Benjamin Franklin & His Lightning Kite

Until a comparatively few years ago, lightning continued to be a thing of surprise, awe and supernatural origin. As late as the close of the seventeenth century a leading English scholar described lightning as an explosion of “nitrous and sulphorous vapors” in the air, similar to the firing of gunpowder. But, as scientists became better acquainted with electricity, they began to speculate that lightning and electricity were one and the same. America’s Benjamin Franklin suggested this idea first in 1749 when he pointed out twelve similarities between electricity and lightning.

“Electrical fluid,” Franklin wrote, “agrees with lightning in these particulars:

1. Giving light.

2. Color of the light.

3. Crooked direction;

4. rapid motion.

5. Being conducted by metals.

6. Crack or noise in exploding.

7. Subsisting in ice or water;

8 Rending bodies it passes by.

9. Destroying animals.

10. Melting metals.

11. Firing inflammable substances.

12. Sulphureous smell.”

Franklin continued that “the electric fluid is attracted by points”, and additional: “We do not know whether this character is in lightning. But since they agree in all particulars wherein we can compare them, is it not probable that they agree likewise in this? Let the experiment be made.” A few weeks later Franklin made his first suggestion as to the use of a lightning rod whereby “the electrical fire would be drawn out of a cloud silently before it could come near enough to strike.” He made further suggestions concerning the way to test lightning, and his theories were proved by experiments of French scientists in 1752. But, before he received information of this success, Franklin had proved the same thing himself by his now famous kite experiment. Fortunately, his kite did not contact a heavy bolt otherwise his successful experiment also might have been a fatal one.

As a consequence of these experiments lightning rods were used to protect homes and barns, although some People wondered whether such methods of circumventing divine wrath showed a without of faith. A Baptist Pastor friend of Franklin made a special point of explaining that the use of lightning rods was neither presumptuous nor had it any irreligious aspects. Franklin did not attempt to patent the lightning rod, nor did he gain profit from it. He was willing to contribute his findings to science, and the personal satisfaction he attained in answering his own questions seemingly was reward enough. Until the middle of the last century no one knew exactly what lightning looked like.

From the days when Zeus and Jupiter were shown holding the thunderbolt, lightning had been represented as zigzag streaks with sharp angles. It is nevertheless represented that way in traditional designs. However, photographs show that lightning truly is never angular, but is always more or less sinuous, like a meandering river, and that it often has many branches.

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