Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America

Article excerpt

Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, by Philip Dray. Random House, August 2005. $25.95

Lightning, terrifying in its destructive force, was very poorly understood in Benjamin Franklin's day, as Philip Dray relates in this fascinating study. While Franklin was not the first to come to something like a more modern understanding of the nature of lightning, he was one of the first to articulate clearly that lightning might simply be akin to an electric spark, albeit on a vast scale. Popularly, of course, lightning was widely regarded as a fairly unmistakable token of the wrath of God. In Europe, the traditional response to an impending storm was to ring the church bells in an effort to beseech God's mercy. The church bell tower being typically the tallest structure in the area, this practice had dire consequences for the bell ringers, dozens of whom, over the decades, died from lightning strikes. Finally, Dray recounts, a pamphlet was circulated against the practice with a title that would be comical were the facts not so macabre: "A Proof that the Ringing of Bells During Thunderstorms May Be More Dangerous Than Useful. …

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