Electric ...
Ben Franklin

An Account of the Kite Experiment

From Carl Van Doren's "Benjamin Franklin," ©1938 by Carl Van Doren

The Kite Experiment

"Before that he had thought of another way of proving his theory, and with the help of his electrical kite had drawn lightning from a cloud. The episode of the kite, so firm and fixed in legend, turns out to be dim and mystifying in fact. Franklin himself never wrote the story of the most dramatic of his experiments. All that is known about what he did on that famous day, of no known date, comes from Joseph Priestley's account, published fifteen years afterwards but read in manuscript by Franklin, who must have given Priestley the precise, familiar details.

"As every circumstance relating to so capital a discovery (the greatest, perhaps, since the time of Sir Isaac Newton) cannot but give pleasure to all my readers, I shall endeavour to gratify them with the communication of a few particulars which I have from the best authority.

"The Doctor, having published his method of verifying his hypothesis concerning the sameness of electricity with the matter of lightning, was waiting for the erection of a spire [on Christ Church] in Philadelphia to carry his views into execution; not imagining that a pointed rod of a moderate height could answer the purpose; when it occurred to him that by means of a common kite he could have better access to the regions of thunder than by any spire whatever. Preparing, therefore, a large silk handkerchief and two cross-sticks of a proper length on which to extend it, he took the opportunity of the first approaching thunderstorm to take a walk in the fields, in which there was a shed convenient for his purpose. But, dreading the ridicule which too commonly attends unsuccessful attempts in science, he communicated his intended experiment to nobody but his son" — then twenty-one, not a child as in the traditional illustrations of the scene — "who assisted him in raising the kite.

"The kite being raised, a considerable time elapsed before there was any appearance of its being electrified. One very promising cloud had passed over it without any effect; when, at length, just as he was beginning to despair of his contrivance, he observed some loose threads of the hempen string to stand erect, and to avoid one another, just as if they had been suspended on a common conductor. Struck with this promising appearance, he immediately presented his knuckle to the key, and (let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment) the discovery was complete. He perceived a very evident electric spark. Others succeeded, even before the string was wet, so as to put the matter past all dispute, and when the rain had wet the string he collected electric fire very copiously. This happened in June 1752, a month after the electricians in France had verified the same theory, but before he heard of anything they had done."

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