An extraordinary person came into the world on Jan. 17 back in 1706. His rise from a crowded and humble beginning to the top fulfilled what has been called the American dream.

First of all, the family he was midwifed into was not only strapped for cash most of the time, but swarming with kids ahead of him (14 of them).

As a lowly candlemaker, his father's earnings would be considered minimal even for an average family; now there 15 to be fed and clothed -- eventually 17. And, because of the money shortage, number 15 only had two years of formal schooling.

One could imagine a dim future for such a lad.

But this was no ordinary youngster. It was Benjamin Franklin.

At age 11 or12, he began working in his older brother's print shop. There he became an avid reader. So much so, he eventually became self-taught in all sorts of subjects including history, government and philosophy, all the math of his day, along with picking up several foreign languages. And this was merely a start.

Blessed with a curious mind, he dabbled in enough science to discover lightning was a form of electricity and "lightning rods" would attract it away from houses. Next, he tired of the on-and-off routine with his eyeglasses, so he invented bifocal lenses for seeing both close-up and distant. Soon he devised a heating stove which people still use today.

Then, in his spare time, his love of music attracted a violin to his hands. Soon, the cello, harp and guitar were added, plus an invention he called a glass "Armonica". (Beethoven and Mozart even composed music for it).

Boredom? What was that? This guy's mind seemed never at rest.

Despite all these individual accomplishments, Ben cared enough about others to be civic minded. The first lending library, first fire insurance, and philosophical society in America were hatched in his brain.

Now it's time to justify why he tops my list of greatest Americans. Early on, as a colonial representative, he influenced England to repeal the hated Stamp Act (much more of a colonial problem than the Tea Act); he was also highly respected by the French and eventually helped convince them to aid our American Revolution (Probably wouldn't have won without them!).

And Franklin was the only one of our founding fathers to help write four of our country's most important documents -- the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Peace Treaty with England, and the U.S. Constitution. Incidentally, in relation to them, he was extremely skillful at negotiating compromises!

Yet, Ben wasn't always on the mark. During the Revolution he once proposed that our national symbol should be the turkey. The turkey! (Perhaps prescience was afoot and he foresaw today's congress.)

Finally, we have to add that Al Capone was also born on Jan. 17. So much for astrology!!!

Contact Joe King at alamedanews@bayareanewsgroup.com.