Nothing Dies Harder Than An Old Wives’ Tale

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In June, 1752, Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment to find out whether or not lightning was akin to electricity. His experiment was a success, in fact a resounding one. But what has not been a success is getting the media to get the story straight.

It has been — let’s see — 259 years since Franklin conducted his experiment. And Franklin was careful to record what he did, writing it down so accurately and in such simple language that anyone who reads what he said about it can go out today and repeat it.

And yet it’s the craziest thing! You can turn on any TV program where two people are talking about Ben Franklin and inside of five minutes one of them will be telling the same old — untrue — story while the other one nods wisely.

It doesn’t seem to matter that there are literally dozens of places where the correct story is recorded — in books, magazines, newspaper articles, on Internet sites — even on television. But for every place that gets the story right, there seems to be at least five places that get it wrong.

The usual tale goes like this: “Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during a lightning storm. When the kite was struck by lightning he put his hand up to a key attached to the string and drew a spark, proving that lightning was a form of electricity.”

It didn’t happen that way, Johnny.

And if it had Franklin’s tombstone would read differently.

Right now it says, “Benjamin Franklin: BORN January 17, 1706. DIED Apr 17, 1790.” If Franklin had conducted his kite experiment the way the usual story tells it, his tombstone would read: Benjamin Franklin: BORN January 17, 1706. FRIED June 8, 1752.

But there’s hope, Johnny. There’s hope. I think I finally figured out why the old story about the lightning bolt won’t die.

Maybe. You see, every time I run across a correct description of what Ben Franklin did, I find the same doggone thing. The author, or speaker, or whatever always tells it in his own words. I think that’s a mistake.

What do you say you and I conduct an experiment? What do you say we take what Franklin actually said about his kite experiment — in his own words — and put it up here for all to see.

What Franklin used for his experiment was a kite made of two wooden crossbars and a large silk handkerchief. To the kite he attached the usual kite string. To the end of the kite string he tied a key. He also had a Leyden Jar, which is a glass jar lined inside and out with metal that stores static electricity.

Everything else you need to know you can read in his own words. Here they are in a direct quote taken from a letter written by Franklin to Peter Collinson in England on October 19, 1752. The original of the letter is quite long and spends a lot of time discussing electricity in general. This quote is just a small part of it. There is a copy of the original letter in the archives of the Royal Society in London.

If you’d like to see it for yourself, and you have a computer and an Internet service provider, just go online to this URL: http://www.aip.org/history/gap/Franklin/Franklin.html

Anyway, here we go: “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 twine, 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 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 twine 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 wetted 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 other 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 lightning completely demonstrated.”

(* By “phial” Franklin means his Leyden Jar.)

Now. Did Franklin say anywhere in those words that he allowed lightning to strike the kite? No, he didn’t. But it seems very likely that someone originally misread the words, “As soon as any of the thunder clouds come over the kite, the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them ...”

Evidently somebody way back when mistook the words “will draw the electric fire from them ...” to mean Franklin let lightning strike the kite. He didn’t, of course. If lightning had struck the kite it would have disappeared in a puff of smoke. And so would the string, the silk ribbon, and maybe even Franklin.

So there you are, Johnny. The true story. In Franklin’s own words. But you know what? I have an odd feeling about all this. Want to bet that sometime this very week someone on television will tell the same old lightning bolt story again?

C’mon make a bet.

I could use the money.

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