Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Meteorology (Study of the Atmosphere)

Benjamin Franklin’s Kite Experiment

A color painting of a stylized version of Benjamin Franklins kite

Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment was based partially in his observation of weather patterns in the city, as depicted in Benjamin West’s c. 1816 painting Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Benjamin Franklin sought to prove that lightning was atmospheric electricity around the same time he became interested in tracking storms. In 1749, he invented lightning rods to protect Philadelphia households from lightning strikes. He also hoped to use lightning rods to charge Leyden jars. French scientist Thomas-Francois Dalibard successfully performed this experiment in May 1752 after translating Franklin’s pamphlet on the subject. In June of the same year, Franklin executed the experiment but replaced the lightning rods with a kite; the strings picked up ambient charges during the storm and charged the Leyden jar, corroborating his theory about the nature of lightning. Franklin’s experiments with electricity were depicted in Benjamin West’s c. 1816 painting Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky.

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