It’s bizarre anniversary time again, boys and girls: 253
years ago, a certain American Founding Father flew a kite into a rain cloud and
changed the worlds of physics, engineering, and meteorology forever. On June
15, 1752, Benjamin Franklin undertook his famous—and famously misunderstood—kite
experiment to demonstrate that lightning was, in fact, a form of electricity.

But contrary to what popular opinion and a well-known Benjamin West
from 1805 would have you believe, Franklin did not set out with
his toddler son—or a group of cherubs, for that matter—to fly a handheld kite
into the full fury of a blazing thunderstorm until lightning struck it. This is
what military circles like to refer to as a “suicide mission,” and
since Franklin lived for almost another 38 years, it’s safe to say that history
has attached a fair measure of apocrypha to his kite exploits.

Yes, he flew a kite into a rain cloud for the express purpose
of collecting an electrical charge, thereby proving that static electricity and
lightning contained the same electrical energy. (A great deal of doubt about
this existed at the time, seeing as static charges were small and difficult to
produce, while lightning was massive and commonplace.)

Yes, that kite had a metal key attached to the base of the
string to serve as an attractor. No, Franklin was not insane enough to do this
from a noninsulated position—the man invented the lightning rod, for crying out
loud—and he certainly wasn’t looking for a direct lightning strike.

Instead, Franklin and his 21-year-old son constructed a silk
kite (rather than the typical paper kite, which would have dissolved in a
rainstorm), fitted its string with a key, and set themselves up outside a
direct conducting path between the kite and the ground. Franklin performed this
experiment during the early stages of a thunderstorm, before lightning could
reach anything approaching his position.

Once the kite had passed through a few leading rain clouds,
he noticed that the strands of the hemp string stood on end, indicating a
static charge. Franklin verified the charge by placing his knuckle near the
dangling key, eliciting a static spark. His theory confirmed, Franklin didn’t wait
around for lightning to strike when the full storm arrived.

Beyond the West painting, perhaps the greatest source of
confusion about Franklin’s kite experiment is the fact that Franklin himself
never published his own account of it. Instead, the first news of his kite
exploits emerged 15 years later, documented by another leading scientist of the


What famous 18th-century scientist published the first
account of Benjamin Franklin’s oft-misunderstood kite-and-lightning caper, 15
years after the Founding Father used the experiment to demonstrate that
lightning was a form of electricity?

The scientist in question is none other than Joseph
Priestley, who would make his own name as the discoverer of de-phlogisticated
—better known today by
its proper chemical name, gaseous oxygen. Priestley published the
scientific treatise History and Present
Status of Electricity
in 1767, and its pages included the first formal
account of Franklin’s famous kite flight.

Historians have generally accepted that, while Franklin
himself never committed the details of his kite experiment to paper, he did
approve of Priestley’s account and ostensibly provided him with key details of
the event. Perhaps the most intriguing of those details was the notion that Franklin
did not immediately conceive of the experiment involving a kite.

Instead, Franklin had intended to use a metal spire atop the
then-under-construction Christ Church in Philadelphia, believing only this
structure would be high enough to penetrate low-flying clouds. It was only
after considering the Christ Church spire that Franklin came upon the idea of
using a kite, and he cobbled one together from two sticks, hemp string, and a
silk handkerchief.

The only person Franklin told about the experiment was his
son, who assisted him in flying the kite. Why? He feared ridicule for the
nontraditional nature of the experiment. Fifteen years later, Franklin’s notion
was well-vindicated, and he was willing to pass blessing on the following
account in Priestley’s treatise:

“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 very moment) the discovery was complete. He perceived a very
evident electric spark.”

Now that, my friends, is some hair-raising Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from the May 25 edition of Geek
Trivia, “First
shots fired.”
While several readers wanted to add to the lore of Wolfenstein 3D, TechRepublic member Dab2 offered perhaps the most robust

“It would have been a fun point to say that, not only
was Wolfenstein 3D not the first FPS,
etc., but also to mention that it was a ‘new and improved’ version of an
11-year-old game originally written for the Apple II computer in 1981. This
earlier date may not qualify it as the first FPS game, but it does help
establish its roots.”

Great points, geekish gamers. Keep those quibbles coming!

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Trivia Archive

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
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