History and Mystery of Lightning
Science investigates the known, the unknown and the unknowable.
Today, lightning research is divided into various disciplines,
some of which are:
- Atmospheric Physics and Electrostatics
- Electrical Engineering
- Climatology, including thunderstorm morphology and dynamics
- Meteorology and other sub-sectors
From the beginning of written history, lightning has fascinated
mankind. It was the magic fire from the sky that man captured
and used to keep warm at night . It kept the savage animals away.
As primitive man sought answers about the natural world, lightning
became a part of his superstitions, his myths and his early religions.
Early Greeks believed that lightning was a weapon of Zeus. Thunderbolts
were invented by Minerva the goddess of wisdom. Since lightning
was a manifestation of the gods, any spot struck by lightning
was regarded as sacred. Greek and Roman temples often were erected
at these sites, where the gods were worshipped in an attempt
to appease them. The Moslems also attributed lightning and thunder
to their god. The Koran says "He it is who showeth you lightning
and launches the thunderbolts."
Scandinavian mythology alludes to Thor, the thunderer, who was
the foe of all demons. Thor tossed lightning bolts at his enemies.
Thor also gave us Thurs-day.
In the pantheistic Hindu religion, Indra was the god of heaven,
lightning, rain, storms and thunder. The Maruts used the thunderbolts
as weapons. Umpundulo is the lightning bird-god of the Bantu
tribesmen in Africa. Even today their medicine men go out in
storms and bid the lightning to strike far away.
The Navajo Indians hold that lightning has great power in their
healing rituals. Sand paintings show the lightning bolt as a
wink in the Thunderbird's eye. Lightning is associated with wind,
rain and crop growth.
As late as the early 1800s in Russia, when rain was wanted,
three men climbed a tree. One would knock two firebrands together;
the sparks imitating lightning. Another one would pour water
over twigs, imitating rain. A third would bang on a kettle to
attract the thunder. And throughout early Europe, church bell
ringers would make as much noise as possible, hoping to scare
away the storms from these holy dwellings which were struck frequently
During the Napoleonic wars, more than 220 British tall ships
were damaged--not by the French, but by lightning. The solution,
of course, was to install lightning rods. But since that device
had been invented by a "rebel colonist" named Benjamin
His Majesty's Navy steadfastly refused. It took until the 1830's
before the admiralty finally saw the light and forgot about old
Even Santa Klaus gets into the act with his reindeer Donner
(thunder) and Blitzen (lightning).
Early superstitions were observed as Cause and Effect, which
now has been fancified as science. Socrates said, "that's not
Zeus up there, it's a vortex of air." Genghis Kahn forbade his
subjects from washing garments or bathing in running water during
a storm. Thales, the Greek philosopher, in 600 BC, rubbed a piece
of amber with a dry cloth and noted that it would then attract
feathers and straw. William Gilbert, court healer to Queen Elizabeth,
in the late 1500s, also used amber to duplicate the earlier experiments.
He named this via electrica, after electra which
is Greek for amber. He didn't know it, but he was demonstrating
Lightning is a big spark...static electricity on a giant scale.
Machines for creating static electricity were invented...the
Leyden jar was like a thermos bottle which stored volts. Friction
machines could charge the jars and electricity could be carried
around and demonstrated. "Electric magic" was in great demand
at the royal courts of Europe as entertainment. The parlor tricks
amused and fascinated people.
Science was in its infancy during these times. Sir Isaac Newton
had proposed that basic mathematical laws were the foundation
for understanding the forces of nature. With "electric magic" there
was insufficient experimental investigation to explain its behavior.
In 1746, Dr. Spence from Scotland came to Philadelphia. He demonstrated
some "electric magic"
to an audience which included the local postmaster, Benjamin
Franklin. Franklin was curiosity personified. At age eight he
left the Boston Grammar School, ending his formal studies but
only beginning a lifetime of learning. He was endowed with a
strong urge to investigate his world and a great deal of self-discipline.
Franklin invented bifocal glasses and the Franklin stove. He
was an expert swimmer, a vegetarian, multi-lingual, and a publisher.
His Poor Richard's Almanac sold 10,000 copies a year
in the colonies.
At age 42, Franklin sold his Philadelphia printing business
and became involved in social experiments like the American Revolutionary
War and the Declaration of Independence. He dabbled with the
electric Leyden Jar and pondered questions such as, "how many
small electric jars would kill a chicken? How many large jars
for a turkey? Why did an electrocuted turkey taste better than
a conventionally-killed bird? What is lightning? Why is it burning
down churches? Can it be captured to a Leyden jar? Can it be
captured to earth safely?..." Then came his kite and key experiments
in 1752-53 and Franklin's deduction that lightning was electricity.
This was followed by his lightning rod invention, its duplication
in France and its use throughout Europe. Franklin was a celebrated
figure in his time. He has been called America's patron saint
of common sense. Perhaps, had he not been close to the French
Royal Court, and been able to influence France to finance the
American Revolutionary War, we might still be a colony of England!
Recently some scientists have concluded that lightning may have
played a part in the evolution of living organisms. Nobel prize
winning chemist Harold Urey proposed that the earth's early atmosphere
consisted of ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water vapor. One
of his students, Stanley Miller, used an electric spark to duplicate
lightning and introduced it into the chemical brew. He was careful
to excluded any living organisms from the experiment. At the
end of a week, he examined the mixture and found it contained
newly-formed amino acids, the very building blocks of protein.
Did lightning play a role in creating life itself? Science now
is pushing the envelope of lightning's secrets. More has been
learned about this transient phenomenon in the past decade than
in the preceding 250 years since Franklin's "kites and keys"
experiments. Stay tuned...
Most of the above was adapted from Viemeister, P.: 1961, The
Lightning Book, MIT Press, Cambridge MA. (Worth buying your own
copy.) See also Martin Uman's several books on lightning.
This factsheet courtesy the National Lightning
Safety Institute, Louisville, CO. Tel. 303-666-8817.
WWWeb = http://www.lightningsafety.co