Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment

By Michael Brian Schiffer; Kacy L. Hollenback et al. | Go to book overview
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9
Property Protectors

Sudden, searingly bright, lightning inspires awe in most societies. Perhaps because lightning had no obvious mechanical cause, most people before Franklin's time ascribed its action to supernatural powers. Countless pantheons across the globe have lightning gods. Greek myths held the god Zeus responsible for sending rain and lightning to earth; sometimes he aimed his thunderbolts at misbehaving mortals. According to the Navajo in the American Southwest, lightning sent by offended gods could, in addition to killing sheep or destroying the Navajo's dwellings, cause disease. Whether regarded as the wrath of an angry god or an electrical discharge, lightning is a phenomenon feared equally by most peoples, ancient and modern. And with good reason.

As Richmann's misfortune reminds us, lightning is not something to trifle with. Yet his tragedy pales into insignificance compared to other lightning-caused disasters of the eighteenth century. In Brescia, Italy, lightning struck a powder magazine in 1769, setting off its entire store; the blast not only leveled the town but killed 3,000 people. 1 Often taller and set apart from other structures, powder magazines were among lightning's likely targets. Indeed, anything more conductive than air, especially if taller than its immediate surroundings, was somewhat vulnerable. Hence ships were at special risk, for wooden masts were a potent lightning attractor. When it struck a mast, the blow shattered the mast into small pieces; in the vernacular of the time, lightning “shivered the ship's timber”; sometimes a stricken vessel sank on the spot.

A lightning strike did not always exact a toll in human lives, but it often caused serious property damage. Some people took steps to protect their structures; the ancient Greeks, for example, worshiped Zeus and offered sacrifices to appease him, hoping thereby to save their structures from

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