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The Philadelphia Experiment:

The Who, What, When, Where and Why of


Benjamin Franklin's Kite-and-Key Escapade
By Harry Kyriakodis

Just about everyone has heard about Benjamin Franklin flying a kite during a lightning storm in the mid-
18th century. This legendary exploit was a variation of what came to be known throughout the world as
the Philadelphia Experiment. Some people assert that the entire kite-and-key affair is a myth. since the
great scientist's accounts are sketchy about it. Nevertheless, the general consensus is that Franklin did
indeed fly his electric kite. Despite the unverifiable nature of some of the following, here's a broad look at
Franklin's Philadelphia Experiment.

THE WHO AND THE WHY


Benjamin Franklin began experimenting with static electricity as early as 1747. He wasn't alone. Several
colleagues of his in Philadelphia and scientists elsewhere in America and in Europe were doing the same.
They called themselves electricians and employed rudimentary devices to create static electrical charges
for their research. The most-used piece of equipment was the Leyden jar, a glass container lined with
conducting tin foil that could store static electricity, much like a modern capacitor. The electricians
referred to electricity as an "electrical fire." The terms electrical fluid and electrical ether were also used.
Around 1749, Franklin hypothesized that lightning is an
electrical phenomenon, and that this phenomenon might be
transferable to another object and cause an effect similar to
that of static electricity. Unlikely as it seems today, this was
a radical notion at the time, for since the dawn of humanity,
lightning was thought to be supernatural magic sent down by
the gods, or a direct blow from God Almighty intended to
smite sinners.
Franklin also suggested that the way to prove this theory
was to simply draw lightning, or merely an electrical charge,
from the clouds. This experiment would show whether the
earth and sky functioned like a Leyden jar in the presence of
an atmospheric electric charge.
Franklin sent a number of letters describing his various
electrical experiments to his friend and fellow electrician
Peter Collinson, a Quaker merchant and botanist in London.
Franklin and Collinson began corresponding about their
respective experimentation in mid-1747, about the time that
Franklin began working with electricity. In these letters,
Franklin used
the terms
positive and negative to describe electricity. He also
explained what he believed were parallels between static
electricity and lightning, such as the color of the light, its
jagged appearance, crackling noise, and other things.
In a letter to Collinson in 1750, Franklin detailed his proposed
trial to ascertain whether or not clouds were electrified:
To determine the Question, Whether the Clouds that
contain Lightning are electrified or not, I would propose
an Experiment to be try'd where it may be done
conveniently. On the Top of some high Tower or Steeple
place a Kind of Sentry Box... big enough to contain a Man
and an electrical Stand [an insulated platform]. From the Middle of the Stand, let an Iron Rod
rise and pass bending out of the Door, and then upright 20 or 30 feet, pointed very sharp at the
End. If the Electrical Stand be kept clean and dry, a Man standing on it when such Clouds are
passing low might be electrified and afford Sparks, the Rod drawing [electrical] Fire to him
from a Cloud. If any Danger to the Man should be apprehended (tho' I think there would be
none), let him stand on the Floor of his Box, and now and then bring near to the Rod the Loop
of a Wire that has one End fastened to the Leads; he holding it by a Wax-Handle; so the
Sparks, if the Rod is electrified, will Strike from the Rod to the Wire and not affect him.
This is the fundamental Philadelphia Experiment, also referred to as the sentry box experiment. As Ben
Franklin explained, it featured a metal rod extending from a small enclosed space inside or atop a tower or
steeple. No kite or key was involved.

THREE DRAWINGS OF FRANKLIN'S "SENTRY BOX" EXPERIMENT,


WHICH IS THE ORIGINAL "PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT"
Peter Collinson was a Fellow of the Royal Society in London. It was through him that Franklin submitted
his proposed experiment to the Society. The English group was not very excited about Franklin's idea
when Collinson read it to them. But others thought that Franklin's thoughts on and research into electricity
should be preserved and circulated. John Fothergill, an English physician and scientist, collected and
edited Franklin's writings and published them in pamphlet form under the title Experiments and
Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America. The first edition in two parts appeared in
London in 1751 and 1753. Four subsequent editions were issued with additional correspondence, as
were versions in Italian, German, Latin and other languages.
THE HOPED-FOR WHERE
Franklin initially wanted to perform his experiment atop the steeple of Christ Church at 2nd and Market
Streets in Philadelphia. He felt that the wooden bell tower with spire would certainly be high enough from
which to draw an electric charge from the clouds of a thunderstorm. Christ Church steeple was under
construction at the time, financed first by subscription and then
by two lotteries managed by leading Philadelphians, including
Benjamin Franklin himself. But since its construction was very
much lagging, Franklin grew impatient and decided that a kite
would be able to get close to storm clouds just as well.

The steeple of Christ Church was built by Robert Smith and was fully finished in 1755 when new bells from
England were installed. It pierced the sky at 196 feet high and became the tallest structure in North
America for several decades. It remains a remarkable Philadelphia landmark. By the way, Franklin, his
wife Deborah, and other family members are buried in Christ Church Burial Ground, a few blocks from the
church.

THE WHO AND THE WHEN


The renowned kite-and-key experiment
purportedly took place in June of 1752. The
specific date of June 15, 1752, is bandied about
for reasons that are uncertain.
Franklin was 46 years old and reasonably
slender—not the portly older man as often
depicted in images of the event. He was
assisted by his son, William Franklin, then
around 21 years old—not a boy as often
depicted. The only other person who may have
known about the daring duo's plans would have
been Deborah Franklin.
The two Franklins made their way to the open
country somewhere outside of the built part of
Philadelphia carrying a kite on a cloudy windy afternoon. They proceeded in secrecy, as they dreaded
being ridiculed for being seen flying a kite in the face of an approaching rainstorm. For sure, William
Franklin would not have wanted the young women of Philadelphia to see him raising a kite with his father!
THE WHAT: A KITE
Franklin's homemade kite consisted of two cedar sticks forming a cross and covered
with a silk handkerchief. Silk was used because it could tolerate being wet better than
other material then available. Atop the vertical stick extended a pointed wire about
twelve inches long. A length of hempen twine trailed from the kite, followed by a silk
ribbon at the end of which dangled an iron key. An insulating silk ribbon attached to the
key, along with a thin metal wire that connected to a Leyden jar. (More about the kite
appears below, in Franklin's own words.)

FRANKLIN'S PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT


William raised the kite under the threatening sky. Ben supposedly stood just
inside the doorway of a shed, or perhaps under a tree so as to keep both
himself and the silk ribbon dry.
Father and son waited a long time and even considered calling off the
experiment. But as the first storm cloud passed overhead, Benjamin noticed
that a few threads of the twine were standing straight out. Negative charges
in the cloud were passing onto his wet kite, down the wet string, to the iron
key, and into the Leyden jar. Ben was unaffected by the charge because he
was holding the dry silk ribbon, insulating him from the charge on the key.
But when he touched the back of his knuckle to the key, he received a small
shock. This was because the key's negative charge was so strongly
attracted to the positive charge in Franklin's body. The charge then
proceeded through him into the ground.
And so, Benjamin Franklin successfully
drew an electric charge from a rain
cloud, thus proving that lightning is electricity. Not only this, but he
showed that humans could induce a downward flow of lightning at will.
In one form or another—Franklin's Philadelphia method (with a kite) or
his original 1750 proposition—the Philadelphia Experiment became
the most celebrated experiment of the 18th century, helping make
Franklin famous around the world.
As often emphasized, Franklin did not invent electricity. He just
proved that lightning is the same as the static electricity that he and
other electricians were creating with their electrical contrivances. His
use of the Leyden jar in the 1752 experiment, by the way, gave rise to
the saying that Franklin "bottled lightning."

THE WHO: EUROPEAN "ELECTRICIANS"


Franklin was unaware at the time that electricians in France had already executed his proposed sentry box
experiment and proved his hypothesis about the electrical nature of lightning. A translation of his 1750
proposition—as read by Peter Collinson before the British Royal Society—made its way into the hands of
several Frenchmen who followed Franklin's instructions. (Recall that a kite is not used in this means of
drawing an electrical charge from low-lying clouds.)
French scientist Thomas-François D'Alibard was first to succeed. On May
10, 1752, he used a 40-foot tall metal rod and successfully drew an
electrical charge as thunderclouds passed over the village of Marly-la-Ville
outside of Paris. Next was a man named DeLor (or De Lor or deLor), a
Parisian who occasionally exhibited his electrical work for the King of
France. According to Franklin, it was de Lor who came up with the phrase
"Philadelphia Experiments" to describe the sentry box experiment, as well
as Franklin's other electrical research.
D'Alibard and DeLor reported their accomplishments to the Académie des Sciences (the French Academy
of Sciences) and explicitly stated that they had simply carried out Franklin's sentry box directions. In
particular, D'Alibard declared: "In following the path that M. Franklin traced for us, I have obtained
complete satisfaction." King Lous XV sent his compliments to "Mr. Franklin of Pennsylvania," so
impressed was he with the Philadelphia Experiment and Benjamin Franklin's scientific acumen.
News of these successful French experimentations spread quickly to England, Germany and elsewhere in
Europe. On July 20, 1752, natural philosopher John Canton was the first English electrician to produce
the desired results. He and Franklin later became friends when the American went to England in 1757.
Some of the European electricians were electrocuted "following the path that M. Franklin traced" and at
least one was killed! This was Georg Wilhelm Richmann, a German physicist in St. Petersburg, Russia,
who died in 1753 from a lightning shock received while performing the sentry box experiment.
That Franklin himself was not harmed during his wildly dangerous kite-flying feat in June of 1752 is
amazing. Some scientists believe that Benjamin was somewhat protected because he conducted his test
at the very beginning of the storm.

It's important to remember that Franklin did not want to draw a lightning strike upon himself, and that his
kite was not actually struck by lightning—contrary to popular belief. Franklin's goal in using the kite was
basically to gather the theoretical "electrical fire" associated with lightning in a safe way so as to
demonstrate its electrical properties. Note also that since the atmosphere always contains an electric
field, a kite and its conducting string and ribbon would become electrified even in clear dry weather. Thus,
Franklin could have shown that atmospheric electricity existed even with no thunderstorm present.

THE WHAT: A KEY


A mini legend attaches to Benjamin Franklin's kite-and-key experiment: that of the key
itself. It is said that Franklin borrowed the key from Benjamin Loxley, who lived at
Number 2 Loxley Court in Philadelphia. This secluded courtyard exists today and
consists of a row of 18th-century dwellings. Loxley, a carpenter who worked on the
Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) and Carpenters' Hall, was the court's
first resident in 1744. The large iron key that Franklin used was reputedly the key for
the front door of Loxley's house, which still stands. Furthermore, it is sometimes
asserted that Loxley Court is where Franklin flew his kite. But that cannot be the case
as the houses there would have precluded flying a kite in that locale. Plus, Franklin
and his son would not have had the privacy they desired for their unusual experiment.
Loxley Court nowadays is a quiet corner in the heart of downtown Philadelphia. It is
entered through a gate between 321 and 323 Arch Street.
THE WHO: DOUBTERS
Franklin's kite-and-key experiment has long presented a target to scientists and historians. Perhaps the
first was a Harvard professor named Alexander McAdie who published an article in 1925 questioning
whether Franklin actually performed the Philadelphia variation of the Philadelphia Experiment. Others
since then have argued that the event's only witness, William Franklin, never said a word about the kite-
and-key experiment later in life. Moreover, Benjamin Franklin did not keep detailed notes and never wrote
a formal scientific account of the incident.
Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax (2003), by Thomas Tucker, is the latest
attempt to shoot down Franklin's kite. Tucker asserts that Franklin originally came up with the sentry box
experiment as a subtle joke, since he was frustrated that members of the Royal Society had ignored his
ideas about electricity-as transmitted to them via Peter Collinson. When Franklin's sentry box proposition
for proving his hypothesis reached France (where people took it seriously), Franklin decided to play along
and claimed that he had already conducted the experiment in Philadelphia, but with a kite instead of an
iron rod protruding from a tall structure.
Such attacks
have never
managed to
convince most
Franklin
scholars that
Franklin did not
carry out his
kite-flying
adventure.
They argue that
while Ben
Franklin was
known far and
wide as a
prankster, he
would never
have risked
being exposed
as a fraud by
the scientific
community of
his day or
afterward.
Note also that Franklin never patented any of his tangible inventions, as he wanted them to be freely
available for the benefit of mankind. A similar altruistic mindset might have compelled him to refrain from
publicizing his avant-garde experiment. And he just may have wanted to keep the entire episode under
wraps, since the mere act of a 46-year-old man flying a kite, and in the rain, would surely have become a
source of mockery to his adversaries and others. It should be recalled that Franklin had many enemies.

THE WHAT: CORROBORATION


Franklin described the kite-and-key approach to the Philadelphia Experiment in one of his missives to
Peter Collinson only months after he reputedly did the test. Dated October 1, 1752, this letter was read by
Collinson at the Royal Society on December 21, 1752, and was published in the Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 47 (1751-1752), at 565-567, as "A letter of Benjamin Franklin,
Esq.; to Mr. Peter Collinson, F.R.S. concerning an Electrical Kite":
As frequent Mention is made in the News Papers from Europe of the Success of the
Philadelphia Experiment for drawing the Electric Fire from Clouds by Means of pointed Rods
of Iron erected on high Buildings, &c. it may be agreeable to the Curious to be inform'd that
the same Experiment has succeeded in Philadelphia, tho' made in a different and more easy
Manner, which any one may try, as follows.
Make a small Cross of two light Strips of Cedar, the Arms so long as to reach to the four
Corners of a large thin Silk Handkerchief when extended; tie the Corners of the Handkerchief
to the Extremities of the Cross, so you have the Body of a Kite; which being properly
accommodated with a Tail, Loop and String, will rise in the Air, like those made of Paper; but
this being of Silk is fitter to bear the Wet and
Wind of a Thunder Gust without tearing. To the
Top of the upright Stick of the Cross is to be
fixed a very sharp pointed Wire, rising a Foot or
more above the Wood. To the End of the Twine,
next the Hand, is to be tied a silk Ribbon, and
where the Twine and the silk join, a Key may be
fastened. This Kite is to be raised when a
Thunder Gust appears to be coming on, and the
Person who holds the String must stand within a
Door, or Window, or under some Cover, so that
the Silk Ribbon may not be wet; and Care must
be taken that the Twine does not touch the
Frame of the Door or Window. As soon as any
of the Thunder Clouds come over the Kite, the
pointed Wire will draw the Electric Fire from
them, and the Kite, with all the Twine, will be
electrified, and the loose Filaments of the Twine
will stand out every Way, and be attracted by an
approaching Finger. And when the Rain has wet
the Kite and Twine, so that it can conduct the Electric Fire freely, you will find it stream out
plentifully from the Key on the Approach of your Knuckle. At this Key the Phial [Leyden jar]
may be charg'd; and from Electric Fire thus obtain'd,
Spirits may be kindled, and all the other Electric
Experiments be perform'd, which are usually done
by the Help of a rubbed Glass Globe or Tube; and
thereby the Sameness of the Electric Matter with
that of Lightning compleatly demonstrated.
Essentially the same description of the kite-and-key
experiment appeared in the October 19, 1752, issue of
The Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper that Franklin
published in Philadelphia. The piece's title was "The
Kite Experiment." It was soon reprinted in other
publications in America and Europe, such as the
Boston Gazette, Gentleman's Magazine, and London
Magazine.
Note that Franklin plainly states that the experiment
"has succeeded in Philadelphia." This indicates that
what he reports is not a hypothetical experiment, but
one that was actually performed, especially since he
gets into the equipment and methods of the trial,
including the inherent safety concerns.
Curiously though, Franklin wrote as if it was not he who
conducted the experiment. His name is not mentioned,
nor are the personal pronouns I or me. Yet if it wasn't
Benjamin Franklin who flew the kite that summer in
Philadelphia, then who could it have been?
English theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley also relates the story of Franklin's Philadelphia
Experiment. His book, The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments (1767)
offers precise details of Franklin's 1752 kite-flying episode:
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 [Franklin]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 [Franklin] heard of anything they had done.
Franklin had met Priestley in London in 1766 and told the Englishman about the kite-and-key experiment
first hand. Moreover, Benjamin read and approved Priestley's manuscript before its publication.

Franklin also alluded to the kite-flying affair in his illustrious autobiography, which he wrote decades after
his work with electricity:
What gave my Book [John Fothergill's collection of Franklin's writings on electricity] the
more sudden and general Celebrity, was the Success of one of its propos'd Experiments, made
by Messrs Dalibard & Delor at Marly, for drawing Lightning from the Clouds. This engag'd
the public Attention every where. M. Delor, who had an Apparatus for experimental
Philosophy, and lectur'd in that Branch of Science, undertook to repeat what he call'd the
Philadelphia Experiments, and after they were performed before the King & Court, all the
Curious of Paris flocked to see them. I will not swell this Narrative with an Account of that
capital Experiment, nor of the infinite Pleasure I receiv'd in the Success of a similar one I
made soon after with a Kite at Philadelphia, as both are to be found in the Histories of
Electricity.
Franklin's autobiography, his letter to Collinson, the comparable Pennsylvania Gazette item, and
Priestley's narrative all affirmatively demonstrate that Franklin really did the kite-and-key experiment. And
given the number of similar experiments that were carried out successfully in Europe essentially following
Franklin's "sentry box" directions, there is little reason to doubt Benjamin Franklin's account of his own
adaptation of the innovative experiment he conceived.

THE POSSIBILE WHERES


Many places in Philadelphia have been proffered as the site of the Philadelphia version of the Philadelphia
Experiment. Volume 3 of The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Soldier, Scientist, and Politician, 1748-1757
(2009), by historian Joseph A. Leo Lemay, addresses this issue on pages 105-108:
Where? At least four possibilities have been suggested. Franklin had purchased a pasture
from the brick maker William Coats on 31 July 1741, evidently as a place to keep a pony for
William. By 30 April 1747 he had bought a horse named Jack for himself. In 1773, the
pasture was described as in Hickory Lane, which a knowledgeable Philadelphian, Penrose R.
Hoopes, said "ran west from the present Fifth Street and Fairmont Avenue to Ridge Avenue."
Another suggested location was the Philadelphia commons. Dr. Henry Stuber, in his 1790-91
"Life of Franklin," reported that Franklin flew it in the commons and his statement was often
reprinted. In 1864 James Parton followed Stuber's identification and said that the site had
been "about the corner of Race and Eighth streets, near a spot where there was an old cow-
shed." I. Minis Hays, writing in 1924, said that according to tradition, "he flew it on a vacant
lot about 10th and Chestnut streets." Finally, Ronald W. Clark followed a theory that located
it "on the high ground near the junction of what are now Eighteenth and Spring Garden streets,
a site where the wind was likely to be strong and where Franklin would have the seclusion he
wanted. That seems rather far away. No one knows where he flew the kite, but Franklin's
pasture, which probably had a small barn for food and shelter for two horses, seems to me the
most likely site.
Here's a rundown, in no particular order, of several potential sites mentioned in literature, along with their
pros and cons:
• Penn Square, where Philadelphia City Hall stands today: Originally called Center Square, this is
one of the original public parks laid out by William Penn when he founded Philadelphia. This place is
high ground, comparatively speaking, as it is practically centered between the Delaware and Schuylkill
Rivers. But this area was probably wooded in Franklin's day and would have been way out of the
developed part of town. Better spots
to raise a kite would have been
nearer to Franklin's home, yet still far
from would-be observers.
• Around 17th and Callowhill
Streets: This would have been at the
southernmost part of the Bush Hill
estate of William Hamilton, just north
of the northern boundary of
Philadelphia (Vine Street) in the mid-
1700s. But this place was low in
altitude, as it was at the bottom of a
long slope up to the top of Bush Hill
three blocks to the north. (This slope
is still visible along the north-south
streets in that vicinity.) This is thus
not the best kite-flying terrain. And
again, more suitable settings to fly a
kite were closer to the settled part of
Philadelphia, yet still isolated.
• Around 18th and Spring Garden Streets: Referred to in the Lemay quote above, this area was
more or less the location of the Bush Hill mansion of William Hamilton, built by his father, the great
"Philadelphia lawyer" Andrew Hamilton. Despite being high ground (the hill of Bush Hill), this would
not be a likely spot to raise a kite because of the mansion and its landscaping (trees), as well as the
Penn family's Springettsberry Manor nearby to the west. Plus, this area would have been the furthest
west of all the possible Philadelphia locations suggested for the kite-and-key experiment. Yet again,
better places were available nearer to town.
• Loxley Court, between 321 and 323 Arch Street: Some accounts maintain that this charming
colonial-era courtyard is where Benjamin Franklin flew his kite. This is perhaps because Franklin
allegedly borrowed the key he used for his experiment from Benjamin Loxley, a carpenter who lived at
Number 2 Loxley Court. It was the key from the front door of this house that Franklin is said to have
used. However, the many dwellings of Loxley Court would have precluded kite-flying at that spot. And
there would have been no way for Franklin and his son to hide their peculiar activity.
• Franklin Square, near the entrance to the
Benjamin Franklin Bridge: Franklin Square is
another one of Philadelphia's original public parks
established by William Penn. Initially known as "North
East Publick Square," the park has the added appeal
of having been named after Benjamin Franklin,
although this occurred in 1825. It first served as an
open common, providing pasturage and a site for
horse and cattle markets. In 1741, a portion of the
square was given to the nearby German Reform
Church for use as a burial ground. It is doubtful that
Franklin would have flown his kite from or near a
cemetery. The site was also too close to town, and
thus offered Benjamin and William little privacy.
Artist Isamu Noguchi designed the 60-ton stainless
steel sculpture called Bolt of Lightning that stands at
the plaza between Franklin Square and the Benjamin
Franklin Bridge. Installed in 1984, the work refers to
Franklin's kite-and-key experiment and is meant as a
memorial to the great 18th-century Renaissance man.
A four-legged base supports a representation of a
key, on top of which rises a set of multifaceted plates
resembling a lightning bolt. From the bolt emerges a
tubular steel structure topped with a representation of a kite. Bolt of Lightning is 101-feet tall and
marks the axis of Independence Mall and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
• Along 9th Street, between Market and Chestnut; current site of the Nix Federal Courthouse: An
imposing statue of a seated Benjamin Franklin once stood in front of the now-demolished U.S. Post
Office Building that formerly covered the entire city
block on this site. Philadelphia sculptor John J. Boyle
created the huge bronze work that was originally
unveiled on June 14, 1899. It was said that the statue
was erected on the spot at which Franklin flew his
kite. But this region was evidently a forest in
Franklin's era, and so would not have been a good
place to fly a kite. Today, the block is home to the
Robert C. Nix Federal Courthouse, an Art Modern
building constructed between 1937 and 1939. The
Benjamin Franklin statue was moved to the campus
of the University of Pennsylvania around then. It's
located across from the Van Pelt Dietrich Library.
• Along 10th Street, between Market and Chestnut; current site of St. Stephen's Episcopal
Church: This spot, adjacent to the one just described, is referenced in the Lemay quote: "I. Minis
Hays, writing in 1924, said that according to tradition, 'he flew it on a vacant lot about 10th and

Chestnut streets'." Plus, there's a plaque on the outside front wall of the church that reads: "THIS
CHURCH IS BUILT ON THE SITE WHERE BENJ. FRANKLIN FLEW HIS FAMOUS KITE." But this
marker (of dubious origin) hardly proves anything and has nothing to do with the oval Philadelphia
Historical Commission marker immediately above it. St. Stephen's was designed by William
Strickland and was built in 1822-1823 at what is now 19 South 10th Street. Listed on the National
Register of Historic Places, it is one of the earliest Gothic Revival churches in America.
• Growden Mansion in Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania: Ben Franklin would sometimes travel by
horse 25 miles north of Philadelphia to visit his friend Joseph Galloway, who lived at Growden
Mansion, a building that still stands on Neshaminy Valley Drive. (The Growden family then owned
much of the land in that part of Lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania.) But there's no hard proof that
Franklin and his son ever came to this distant place with a kite—and carrying a kite on horseback no
less!

THE MOST LIKELY WHERE


The one location that is mentioned most in the literature is around the present-day intersection of Ridge
Avenue and Buttonwood Street, just north of downtown Philadelphia. This is in the neighborhood where
11th Street crosses Ridge Avenue in this day and age. These environs correspond somewhat to the first
possible location that historian Joseph Lemay discusses. He states that "Franklin had purchased a
pasture [along Hickory Lane] from the brick maker William Coats." Hickory Lane ran west from Fifth
Street to Ridge Avenue along what is now Fairmount Avenue (formerly Coats or Coates Street).

PART OF c. 1802 MAP SHOWING THE AREA, IN THE LEFT CENTER,


EAST OF RIDGE ROAD/AVENUE, WHERE FRANKLIN LIKELY FLEW HIS KITE
This locale was then in the Northern Liberties of Philadelphia, about a quarter mile north of the city's
original northern boundary (Vine Street). The area later became the Spring Garden District part of
Philadelphia County until all surrounding districts and townships were incorporated into the city of
Philadelphia in 1854.
Ridge Road, an ancient Native American trail, would have provided Franklin and his son an easy route to
this secluded region outside of town. The only other pathway in that open countryside was Hickory Lane,
which today is Fairmount Avenue. Nearby Spring Garden Street, now a major thoroughfare that follows
the regular Philadelphia street grid, was not laid down until the early 1800s.
A common area was located in that vicinity and may have been the "commons" alluded to in the Lemay
quote. (However, that spot was identified by James Parton as being "about the corner of Race and Eighth
streets," which is some five blocks south of Buttonwood Street.) Franklin reportedly used a cowshed that
was near the place to keep himself dry, as well as the silk ribbon that he used in his experiment. The
shed was mentioned in the Lemay quotation as being near the commons.
This is supported to some extent by a short piece written by one "Lang Syne" appearing in Hazard's
Register of Pennsylvania, vol. 2 (Nov. 1828), at 287. The writer states that:
Spring Garden was a kind of open common very useful to the 'uptown boys in kite time.' The
kites while flying were often 'pressed' by the butcher boys from the vicinity of 'Pegg's Run'.
Entitled "Reminiscences of Philadelphia," the article is entirely unrelated to Franklin's electric kite
adventure. More on the creek called "Pegg's Run" appears below.
Furthermore, the following statement lends all the more credence to the Ridge and Buttonwood site:
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN'S KITE AND THE CHURCH OF THE ASSUMPTION,
PHILADELPHIA.
While a fair was being held to aid building the Church of the
Assumption, Philadelphia, a lithograph of the proposed edifice, by
its beautiful Gothic Architecture attracted my attention. Father
Carter seeing me absorbed in the picture, placed his hand kindly on
my shoulder and asked: "Well my boy what do you think of that?"
I replied that it was very handsome, and much superior to anything
before attempted on a Catholic church in Philadelphia. "But are
you not very extravagant Father" I asked "some would be content
with one steeple but you are to have two?"
"Now my boy I will give you a reason, tho' 'tis not my rule. When
Benjamin Franklin went to fly his kite, he, living near Second and
Race Sts. [this is apparently incorrect] directed the boy [Franklin's
grown son] to carry it [the kite] out the Ridge Road to Pegg's Run
[a creek] where there was a blacksmith shop which still remains.
The great American Philosopher had a workman affix an iron point
on the kite, and with the assistance of the boy raised it in the air.
Having it well steadied he tied the string to a post under a shed
used to tie horses while being shod, operating with the silk cord and key to convey the electric
fluid to the Leyden jar and thus he bottled the lightning. The kite hovered in the air
immediately above the site where the church is to be erected, but as no man can say positively
the actual spot, I propose to put up two spires, so that we may say somewhere between these
points, happened the most heroic act ever performed in the interests of science."
Willow Street is directly over the bed of the creek and the walls of the blacksmith shop still
stands about 50 ft. S.E. of Willow on the North East side of Ridge Ave. tho' the building has a
new front and is devoted to other uses, but every morning as I pass the beautiful church and
the site of the old shed, the forms of the great American Philosopher and the relator of his
great deed, the kindly great American priest, rise up in my mind.
Andrew Jackson Reilly,
Common Pleas, No. 2
Phila. Mar. 13th 1896.
This single-page declaration was published in The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 13, no. 1
(Philadelphia; Jan. 1896), at 67. Its writer, Andrew Jackson Reilly (1834-?), was a minor official working in
the District Court for the City and County of Philadelphia. He was also the historian of not only the City
History Society of Philadelphia, but also the Pennsylvania Historical Society
and the National Catholic Society. Reilly seems unlikely to be the kind of
person who would fabricate his account.
"Father Carter" was reverend Charles Ignatius Hamilton Carter (1803-1879).
Given his life span, Carter surely could have learned the details of Franklin's
kite-and-key experiment from someone who was alive when it occurred and
heard about it through Franklin himself or via some other contemporary way.
The Church of the Assumption (the "proposed edifice") was built in 1847 and
is still standing on the north side of Spring Garden Street near Ridge Avenue.
This iconic double-spired structure has great significance to the Catholic
Church: Bishop John Neumann helped consecrate it and millionaire nun
Katharine Mary Drexel was baptized there. Both became Catholic saints.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed the Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary Church in 1995, citing the
structure's leaky roof, faulty wiring, and a dwindling number of parishioners. The building stood vacant
until 2010 when it was purchased by a non-profit organization that sought to tear it down so as to use the
property as a parking lot. The Philadelphia Historical Commission cleared the building for demolition, but
there is resistance to the plan.
Andrew Reilly's 1896 account refers to Willow Street and a stream called Pegg's Run. The intersection of
Ridge Avenue and Buttonwood Street is about two blocks northwest of the westernmost part of Willow
Street, a narrow roadway that follows the former course of Pegg's Run (originally named Cohoquinoque
Creek), which today is a sewer that empties into the Delaware River. Two blocks further northwest is the
Church of the Assumption, occupying the ground over which Franklin's famous kite purportedly once flew.
Reilly's statement is recounted in Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia
(September 1922), vol. 33, no. 3, at 207-208 ). This is an article by Ella M. E. Flick on the life of Father
Carter. Ms. Flick confirms that Andrew Jackson Reilly was "a young man at the time" when the fair was
held to raise money to build the Church of the Assumption. This would have been the early or mid 1840s.
Flick further says: "Father Carter's reply is best taken word for word as Mr. Reilly gives it to us."

FROM A 1777 MAP OF PHILADELPHIA, SHOWING PEGG'S RUN


(a.k.a. COHOQUINOQUE CREEK) RATHER PROMINENTLY;
RIDGE ROAD IS THE DIAGONAL PATHWAY IN THE CENTER LEFT

FROM JOHN A. PAXTON'S 1810 MAP SHOWING THE


SPRING GARDEN DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA COUNTY
THE LIGHTNING ROD: LASTING LEGACY OF THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT
Benjamin Franklin had suggested the possibility of
the lightning rod as early as 1750 in the letter to
Peter Collinson in which he (Franklin) laid out the
sentry box experiment. Besides proposing the
use of pointed iron poles on high buildings to test
the electrical charge of thunderclouds, Franklin
also recommend their use to safely carry the
"electrical fire" of lightning into the ground via a
conductive wire. But the great scientist really got
down to work on perfecting the lightning rod soon
after he flew his kite and learned of the successful
experiments in Europe.
In September of 1752, Franklin installed what may
have been the first lightning rod in the world at the
house he and Deborah rented for £38 per year
from John Wister, a Philadelphia wine merchant
who was Franklin's friend. The "Wister house"
was located at what is now 325 Market Street (formerly 141 High Street), directly across from the property
Franklin and his wife came to own and the house they later built at what is modern-day Franklin Court.
Franklin employed a hexagonal iron rod at the
Wister house for both property protection and for
experimentation, as he connected it to a set of bells
in the main bedroom that rang whenever the
atmosphere charged the rod with electricity. What
may possibly be the top part of this rod—much
worse for wear by being melted and bent probably
as a result of a lightning strike—still exists as a
museum piece at the Franklin Institute.
Franklin also installed metal rods atop several tall
buildings in Philadelphia, including the tower of the
Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) and
probably Christ Church steeple. The clergy of
Philadelphia and elsewhere roundly condemned
him for setting up these rods since they felt that
lightning was the hand of divine retribution and for
that reason should not be resisted by man.
Franklin responded: "Surely the Thunder of Heaven
is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail or Sunshine of Heaven, against the inconvenience of which we
guard by Roofs and Shades without Scruple."
Despite initial resistance, the lightning rod turned out to be one of the most important inventions in the
history of civilization, saving untold numbers of lives and preventing vast amounts of property damage.

THE OTHER BIG "PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT"


This review of the "Philadelphia Experiment" cannot be complete without pointing out that there are other
examples of well-known scientific experiments occurring in Philadelphia that have also been referred to as
such. The most infamous "Philadelphia Experiment" was Project Rainbow, a peculiar tale of which here is
a quick rundown.
It is alleged that in the summer of 1943 during World War II, the U.S. Navy was experimenting—at the
Philadelphia Navy Yard—with degaussing technology and other methods to attain radar invisibility for
ships on the high seas. The result was a powerful yet dangerous cloaking device.
Sometime around October 28, 1943, a very strong magnetic field somehow allegedly encircled the
destroyer escort USS Eldridge (DE-173) and its crew. A green haze came over the ship and its men
began to disappear in front of others. The entire destroyer then disappeared in a flash of blue light before
the eyes of people watching on the dock. At the very same moment, the Eldridge appeared in Norfolk,
Virginia, then vanished and re-appeared. It is said that several sailors were hospitalized after the
experiment; a few died, others became deranged. Crew members were also supposedly subjected to
brainwashing so as to maintain secrecy about the experiment.

The Project Rainbow incident is cited in Bermuda


Triangle (1974) by Charles Berlitz and in an
appendix to Uninvited Visitors (1967) by Ivan
Sanderson. Indeed, several books, both non-
fiction and fiction, have been written about the
1943 Philadelphia Experiment. Furthermore, a
John Carpenter film entitled The Philadelphia
Experiment was released in 1984; Philadelphia
Experiment II came out a few years later. And
The Final Countdown (1980), a much more
popular motion picture, incorporated elements of
all this.
Project Rainbow is widely regarded as a hoax, but
it has captured the imagination of government
conspiracy theorists for decades. Aspects of this
particular "Philadelphia Experiment" are featured
in other fringe theories.
So what about the USS Eldridge? The
ship was a Cannon-class destroyer
escort launched in early 1943. It made
it through World War II and was
decommissioned in 1946, then held in
reserve. Transferred to Greece in
1951 under the Mutual Defense
Assistance program, the Eldridge
served with the Greek Navy as the HS
Leon (D-54) until 1992. The ship was
then placed out of commission and
was sold for scrap in 1999.

HS LEON (FORMERLY
USS ELDRIDGE) FLYING
THE GREEK FLAG