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Commemorating Benjamin Franklin and His Lightning Experiment

Benjamin Franklin’s name is recognized in a variety of fields, but on June 10 in 1756, Franklin would conduct his famous kite experiment and illuminate the world to the power of electricity. Although Franklin did not discover electricity, his findings and new language to explain electricity would help fellow inventors create the first batteries, engines and light bulbs.

THE EXPERIMENT

Franklin’s homemade kite was created from silk and supported by two cedar pieces fashioned in a cross with a metal rod attached to the top of the cross. Twine rope connected the kite to the key, and was launched when a potential thunder cloud passed over. Franklin was able to identify the electric charge being passed through the twine once the rod was hit, because the frays of twine were standing erect. When he touched the key with his knuckle, it gave him a rather impressive shock.

THE RESULT

Franklin now understood that lightning was a source of electricity and was not composed of two opposing forces but a single fluid charge being passed from one body to another. This led him to create the first lighting rod and create a language to explain his findings that we still use today: battery, charge, condenser, conductor, plus, minus, positively, negatively and armature. By running a wire to connect a long metal rod at the top of a building and then to a base rod in the ground, Franklin would be able to attract the lighting to a single source and allow it to disperse to a safe outlet. In a time when most structures were made of wood, this was a vital safety precaution to help prevent a fire during an electrical storm. 

WHERE WE ARE NOW

Today, Franklin’s lightning rod is still the first line of defense against an electrical storm but has evolved over time. With modern buildings reaching immense heights, it became clear that lightning rods wouldn’t need to be placed on every structure, but on the tallest one in the area to be most effective. And while the basic idea is the same, according to research by Charles B. Moore, a rounded or blunt tipped lighting rod can act as slightly better receptor than the original pointed rod. Now, there are lighting rods on buildings all over the world and on ships all across the ocean.

Thank you, Ben Franklin, for helping to protect and power our tomorrow.

By Sarah Trocolli