Fred Jaicks  Written and compiled by Fred Jaicks


Benjamin Franklin was born in 1706. He is best remembered as a founding father of the United States, but that was certainly not Franklin’s only significant accomplishment. In addition to his contributions to American politics, he was also an inventor. He created a number of inventions that made life better and safer for a lot of people. Franklin was a prolific inventor having contributed to creations in abundance. However, one of inventions he made stands out among the rest. This important item was the lightning rod.

Franklin began experimenting with lightning in the year 1746. He found out about certain electrical experiments that were being carried out by other scientists, and he decided to set up a laboratory in his Boston home to make experiments of his own. He used some items that he found in his home to make the machines he needed for his experiments. The following year, Franklin spent an entire summer conducting experiments on electricity, and he wrote letters to his friend Peter Collinson detailing the results and progress of his experiments. By 1749, Franklin discovered that lightning was similar to electricity in a number of ways, such as the color, the crackling sound, and the zigzag pattern. He wanted to prove that lightning was indeed electricity.

In 1750, while he was doing an experiment, Franklin realized that an iron needle was able to conduct electricity from a metal object that was charged. This led him to consider the possibility of using an iron rod to draw lightning from the clouds, which would prevent lightning from striking buildings or ships. This idea led to the invention of the lightning rod. To prove that his theory was right, Franklin decided to carry out what would become his most famous lightning experiment.

Franklin was in Philadelphia in June, 1752, when the Christ Church was still being constructed. He planned to wait for the completion of the church’s steeple, which would act as the ideal lightning rod for his experiment, but soon, he became impatient. He figured that a kite could get close enough to the clouds to draw lightning as well. He attached a metal key to a kite, and he used a silk ribbon to prevent himself from getting shocked. When the storm came around, Franklin flew the kite, and the key caught an electrical charge in the sky. At last, he had proven beyond a shadow of doubt that lightning was electricity. Unfortunately, his clothing got quite wet from rainfall in the process. He should have used an umbrella.

After the success of the kite experiment, Franklin set up a nine-foot iron rod on top of his chimney. This was done to collect electricity for his experiments as well as protect his house from lightning strikes. The iron rod would channel lightning into his house, and bells were attached along the path of the electricity. When an electrical storm occurred, there would be sounds of bells ringing and the flashing of lights in his house.

When Franklin was conducting his electricity experiments, he coined a number of electrical terms that are still being used today. These terms include “battery”, “charge”, “condenser”, “conductor”, “plus”, “minus”, “positively”, “negatively”, and “armature”. Come to think of it, if Franklin had not invented the lightning rod, it will not even be safe for people to walk around with aluminum umbrellas during a thunderstorm.

For more information on the life of Benjamin Franklin and to learn about his inventions and contributions to electrical developments, visit the websites listed below.