The Real Origin of The Lightning Rod

Wait? I thought that Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod.  Well, sort of.  But before Franklin could get sparks  

 “After having thus set up the whole machine, unable to remain in the country to wait for the storm, I asked to make observations in my absence, an inhabitant of the place, named Coiffier, who served fourteen years in the dragoons, and upon whom I could also count for intelligence and for fearlessness. I had given him all the necessary instructions, either to observe the luminous aigrette which was to appear at the point of the iron rod or to draw the sparks of this rod with the tenon of an arch-wire, which had attached to the collar of a long vial to serve as a handle and by this means to guard him against the stings of those sparks which might be too strong.

I had also advised him to have some of his neighbors brought to the machine, and even to have the Prieur Cure de Marly, who had promised to be there as soon as time seemed ready, ‘thunderstorm.

On Wednesday, May 10, 1752, between two or three o’clock in the afternoon, my friend Coiffier heard a thunderbolt strong enough: he flies by the machine, takes the vial with the filarch, presents the tenon of the wire to the small brilliant spark emerges from the rod, and hears the sparkle; he drew a second spark stronger than the first and with more noise. He called his neighbors, and sent for M. le Prieur; the latter ran up with all his might; the Parishioners, seeing the precipitation of their parish priest, imagine that the poor Coiffier was killed with thunder; the alarm spreads in the village; the hail which occurs does not prevent the flock from following its shepherd. This honest Ecclesiastic came to the machine, and seeing that there was no danger, put his hand to work himself, and fired strong sparks. The cloud of storm and hail was not more than a quarter of an hour to pass at the zenith of our machine, and we heard only this single stroke of thunder. As soon as the cloud had passed, and no longer sparkled them from the iron rod, Monsieur le Prieur de Marly sent Monsieur Coiffier himself to bring me the following letter, “wrote in a hurry. “I tell you, sir, what you expect; the experience is complete. Today at two hours twenty minutes after noon the thunder roared directly at Marly; the blow was strong enough. The desire to oblige you, and curiosity, have drawn me from my own room, where I was busy reading: I went to Coiffier’s, who had already dispatched a child whom I met on the way to beg of me come, I have doubled my steps through a torrent of hail. Arrived at the place where the curved rod is placed, I presented the filarchal, advancing successively towards the rod to an inch. and a half or about; a small pillar of bluish fire, smelling of sulfur, which struck the tenon of the arch-wire with extreme vivacity, caused a noise like that which would be made by striking the rod with a key. I repeated the experiment at least six times in the space of about four minutes in the presence of several people, and each experience I did lasted the space of a pater and an ave. I wanted to continue; the action of fire has been gradually reduced; I approached nearer, and have drawn only a few sparks, and at last, nothing has appeared.

Monsieur Coiffier
Monsieur Coiffier

“The thunder which caused this event was followed by no other; all ended with an abundance of hail. I was so occupied in the moment of the experience of what I saw, that, having been struck on my arm a little above the elbow, I can not say whether it is by touching the filarch or at the rod: I have not complained of the harm done to me by the moment I received it; but as the pain continued, on returning home I discovered my arm in the presence of Coiffier, and we perceived a rotating bruise around the arm, similar to that which would be made by a telephone-call if I had had it been struck to nud. On my return from Coiffier, I met the Vicar, M. de Milly, and the schoolmaster, to whom I have related what had just happened; All three of them complained that they smelled an odor of sulfur, which struck them more and more as they approached me. I carried the same odor to my house, and my servants perceived it without their saying anything.

“Here, sir is a hasty, but naive and true account that I bear witness, and you can assure me that I am ready to bear witness to this event on every occasion. Coiffier was the first one who experimented, and repeated it several times; it was only on the occasion of what he saw that he sent me to pray to come. If other witnesses were needed than he and I, you would find them. Coiffier presses to leave.

“I am with respectful consideration, Sir, your, & c. signed Raulet, Prieur de Marly. 10. May 1752. “

It follows from all the experiments and observations which I have made in this memoir, and especially from the last experiment made at Marly-la-Ville, that the matter of thunder is incontestably the same as that of electricity. The idea that M. Franklin had of this ceases to be a conjecture; it is now a reality, and I dare to believe that the more thoroughly it will be studied in all that it has published on electricity, the more it will be recognized how much Physics is indebted to it for this part.

It only remains for me to say something of the advantages that can be derived from this important discovery. Since it is well known that a metallic tip presented at a certain distance from a body that is at present electrified, fires it, and discharges it entirely without noise, without explosion, and without commotion: since it is also verified that a rod of iron presenting its sharp point towards a cloud loaded with thunder, draws in silence the electric matter of this cloud, as soon as it is close enough for the rod to be in its electric atmosphere, this rod will suffice to discharge it entirely from all the fire which is retained there, and it will affect this good effect all the more surely and more easily as the stormy cloud will be nearer and longer to pass within reach of the point.

Hence the infinite advantages of dissipating the matter of thunder almost at will, and of preserving from its attacks both public and private buildings. I am persuaded that if, instead of finishing, as is usual, the roofs of the pavilions, towers, Spiers, and masts of vessels, by cockroaches, by cocks, by crosses, by parrots, & c. metallic points were erected in the manner in which it was explained above, and these buildings would be secured by lightning. In the very supposition that the points thus raised, by drawing fire from the stormy clouds, would be assailed by an excessive quantity, or, to use the usual expressions, when these points would divide the cloud and would attract upon them an entire storm, the wire fastened to their lower extremity would suffice to lead this fire to earth or water outside the buildings, without the lightning being able to touch them; the reason seems obvious to me. As the metal is less electric, and therefore more permeable to electricity than the stones, woods, and other materials which enter into the construction of a building, the electric fire will not leave this road except when it lacks it.

To calm the fears of those who, notwithstanding these reasons, might apprehend that the points raised on their houses would attract the fire of heaven, I will add here another means of putting them entirely in safety. It consists in raising in the vicinity around their castles or houses several of these same metallic rods on large trees, on towers, on eminences,…. “Perhaps no more than a hundred iron rods, thus erected and arranged in the different districts and in the most elevated places, would be necessary to preserve the whole city of Paris from lightning.”

How in the world was the lightning rod created to humiliate a rival?  Well, I’ll tell you and along the way, I’ll tell you about: … and why Franklin was famous in France which helped America win the American Revolution. Ready let’s go.

Most people have heard of Ben Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm.  However, most people don’t know that he wasn’t the first to prove lightning clouds are electric.  In fact, a Frenchman named Coiffer got sparks from a metal pole in a storm on May 10th, 1752, five months before Franklin reported his kite experiment!  Why did Coiffer do this?  Well, he was paid by a man named Dalibard who was working with his friend the Compte de Buffon.  Coiffer was a retired soldier and Dalibard and Buffon were naturalists or people who studied and catalogued biological systems.  So, what would cause two naturalists to hire a retired soldier to experiment with lightning?  Their interest in electricity was purely social: they liked Franklin’s theories because they contradicted the prevailing theories that were championed by their rival, a religious man named Nollet.  This was to lead to the invention of the lightning rod and fame and success for Benjamin Franklin.  How?  Well, I’ll tell you in this video.  Ready?  Let’s go..

Franklin’s kite experiment
Franklin’s kite experiment

I am about to argue that America winning the American Revolution and the invention of the lightning rod might not have occurred without an astonishingly petty and longstanding rivalry between two Frenchmen: Jean-Antoine Nollet and a man named (ready for it) Georges-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon.  How would a rivalry lead to the lightning rod or influence a war?  Well, I’ll tell you and along the way, I will talk about: how Franklin’s kite experiment really happened but happened five months after it happened in France, how blegh…

To understand how lightning was captured I first have to start with a rivalry between two Frenchman, Jean-Antoine Nollet and a man named (ready for it) Georges-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon. 

Jean-Antoine Nollet came from an impoverished background and joined the church as a young man.  He then changed to science but insisted on being called Abbé Nollet (Abbe was a French method of saying Friar) for the social distinction and to remind everyone of his deep religious beliefs.  He quickly moved up the social ladder due to his charm, wit, and delight in “shocking” experiments. Soon he became a palace favorite so much so that the King of France made him the tutor to his son.  Nollet had been the assistant to a man named Cisternay DuFay who had made the first laws of electricity, which made Nollet the standard bearer for DuFay’s legacy after DuFay died from smallpox in July of 1739.  DuFay had also been the curator of the King’s gardens called the Jardin du Roi (literally the King’s garden).  Nollet thought that he would gain the position upon his mentor’s death.  However, a rich nobleman, a freethinker, a drinker, a womanizer, and a sophisticate named Buffon got the position instead.  It was the beginning of their lifetime of rivalry and acrimony.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Compte de Buffon was in many ways, the epitome of the French Enlightenment.    He was a brilliant writer, a lover of money, fame, popularity, and disturbingly young girls.  Unlike the highly religious Nollet, Buffon was indifferent to religion, and his circle of friends included Voltaire and Diderot.  Surprisingly, Buffon had no interest in electricity and instead was mostly known as a naturalist: studying plants and animals, inspiring Darwin for example.

This leads us to Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin had been writing to his English friend named Collinson about his ideas on electricity.  In 1749 they published their letters as a book.  However, at first, it didn’t do well in England.  The leaders in Electricity were loath to read new ideas in the field – especially from an upstart colonist.  Franklin decided that he had learned a lesson with England that he was not going to repeat in France.  This time, he decided to send his book to the rival of the leading authority in electricity.  In other words, instead of sending his book to Nollet, he “asked Mr. Collinson to send one of the first copies to Mr. Buffon.” 

Buffon was delighted to get the book.  See, Franklin thought that everything contained charges and when you rubbed objects you moved charges: which he called positive and negative (and an equal amount to be neutral).   This was contrary to the prevailing theory made by Nollet’s former mentor who thought that when you rubbed glass items you created one kind of electricity and when you rubbed wax it created another kind of electricity.  Now, Buffon had no interest in electricity, but he was very interested in insulting Nollet.  Buffon thus asked his friend Thomas Dalibard to translate it into French (although Dalibard didn’t know anything about electricity either).  Dalibard made a translation with an “Abridged History of Electricity” in the preface, so abridged, in fact, that, “Nollet’s name did not even figure in it.”  Buffon then hired a with the stage name of Delor to demonstrate the “Philadelphia Experiments” to the king.

Nollet, as expected, was furious, “Mr. de Buffon is the promoter of the whole business.  He does not appear openly himself, because he knows too little about the subject; he has two tradesmen in his service [Dalibard and Delor] who take care of everything.”  Nollet even wondered if Franklin might have been invented whole cloth by his enemies just to embarrass him. 

On February 3rd, 1752, Delor demonstrated Franklin’s theories to King Louis XV.  The King was so impressed that the men gained “a desire of verifying the conjectures of Mr. Franklin upon the analogy of thunder and electricity”.

Towards that end, Dalibard decided to attempt Franklin’s lightning experiment.  Franklin had written that if lightning clouds were electrified then if a metal pole was near the clouds then by induction the pole would get electrified and would produce sparks.  So, Dalibard put a large metal pole on an insulated stand sticking out of a tent in his home in Paris as well as near his country house in the town of Marly-la-ville around 15 miles from Paris.  He obtained the services of a retired soldier named Coiffier to manage the apparatus in Marly-la-ville for times when Dalibard was in the city.  On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 10th of May, 1752, Coiffier heard thunder and ran to the tent managed to get a couple of good sparks, and called for his neighbors to fetch the local parish priest (called a curate).   This is how an author and scientist named Priestly dramatically describes what happened only 15 years after the event, “The curate runs with all his might, and the parishioners seeing the precipitation of their spiritual guide, imagine that poor Coiffier had been killed with lightning.  The alarm spreads through the village, and the hail which came on did not prevent the flock from following their shepherd.  The honest ecclesiastic, arriving at the machine, and seeing there was no danger, took the wire into his own hand and immediately drew several strong sparks, which were most evidently of an electrical nature, and completed the discovery for which the machine was erected”

Three days later Dalibard reported the experiment to the Paris Academy, but Nollet objected to the paper and insisted that more research needed to be done, especially by “qualified” electricians before publication.  Nollet thus inspired every electrician in Paris to repeat the experiment, up to and including even poor Mr. Nollet, “dying of chagrin from it all” as the ever-gallant Buffon put it.  Buffon and his “crew” had thoroughly defeated Nollet on the issue of Benjamin Franklin making Franklin the toast of Paris in the meanwhile.  Therefore, when Franklin went to France to try to get money and arms for the American revolution he arrived as a superstar.  After such unprecedented success in humiliation, Buffon went back to his natural history studies and never dealt with electricity again.  

Meanwhile, in October of 1752, Franklin wrote that he had heard of the “success of the Philadelphia experiment” in papers from Europe and that he had had similar success, “made in a different and more easy manner” with a kite.  Here is the famous Franklin kite experiment.  Franklin described in detail how to perform the experiment: he made a silk kite with a sharp wire sticking out the top of it.  He used a line made of twine (tied to the wire) with a bit of non-conducting silk near the hand of the person flying the kite, and finally, at the juncture between the silk and the twine, he tied a metal key.  Even though the kite was flown in the rain, the person and the silk rope and the key were under a doorway and kept dry so that no electricity would flow to the person holding the kite.  Notice that, just like the previous experiment, the experiment works without the kite being struck by lightning!  The idea is that if the clouds are electrified then the kite (and the wire and the twine and the key) will be electrified too.  Franklin found that it worked very well.  The sparks “stream out plentifully from the key on the approach of your knuckle.  … the sameness of the electric matter with that of lightning completely demonstrated.”

Benjamin Franklin had literally captured lightning in a bottle, and it made him famous. It is hard to fathom today how influential Franklin’s experiment was at the time.  In 1769, a historian described Franklin’s discovery as “the greatest, perhaps, that has been made in the whole compass of philosophy, since the time of Sir Isaac Newton”.   Franklin’s book became, “one of the most reprinted and talked about books of the age”.

Another comment about these lightning experiments.  Years later many people erroneously thought that Franklin’s kite was actually hit by lighting instead of flying on a stormy day without getting hit.  Thinking that the kite was hit by lightning has caused many, many (many) people to mistakenly think that Franklin didn’t do the experiment at all.  If it was a fake it was an odd one as he said that he had completed it after the French experiment and contained a lot of detail.  Also, Franklin had no history of making up experiments or not taking science honestly or seriously.  Now, just because it was possible to fly a kite in the rain doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous.  In fact, on August 6, 1753, a German man named Georg Wilhelm Richman in St. Petersburg was looking at his “Franklin style” Sentry box device when it was struck by lightning and killed the poor man.   His death was widely reported and remarked upon, in a strange way it was taken as conclusive proof that lightning was a form of static electricity.  It certainly put a damper on doing lightning capture experiments.

After proving that lightning is made of electricity, it was a natural result to try to use his newfound knowledge of how electricity moved to protect people from the dangers of lightning strikes with the lightning rod.   The lightning rod is a ridiculously simple instrument: it is a metal rod placed on the top of a building with a wire connected to the ground.  That is it.  As a newspaper writer, Franklin had long noticed that lightning strikes tended to move in a pattern that went through metal, and that the “mischief” from lightning happened when the lightning burned through items like wood (or people).  With a lightning rod, Franklin hoped that the lightning would be attracted to the sharpened tip of the rod and then safely flow into the ground.  Franklin quickly placed lightning rods around Philadelphia and published how to install one yourself in his very popular yearly pamphlet “Poor Richard’s Almanac” in 1753.

Back in France, Nollet attempted to discredit Franklin directly with a series of letters but Franklin wisely decided to not respond and let his work stand on its own and be supported by other scientists.  Nollet also fought against the lighting rod saying it was, “as impious to ward off Heaven’s lightning as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father.” 

The lightning rod became very popular in Europe due to a totally unrelated development, an increase in the amount of gunpowder being used in wars.  Because countries were fighting with more cannons and guns, they needed to create and store large amounts of gunpowder.  Unfortunately, they would often store the gunpowder under Churches or other big buildings and when those buildings were hit by lightning it was often devastating.  One of the most damaging was in August of 1769 in the town of Brescia near Venice, Italy where 207,600 pounds of gunpowder was blown to smithereens.  “Three days have been spent in digging out the ruins of about two thousand bodies, and five hundred people, who thought they are still alive, are dangerously bruised.  The fifth part of the city is entirely destroyed, and the rest is very much damaged”.  That a simple bar of metal could save a town from that much destruction made it a necessity for all towns and, especially, all arsenals.  Pretty soon the lightning rod (sometimes called “Franklin rods”) was ubiquitous throughout the world.   

By the 1760s Franklin’s attention was diverted from science by politics although he continued to work on science for the remainder of his life.  At the end of his life, Franklin was described as follows: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”  

In 1785, a Frenchman named Charles Coulomb found an equation for the force between charges that looks strangely similar to Newton’s gravity equation.  However, aside from that, once again it was a fallow period of electrical experimentation or discovery.  That all changed in 1891 when an Italian anatomy professor happened to put a dissected frog near a static electricity machine in the most important experiment of all time.

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