History of lightning research

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) endeavored to test the theory that sparks shared some similarity with lightning by using a spire which was being erected in Philadelphia, United States. While waiting for completion of the spire, he got the idea to use a flying object such as a kite. During the next thunderstorm, which was in June 1752, it was reported that he raised a kite. He was accompanied by his son as an assistant. On his end of the string he attached a key, and he tied it to a post with a silk thread. As time passed, Franklin noticed the loose fibers on the string stretching out; he then brought his hand close to the key and a spark jumped the gap. The rain which had fallen during the storm had soaked the line and made it conductive.

Franklin was not the first to perform the kite experiment. Thomas-François Dalibard and De Lors conducted it at Marly-la-Ville in France, a few weeks before Franklin’s experiment.[10][11] In his autobiography (written 1771–1788, first published 1790), Franklin clearly states that he performed this experiment after those in France, which occurred weeks before his own experiment, without his prior knowledge as of 1752.

As news of the experiment and its particulars spread, others attempted to replicate it. However, experiments involving lightning are always risky and frequently fatal. One of the most well-known deaths during the spate of Franklin imitators was that of Professor Georg Richmann of Saint Petersburg, Russia. He created a set-up similar to Franklin’s, and was attending a meeting of the Academy of Sciences when he heard thunder. He ran home with his engraver to capture the event for posterity. According to reports, while the experiment was under way, ball lightning appeared and collided with Richmann’s head, killing him.

Although experiments from the time of Benjamin Franklin showed that lightning was a discharge of static electricity, there was little improvement in theoretical understanding of lightning (in particular how it was generated) for more than 150 years. The impetus for new research came from the field of power engineering: as power transmission lines came into service, engineers needed to know much more about lightning in order to adequately protect lines and equipment. In 1900, Nikola Tesla generated artificial lightning by using a large Tesla coil, enabling the generation of enormously high voltages sufficient to create lightning.