On This Day

benjamin franklin kite, benjamin franklin kite west, Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky
Philadelphia Museum of Arts
“Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity
from the Sky,”an 1816 painting by
Benjamin West.

On This Day: Benjamin Franklin Performs Kite Experiment

June 15, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 15, 1752, Franklin successfully drew an electric charge from a rain cloud using a key tied to a kite.

Franklin Draws Charge From Storm Cloud

Benjamin Franklin hypothesized that the charge created by lightning was the same charge created by static energy, and devised a plan to prove his theory by using a metal rod on a tall building. His efforts to find a building that would allow him to perform the experiment, such as Philadelphia’s Christ Church, were unsuccessful, however.

He described his plan in a letter to Peter Collinson, an English friend, and the so-called “Philadelphia experiment” was published in London. In May 1752, French scientist Thomas-François Dalibard performed the experiment using a 40-foot tall metal rod and successfully drew an electrical charge.

Unaware of Dalibrad’s work, Franklin performed the experiment himself only a month later, substituting a kite and metal key for the rod.

Contrary to the popular myth, seen in the famous 1805 Benjamin West painting, Franklin did not fly his kite during a thunderstorm; had he done so, he would have almost certainly been killed. Instead, he flew his kite into a rain cloud before a thunderstorm, when there was enough electricity in the clouds to draw a charge, but not enough to harm him.

In his 1767 book “History and Present Status of Electricity,” the first published account of Franklin’s experiment, Joseph Priestley wrote: “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 … 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.”

Did Franklin Really perform the Experiment?

Mystery and controversy still surround Franklin’s experiment, in part because Franklin did not keep detailed notes and never personally published an account of it. This has led some, particularly “Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax” author Tom Tucker,  to question whether Franklin—a renowned trickster—fabricated the experiment.

American Scientist defends Franklin against the allegations of fakery, saying that any evidence to disprove the experiment is circumstantial.

Biography: Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most accomplished men in American history. He invented the bifocal glasses, glass armonica and lightning rod. He also published “Poor Richard’s Almanack” and various works on life and self-improvement.

He is most renowned for his work before and during the American Revolution, arguing for unification of the states and independence from England, contributing to the Declaration of Independence and serving as minister plenipotentiary to the Court of France.

As with any great historical figure, many myths surround Franklin. For example, he didn't invent the streetlight, though he did improve on the design. He didn't invent daylight saving time, either. He did, however, coin electricity-related terms, such as “charge,” “positive,” “battery” and “negative.”

On Franklin’s personal life, he wasn't left-handed or a vegetarian, and despite rumors of being a womanizer, was faithful to his wife, according to University of Delaware professor J.A. Leo Lemay, a scholar on Franklin’s life.

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