We all know the story of Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in an electrical storm. I always thought that it was kind of fanciful, along the same lines as the myth about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. Guess what: I was wrong. Franklin not only flew the kite in a storm, he held onto the string, and he stuck his hand near the key so that he could fully experience the “electric fire.”
I just finished reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, downloaded from Project Gutenberg. At the end, I found a letter Franklin wrote to Peter Collinson in 1752 describing the electrical kite experiment in exquisite detail.
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 silk and twine 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 may be charged; and from electric fire thus obtained, spirits may be kindled, and all the electric experiments be performed, 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 completely demonstrated.
I also love the illustration:
I think it is certainly fair to say, Don’t Try This At Home.
But if you do… be sure to let me know how it works out!