MIT Libraries logo MIT Libraries

Massaschusetts Institute of Technology logo MIT Logo Search Contact

Atmospheric Electricity and Lightning Rods

K. Hedges. Modern lightning conductors, 1905

The connection between electricity and the atmosphere was not drawn definitively until the eighteenth century. The iconic image of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite in an electrical storm highlights his role as a pioneer in the discovery of atmospheric electricity and the nature of lightning. In his Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Franklin describes his kite experiment, discusses his work with Leyden jars, and expresses his idea for the lightning rod. The Vail Collection has early translations of this seminal work in French and German, demonstrating the importance of Franklin’s insights as they spread throughout Europe.

M. Landriani. Dell’utilità dei conduttori elettrici, 1784

Franklin’s invention and advocacy of the lightning rod brought huge benefits to society, as it offered protection from one of nature’s most destructive and unpredictable forces. The technology also allowed people to erect tall buildings, and build structures on flat, open plains, with less fear of the devastation wrought by lightning. In 1784, Italian scientist Marsilio Landriani published an inventory of the lightning rods on private and public buildings in Italy and Europe, including the crucially important rods situated on powder magazines. Landriani’s book illustrates how widespread the use of lightning rods had become in the mere thirty years since Franklin had unveiled his invention.

L. Klasen. Die Blitzableiter in ihrer Konstruktion und Anlage, 1895

Later, lightning rods would become decorative as well as functional. In the 1895 publication Die Blitzableiter in ihrer Konstruktion und Anlage by Ludwig Klasen, we’re introduced to the wide variety of beautiful rod designs available at the end of the nineteenth century.

Having witnessed the effectiveness of the technology against lightning, farmers sought a solution to the destructive effects of hail. A device called a paragrêle in English as well as in the original French was invented by Alexandre Lapostolle around 1820, and described in his Traité des parafoudres et des paragrêles en cordes de paille. John Murray cites this device in his 1830 A Treatise on Atmospherical Electricity, and makes the (mistaken) assertion that “The paragrêle is intended to disarm the storm cloud of its vengeance by withdrawing its electricity … thus prevent[ing] the precipitation of hailstones … the formation of hail is an electric phenomenon.” Wonderful though it sounds, the invention, unsurprisingly, did not work since hail is caused by thunderstorms with strong updrafts and unstable air mass, rather than by electricity.

A. Lapostolle. Traité des parafoudres et des paragrêles en cordes de paille, 1820

Return to Electricity