Status: Scholarly debate
Last weekend Philadelphia celebrated the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's electric kite experiment (in which he flew a kite during a thunderstorm and proved that lightning was a form of electricity). They did so despite the fact that many believe the experiment was a hoax... that it never happened. The Philadelphia Inquirer
provides a summary of this debate.
The main proponent of the electric-kite-hoax theory is Tom Tucker, author of Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and his Electric Kite Hoax
. (I noted the publication of his book back in 2003
when it first appeared in print.) Tucker points out that a) "Franklin did not publicize the kite flight until four months later, and then only with a passing mention in the Pennsylvania Gazette"; b) Franklin would have been very stupid to perform such an experiment because it could very easily have killed him; and c) Franklin was a known trickster and a great self-publicist who would not have been above taking credit for something he never did. Defenders of Franklin argue that all of Tucker's evidence is circumstantial. Personally, I'm inclined to believe the hoax theory. I think that Franklin would have been too smart to try such a deadly experiment. But, of course, it's the kind of thing historians can argue about until they're blue in the face. Ultimately there's no definitive evidence to prove that Franklin did or did not perform the experiment.
Since Captain Al pointed out that the kite experiment wouldn't be deadly with some simple safety modifications, let me clarify exactly what Tucker's argument is. Tucker notes that Franklin had been sending the British Royal Society reports about his electricity experiments, but that these reports were being marginalized, mainly because the members of the RS regarded him as an uncouth American. So Tucker suggests that Franklin, frustrated at how he was being treated, sent the RS a report of the deadly electric kite experiment as a joke. It was basically the scientific equivalent of giving them the finger... suggesting that they go fly a kite in a thunderstorm. Franklin knew, and the RS members knew, that doing so could be fatal. But when the report reached France, people there took it seriously. So Franklin, knowing a good PR opportunity when he saw it, played along and began claiming that he really had done the experiment. That's the jist of Tucker's argument.