Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Earth Grounds and Heavenly Spires: Lightning Rod Men, Patent Inventors, and Telegraphers

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Earth Grounds and Heavenly Spires: Lightning Rod Men, Patent Inventors, and Telegraphers

Article excerpt


THE NEARER LIGHTNING FLASHES, the more vulnerable we feel. That feeling came to many residents of the open spaces of nineteenth century America as their churches, barns, and prairie homesteads became frequent targets of lightning that accompanied the region's destructive thunderstorms. Like Melville's "Lightning Rod Man," salesmen of the time reaped commercial advantage by exhorting fear and promising the rod as a means to control nature's fury.1 No clear understanding of how the rod functioned was provided or sought by most rod installers, makers, or their public. Rods went up in good weather and- if everyone was lucky- were never put to a real test. This separation from the actual phenomena allowed for installations that were inadequate to deal with a real strike; even the patented contraptions often turned out to be swindles.

A different outlook took hold among another nineteenth century community whose operations were daily affected by lightning: the telegraphers. Telegraphic signals were weak and could not compete with lightning whenever it disturbed the lines. Getting the signal through to its destination involved observing lightning's behaviors and improvising ways to safely divert it. Telegraphers could not ignore lightning or shortchange the ground connection. This interactive experience developed telegraphers' understandings of paths lightning took in their wiring and showed up by contrast the groundless myths and frauds of the salesoriented rod profession.

This contrast is especially apparent in how the two extreme ends of lightning protectors were treated in home rod installations and at telegraphic stations. The upper visible ends of many marketed devices were decorative, boasting superfluous metal points on fluted hollow poles. The lower end stopped short, seldom going far enough underground to reach a reliable reservoir for a bolt's excess charge. In telegraphy, there was a reverse in emphasis. Lightning arresters put high up on telegraph lines were evident only to the trained- and continually checking - operator's eye. Ground excavations were substantive and essential to maintain if the signal was to go through. Thus by looking at the rod's ends, we gain an entry to disparate cultures and understandings that arose around lightning protection in nineteenth century America.

The Story of One "Lightning Rod Man"

In the mid-nineteenth century, philosophical proprietors anxious to protect their own buildings were not die only ones putting up lightning rods. The notion of making profit by outfitting others' houses arose to men who, often lacking homes of their own, were free to roam about, taking on any unprotected residence along their route as a potential sale. One of these peddlers was thirty-year-old James Wylie (d. 1866?) who left the Vermont farm where he was raised to go out and see the world. One November day in 1852, he wrote home from Nashville, Tennessee: "Brother Augustus, I take the present opportunity to inform you that I am a traveling in the south and a selling Lightning rods and find it a good business and like traveling in this country very well the people are kind and hospitable to strangers 1 am a driving a span of horses that cost 225 dollars and a good wagon and like my business very well."2

James was then on route to the Atlanta, Georgia, base of an outfit run by a certain Mr. Ladd (possibly a family acquaintance). Six teams of men and horses had started off traveling together, but they were about to part ways, some continuing on with Ladd to Georgia, others going to Alabama.

The following April, James was still in good health and spirits when he chided his brother for not writing: "I . . . did not know but you ware all dead or forgot this poor old bachelor . . . but I am still knocking about and climbing a houses and putting the genuine frame rods on them."3 A month later, impatience began to show in James' correspondence. Mr. …

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