Did Ben Franklin...

REALLY fly a kite with a key in a storm?

Yes , I think I read that he did and that he was very, very
lucky to live to write about it.

He was quite important in researching electricity.

Yes , I think I read that he did…

LOL! Maybe that shouldn’t have cracked me up the way it did, but I guess I was just in the right mood. It’s so completely counter to the founding and guiding spirit of the Straight Dope.

There are, of course, many reasonably authoritative sources that do confirm this story, such as the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission, in partnership with The Franklin Institute Online, however, the Franklin Institute does note: "Surprisingly, he never wrote letters about the legendary kite experiment; someone else wrote the only account 15 years after it took place."

Now, I’ll concede that as an ardent amateur (and professional) scientist myself, I’ve done quite a few ‘damnfool’ experiments that I really don’t feel like owning up to, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that one particular experiment. It would not have taken many neurons to think of the voltage (and discomfort) of the smaller electrical arcs he’d already experienced, and guess that a spark that was miles long might be something to stay away from. Franklin was well aware of hundreds of historical stories of the damage inflicted by lightning (an aspect always highlighted in the retelling). Recall that, as the inventor of the lightning rod (whose dubious benefits were noted by Cecil, he extolled Lightning’s public safety risks. Fires, shattered chimneys and molten spots on lead and copper roofs were extremely well known to the founder of the first volunteer fire brigade in the US – he’d certainly have known of many eyewitness accounts of deaths and fires caused by lightning. Moreover, inserting his body in the proposed circuit would have produced no theoretical or practical benefit! It would have made as much sense to insert a horse in the middle of an experiment in fluid dynamics

On the other hand, some of his better-conceived, self-recorded experiments would also be considered hideously (if slightly less directly) dangerous, so maybe he just wanted to ‘feel for himself’ to provide personal confirmation, rather than rely on impersonal devices. I can readily see why he might later decide not to publicize that particular experiment, given the huge body of other, less ‘damn-fool stupid’, evidence in his experiments and historical scientific knowledge of the time.

The Franklin Institute also offers the following bibliography, suited for children and adults.

PBS ran a very interesting mini-series on Franklin a bit ago. Apparently, some historians believe that Franklin knew way too much about electricity to conduct* the experiment himself, and watched from a distance as he had someone else do it for him.

There’s a quite ugly statue comemorating it at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia. Of course, every other thing in Philly is named after Franklin.

*sorry. Didn’t realize that that could be a pun 'til I typed it, had to keep it.

Well, the Autobiography certainly claims that he carried out some experiment with a kite:

The “15 years after” account is by Priestley and is quoted here. That page, based on Carl van Doren’s biography, states that Franklin read this in manuscript and so presumably endorsed it. I suspect it’s the History and Present State of Electricity, but Priestley actually only seems to have sent Franklin a printed copy of that - see the remarks about it in the Autobiography of Joseph Priestley, Adams&Dart, 1970, p90.Becker’s entry for the Dictionary of American Biography goes slightly further and claims that there is a letter describing the experiment.

I haven’t been able to find this particular letter to Collinson online, but it’s discussed in one of the quotations on this page (a pdf), which also quotes an earlier letter to him.

I read (I thought in a SD column) that he flew a kite, but it was not struck by lightning. He got a small charge built up in the key that had traveled down the string. I think this was due to the voltage differences that make lightning when they get really bad.

Warning: Don’t try this at home!

If you’ve got lightning in your home, you have bigger problems than whether you should be flying a kite in there or not.

Wasn’t there a storage device involved? I read somewhere that Franklin used the kite-in-the-storm to charge a “Leyton jar.” (which I probably have spelled wrong) I was taught in school that the jar was a battery, but I think it might be more rightly called a capacitor.

It’s Leyden jar. And I just had to pick this out:

So, did, like Franklin achieve temporary invisibility or travel forward through time? :smiley:

There’s a book just out, Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax, by Tom Tucker, that insists that the whole thing was a deliberate hoax.

So (and I am going to burn in Doper heck for this, but) 1770’s style Death rays?

Yes, it was a Mr. B. Bunny, if memory serves.