Saturday, February 18, 2006

Some points on Benjamin Franklin, the lightning rod, and kites

The first disclosure of the use of the lightning rod may have been in a letter by Franklin to the Royal Society in 1752, which letter was more directed to the use of the kite.

The Pennylvania Gazette of Oct. 19, 1752 mentioned the kite and also referred to Poor Richard's Almanack, which discussed the utility of the lightning rod.

Although there is discussion of widespread adoption of lightning rods, one notes that on July 2, 1768 (when a building at Harvard was destroyed by fire generated by lightning), there were no lightning rods at Harvard. In 1769, St. Paul's Cathedral in London attached a lightning rod, as did St. Mark's in Venic in 1775. Franklin may have installed a rod on his own home in Sept. 1752. Even though Franklin did not apply for a patent on the lightning rod, and thus the rod was free to all, adoption did not occur until after a patent lifetime from discovery.

Franklin had sent letters to the Royal Society PRIOR TO 1752: May 25, 1747, July 28, 1747, Dec. 14, 1749 (date of reading), and on July 29, 1750 (which proposed the sentry box experiment). Franklin had little luck at the Royal Society because of opposition by William Watson.

The performance of the sentry box experiment on May 10, 1752 in Marly, France launched Franklin. Tucker in his book points to the underlying political issue:

If you approach an institution with new electrical ideas, you don't go to its leading electrical authority. You go to the most powerful enemy of the leading electrical authority. [p. 122 of Tucker]

In execution, Tucker notes that Franklin arranged for Collinson to give a copy of Franklin's text on the sentry box to Buffon, an enemy of Watson, the leading electrical authority at the time.

This political reality is of relevance to the proposal of "peer review" of patent applications, made by, among others, Rebecca Eisenberg.

Of the invention by Franklin, Tucker states:

The tale of this invention, like that of a number of other inventions, is a document of hesitations, late adoptions, feuds, and, on occasions, unnerving lapses. Franklin himself wasn't that clear at first about what he had invented. At the start, he imagined that the lightning rod might drain away electricity from the clouds and prevent lightning strike. In 1752, Thomas Dalibard had claimed that a hundred lightning rods guarding Paris would disarm the thunderclouds of their bolts. (...) The lightning device was a prophylactic. [p. 188]

[Text from Tom Tucker, Benjamin Franklin and his Electric Kite Hoax, Public Affairs, 2003.]


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