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Benjamin Franklin, Printer

At age 17, Benjamin Franklin ran away from his home in Boston, where he was employed as an apprentice in his brother’s print shop, and sailed for New York.

While aboard ship, he made the acquaintance of New York’s only publisher, who having no job for him, suggested he go instead to Philadelphia and seek work with his son, who ran a print shop and newspaper there.

On arriving in Philadelphia, however, Franklin was told the man had no work for him, so he contacted the city’s only other printer, Samuel Keimer, and was given a job.

Franklin was already an accomplished writer by this time, and his work attracted the attention of Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith. The governor promised to set young Franklin up with his own print shop, and to pay for a voyage to London so that Franklin could purchase equipment and make contacts.

It was only after Franklin had arrived in London that he learned that Keith had not followed through on his promises. The young printer found himself stuck in London. He obtained a position at a prestigious London printing house, and worked there for almost two years, until he met a Philadelphia shopkeeper who promised him a job and offered to pay his passage home.

Once back in Philadelphia, he worked happily enough as a shopkeeper for a couple of months, until his mentor suddenly took ill and died. In his will, the man forgave Franklin’s debt for the ocean voyage, but did not leave him the shop. So Franklin went back to his former boss, Keimer, patched things up and got his old job back.

At that time there was no foundry in America for casting type, so Franklin used Keimer’s letters to make his own molds, and became the first person in America to manufacture type.

Unhappy with his treatment at Keimer’s shop, Franklin and a co-worker soon left to open their own competing shop; the friend put up the money and Franklin contributed his substantial talents and diligence. But the partner turned out to be more interested in drinking than in the publishing business, so Franklin bought him out and finally had a shop of his own.

A year later, Keimer fled from his debtors to Barbados; on the way out of town, he sold his failing newspaper to Franklin, who became the proud publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, just eleven years after first becoming an apprentice in his brother’s shop.

Isaacson writes, “In his long life he would have many other careers: scientist, politician, statesman, diplomat. But henceforth he always identified himself the way he would do sixty years later in the opening words of his last will and testament: ‘I, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer.'”

(Isaacson 35-64)


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