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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Every school child for the past 100 years has learned that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity in a famous experiment using a kite, a key, and a bolt of lightning. It’s an American legend.
Old Ben flew a kite out a window in a thunderstorm causing electricity from the storm’s lightning to be conducted down a line from the kite to charge a metal key that was kept in a Leyden Jar. He had therefore proved that lightning was a form of electricity. End of story? Well maybe not. Many historians contend that Franklin’s experiment never happened.
Historical Concerns
It is not known exactly when the experiment was done, possibly sometime in June of 1752. There is a huge lack of details as Franklin never wrote any formal report about the experiment. The only “witness” to the event was Franklin’s son William, aged 21, who never said a word about it, ever.
Others had a similar experiment in mind before Franklin. A Frenchman named Balibard conducted the same experiment using a 40 foot iron rod instead of a kite (and he stood well back from it). Franklin was probably aware of Balibard’s work.
The first mention of the experiment (aside from Franklin’s theorizing its possibility) was 15 years after he was to have done it, in a book written by Joseph Priestley in 1767. Why would Franklin never speak about an experiment he risked his life to perform?
Scientific Incongruities
You can’t fly a kite out a window or from inside a barn. How would you launch it, and how would you control it?
Any conducting metal wire from the kite to the key would be instantly burned up by a lightning bolt. An electrified key in a glass-lined jar wouldn’t “rattle” as reported later, it would explode.
Since Franklin knew enough about the physics of lightning to invent the “lightning rod” several years earlier, he wouldn’t have been so foolish as to ground himself as the story indicates.
Some stories say that Franklin and his son were standing in an open field for the experiment, and while they could launch and control the kite somewhat, the danger of a lightning strike conducted downward would prove a fatal jolt. Later on, some would-be scientists who tried to duplicate Franklin’s experiment were electrocuted.
One Proposed Explanation
Some historians believe that Franklin was frustrated by the British Royal Society which had been ignoring his letters to them about his earlier research into electricity, and that he may have proposed this deadly experiment to them as a joke. When news of his “experiment” reached France, it was taken seriously. So Franklin decided to play along with the story.
Well, legend or not, everyone will have to decide for themselves what they believe. What do you think the truth is?

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