Born into a Puritan family in Boston, Franklin had little education, and began work as a candlemaker in his father's shop. He soon was apprenticed in the print shop of his brother, producing The New England Courant. His first publications, mostly satirical, appeared in the Courant. In 1723 Franklin set up as a printer in Philadelphia, and after a short stay in London, returned to establish The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1726 and Poor Richard's Almanack in 1732. In 1727, Franklin founded a society called the Junto, which was instrumental in a number of public works in Philadelphia: a library, a fire company, a college (later to become the University of Pennsylvania), and an insurance company, as well as plans for streetlights, paving, and policing. Much of this work followed from his administrative career as the Postmaster General. In 1751 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, writing propaganda on the importance of self-government for the Quaker party.
His skills were also practical. His first major invention appeared in 1740: the Franklin stove; many others followed, including the lightning rod, bifocal lenses, and a musical instrument called the glass harmonium. On wealth gained from his inventions and efficient management of his print shop, he retired from business in 1748, at the age of only forty-two. He devoted some of his time to scientific researches: in 1752, for example, he performed his famous experiment with a kite and a key, demonstrating conclusively that lightning was a form of electricity. On the strength of his inventions and his scientific research into electricity, Franklin was named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1756. An election to the French Academy of Sciences followed in 1772.
In the 1750s, Franklin became involved in colonial affairs, advocating a limited form of self-rule independent of Britain. Living in England beginning in 1757, Franklin worked to reserve some measure of political power for Pennsylvania. There he traveled and became acquainted with a number of leading intellectuals, including David Hume. Though he remained committed to America's continued union with Britain, in 1765 he led the opposition to the Stamp Act and, later, the Townshend Acts (1767) and the Tea Act (1773): by the mid-sixties, he had become one of the leading spokesmen for the cause of limited American self-rule.
Beginning in 1776, Franklin served in the Continental Congress, drafting articles of confederation and the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, he was instrumental in securing French support for the American war of independence, and earned a reputation among French society as le Bonhomme Richard for his wit and enlightened learning. After the war in 1783, he helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, and was soon named the first American ambassador to France, America's most important European connection.
Late in his life, Franklin devoted much of his time to the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787.