I sometimes write about how myths can become accepted as reality. It is also funny how real events can become myths over time. The layers of legend applied to the real incident give it a weird shape in the mass consciousness. The Big Fish Tale is distorted to the point where some people may not distinguish it from a cliché of cartoons.
How about the one with the little guy in a three cornered hat and buckled shoes running around flying a kite in a thunderstorm? In the magazine cartoons and children’s books where this image has appeared, usually a key is shown hanging from the kite string, and the chubby, long-haired man is dodging lightning bolts, accompanied by a young boy. You’ve seen pictures of this scenario or heard something about it throughout your life. It is no fantasy story. It happened – exactly 260 years ago today.
Benjamin Franklin did not “discover” electricity, as we were told growing up. But he made a major contribution to our understanding of it on that stormy day.
People had known about static electricity for ages, since the first two nylon sweaters were removed from that first prehistoric drier and separated. People didn’t know what the crackling stuff was. They attributed it to magic, but they knew about when to expect it. In that first great era of scientific advance over superstition, Ben Franklin set out to show that lightning was a kind of static electricity in a gigantic quantity in the clouds.
He set up numerous experiments to capture a lightning bolt, and gain some understanding of its nature. Some of these maneuvers involved lightning rods (which he had invented) and it’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. Imagine how the course of history would have been different had that happened.
Out of concern for his safety, he left off fooling around with the lightning rods and took up a kite with a metal key on the string, and set out with it during a thunderstorm in Philadelphia. He had a non-conducting silk cord tied to his end of the kite string. There was no little boy with him. The only other person present at the epochal event was his son William, 21 years old. The father and son were destined to part ways over the American Revolution. William was loyal to England, and moved there. They never spoke again. But the two were side by side when lightning struck the kite. By accident, Ben Franklin subsequently touched the key, saw the arc of a spark, and felt a shock. He had his proof in that moment that lightning was not just light, or magic, but was electricity.
That was June 10, 1752.