10 Myths About Lightning


1
Benjamin Franklin Used a Kite to Prove Lightning was Electricity
This Currier & Ives lithograph shows Benjamin Franklin and his son William using a kite and key during a storm to prove that lightning was electricity. Some experts doubt the incident ever happened. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Back to old Ben Franklin's kite flying expedition: Maybe it didn't happen. Skeptics point to the lack of hard evidence backing up Franklin's version of the experiment. There were no witnesses, only vague accounts from Franklin himself. When NASA scientist Tom Tucker tried to recreate the experiment using the same materials to build the kite that would have been available in Franklin's day, he couldn't get the darned thing to fly. Even if he had been able to get it off the ground, Tucker argues that it would have never soared high enough to attract an electric bolt from the sky [source: Matthews].

That, of course, doesn't mean that the theory Franklin set out to prove is inaccurate. It could mean, however, that the story behind what we know about lightning and electricity today is as much as a myth as the idea that lightning never strikes the same place twice.

"Could' is the key word here. Franklin defenders maintain that the kite story is genuine, arguing that recreating the experiment turns on difficult-to-control variables like kite-flying dynamics and how damp the materials are [source: Schiffer].

Perhaps lightning doesn't strike the same kite twice.

Author's Note: 10 Myths About Lightning

I lived in Tampa, Florida, for about 18 months back in 2007 or so. The inventively named Tampa Bay Area is considered the lightning capital of North America, thanks to the tens of thousands of sky-to-ground flashes the region sees every year. This, as far as I know, is the most interesting thing that Tampa has going for itself.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Aleccia, Jonel. "Debunked: 5 Lightning Myths that Can Kill You." NBC News. June 20, 2014 (March 8, 2015) http://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/debunked-5-lightning-myths-could-kill-you-n135971
  • Chicago Tribune. "Anvil Lightning: A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt that..." May 10, 2002 (March 8, 2015) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2002-05-10/news/0205100255_1_skies-ground-strike
  • Dictionary.com. "greased lightning." 2007 (March 9, 2015) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/greased+lightning
  • Heussner, Ki Mae. "Lightning Strikes Twice: Empire State Building Video Goes Viral." ABC News. April 14, 2011 (March 8, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/lightning-strikes-empire-state-building-times-row-video/story?id=13374451
  • History. "This Day in History: Franklin flies kite during thunderstorm." (March 8, 2015) http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/franklin-flies-kite-during-thunderstorm
  • Huffington Post. "6 Things You Never Knew About the Empire State Building." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nycom/empire-state-building_b_3923030.html
  • Matthews, Robert. "Ben Franklin 'faked kite experiment.'" Telegraph. June 1, 2003 (March 9, 2015) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/3308983/Benjamin-Franklin-faked-kite-experiment.html
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "Top-10 Myths of Lightning Safety." (March 8, 2015) http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/hnx/LightningMyths-1.pdf
  • National Weather Service (NWS). "Bolts from the Blue." (March 8, 2015) http://www.crh.noaa.gov/pub/ltg/crh_boltblue.php
  • NYC.gov. "NYC Hazards: Thunderstorms and Lightning." (March 8, 2015) http://www.nyc.gov/html/oem/html/hazards/weather_thunder.shtml
  • Phrase Finder. "Greased Lightning" (March 8, 2015) http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/greased-lightning.html
  • Robinson, Dan. "MYTH: Ipods, Walkmans and headphones will attract lightning and/or make lightning strike injuries worse." Storm Highway. (March 8, 2015) http://stormhighway.com/ipodlightning.php
  • Schiffer, Michael. "Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax (review)." Technology and Culture. October 2004 (March 9, 2015) https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/technology_and_culture/v045/45.4schiffer.pdf
  • The Electric Ben Franklin. "Franklin and his Electric Kite." USHistory.org. (March 8, 2015) http://www.ushistory.org/franklin/info/kite.htm
  • World Wide Words. "Lightning in a bottle." (March 9, 2015) http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-lig1.htm

UP NEXT

Storm Surge, Not Wind, Is the Deadliest Part of a Hurricane

Storm Surge, Not Wind, Is the Deadliest Part of a Hurricane

Most people think high winds are the deadliest part of a hurricane. But it's actually storm surge. HowStuffWorks finds out why the water is so deadly.


More to Explore