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Ben Franklin Flies a Kite during a Storm

Ben Franklin Flies a Kite during a Storm STEM American History Famous People Famous Historical Events Visual Arts

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin tells us that he flew a kite during a thunderstorm so he could test whether lightning is a form of electricity.  

He doesn’t really provide many details and mentions it, only briefly, after a reference to Thomas-Francois Dalibard’s successful experiment (in France, on the 10th of May, 1752):

What gave my book [his pamphlet about electricity] the more sudden and general celebrity, was the success of one of its proposed experiments, made by Messrs. Dalibard and De Lor at Marly, for drawing lightning from the clouds.  This engaged the public attention everywhere...I will not swell this narrative [his autobiography] with an account of that capital experiment, nor of the infinite pleasure I received in the success of a similar one I made soon after with a kite at Philadelphia, as both are to be found in the histories of electricity.  (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, at page 202.)

This image depicts an artist’s interpretation of that event.  It is from Le Roy C. Cooley’s 1881 textbook, Natural Philosophy for Common and High Schools, at page 159 (Fig. 82).

What did Dr. Franklin use to make his kite?  Cooley answers that question:

He made his kite of silk instead of paper, and sent it up with a hempen cord ending in a piece of silk cord, by which the kite was held. It is said that he fastened a doorkey to the lower end of the hempen cord, and that after his kite had been for some time sailing among the clouds he touched the key with his knuckle and drew a spark of electricity from it.

The electricity in the cloud entered the kite, and came down the hempen string to the key, but could not go any farther because the silk cord was not a conductor. When the doctor presented his hand the electricity in the key leaped into his knuckle.  (Cooley, at page 158.)

Click on the image for a much-better view.


Media Credits

Image, described above, online courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

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