Today in History: January 17
The Pragmatic Innovator
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, but his adopted home was Philadelphia, the largest city in eighteenth-century America. His many accomplishments as printer, scientist, and statesman are particularly remarkable when considered in the context of colonial North America. A spirit of pragmatic innovation imbued all of Franklin's intellectual, social, and scientific pursuits. He dedicated himself to the improvement of everyday life for the widest number of people and, in so doing, made an indelible mark on the emerging nation.
Although Franklin had little formal education, he was an avid reader and writer. The fifteenth of seventeen children, at age twelve he was apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer who published a weekly newspaper called The New England Courant. At seventeen Franklin ran away to Philadelphia, where on the day of his arrival he met his future wife, Deborah Read. He quickly found employment and was able to set up his own print shop by 1728. Soon Franklin was publishing almanacs and newspapers of his own, as well as taking in "job printing" for others. In 1737 he became the postmaster of Philadelphia, a role that aided him in gathering the news.
Franklin's publications reflected his civic spirit and were popular in format and content. Poor Richard's Almanack, first published in 1732, included stories based on a fictional "Richard Saunders" whose comical tribulations allowed Franklin to advise readers on politics, philosophy, and how to get ahead in the world. It also featured the proverbs for which Franklin is so well known today.
Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, begun in 1729, was Philadelphia's second newspaper, but quickly became its most prominent. The May 9, 1754, issue included "Join, or Die", which is widely considered America's first political cartoon. Devised by Franklin, it reflected concern about increasing French pressure along the western frontier of the colonies. The cartoon equates the segments of a snake with the then separate colonies, suggesting that if they did not unite against their common enemy, they, like a disjointed snake, would not survive.
Franklin's community involvements extended beyond his employment. His first attempt at social improvement was to organize the Junto (or Leather Apron Club) in 1727, a small group of men who met weekly to debate morality, politics, and philosophy. Franklin is credited with initiating America's first subscription library (1731), volunteer fire department (1736), property insurance company (external link) (1751), public hospital (external link) (1751), and scholarly association: the American Philosophical Society (external link) (1745), which promoted scientific and intellectual inquiry and has maintained its premiere status to this day. He also founded Pennsylvania's first college, now the University of Pennsylvania (external link).
By the 1740s Franklin had become fascinated by science. His mechanical innovations included the
"Pennsylvania Fireplace", which moved a room's fire out from the wall to more effectively heat the air all around it, bifocal glasses, and even the exotic glass Armonica. Mid-eighteenth century scientists and inventors considered electricity Franklin's most remarkable area of investigation. In his famous 1752 experiment using a kite and key during a thunderstorm, Franklin proved his hypothesis that lightning bolts are actually powerful electrical currents. This discovery led to his invention of the lightning rod, which prevented structures from igniting when struck by lightning, since the current was drawn to the rod and from there carried harmlessly to ground.
By 1748 Franklin had "retired" from printing to concentrate on his scientific pursuits, while maintaining a financial interest in the business with his new partner, David Hall. Instead, Franklin found himself increasingly involved in civic affairs. In 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly and in 1753 he became deputy British postmaster of North America. As colonial relations with Great Britain grew strained, Franklin represented first the province of Pennsylvania, and eventually all of the colonies, as a diplomat in London after 1757. By the time he returned to Philadelphia, the American Revolution had all but begun.
Franklin refined his skills as a diplomat through his work in protest of the Stamp Act. He first attempted to negotiate a compromise but eventually testified before Parliament against the law on both constitutional and practical grounds. To highlight the dangers of taxation without representation, Franklin designed a cartoon showing the figure of Britannia with the colonies as severed limbs. Back in Philadelphia, the November 7, 1765, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette was printed without date, masthead, or imprint, or the required government stamp, as a protest that also protected its publishers from prosecution. When the Stamp Act was repealed the following March, the colonies had successfully exerted their sense of growing autonomy.
Along with his contemporaries including George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, Franklin rejected the European model of aristocratic rule. As part of an emerging political structure, these men crafted a system based instead on representative government. Franklin served as a member of the Second Continental Congress, where he helped to draft and later signed the Declaration of Independence, and debated the Articles of Confederation before departing for Paris late in 1776. He played a vital diplomatic role in securing a formal alliance with France and later in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain. After serving as U.S. ambassador, he returned to Philadelphia in 1785 and was elected president of Pennsylvania. Franklin also attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention, where he became that document's oldest signer.
A former slaveholder, Franklin came to fully understand the evils of slavery later in life. Abolition became the last great civic cause to which he devoted substantial effort and energy. At age eighty-one Franklin was elected president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and in 1790, shortly before his death, he petitioned Congress on behalf of the group to bring an end to slavery. The proposal was debated but not acted on.
Franklin died quietly at home on April 17, 1790, having vastly improved his world. His Autobiography, first published in an English-language edition in 1793, continues to be one of the most widely read books of all times. A comic epitaph Franklin wrote years before, reminds us that he always considered himself as a printer:
The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; 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 believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition, Corrected and amended By the Author.
Learn more about Franklin's work and life. See the online exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words, which includes a Time Line and bibliography of his life. For even more links to resources see Finding Franklin: A Resource Guide.
Find out more about the July 4, 1776, signing of the Declaration of Independence. See the online exhibition, Declaring Independence, Drafting the Documents. Or, search in other American Memory collections for more information:
- See the collection, Documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789 which includes a Time Line, beginning in 1764, of events leading up to the Revolution.
- Search the Today in History Archive on Revolution to find more material on the war. Also, see the feature on the nation's first daily newspaper.
- Search on Benjamin Franklin in Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827 or in George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 to find correspondence between the men.
- Search on Benjamin Franklin or the names of other Revolutionary War leaders in Touring Turn of the Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 or the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for more images.
- See A Guide to the American Revolution, 1763-1783 and Primary Documents in American History for even more links to resources.
Here we come to a new and peculiar street railway…There is no steam on board. You ask how is this train propelled? Between the track and under ground is a cable running upon rollers for the length of the road…
Edward D. Holton,
Travels with Jottings, (Milwaukee: Trayser Brothers, Printers, 1880), page 33.
California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900
On January 17, 1871, San Franciscan Andrew Smith Hallidie (external link) patented an improved “Endless Wire Ropeway”, a key component in the construction of the first cable car system that ultimately spared many horses the excruciating work of moving people over San Francisco’s steep roadways. Hallidie devised a grip mechanism by which cars were drawn along an endless cable running in a slot between the rails.
After gathering financial backing, Hallidie and his associates constructed the first cable railway. The track ran from the intersection of Clay and Kearny Streets along twenty-eight hundred feet of track to the crest of a hill 307 feet above the starting point. In the predawn hours of the morning of August 2, 1873, a few nervous men climbed aboard the cable car as it stood on the hilltop. With Hallidie at the controls, the car descended and arrived safely at the bottom.
Given San Francisco's steep terrain, the cable car came to define the city. Writing in 1888, Harriet Harper declared:
If any one should ask me what I consider the most distinctive, progressive feature of California, I should answer promptly, its cable-car system. And it is not alone its system which seems to have reached a point of perfection, but the amazing length of the ride that is given you for the chink of a nickel. I have circled this city of San Francisco, I have gone the length of three separate cable lines (by means of the proper transfers) for this smallest of Southern coins.
Letters from California, (Portland, Maine: B. Thurston & Co., 1888), page 33.
California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900
The success of the San Francisco line led to the expansion of that system and the introduction of street railways in many other cities. By the 1920s, most United States municipalities had abandoned horse drawn cars for electrically powered cars.
- Search the American Memory motion picture collections on cable car. Results will include a 1905 film shot from the front window of a San Francisco cable car, a 1906 cable car trip to Berkeley, California, and a 1904 film of men at work in the street car motor room of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company.
- See the Museum of the City of San Francisco's (external link) online resources which tell the story of the city's street cars (external link) from Hallidie's invention to streetcars used today (external link) by the Municipal Railway.
- Read more about transportation in the United States. See the Today in History features on the New York Subway System and Henry Ford. Also, don't miss the Today in History feature on the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.