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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.

The Bible says "When He uttereth His voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens; and He causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth: He maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of His treasures."

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 by lightning.

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 Franklin,
His Majesty's Navy steadfastly refused. It took until the 1830's before the admiralty finally saw the light and forgot about old colonial rebellions.

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 static electricity.

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


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