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118 ✸ Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa 6 Ben Franklin’s Electric Kite ike Darwin’s finches, other images have greatly influenced popular ideas about the history of science. One that is etched in our minds is that of stocky Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm. It shows up in books, stamps, art, and currency, even on a U.S. silver dollar issued in 2006. It enchants because it shows a self-made American using a child’s toy to make a major contribution to science: to prove that there is electricity in the clouds, that the awesome force of lightning involves the same stuff as electricity. But that image has lost some of its apparent certainty. Some commentators have faced a perplexing lack of evidence that Franklin ever conducted such an experiment.1 The young Benjamin Franklin published and printed a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette. Long before he investigated the nature of electricity,he published several reports about lightning.In 1731,Franklin reported:“From Newcastle we hear, that on Tuesday the 8th Instant, the Lightning fell upon a House within a few Miles of that Place, in which it killed 3 Dogs, struck several Persons deaf, and split a Woman’s Nose in a surprizing Manner.” One year later, in 1732, Franklin described an incident in which a house in Allenstown “was struck by Lightning. It split part of the Chimney,” melted butter, and caused a fire.2 In 1736, Franklin’s newspaper reported this bizarre anecdote: We hear from Virginia, that not long since a Flash of Lightning fell on a House there, and struck dead a Man who was standing at the Door. Upon examining the Body they found no Mark of Violence, but on his Breast an exact and perfect (tho’ small) L 118 Representation of a Pine Tree which grew before the door, imprest or printed as it were in Miniature. This surprizing Fact is attested by a Gentleman lately come from thence, who was himself an Eye-witness of it; and‘tis added that great Numbers of People came out of Curiosity, to view the Body before it was interr’d.3 Franklin, the printer, actually believed the story—that lightning had imprinted the image of a tree on the man’s chest.4 In 1742, another report appeared in his Gazette: “two labouring Men (standing under a Sawyers-Shead, on Society-Hill, to shelter themselves from the Rain) were struck down by a Flash of Lightning: But one of them recovering, found his Companion, Thomas Smith, dead; his Hat was much torn, Figure 6.1. An engraving from the 1870s: Benjamin Franklin and son; leisurely flying a kite, awfully close to a bolt of lightning. Ben Franklin’s Electric Kite ✸ 119 and part of one of his Shoes torn off; on his Head, Neck, Breast, and the Inside of one of his Thighs were spots which appear’d as if burnt. The Survivor had most of the upper Leather of one of his Shoes torn away, and was burnt several Parts of his Body.”5 Since ancient times, philosophers wondered about thunder and lightning. For example, Ovid claimed that Pythagoras knew the origin of lightning, whether it was caused by the god Jupiter, by storm winds, or by colliding clouds.6 Centuries of speculations transpired before scientists finally reached up toward the clouds and found electricity there. The story about Franklin using a long string to capture lightning from the sky resembles an ancient myth. In epic Greek poems, the god of sky and thunder, Zeus, hid fire from humans, yet Prometheus managed to steal it with the long stalk of a fennel plant.7 Prometheus stole fire from the god of thunder; Franklin caught “electric fire” from the thundering sky. If so, he was not the first. In May 1752, a few individuals at Marlyla -Ville, France, used a sharply pointed, forty-foot-tall iron bar to test whether storm clouds transmit electricity. As a cloud passed overhead, they extracted sparks of electric“fire” from the iron bar. This group, usuallyledbyThomasDalibard (althoughhewasabsentduringthisfirstsuccessful trial), was roughly following a proposed experiment by Franklin, although they worked independently.8 So Franklin himself was not the first to draw electricity from storm clouds. (Years later, in 1768, Franklin praised Dalibard by writing that Dalibard was“the first of Mankind that had the Courage to attempt drawing Lightning from the Clouds.”) Just a few months later, in July 1752, another French experimenter, Jacques...


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