On October 19, 1752, the Pennsylvania Gazette
published a brief description of an experiment recently conducted by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the article said, had flown a kite in a thunderstorm, causing electricity to be conducted down the line of the kite and electrifying a key tied to it. This demonstrated that lightning, as many had speculated, was a form of electricity.
Franklin's electric kite became the most famous experiment of the eighteenth century, helping to make Franklin famous throughout Europe and America. And yet, some historians argue that it probably never happened.
They point to a curious lack of details about the experiment. It is not known exactly when the experiment occurred. Sometime in June, 1752 was the closest Franklin ever came to an exact date. Nor did Franklin ever write a formal report about it. The only witness to the event was Franklin's son, who never said a word about it. Finally, such an experiment would have been extremely dangerous, possibly fatal, as Franklin knew.
Historian Tom Tucker suggests that Franklin originally proposed the idea for the experiment as a joke. Frustrated because the British Royal Society had been ignoring his letters to them about his earlier electrical research, he might have proposed the deadly experiment as a subtle joke. It was his way of saying, Go fly a kite in a storm! But when his suggestion reached France, where people took it seriously, Franklin decided to play along and claimed he really had conducted the experiment.
Tucker's theory remains controversial. Other historians argue that Franklin would never have risked being exposed as a liar by the scientific community.
Links and References