The ingenious invention of the lightning rod was a game changer for historic buildings and allowed us to have the skyscrapers of today without fear of destruction from fire. For centuries, house fires were a major problem across the globe. Hazards like wood burning fireplaces, coal stoves, and ballon framing all contributed to an epidemic of house fires and deaths, but there was always one cause that seemed out of our control…lightning.
That was until 1749 when a Pennsylvania publisher and general tinkerer begin experimenting with electricity in order to understand this strange force better. In 1752 he finalized his design of the first lightning rod and published his work the next year. That publisher was none other than Benjamin Franklin and his invention forever changed architecture.
Invention of the Lightning Rod
From his famous experiment with a kite and key to determine if lightning was indeed electricity Franklin posited that the best way to protect a building from the danger of lightning was to find a way to place a pointed iron rod at the peak of the building with a wire running down to another rod buried into the earth.
Franklin wrote his thoughts on the matter, “the electrical fire would, I think, be drawn out of a cloud silently, before it could come near enough to strike and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief!”
In America, the lightning rod was commonly called a ”Franklin” rod after its inventor, and it caught on quickly. Lightning rods were installed on major buildings throughout America in the ensuing years with great results.
Lightning Rod Design
The design was tweaked and refined. The Brittish insisted that blunt metal rods were better for lightning rods while Franklin held firm in his belief that pointed rods were best.
The design disagreement even became a political tell of your loyalties at the time with patriots preferring pointed rods on their homes and loyalists preferring blunt tipped rods. Even King George III weighed in and had a blunt-tipped lightning rod installed on his palace.
By the 1800’s lightning rods became a part of architectural design motifs. Weathervanes and decorative spires incorporated the technology and turned a utilitarian home protection device into stunning pieces of architecture.
One unique design was solid glass balls incorporated into the design of lighting rods just below the highest point. Since glass is an insulator and does not conduct electricity, in the event of a lightning strike the glass would shatter. This was intended to be a sign that an electrical strike had occurred and the lighting protection system should be inspected to check for damage.
It took until the 1840s until the lightning rod was successfully incorporated into sailing ships to protect them on their travels thanks to the work of a Brittish doctor named William Snow Harris. This proved a major improvement since ships were particularly vulnerable on the ocean where there were no other targets for the lightning other than their tall wooden masts.
Today lightning rods come in a huge variety of designs and are largely incorporated into the design of all skyscrapers and most commercial buildings. Building fires due to lighting have largely been avoided now and it was all thanks to a curious colonialist named Benjamin Franklin.
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I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.