of very humble roots. He is the fifteenth (yes, fifteenth!) child of Josiah (his father) and Abiah (his mother) Franklin; his father was a candlemaker. Franklin was the couple's tenth son.
In addition, Franklin's birthday was actually observed on January 6, during the first 46 years of his lifetime. Since Britain had resisted the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, which stipulated that 11 days needed to be dropped to bring the calendar back into balance, there is both Old Style and New Style reckoning for anyone born in that era. Britain and its farflung colonies finally complied with the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when Franklin was 46.
Accordingly, Franklin was born on January 6, Old Style, but January 17, New Style.
He was also much older than most of the other leaders of the American Revolution. When independence was declared on July 4, 1776, Franklin was already 70 years old, far exceeding life expectancy for the 18th century.
1717 - Franklin makes the first of his many inventions - swimming fins, worn on the hands in the water.
1722 - In what would be the first of a long and distinguished record of journalism and publishing, Franklin, at age 16, has the "Silence Do-Good" letters published in the newspaper of his older brother James, the New-England Courant. Franklin had been serving as an indentured servant to James.
1723 - Franklin opts to escape his printing indenture to his brother, which he found profoundly unsatisfactory, and flees south. He initially intends to settle in New York, but since there were few opportunities for printers there, he continues to south to Philadelphia. This decision had highly fortunate consequences for both him and the city, which endure to this day.
Ironically, on the first day of his arrival in Philadelphia, Franklin sees Deborah Read, his eventual common-law wife. He was eating a freshly-cooked bun, when he first noticed Deborah in the doorway of her father's house.
1724 - At age 18, Franklin travels to Britain for the first time, sailing on a ship aptly named London Hope. He had mistakenly believed that the royal governor of Pennsylvania was backing his mission. However, when it doesn't work out, he becomes a printer's assistant. He also, for the first time, experiences the delights of life in Britain and Europe.
1726 - Franklin returns to America, resuming his life in Philadelphia.
1727 - Franklin creates what could be described as the first networking club in America, the Facebook of its day. Known initially as the "Leather Apron Club" - a nod to the clothes that artisans such as himself wore - it eventually is renamed the Junto, it provides an opportunity for socializing, conviviality, professional contacts, learning, and mutual assistance between himself and other members. It endures for three decades.
1729 - Franklin and a business partner purchase the Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper in Philadelphia.
1730 - Franklin's partner opts to leave the newspaper, leaving him as the sole operator. Franklin enjoys enormous success with the Gazette, transforming it into one of the most prominent newspaper in Britain's American colonies.
Over 100 years after Franklin's death, the Philadelphia publisher Cyrus Curtis purchases the Gazette and brings it under the banner of the Saturday Evening Post. The nearby Curtis Center is just off
in Philadelphia, where you can see the Dream Garden mosaic - and you should.
1730 - Franklin and Deborah begin their 44-year common-law marriage, which is marked by many extended separations, when Franklin is living in Britain and France.
1731 - Franklin's first child, William, is born, although Deborah is not his mother - in fact, his mother has never been conclusively identified.
This relationship ends sadly, however. Due to his connections with the British Crown and Parliament, Franklin had secured the plum post of royal governor of New Jersey for William. But when the Revolution came, partially due to Franklin's advocacy of the American cause, William refused to break with the British crown and remained a staunch Loyalist. Unfortunately, the relationship between Franklin and William does not survive the war.
July 31, 1731 - Franklin decides, through the Junto, to create the first subscription library in America. Prior to the creation of the Library Company of Philadelphia, the only libraries in the colonies were private ones, owned by wealthy individuals. In contrast, the Library Company is open to anyone in Philadelphia, who could afford a subscription.
To get the ball rolling, 50 members of the Junto agree to pay 40 shillings up front, as an initial membership fee, with 10 additional shillings a year as dues. According to the web site, Measuring Worth, the purchasing power of the 40 shillings was $580 in 2008 dollars, with an annual subscription costing $145 in 2008 dollars.
The creation of the Library Company paves the way for eventual public libraries in America.
1732 - Franklin's second child, Francis, is born, to Deborah.
Franklin launches Poor Richard's Almanack, one of Franklin's most celebrated accomplishments. As the years go by, its publication adds considerably to his renown and wealth.
1736 - Tragically, Francis dies.
With Philadelphia increasingly vulnerable to fire, due to its rapidly expanding size, Franklin organizes the first volunteer firefighting company in America - the Union Fire Company.
It required membership dues and members were subject to fines. By 1743, the Fire Company had done well enough to invest in America's first fire engine.
1737 - Franklin is appointed postmaster of Philadelphia, and improves mail efficiency throughout the colony of Pennsylvania.
1740 - Franklin's first daughter, Sarah, is born to him and Deborah.
Franklin becomes the official printer for the colony of New Jersey - the colony his son, William, would eventually govern.
1743 - This was a big year for Franklin...
Franklin, always keenly interested in science, is enthusiastic about viewing an eclipse of the moon. Unfortunately for his plans, a nor'easter socked the Philadelphia region - which still happens occasionally - and the storm prevented him from observing the predicted eclipse.
However, in the interests of science, all was not lost, as it turns out. After the fact, Franklin discovers that in his hometown of Boston, residents were, in fact, able to view the eclipse as scheduled, despite the storm - as the nor' easter hadn't made it up to New England yet.
As a result, Franklin becomes the first scientist to draw this conclusion - namely, that the direction of a storm might not always be governed by the direction of prevailing winds - i.e., he successfully identifies a storm system.
Franklin also comes up with a proposal for an academy, although it would take an additional eight years for its doors to open. It is the ancestor of the highly prestigious University of Pennsylvania, located in University City.
1744 - Franklin comes up with another invention, which he christens the "Pennsylvania Fire-Place". However, it becomes widely known as the "Franklin stove". In typical fashion, he combines his journalistic and scientific talents to publish a pamphlet extolling the virtues of the invention. As a result, Franklin benefits very well financially, from its popularity.
A subsequent inventors improves the flaws from Franklin's design, and the "Franklin stove" is still used today.
1748 - At the age of 42 - although by the standards of the 18th century, that was an advanced age - Franklin has prospered sufficiently, to retire permanently, from the printing industry.
Between the Pennsylvania Gazette, Poor Richard's Almanack and his various inventions - Franklin has made his money and seeks to dedicate the rest of his life to his scientific inquiries, and his many civic improvement ideas. He turns over the considerably daily publishing duties of the Gazette to an employee, David Hall, who attains partnership status, as a result.
1747 - Franklin organizes the "Association", Pennsylvania's first militia, as a defense against potential attacks from the rival colonial power, France, and its Indian allies. This organization was not easy to do, given the prominence of pacifist Quakers in the colony.
Undaunted, Franklin publishes a pamphlet titled The Plain Truth, in which he makes the case for the militia. After numerous public meetings and advocacy in the Gazette, the militia is finally created. Eventually, it numbers over 10,000 strong.
1748 - Franklin purchases a farm in then-distinctly rural Burlington, New Jersey (now a developed suburb). Although he originally plans to live on the farm, he decides - after a few months of rural life - against the idea and returns to Philadelphia. (He maintains his interest in agriculture, though.)
1750 - Franklin produces his most famous invention, the lightning rod. As a public service, in order to minimize suffering and property damage from fires, he permits the invention to be copied, royalty-free, so that the lightning rods could become as widely distributed as possible.
1751 - Franklin has another scientific work, Experiments, published.
1752 - Franklin's famous kite experiment takes place in Philadelphia. William plays a key role in the experiment, as Franklin's assistant. The experiment conclusively demonstrates that electricity was the cause of thunderstorms, and that thunderbolts had a natural explanation as electrical energy.
Franklin becomes famous throughout the world as a result, and is the best-known American in the world, during the 18th century. (And this was nearly a quarter-century before his role in the American Revolution, the peace treaty, or the creation of the U.S. Constitution.)
In May, Franklin founds the first successful fire insurance company in America. He had laid the groundwork for it earlier, with the Fire Company. This plan stipulated that members could pay an annual subscription fee, and receive benefits from the contributorship if they suffered any fire damages. 70 Philadelphians join in the first year.
Also, at long last, Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, making Franklin's birthday officially January 17, 1706.
1753 - Franklin receives an appointment from the British Crown - Deputy Postmaster for the 13 colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. He holds this post for 21 years, until political tumults ratchet up tension between Britain and the colonies - and he is removed from the position due to his opposition to British colonial policies.
Franklin receives the Copley Award, from the Royal Society of London. The Copley Award, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was the scientific equivalent to the contemporary Nobel Prize; Franklin wins it - just the second person to be honored - for his pioneering work on electricity.
May 9, 1754 - Franklin publishes a highly memorable political cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette. It features a snake cut into eight parts, with New England as one piece and the other seven colonies as the rest of the pieces, with the caption, "Join, or Die". Aside from its political message, it is the first American cartoon of any kind.
Franklin does this in order to promote a united effort for the British cause, in the Seven Years' War, known in North America as the French and Indian War, which begins that year. Later, it is revived as an exhortation for colonial unity, during the American Revolution. Much, much later, in 2009, the cartoon directly inspires the name, colors, and logo for the new Major League Soccer franchise in Philadelphia, Philadelphia Union.
June 1754 - In order to promote mutual protection, representatives of all 13 colonies assemble in Albany, New York, to discuss the war. Franklin proposes what he calls a "Grand Council" - the first formal attempt by anyone to bind the 13 colonies together. The "Albany Plan" does not prove popular, as the colonies do not perceive themselves as needing to unite. (Their view on this question has changed radically, 20 years later.)
May 28, 1755 - The cornerstone is laid for Pennsylvania Hospital, although Franklin has been promoting the idea for five years. It was the first public hospital in America, and it still exists, today.
January 1757 - Franklin is named as the London agent for the colony of Pennsylvania - the equivalent of a contemporary lobbyist. He eventually becomes the lobbyist for several colonies. He returns to Britain and will remain there for over a decade.
1762 - Franklin invents the Glass Armonica, a musical instrument, which you can see today at Franklin Court. Mozart and Beethoven both compose music specifically for the instrument.
King George III appoints William as Royal Governor of New Jersey, a post he holds until 1776, when he is apprehended by the Revolutionary government for remaining loyal to the British Crown.
1766 - Franklin becomes a member of the Royal Society of London.
1770 - Franklin becomes London agent for Massachusetts, his childhood home.
1771 - Franklin begins work on his Autobiography - his most famous book.
1773 - Tensions mount between Britain and the colonies after the Boston Tea Party.
1774 - Franklin is humiliated, during hearings of the Privy Council of the British Crown and Parliament in London. Although he has now lived in Britain for two long periods of time, he turns against Britain permanently, and returns to America.
His common-law wife, Deborah, dies in Philadelphia.
November 1775 - The Second Continental Congress appoints Franklin as one of the five members of its Committee of Secret Correspondence. This is the first American entity responsible for surreptitious diplomacy, espionage, and seeking alliances and aid from foreign powers such as France.
Summer 1776 - Franklin serves as one of five members on the committee which drafts the
Declaration of Independence,
written by Thomas Jefferson.
July 4, 1776 - The final draft of the Declaration is approved, and the United States is born. Franklin is now potentially subject to execution as a traitor, as a result of his signature to the document.
1777 - Franklin arrives in Paris, in order to seek a diplomatic and military alliance with King Louis XVI of France.
February 1778 - After word reaches Paris of the American victory at Saratoga, New York, the French court opts for an alliance, largely due to Franklin's skillful diplomacy and intrigue.
October 1781 - The Americans win a decisive victory at Yorktown, Virginia - largely due to French military and naval support obtained by Franklin - and effectively triumph in their six-year struggle with Britain for independence.
1783 - A team of American commissioners, led by Franklin, negotiate the Treaty of Paris with Britain, officially ending the war with the gain of full independence. He also negotiates a commercial treaty with Sweden.
1784 - King Louis XVI commissions a study by the French Academy of Sciences to investigate the claims and experiments if the Viennese physician Dr. Franz Mesmer. Three years earlier, Mesmer had arrived in Paris, touting his innovations of "animal magnetism", hypnosis, and - logically enough - "mesmerism", from which the contemporary term "mesmerize" is devised. Mesmer had gained many prominent followers, including Queen Marie Antoinette of France (who was Austrian by birth), and the Viennese composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Franklin is named to the committee, and due to the ailments of the 78-year-old doctor, the investigations take place at Franklin's home in the town of Passy. Via experimentation, the committee disproves Mesmer's claims, and his popularity fades.
Franklin also comes up with one of his most famous inventions - bifocals. This was the result of his annoyance, as he grew older, of having to switch back and forth between reading glasses and distance glasses. Accordingly, Franklin commissioned a pair of glasses, with the lenses ground with half of the reading lenses on the bottom, and the other half of distance lenses on the top.
1787 - Franklin becomes President of an antislavery society in Philadelphia, known as the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, one of the first in America.
May - September 1787 - Franklin plays a key role in what was known at the time as the "Federal Convention", now known to us as the "Constitutional Convention". It took place in what is now known as Independence Hall.
As the elder statesman at age 81, Franklin plays an enormously important role. The key to his importance, was his success in brokering the Great Compromise, without which no agreement could have been reached. Under the previous Articles of Confederation (created as a result of the Revolution), each state received only one vote, regardless of size. However, the Great Compromise stipulates that small states retain their equal vote in the new Senate, while voting is proportionate to population in the new House of Representatives.
In his final speech to the Convention, Franklin exhorts the delegates to sign the final document, regardless of whether they agree with all of its provisions (since nobody agreed with all of it, including himself), in order to promote political stability and permit the new nation to thrive.
As a result of his signature to the document, when it was approved on September 17, Franklin becomes the only American to sign the three most important documents of the Founding Period - the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris providing for American independence, and the U.S. Constitution.
1788 - The new U.S. Constitution is ratified by most states, and comes into operation. George Washington is unanimously elected as the first President.
April 17, 1790 - Franklin dies at 84 in Philadelphia. He passes away in a tranquil manner, in his sleep, at the house of his daughter Sarah.
Franklin's funeral attracts a crowd of 20,000, an incredible number given that Philadelphia's population in 1790 was estimated at only 28,522! He is buried next to Deborah at
Christ Church Burial Ground
at 5th and Arch Streets, which you can still visit today - and you should.
Sources - PBS -
PBS Benjamin Franklin Early Timeline
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