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Our History: Nation celebrates Ben Franklin’s birthday

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Franklin was able to accomplish much in his lifetime despite his limited education as a child. He was literally self-educated after completing the equivalent of second grade. Brought up in a family of 17 children and rather limited means, he nevertheless became America's first international celebrity.Franklin starred as a foreign diplomat in European society. At home, in the colonies, he rose from printer's apprentice to printer, then from publisher to a leading businessman, and was able to retire at age 41 a wealthy man.From childhood his curiosity and fascination with kites and electricity led him to become an innovator and inventor as well as a purveyor of wit and wisdom. He had a circle of friends that extended around the globe and included Voltaire and Isaac Newton. Franklin's curiosity about the weather and the new science of electricity made him known as a pioneer in the field and the inventor of the lightning rod.An active civic leader in Philadelphia, he created the first fire department. He served as the Postmaster General for the Colonies and as such was responsible for completely modernizing the country's mail service.Franklin was instrumental during the Revolutionary War in winning the support of the king of France for our American cause. He worked among our foreign friends in Europe to raise funds which allowed the Continental Army to survive on the battlefield in desperate times. During the Constitutional Convention he labored ceaselessly with opposing factions to conclude the signing of the Constitution.He visited New York City on at least one occasion, as part of a committee to parlay with British General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, after George Washington's failure in the Battle of Long Island, Aug. 27, 1776. The peace conference was unsuccessful, and Franklin returned to Philadelphia. That city has myriad events planned for his tercentenary, and the New York City public schools may work his achievements into the curriculum, as well.The Franklin stove which he invented is still in use, and he invented the catheter while helping his brother through a gall bladder operation. Throughout his life he was interested in electricity and he pioneered this new science, coining such words as armature, battery, charge, condenser, conductor and discharge. He was first to conduct a scientific study of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, charting its speed, depth and temperatures at various seasons. The results aided naval officers, sailors and scientists in those early years.His publication, "Poor Richard's Almanac," made him acclaimed for his wit and he was known for such sayings as, "three can keep a secret if two of them are dead."Franklin also discovered that disease spread more rapidly if rooms were poorly ventilated, which went against prevailing beliefs.Throughout his successful life Franklin's aim was never to just amass wealth and he never took out any patents on his inventions. About the only disappointment he faced was when he attempted to have the turkey selected as a symbol of our country. As we all know, Congress selected the eagle.Franklin invented bifocal glasses, printed the first mail-order catalog, established the first insurance company, helped organize the academy that became the University of Pennsylvania, reinvented the European harmonica, showed that acidic soils could be made fertile with the addition of lime, and helped to organize the first subscription library, among other accomplishments.A look back in time verifies that Benjamin Franklin was truly a multi-dimensional man and shall never become a forgotten figure in our country's history.Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.

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