Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West
The march of science has been a long and arduous one. Over the last 5,000 years since the dawn of history, and for generations before that since lost to time, humans gradually learned the inner workings of the natural world around them. Phenomena once explained by the actions of gods and demons can now be explained in rational terms by scientists.
Of course, this process has never been a smooth one. When the findings of science contradict what people would like to believe about the world, there is naturally resistance. One of the most famous instances of such resistance was the slow adoption of the current model of the solar system with the sun at its center. For centuries, people relied on the Ptolemaic model to explain the movement of the celestial spheres; partially because it worked, and partially because it was the view sanctioned by the powers that be, most notably the Catholic Church. Only after the passage of time, when better technology led to better data that showed unequivocally that the solar model was superior, did the new system gain wide acceptance.
A similar clash between scientific thought and religious dogma occurred in the late 18th century, involving none other than Ben Franklin. Scientist, inventor, and diplomat, Franklin was a child of the Enlightenment who used his curiosity and ingenuity to produce inventions that he believed would be helpful to humanity. Primary among his many contributions to science was his work with electricity, especially the famous experiment we all hear about as kids involving a key, a kite, and a thunderstorm. Franklin’s studies of the strange phenomena of lightning led him to produce the humble lightning rod, a design feature so ubiquitous in today’s world that modern people rarely give it any thought. In Franklin’s day, however, such a device was a revolution. It finally gave people a way to protect themselves against lightning, a frightening and deadly phenomena. Of course, not everyone was on board with the new development; soon after, a strong resistance to Franklin’s invention sprang up among the more religiously inclined. What followed was decades of debate, pitting Franklinian science against long held dogma.
The Wrath of God (or the Devil)
There were two rival religious explanations for lightning. Perhaps “rival” is not the best term, because at times the two seemed to coexist despite their obvious differences. The first and most traditional was that lightning was the wrath of God. Such a notion goes back to Ancient Greece, when Zeus used his famous thunderbolts to mete out divine justice from atop mount Olympus. When the pagan gods gave way to the Christian God, the same notion persisted.
This, of course, raised some difficult theological questions for believers, mostly due to the fact that churches tended to be the tallest buildings in most towns and thus attracted more lightning bolts than “dens of iniquity” like taverns or brothels. Perhaps this fact and the difficult–not to mention potentially embarrassing–conundrum it presented resulted in an alternate hypothesis: that lightning and storms resulted from the air being full of devils.
While the idea neatly solved the theological conundrum presented by the original idea of lightning as God’s wrath, it brought about a deadly custom designed to ward off evil spirits. During lightning storms, hapless bell ringers would be sent up to church towers to ply their trade in an attempt to scare off the demons of the air. Naturally, tugging a rope attached to a large brass bell in the highest point in town during a lightning storm is not a job for those too attached to this earthly life. In Germany alone, 120 bell ringers were killed by lightning in the last 30 years of the 19th century. Despite this, the custom continued in many localities.
In spite of the obvious advantages that lightning rods presented for owners of tall buildings, particularly churches, their adoption was a slow and painful affair. Superstition and fear prevented people from trying the invention for themselves. Their fear found encouragement from many ministers and priests of the day. In America, Reverend Thomas Price of Old South Church in Massachusetts blamed the earthquake of 1755 on Franklin’s blasphemous invention. Since God could not vent his retribution from the sky, the Reverend said, he did it by shaking the Earth. He concluded by saying that “God’s wrath will not be thwarted.”
A similar mood prevailed in Europe, where lightning rods sparked borderline riots in many towns and cities. Fearful citizens tore down lightning rods, while in some places those fearful of such mobs removed their newly installed lightning rods to forestall any violence.
Not all of the actions against the hated contraption were violent, of course. Many turned to the law to get their neighbors to take down Franklin’s invention. Robespierre, who would become an influential figure in the French Revolution, got his start in one such case nearly 30 years after the lightning rod was invented, where he was able to successfully defend the right of his client to install a lightning rod despite neighborhood misgivings.
Robespierre was not the only Enlightenment notable to throw himself into the debate. Ben Franklin himself, who normally stayed above controversies caused by his inventions, threw his considerable influence behind the lightning rod. His allies preached the benefits of the lightning rod and spoke out against religious misgivings around the device both in America and in Europe. Their influence went a long way toward demystifying both lightning and the lightning rod, but for some the intervention came too late.
Many churches still refused to install lightning rods, even as the custom of ringing bells during storms began to decline. Even a tragedy seemed to do little to change superstitious beliefs regarding lightning. In 1767, some 16 years after Franklin’s invention, priests at the Church of San Nazaro in Brecia ignored repeated requests to install what they believed to be a blasphemous device. That year, lightning struck the church tower has it likely had many times before, but this time the Republic of Venice had decided to store thousands of pounds of gunpowder in the church vaults. The strike ignited the stores, and the resulting explosion leveled 1/6 of the city and killed 3,000 people.
Even with the tragedy, obstinate refusal to install the “heretical rod” would continue for decades, until in the 19th century Franklin’s invention would become a common design feature. Church bell ringers could finally breath a sigh of relief.
Kapitza, P.L. “Experiment, theory, and practice: articles and addresses.” Springer science & Business Media, April 30, 1980. pgs 312-316
Schiffer, Michael B and Hollenback, Kacy L. “Drawn the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment.” University of California Press, 2003. pgs 184-195
Seckel, Al and Edwards, John. “Franklin’s Unholy Lightning Rod.” ESDJournal.com. November 25, 2002. ESD Journal. April 12, 2015. http://www.esdjournal.com/articles/franklin/franklinrod.htm