Today in History: Benjamin Franklin Dances with Lightning (1752)

Today in History: Benjamin Franklin Dances with Lightning (1752)

Matthew Weber - June 15, 2017

Benjamin Franklin was a man who wore many hats, as they say. He was a statesman, a writer, a philanthropist, an inventor, and a scientist, just to name a few. Because he was into so many things, a lot of what he did isn’t well documented, at least outside the political arena.

For example, perhaps his most famous scientific exploit is something that he may not have done at all. Supposedly, on June 15, 1752, Franklin took a kite into a lightning storm to prove that lightning was indeed electricity.

Today in History: Benjamin Franklin Dances with Lightning (1752)
Benjamin Franklin.

Now, there are a lot of myths surrounding this event. Some will say that Franklin invented electricity by doing this experiment. That is utter nonsense. Electricity has been a known force since at least 2700 BCE (though it wouldn’t be harnessed for use for a long time after that). The first real experimentation with electricity in modern times came in 1600 well before Franklin flew his little kite.

Another myth that is often propagated across time and space is that Franklin had an iron key dangling at the end of the string his kite was connected to. There is no evidence that this happened either (at least not while he was holding the kite string), in fact there is evidence against it. It has been proven by scientists that if that had been done, it is probable that Franklin would have died due to electrocution.

Historians aren’t even sure if Franklin conducted the experiment at all. He never wrote about doing it himself (though as we’ll discuss, he did write about the experiment itself). Due to this, there is no real evidence that he flew a kite on this day in history. However, this is the traditional date that he is given credit for doing so.

Today in History: Benjamin Franklin Dances with Lightning (1752)
Benjamin Franklin. History

According to a book that was released in 1767 by Joseph Priestly, Franklin did in fact conduct an experiment with a kite in a lightning storm. He did so while standing on an insulator while under a roof so as to stay dry; both precautions that were needed to make the experiment safe. The issue is that Priestly doesn’t give his source. It is assumed that his source was Franklin himself, as both Franklin and Priestly were in London at the same time.

We also know that Franklin wrote about the experiment itself, though he never claimed in any of his writings that he had been the one who conducted it.

Franklin did have a fascination with electricity. It started in 1746 when he saw several lectures by Archibald Spencer, a physicist from Maryland. Throughout the next decade, Franklin expressed interest in conducting experiments with electricity. It was the kite experiment (whether he conducted it himself or not) that led to his invention of the lightning rod at the end of 1752.

Benjamin Franklin is one of the pillars of American History. Despite the mythos surrounding his kite experiment, we know for a fact that the experiment was being conducted by scientists around the world during that time period. We also know that several, like Georg Wilhelm Richmann in Russia, died performing it. We also know that electricity has become perhaps the backbone of society, making all the early experiments into harnessing it very important.