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Escapade By Harry Kyriakodis
Just about everyone has heard about Benjamin Franklin flying a kite during a lightning storm in the mid18th 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 kiteand-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 cowshed." 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 mid1700s. 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 nonfiction 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