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By Hillel Italie
Associated Press
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

At the Smithsonian, a tribute to his statesmanship is planned. In London, an exhibit hails his medical contributions. But at McGillin's Olde Ale House in Philadelphia, they know best how to honor Benjamin Franklin on his 300th birthday: with a celebratory toast.

"He was a very jovial fellow who would meet at the taverns, discussing the latest John Locke book or scientific breakthrough over a nice pint of beer," McGillin's owner Chris Mullins said.

Franklin was a businessman, inventor, revolutionary, athlete (he is a member of the United States Swim School Association Hall of Fame), diplomat, publisher, humorist, sage and regular guy. "He certainly is a multiplicity of persona, so one never knows which one is the real Franklin," says Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose books include "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin."

Franklin's approachability begins with his background. Unlike George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, he did not grow up a landed "gentleman." His rise, as Franklin himself later boasted, was "from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some degree of Reputation in the World."

He was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706, the 10th son of a soap- and candle-maker. Starting at age 12, he worked five years as an apprentice at his brother James's newspaper, the New England Courant, establishing himself as a prankster and satirist, and, not for the last time, as "a little obnoxious to the governing party."

Over the next 30 years and beyond, he advanced himself as a printer, publisher and humorist, composing such lasting epigrams as "Fish and visitors stink in three days" and "Eat to live, and not live to eat." For many, he is the founding American wit, grounded in plain talk, a tradition carried on by Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Franklin's greatest public triumph was probably as a diplomat, persuading France to aid the colonies in their fight against the British. But he needed no revolution to be a revolutionary, for he changed the world by living in it. "The things which hurt, instruct," he observed.

Middle-aged eyesight led him to design a single, all-purpose set of glasses -- bifocals. A struggle to raise money for a public hospital led to a plan by which private contributions would be equaled by government funds, the "matching grant" formula in use to this day.

Among other credits: modernized street lights, volunteer firefighters, fire insurance, lending libraries, odometers, daylight saving time and lightning rods (inspired by a kite excursion).

"His demonstration that lightning was not supernatural had huge impact," says Dudley Herschbach, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist. "Since lightning had long been considered a prerogative of the Almighty, Franklin was attacked for presumption, vigorously but in vain."

Herschbach, a Harvard University professor who has lectured frequently on Franklin, says: "Franklin's scientific curiosity extended far beyond his adventures with electricity. He made important discoveries and observations concerning the motion of storms, heat conduction, the path of the Gulf Stream, bioluminescence, the spreading of oil films, and also advanced prescient ideas about conservation of matter and the wave nature of light."

Franklin was an innovator, but, unlike Jefferson, not a poet; ideas didn't matter unless they were useful. He was the country's original pragmatist -- the classic American art of learning through experience, not theory, that was refined and adopted by William James and John Dewey.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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