Ben Franklin Flies Kite Into History, Though He Wasn’t The First


Franklin Developed the Declaration of Independence with Adams and Jefferson

On This Date in History: Benjamin Franklin was remarkable.  He invented the pot-bellied stove that bears his name, bifocal glasses and a number of other items. He was a successful printer and, of course, statesman.  He was the first Postmaster General of America, contributed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as well as a diplomat throughout the American Revolution.  While he is considered a key member of America’s founding fathers, his scientific endeavors have left him with a legacy of one of the great experimental scientists of the 18th Century.  Franklin is  largely credited with proving that lightning was electrical in nature.   Now, he first proposed an experiment in which he would attach a long iron rod to a box and then place the box and rod atop a bell tower or something else tall. He then would have a man in the box holding on to the rod.  If the person thought it was too dangerous, then he could hold on to a wax handle attached to a wire that was attached to the rod.   Franklin never tried his experiment with the rod sticking 20 or 30 feet above his box.  But a few other people in Europe did.  Swedish physicist G. W. Richmann met an untimely death in Russia in 1753 trying the experiment out. 

Young Printer Ben

On this date in 1752, Franklin attempted his other great idea and that was with the kite.  Keep in mind, that some accounts have different dates.   He thought it was more practical than his previous proposition because it would extend higher in the sky and was a mobile experiment.  He could go to the storm instead of the storm coming to him.  He attached a key on the string and when the lightning hit the kite, he received a shock. See, electricity had already been discovered and lightning was hypothesized to be electrical based on observation but Franklin wanted to prove it.  Some claim that Ben had an early capacitor, a Leyden Jar, attached that stored the charge.  Either way, Franklin generally gets credit for proving that lightning was electrical and he lived to tell about it.  But….there was this French guy…Thomas-Francois D’Alibard… tried Franklin’s proposed experiment in May 1752 near Paris.  Apparently, Franklin had published an outline of the experiment that he proposed.  D’Alibard attempted the experiment before Franklin had an opportunity to do so and it worked.  The Frenchman lived to tell about it and he did so.  But,  no one seems to remember D’Alibard.  I can’t even find a picture or painting of D’Alibard.   Perhaps he didn’t shout it loud enough or maybe  it was due to the fact that  it was Franklin’s idea and Franklin’s published experiment.  In any event, Ben gets the credit.  In this account, the author says that Dr. Franklin never recorded the events of his kite flying experiment but instead apparently dictated the account to Joseph Priestley who published the story of the event 15 years after the experiment.  In this account, Priestley says that Franklin touched his knuckle to the key to confirm the presence of electricity.  Interestingly, Priestley also seems to confirm that, not only did the Frenchmen conduct the experiment a month before, but that Franklin was aware of the claim but not before he made his own experiment.   

Schematic of Franklin's Lightning Bells

 Franklin went on to invent the lightning rod to protect homes from the electricity he proved.  He also  coined the terms still in use today that are related to electricity:   battery, conductor, condenser, charge, discharge, uncharged, negative, minus, plus, electric shock, and electrician.   Dr. Franklin followed up his kite experiment with another device he called lightning bells.   In September 1752, he took an iron rod to draw electricity down to his house during a thunderstorm so he could conduct more experiments.  It was attached to bells and when the bells rung, then he knew it was electrified.  Much to his surprise, Franklin found that the bells would ring when there was no lightning or thunder present but instead just a dark cloud.  Other times the bells would stop ringing after he observed the flash of lightning. 

Why this French guy or Franklin wasn’t killed is more of a miracle than anything else. They had no idea that the temperature lightning can be as high as  50,000 degrees F and have millions of volts and tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Amps.  It is has been speculated that, in cases in which people have been hit by a full stroke of lightning, they are vaporized.  My guess is that in both cases, the two of them captured but a small portion of the actual lightning strike and therefore only received a small shock.  Otherwise, Ben might not have made it on the $100 bill or been around to help found the nation.

Franklin's observer was his son, who was a full grown man at the time

If you look at the picture above….there is another person.  In many paintings, there is this unidentified person with Franklin.  I had heard years ago that really an African American slave held the key and was killed, which explains why Franklin didn’t die.  But, that seems very unlikely since Franklin was a Quaker and was against slavery wholeheartedly.  Instead, the other person portrayed is that of Franklin’ s son.  Ben didn’t  like to advertise his experiements because, when something went wrong, he would be subject to ridicule from the public.  So, the only person he told about his conducting the kite experiment was his son, who was in his early 20’s at the time.  In some paintings, the extra person is a young boy as some artists assumed that, if Franklin’s son was present, he must have been a young boy and not a full grown man.  There is another error in the painting.  Franklin was under a shed or some other awning for protection from the rain.  He wasn’t standing out in a thunderstorm.   

It Was Hector Heathcote!

 I like another explanation as to why Franklin wasn’t killed.  There was a cartoon with a guy named Hector Heathcote who always was involved in historical events. In one episode, Franklin was flying his kite and he handed it to Heathcote for a moment. At that moment, lightning struck and Heathcote was electricuted!  I say it was Hector Heathcote that discovered electricity!  Yes indeed.  American television cartoons uncovered the mystery and you heard it here first.  Perhaps Hector should be on the $100 bill.

SPC Severe Weather Outlook Saturday

Weather Bottom Line:  It’s going to be pretty warm on Thursday and early Friday, we have a warm front moving north.  What that will do is open us up to a southerly flow and an increase in moisture.  So, with temperatures pushing toward 90 and increased instability brought about with higher moisture, we could see some afternoon thunderstorms on a scattered basis.  Saturday, we have a cold front coming down into the moisture  rich environment.  In addition to the lifting feature of this front, there will no doubt be some waves of energy wandering along the front.  Hence, Saturday there will be the prospects of some strong storms in the area.   At one time, the front was progged to come through and cool things off but now, it would seem unlikely as the long wave flow is such that the boundary will most likely simply stay to our north and slip by to the east.  With that scenario, we will continue dancing with 90 for the foreseeable future.

2 Responses

  1. Really great posts the last few days, Mr. Symon. Ben Franklin was a true Renaissance man, if there ever was one. There is very little that Ben Franklin laid his hand to in which he did not accomplish remarkable things.

    America was blessed to have such an abundance of truly remarkable human beings that happened to be around at the right time to help our country get going. I doubt that there has ever been such a remarkable collection of so many brilliant and gifted men in one relatively small area as there were in 1776. Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton to name just a few. It is truly amazing that our country produced such a collection of unusually talented men at the time when they were needed most. Divine providence, perhaps? I believe so!

  2. awsome dude

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