After Hours

Geek Trivia: Go fry a kite

What other famous scientist wrote the original account of Ben Franklin's kite experiment?

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 painting 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 age.


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 air—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 account.

"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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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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