The Atlantic

The Thunderstorm Whisperers

For centuries, lightning rods have tamed the heavens, more or less unchanged. An Object Lesson.
Source: Gary Hershorn / Getty

Benjamin Franklin was attracted to electricity. Given its similar color, crackle, and configuration, he suspected that lightning itself was electricity. Noting that a pointed metal needle could draw electricity from a charged metal sphere, Franklin became convinced that a metal rod could coax lightning from the sky. Why? So it would strike the rod instead of buildings or passersby.

As legend has it, Franklin hopped on a horse in 1752 with key-adorned kite in hand, determined to prove his conviction. The two pranced about under stormy skies until the charged-filled atmosphere energized the key and confirmed his suspicions.

More than two-and-a-half centuries later, lighting rods persist—as decorative architectural pieces, as vestiges of the past, and as mitigators of lightning’s power.

* * *

Franklin later extended his lightning-rod idea to ships, including British warships, which were eventually outfitted with anchor chains that stretched from the top of their wooden masts to the sea. They aimed to dissipate electrical energy so the masts would stay

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