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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 06/01/2011

Old “Ben” and his Franklin lightning rod

Although thunderstorms can occur at any time of year, the atmosphere becomes more energized with the increasing warmth of spring and summer. As a result, thunderstorms become more likely in those parts of the world that often experience greater vertical instability, including ours. (Severe thunderstorms may occur in the region later today.)

Thunderstorms and lightning, of course, go hand in hand. Why is it necessary to state something so obvious? Apparently it is, because on numerous occasions, I’ve heard TV weathercasters (usually the novices, even though they may be meteorologists) talk about a line of severe thunderstorms and even some lightning. Give me a break! When you hear thunder, there’s always lightning somewhere around, is there not?

As most of us know, Ben Franklin had a childhood fascination with electricity, performing early experiments with static electricity and later, the Leyden jar, a device that “stores” electricity (a capacitor).

Eventually, he performed his famous kite experiment, in which he supposedly flew a kite into a thunderstorm and held a metal key on the other end to test his theory that lightning was a form of static electricity. Or did he? Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure. Franklin was very diligent about recording all of his important activities in his diary, where there is no mention of that experiment.

Nevertheless, whether Franklin himself actually performed the experiment or not, he was able to greatly benefit from what was learned and subsequently invented what he called the “Franklin rod,” a device to help protect structures from lightning-caused fires.


The Franklin lightning rod (Franklin Institute)
Although neither the lightning rod, nor any of Franklin’s many other inventions were ever patented, Franklin was, after all, a businessman. So he attempted to market his device to those most in need. That would be the churches, he thought, since church steeples were often the highest point in town and in Franklin’s day (circa 1750s) lightning-caused church fires were quite common. Not only that, bell ringers who were often sent to the belfry to warn of impending thunderstorms, were often electrocuted. According to Seckel and Edwards in a 1984 paper, over a 33 year period during the 18th century, 120 bell ringers were killed and 400 towers damaged in Germany.

Church elders, however, feared the wrath of God if they allowed Franklin to “control the artillery of heaven” with his “heretical rod.” The Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of Old South Church in Boston, went so far as to blame the lightning rod for causing the Massachusetts earthquake of 1755!

Eventually, after many more lightning-caused fires here and around the world, the value of Franklin’s invention began to be appreciated. A notable example: St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. As the Seckel paper put it:

In spite of the angel at its summit, the bells consecrated to ward off devils and witches in the air, the holy relics in the church below, and the Processions in the adjacent square, the tower was frequently damaged or destroyed by lightning. It was not until 1766 that a lightning rod was placed upon it--and the tower has never been struck since.

Franklin’s lightning rod was never meant to repel (and not even attract) lightning, as some people believe. But if lightning is about to strike a protected structure, the rod will (hopefully) channel the discharge through the attached grounding wire to the ground below, sparing the building in the process. The devices, greatly enhanced of course, are in widespread use today.

Although Franklin was responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of other inventions, I wouldn’t be doing him justice if I didn’t at least complete the story of his fascination, if not obsession, with fire prevention and control. That is to say: in addition to his success with the lightning rod in preventing lightning-caused fires in the first place, if a fire did start, he knew a quick response was needed, ergo, the fire brigade; and if damage was done, Franklin believed that people should be made whole, voila: the fire insurance company. Did I mention the Franklin Stove, an invention still in use today, which heated a room more efficiently and safely than a fireplace did, especially during colonial times when fireplaces were not shielded well from the outside wall?

For more information about lightning, lightning myths, and lightning protection, please refer to previous posts on this blog, including:

A few words about lightning myths

Thunderstorms: Fickle & capricious for sure

Lightning: to crouch or not to crouch.

Airline safety: Is the fear of a lightning strike warranted? JetBlue plane struck

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 06/01/2011

Categories:  Latest, History, Lipman, Thunderstorms

 
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