Franklin was born on January 17, 1706. He would be 312 this year. Happy Birthday Ben!
In addition to being a Founding Father of the United States of America, Franklin was also an avid scientist. In 1746 he became interested in experimenting with electricity and by 1752 he tried his most famous experiment of sending up a metal key tied to a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning was electricity. (It is. Do not try this at home kids!)
He theorized that lightning strikes on buildings could be prevented by attaching pointed metal rods to the roofs and then conducting the charge safely to the ground.
He wrote, "May not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind, in preserving houses, churches, ships, etc., from the stroke of lightning, by directing us to fix, on the highest parts of those edifices, upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle...Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief!"
Franklin’s lightning rods were soon in use on buildings throughout the colonies. The design changed over the years and by the early 1800s, lightning rods were being constructed out of copper rather than iron. By the second half of the 19th century there were many companies producing lightning rods and salesmen traveling door-to-door to convince homeowners of the need for the devices. As is the nature of traveling salesmen, they can sometimes be a little pushy, so much so that in 1856 Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame) wrote a short story about one such fellow called “The Lightning-Rod Man”.
Read it here: http://www.melville.org/lrman.htm
Lightning rods from a farm in Bedminster, Pennsylvania
To compete for the homeowners money, the manufacturers began to add decorative elements such as multi-pointed finials, curly cues, arrows and weather vanes to their lightning rods. The most collectible element they added has to be the glass ball. They came in a wide variety of shapes and colors to please any taste. There are competing theories about their purpose, with one school of thought being that they were indicators of the rod being hit by lightning. The glass would shatter from the strike and the homeowner would then be alerted to check the rod and make any necessary repairs. Another theory is that the balls are purely decorative, meant to attract the eye and identify a particular manufacturer’s brand.
Lightning rods on the house sometime in the 1940s
The lightning rods we have were probably installed in the 1930s and offered their protection to the house and barn until the 1960s when the house roof was replaced and the lightning rods were stored in the barn.
The house before the roof was replaced
This seems to have been the fate for most lightning rods. Once removed from the roof, they were never returned to their former positions. It is now a rare treat to see an old house or barn still sporting their protective pieces of copper.
The new job of the lightning rod is as a decorative conversation piece in the home or garden. Never fear if the glass ball is missing, there are sources online that carry both vintage and reproduction balls and other companies that can replace or manufacture other missing or broken elements.
I hope that this has *sparked* your interest in lightning rods and that you feel inspired to make room for piece of scientific history in your home!