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Ben Franklin's kite experiment

Was Ben Franklin struck by lighting during his kite experiment?

MMDE: Ben Franklin was struck by lightning

Current: Ben Franklin was not struck by lightning

Ben Franklin is famous for many things, not least of which beimg so many people remembering him being President when he wasn't, but that's for another day. 

He was one of the 8 founding fathers of the United States and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps he's equally as well-known for his kite experiments, because this is taught in school so children get an impression of him flying a kite in a thunderstorm at an early age. This is likely to stick with them because it's so dramatic. However, there's a part of this story which seems to be ingrained in most people's minds which just isn't true, and that's the idea that he was struck by lightning during a storm.

It's easy to see how the dramatic idea that he was struck by lightning is given, especially because the famous painting of the experiment almost gives that impression. However, it's simply not the case as a little thought and research would uncover. Had he in fact been struck by lightning, he would likely been injured or killed since he was holding the line carrying the electricity. This is not the case when people are struck by it in open fields etc, and survive the brief bolt.

Key

It was in June, 1752 in Philadelphia that Ben Franklin saw the conditions were right for an experiment he'd been planning for. This was part of his electrical conductivity tests, and that day a storm was brewing. This wasn't the first time electricity was used, or, according to another popular misconception, discovered. What Franklin suspected was that electricity was somehow "stored" in the clouds, and could be transferred from there and again "stored" in a jar - a primitive version of what we'd call today a battery, which he referred to as a Leyden jar. He used a metal key connected to the kite wire, which itself was made of silk, and it's this which can clearly be seen in the famous painting:

ben franklin kite 700x414

Ambient current

Franklins keys did indeed sparkle, but this was down to the ambient increased electricity in the air at the time. Since he was standing in a field, it would have been one of the only outlets for it at the time. Indeed, his experiment was a success because the jar then became charged.

In his own words:

As soon as any of the Thunder Clouds come over the Kite, the pointed Wire will draw the Electric Fire from them, and the Kite, with all the Twine, will be electrified, and the loose Filaments of the Twine will stand out every Way, and be attracted by an approaching Finger. And when the Rain has wet the Kite and Twine, so that it can conduct the Electric Fire freely, you will find it stream out plentifully from the Key on the Approach of your Knuckle. At this Key the Phial may be charg’d; and from Electric Fire thus obtain’d, Spirits may be kindled, and all the other Electric Experiments be perform’d, which are usually done by the Help of a rubbed Glass Globe or Tube; and thereby the Sameness of the Electric Matter with that of Lightning compleatly demonstrated.

-- Benjamin Franklin, Pennyslyvania Gazette, October 19 1752