Benjamin Franklin is best known by many for his famous kite-flying experiment in Philadelphia. But some people aren’t sure how much of the legend is fact – or fiction.
Of course, Franklin is also known for many other achievements, including his final public role at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, but the kite story has been told in classrooms for generations.On June 10, 1752, some folks believe Franklin, accompanied by his son, went on the daring, and extremely dangerous, kite-flying mission in Philadelphia.
In an account 15 years after the event, Joseph Priestley recounted the experiment, as told to him by Franklin, in his 1767 book “History and Present Status of Electricity.” On page 217, Priestley described the kite experiment in detail, which he said happened in June 1752.
The story contained the familiar elements: a kite made from a large silk handkerchief, two sticks, a silk line and a key. In this account, Franklin flew the kite into a cloud, noticed unusual activity on the silk line, touched the key with his knuckle, and “perceived a very evident electric spark.”
But that wasn’t the first mention of the kite-flying story. Franklin wrote to his friend, Peter Collinson in London, in October 1752 about a kite experiment in Philadelphia, with the letter published in a journal in December 1752 and read at the Royal Society of London.
Franklin talked about an “experiment that succeeded in Philadelphia” in which a kite was raised during a thunderstorm, and when the kite and string became wet, “it can conduct electric fire frequently.” Franklin said the experiment would allow the electric fire to “stream out plentifully from the key on the approach of your knuckle.”
It was also noted in Frankin’s correspondence that he “was much distressed upon learning of the death of Professor Richmann at St. Petersburg, July 26, 1753, while repeating the kite experiment for bringing lightning from the clouds.”
Abbott Lawrence Rotch, an eminent meteorologist, said in an October 1906 article for the American Antiquarian Society that the experiment’s date was probably later in 1752, and not in June. He cited examples of correspondence from France that would have pushed back the experiment until the late summer or early fall of 1752. Rotch didn’t doubt that Franklin conducted the experiment.
Another prominent meteorologist, Alexander McAdie, submitted a paper in 1924 to the Antiquarian Society about the kite experiment. McAdie cited Rotch’s research and said that, for some reason, many people pegged the experiment’s date to June 6, 1752.
McAdie argued that Priestley’s account contradicted safety practices Franklin would have taken for such an experiment. He also wasn’t entirely convinced the experiment described by Franklin in his letter to Collinson was actually conducted. He cited the lack of mentions in the Pennsylvania Gazette by Franklin and that an analysis of the October 1752 letter to Collinson indicated “an experiment not so much an experiment actually performed as one projected and the results anticipated.”
McAdie believed if the experiment had been conducted, it happened in September 1752.
Carl Van Doren, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his biography of Franklin, summed up the debate about the kite experiment.
“The episode of the kite, so firm and fixed in legend, turns out to be dim and mystifying in fact. Franklin himself never wrote the story of the most dramatic of his experiments,” Van Doren said. “All that is known about what he did on that famous day, of no known date, comes from Joseph Priestley's account, published 15 years afterwards but read in manuscript by Franklin, who must have given Priestley the precise, familiar details.”
Among the skeptics about the kite story was author Tom Tucker, who wrote a 2003 book called “Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin And His Fabulous Kite.” Tucker posited the theory that Franklin pulled a hoax during an intense rivalry with British and French scientists.
Michael Brian Schiffer, a professor at the University of Arizona, rebutted Tucker’s theory.
“It is doubtful that Franklin would have crafted a piece of fictional science, for he appreciated the penalty that the gentlemanly establishment of natural philosophy would have meted out had the fraud been exposed,” Schiffer said in an article for the History News Network.
Walter Isaacson, in his 2003 biography, was convinced Franklin conducted the experiment, and it was closer to the June 10, 1752 date. “It is unreasonable, I think, to believe that Franklin fabricated the June date or other facts of his kite experiment. There is no case of his ever embellishing his scientific achievements,” Isaacson said. Isaacson also cited examples of Franklin taking his time to recount his experiments before publishing them.
Regardless of the debate over the kite experiment, there is little argument over Franklin’s role in the study of electricity. His invention of the lightning rod was not only a key scientific advancement, it contributed to cutting down on fires that devastated buildings and houses.
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