Benjamin Franklin first electrocuted himself in 1746, while conducting experiments on electricity with found objects from around his house. Six years later and exactly 261 years ago today, the founding father flew a kite attached to a key and a silk ribbon in a thunderstorm and effectively trapped lightning in a jar.
The experiment is now seen as a watershed moment in mankind’s question to channel a force of nature once thought to be the wrath of God himself. It’s also understood that Ben Franklin was pretty effing lucky he didn’t fry his bones on that fateful early June afternoon in 1752. Based on what he’d contribute to the nation in the years after that, America is pretty lucky too.
By the time Franklin started experimenting with electricity, he’d already found fame and fortune as the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack and was starting to get into science. Electricity wasn’t a very well understood phenomenon at that point, though, so Franklin’s research proved to be fairly foundational. The early experiments, experts believe, were inspired by other scientists’ work and the shortcomings therein.
That early brush with the dangers of electricity left an impression on Franklin. He described the sensation as “a universal blow throughout my whole body from head to foot, which seemed within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick shaking of my body.” However, it didn’t scare him away. In the handful of years before his famous kite experiment, Franklin contributed everything from designing the first battery designs to establishing some common nomenclature in the study of electricity. It’s thanks to Franklin, for instance, that we refer to positive and negative charges. Before him, they were known as “vitreous” and “resinous” charges. (Those names don’t quite have the same punch do they?)
At a certain point, Franklin’s fascination about electrity shifted beyond mere curiosity to practically political spheres like public safety. He wanted to know if there might be a way to keep churches and other tall buildings from burning down during lightning storms and hypothesized that lighting was just one big discharge of static electricity. If this was the case, he thought, one ought to be able to tease lightning out of the clouds with a charged object placed high in the air. Like a metal rod on top of a steeple with a cable stretching down to the ground. Or a kite with a key attached to it.
So Franklin and his 21-year-old son William suited up on June 10, 1852 — some historians avoid naming an exact date for the experiment since the event was so vaguely documented — and ventured into the storm. It should be known that Franklin was not the first to conduct this type of experiment. Just a month before Franklin’s experiment in Philadelphia, French scientist Thomas-François Dalibard conducted an electric kite experiment of his own and possibly invented a lightning rod before Franklin, though he’s not given credit for doing so. The reason for that might be explained purely by the American do-it-all’s showmanship. Franklin had a built-in audience for his scientific reports and was generally gifted at promoting his own work.
Before he got to take credit for the kite experiment, though, Franklin had to survive it. In order to reduce the risk of electrocution, he opted for a kite on a dry silk string over a metal rod attached to a building as the preferred method for attracting lightning. An iron key was attached to the silk string as well as a metal wire that was dropped into an electrically charged Leyden jar. Once the kite was flying high, Franklin held on to a dry silk ribbon attached to the string and took shelter in a nearby barn so that he wouldn’t get wet. Sure enough, the storm picked up, the air became charge, and Franklin successfully conducted electricity through his kite rig. Because he was holding a silk ribbon and not the actual string, Franklin avoided getting shocked, though he said that he would catch a shock if he put his finger close to the key.
After the successful experiment, Franklin knew that his lightning rod idea would work. Again, he wasn’t the only one experimenting with the idea, though his belief that the rods should be sharp on the end in oder to attract lightning was significant. The first of these so-called Franklin lightning rods started popping up across Philadelphia in the 1850s and one eventually graced the top of the State House in Maryland. Franklin wrote of the devices’ importance:
May not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships, etc., from the stroke of lightning, by directing us to fix, on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle… Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief!
You’ve got to love that last bit. Because Franklin was a bit of a troublemaker. The kite experiment and lightning rod campaign proved to foreshadow Franklin’s involvement in the American colonies’ independence movement. King George III, you see, was a fan of blunt lightning rods, not the pointed ones that Franklin recommended. “The favoured pointed lightning rod expressed support for Franklin’s theories of protecting public buildings and the rejection of theories supported by the King,” says the Franklin Institute. “The English thought this was just another way for the flourishing colonies to be disobedient to them.”
It turns out the English were kind of right. In the decades that followed Franklin’s kite experiment, the Americans would become known not just for their audacity in the face of authority but also for their seemingly limitless capacity to innovate and improve new technologies. First came electricity, then steam engines, then the telephone, the aeroplane, the TV, the internet, the personal computer, Steve Jobs.
We owe a lot to that funny-haired man on the hundred-dollar bill who spent a dangerous day flying a kite over a quarter of a millenium ago. Which reminds me: Not enough people fly kites these days or conduct impromptu scientific experiments. There should be an app for that.
Picture: via PSU