Benjamin Franklin: The Kite Experiment and the Invention of the Lightning Rod

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One can only speculate as to the thoughts running through Benjamin Franklin’s mind as he pondered the awe and power of lightning during some long ago summer storm. Franklin suspected that lightning was an electrical current in nature, rather than the wrath of God, and he wanted to see if he was right. One way to test his idea would be to see if the lightning would pass through metal. He came upon the idea to use a metal key and looked around for a way to get the key up near the lightning. As you probably already know, he used a simple toy, a kite, to prove that lightning is really a stream of electrified air, known today as plasma. No direct account of this event was ever written by Franklin, however, the manuscript of Joseph Freely documents the events as follows:

"As every circumstance relating to so capital a discovery (the greatest, perhaps, since the time of Sir Isaac Newton) cannot but give pleasure to all my readers, I shall endeavour to gratify them with the communication of a few particulars which I have from the best authority. "The Doctor, having published his method of verifying his hypothesis concerning the sameness of electricity with the matter of lightning, was waiting for the erection of a spire [on Christ Church] in Philadelphia to carry his views into execution; not imagining that a pointed rod of a moderate height could answer the purpose; when it occurred to him that by means of a common kite he could have better access to the regions of thunder than by any spire whatever. Preparing, therefore, a large silk handkerchief and two cross-sticks of a proper length on which to extend it, he took the opportunity of the first approaching thunderstorm to take a walk in the fields, in which there was a shed convenient for his purpose. But, dreading the ridicule which too commonly attends unsuccessful attempts in science, he communicated his intended experiment to nobody but his son" — then twenty-one, not a child as in the traditional illustrations...
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