What would you think if you saw a man on horseback chasing a thunder and lightning storm? You might probably wonder what on Earth he was trying to do. Well, if you lived in the mid-1700s and knew Benjamin Franklin, this is just what you might see during a terrible storm. Ben was fascinated by thunderstorms; he loved to study them. If he were alive today, we could probably add a “storm-chaser” to his long list of titles and achievements.
In a dialogue held in Philadelphia on a very warm morning at the end of June 1776, when Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress John Adams had a conversation with Pennsylvania delegate Dr. Benjamin Franklin about the writing of the Declaration of Independence by Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson; they were discussing the importance of the document and who might be remembered for their part in bringing it to reality :
John Adams: “It doesn’t matter, Franklin. I won’t be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”
Ben Franklin is known for his experiments with electricity (most notably the kite experiment in June 1752, described in the previous edition of LOOKING BACK), a fascination that began in earnest after he accidentally shocked himself six years earlier, in 1746. By 1749, he had turned his attention to the possibility of protecting buildings—and the people inside—from lightning strikes. Having noticed that a sharp iron needle conducted electricity away from a charged metal sphere, he theorized that such a design could be useful:
“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!”
In other words, lightning rods would draw the static electricity from the air during a thunderstorm, and conduct it safely to the ground, thus eliminating the accumulation of electrical charges which results in a discharge of lightning.
Franklin’s pointed lightning rod design proved very effective and soon topped buildings throughout the Thirteen Colonies.
It was in Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 1746 when Franklin first stumbled upon other scientists’ electrical experiments. He quickly turned his home into a little laboratory, much to wife Deborah’s chagrin, using machines made out of items he found around the house. During one experiment, Ben accidentally shocked himself. In one of his letters, he described the shock as “…a universal blow throughout my whole body from head to foot, which seemed within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick shaking of my body…” (He also had a feeling of numbness in his arms and the back of his neck which gradually wore off.)
Franklin spent the summer of 1747 conducting a series of groundbreaking experiments with electricity. He wrote down all of his results and ideas for future experiments in letters to Peter Collinson, a fellow scientist and friend in London who was interested in publishing Ben’s work.
By July of 1747, Ben used the terms positive and negative (plus and minus, or + and -) to describe the positive and negative electrical charges, instead of the previously used words “vitreous” and “resinous” used in describing liquids; lightning at the time was universally believed to have been a fluid—electric fluid. Franklin described the concept of an electrical storage battery in a letter to Collinson in the spring of 1749, but he wasn’t sure how it could be useful. Later the same year, he explained what he believed were similarities between electricity and lightning, such as the color of the light, its crooked direction, crackling noise, a distinct smell now known to be ozone, and other things. There were other scientists who believed that lightning was electricity, but Franklin was determined to find a method of proving it.
By 1750, in addition to wanting to prove that lightning was electricity, Franklin began to think about protecting people, buildings, and other structures from lightning. This grew into his idea for the lightning rod. Franklin described an iron rod about 8 or 10 feet long that was sharpened to a point at the end.
Ben wrote, “the electrical fire would, I think, be drawn out of a cloud silently before it could come near enough to strike…”
Two years later, Franklin decided to try his own lightning kite experiment. Surprisingly, he never wrote letters about the legendary kite experiment, and only one article which appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in October 1752; the British scientist Joseph Priestly wrote the only other account fifteen years after it took place.
To recap from the previous LOOKING BACK column: in June of 1752, Franklin was living in Philadelphia and waiting for the steeple on top of Christ Church to be completed so he could conduct his lightning experiment (the steeple would act as the “lightning rod”). He grew impatient and decided that a kite would be able to get close to the storm clouds just as well. Ben needed to determine what he would use to attract an electrical charge; he decided on a metal house key and attached it to the kite. Then he tied the kite string to an insulating silk ribbon for the knuckles of his hand. Even though this was a very dangerous experiment, (you can see what the lightning rod in the photograph looks like after being struck), some people believe that Ben wasn’t injured because he didn’t conduct his test during the worst part of the storm. At the first sign of the key receiving an electrical charge from the air, Franklin knew that lightning was a form of electricity and not a fluid. His son William was the only witness to the event.
Two years before the kite and key experiment, in 1750, Ben had observed that a sharp iron needle would conduct electricity away from a charged metal sphere. He first theorized that a lightning strike might be preventable by using an elevated iron rod connected to earth to empty static electricity from a cloud. Franklin articulated these thoughts as he pondered the usefulness of a lightning rod:
“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 began to advocate lightning rods with sharp points. Conversely, his English colleagues favored blunt-tipped lightning rods, reasoning that sharp ones attracted lightning and increased the risk of strikes; they thought blunt rods were less likely to be struck. King George III had his palace equipped with blunt lightning rods. When it came time to protect the buildings in the English American colonies’ buildings with lightning rods, the decision became a political statement. The pointed lightning rod expressed support for Franklin’s theories of protecting public buildings and the rejection of theories of blunt iron rods supported by the King. The English thought this was just another example of the flourishing American colonies being disobedient to the British crown.
Franklin’s lightning rods could soon be found protecting many buildings and homes. This BRI journalist’s note: My two-story home near Amissville, constructed in 1999, is built upon the highest point of my property, and with a metal roof, the contractor thought it wise to have lightning rods installed. There are four of them, with dark green glass globes, placed on the ridge of the pitched roof, and a fifth pointed rod mounted on the chimney.
All of the pointed lightning rods are connected to a large-diameter stranded copper wire which is attached to a copper grounding rod buried deep in the ground in the front of my house. Knock on wood, in the past twenty years, my home has not been struck by lightning.
The lightning rod constructed on the dome of the State House in Maryland was the largest “Franklin” lightning rod ever attached to a public or private building in Ben’s lifetime.
It was built in accord with Ben’s recommendations, and in the more than two hundred plus years ever since, has had only one recorded instance of a lightning strike:
Three years ago today, July 1st, 2016: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the Maryland State House in Annapolis was saved from a lightning strike “by a 208-year-old original Ben Franklin lightning rod.”
The nation’s oldest State House was hit by lightning Friday evening [July 1st], triggering a sprinkler system in its historic dome. Fire officials said there was no smoke or fire in the building, no damages, and no one was injured.
The governor said that the lightning rod on the dome “was constructed and grounded to Franklin’s exact specifications.” He said at the time it was added to the building, it served as “a powerful symbol of the independence and ingenuity of our young nation.”
The pointed lightning rod placed on the Maryland State House and other buildings also is a symbol of the intellect and the inventiveness of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of our country, and the inventor of the miraculous lightning rod.
9/11: a personal memoir
(Author’s note: this commentary was written on Sept. 11 and 12, 2001, as events transpired. It has since been reprinted in various edits, in various years on the anniversary of those 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Today, September 11, 2021, 20 years on from that horrific day, let us pause and remember, not only those who died and those they left behind, but the specific example of those first responders who walked into danger to offer a helping hand to those trapped inside the twisted wreckage of hatred delivered to NYC, but did not walk out. For it is their example and sacrifice on that day that points humanity toward a better future where 9/11’s and Kabul Airport bombings are a part of our past, rather than the expectation for our collective future.)
September 11, 2001: The faint ring of a telephone stirred me from a restless sleep. I grudgingly opened my eyes and realized that it was fairly early in the morning on Tuesday, a weekend for me in my current employment cycle … I stumbled into my adjacent office and without my glasses tried to make out the caller ID through a sleep-encrusted blur. I lift the receiver.
“Turn on your television!” my friend Dewey’s voice commanded excitedly. “We were watching one of the World Trade Center buildings burning after a plane ran into it about 15 minutes ago and another one just flew into the other building!”
“When?” – Reality and dreams seemed to be mixing though I thought I was awake.
“Now!!! A second ago,” Dewey said & I knew this was not a “Jerky Boys” prank phone call. I hung up the phone without responding. I understood as my mind snapped to, that the information was presented not for discussion, but for action. I was at my complex of three televisions at the far end of my third-floor loft apartment over the Main Street Mill that was so reminiscent to me of the fifth-floor walkup loft I had sublet for a year 11 blocks north of the World Trade Center some 20 years earlier. I hit the “on” button on the smallest of the three, the old 13-inch that I had gotten from my mom. It sat several feet from my living area couch and was my preferred home-alone viewing screen. Perhaps its size helped me maintain the illusion that I wasn’t really addicted to it.
The crystal-sharp satellite picture quickly appeared, I picked up the remote and punched in 970, the satellite channel for the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. As a child, it would, as likely as not, have been the morning news station I would be watching as I got ready for school and my parents prepared for their respective federal government jobs in D.C. and Rosslyn, Virginia.
There they were, the twin towers gleaming on a bright September morning against a cloudless, bright, blue sky – except for the huge plumes of black smoke pouring from the top 20 or so floors of both buildings. I flashed on the old ’70s movie “Towering Inferno”. How did that movie I’d never seen more than about 10 minutes of at a time end?!? How many were saved? How long did it take to finally – just burn out?
Bryant Gumble’s calm TV voice hypnotically recited the facts as known at – I flicked the info button to see the time, 9:07 a.m.
“Two planes … believed to be a 737 and a 767 … 18 minutes apart … North Tower first, then the South Tower … Not known if intent or accidents … Here it is. Watch to the right of your screen and you’ll see the second plane as it approaches and plows into the South Tower.”
Oh man, that wasn’t an accident!! There was malevolent intent apparent the first time I saw it. That building was a target. But can’t alarm the public with unsubstantiated theories – public, I have public there!!!
I raced back to my office for the phone. Stuart and Annie Lee, my friends since college days in Richmond, Virginia, at old VCU, the urban university; Stuart and Annie, whom I sublet that Lower Manhattan loft from in 1979-80, when I had my New York state of mind experience, still lived in that five-story walkup, 11 blocks from the World Trade Center.
Two-one-two, two-zero-two, NYC/DC, I always transpose those area codes in my head. I focus and dial two-one-two … The line picks up on the second ring. It is Annie’s voice, “Hello” – she seems breathless.
“Annie, what the hell is going on up there,” I blurt out not letting on how relieved I am to hear her voice.
“I don’t know but it’s pretty bizarre,” she replied.
We used to joke about whether the North Tower, the closest one to their loft, would fall on their building if it tipped over on its side northbound. It seemed that close, those big rectangles looming out of the back loft windows and over the rooftop deck Stuart had built. That was after their 1977 wedding in Charleston, South Carolina, Annie’s home turf. I glanced at the time on the caller ID. It was 9:11 a.m. – REALLY?!? I thought without verbalizing it.
“I just saw a tape of the second plane hitting the second building,” I said.
Annie hesitated, then said, “Roger, I was down there when they exploded.”
I was stunned. She had been closer than her home, at 9 in the morning. Was she nuts? What was Annie, an artist, a sculptor doing in the financial district at 8:45 in the morning? I must have verbalized the question as well as thought it.
“I was at the fish market they have in the parking lot on the east side of the Trade Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays (that’s an acceptable reason, I thought). We heard a plane and we all ducked. We knew it didn’t belong there so low over the city. Then the building exploded and we had to run under this building overhang to get away from all the burning debris that was coming down after the explosion. After the second explosion I thought I better get out of there and I went to look for my bike, which was on the Trade Center side. Luckily it was OK and I just came in the door when you called.
“You said the plane HIT the building?” she trailed off, apparently just making the connection between the low-flying plane that had caused those at the fish market to duck reflexively and the first explosion. “I didn’t, we didn’t – Listen Roger, I don’t mean to cut you off but I want to clear the line for my mom. I know she’s going to try and call or I should call her before the lines get clogged up.”
“OK, sure. Where’s Stuart,” I wanted to make sure the calm in her voice included knowledge of Stuart’s whereabouts before we disconnected.
“Good. You all take care and stay in touch.” I hung up.
They were OK.
That she was down there in physical jeopardy had jolted me …
I was back at the TV. I plopped on the couch. It was 9:15. It was like I was hypnotized, the emotional trauma of world-changing events perceived at an almost subconscious level. In a weird way it was like 1963 and 1968. But no, it was 2001 – the real first year of not only a new century but a new millennium; 2001, much bigger deal than 1901; none like it since 1001 – a thousand-year bookmark on the pages of history. So, I channel surf throughout the morning of September 11, 2001.
The World Trade Center, the Pentagon are in flames!! All air traffic to the U.S. being diverted and all planes in the states being brought down. – How?
“A plane down in the woods of western Pennsylvania – Camp David may have been the target” is theorized on the air.
BUT THEN – a huge plume of smoke in lower Manhattan. What the …?!?!
Is there only one building there?
In a panic I look for competent reporting and a familiar voice. CNBC broadcasts from lower Manhattan, competent, who knows; familiar and boots on the ground, yes.
“One of the two World Trade Center towers has collapsed,” a camera shot from across the Hudson River – lower Manhattan looks like it is on fire – back to NWI (News World International) – they had the live feed from a New York City ABC affiliate earlier with a poor guy on the phone who was trapped on the 85th floor because the fire doors had locked up – which building was he in? Is he dead? He said things were under control and stabilizing and he was giving directions to where he and one other person were trapped with windows blown out – the firemen must have been going up …
Watching NWI with their main Canadian affiliate as … the … second tower … collapses from the top down – “Oh my God. Oh my God” the on-air voice repeats calm but distraught – how is that even possible? – as off camera, yelling and screaming with no pretense of calm maintained as the North Tower joins its sibling on the ground … where am I?!!? Two 110-story buildings … gone …
I watch lower Manhattan from across the Hudson River again. It is totally enshrouded in smoke. Are people suffocating in that? Could you breathe in there?
Again try Stuart and Annie. Nothing …
Then tears came and I sobbed with worry for my friends and for my old neighborhood; for 50,000 or 5,000 people, I didn’t know; for two buildings that had stood like a magical, surrealistic backdrop to an already magical skyline for a quarter of a century or more; for the firemen and the cops who went in there trying to get trapped people out … It’s just enormously, monumentally tragic and screwed up and I don’t feel bad about crying …
That it has come to this is tragic in more than the obvious ways. – Things will never be the same. A dark thought flashes into my consciousness – is that what it is really all about?
As the day progresses I follow the pending collapse of adjacent buildings, watch ghost-like, dust-covered people stumble, walk calmly with their briefcases or run from the rubble and spreading, spewing cloud that covers lower Manhattan.
As the skies over America clear of all air traffic for the first time in the age of air travel, an age that has existed all of my life, I wonder how the next attack will come, who will bring it and why …
As the day progressed into night, lower Manhattan took on an eerie look as powerful spotlights bracketed debris and the continually rising cloud of smoke from fires burning deep within the rubble of 220 stories, estimated at 1.2 million tons of debris that will take a year to clear …
Who knows how long it will take my mind – or anyone’s – to assimilate what has happened.
By Roger Bianchini
Sept. 11-12, 2001
The Year Without A Summer : “Eighteen Hundred & Froze To Death”
The year 1816 was known as “ The Year Without a Summer” in New England because six inches of snow fell in June, and every month of that year had a hard frost.
Temperatures dropped to as low as 40 degrees F. in July and August as far south as Connecticut. People also called it “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death” and the “Poverty Year.”
The Year Without A Summer had a far-reaching impact. Crop failures caused hoarding and big price increases for agricultural commodities. People went hungry. Farmers gave up trying to make a living in New England and started heading west. Politicians who ignored the melancholy plight of their constituents found themselves voted out of office.
Most scientists agree that what most likely caused the bizarre weather in The Year Without a Summer was the monumental explosive eruption of the volcano Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815, the year before. Said to be the loudest explosion in recorded history—even slightly surpassing that of Krakatoa in August 1883— the volcano put out such a volume of dust, ash, and chemical cloud high into the atmosphere that it lowered worldwide temperatures by half a degree; while that may not seem much, the global cooling was responsible in the U.S., for frosts and cold weather which ravaged the New England growing season, prompting cries of a “year without a summer”, and migration into western territories and states. Plunging temperatures also broke the monsoon cycle in Asia, sending India into famine and triggering a cholera epidemic of unprecedented severity.
The dust and ash clouds in the high atmosphere also produced some of the most spectacular sunsets ever witnessed, with most of them of green or violet hues. There were warm days in the spring of 1816, but they were followed by cold snaps. In Salem, Mass., for example, it was 74 degrees F. on the 24th of April. Within 30 hours the temperature dropped to 21 degrees F.
Thomas Robbins, the East Windsor, Conn., bibliophile, noticed the late spring of 1816. He wrote in his diary, “the vegetation does not seem to advance at all.”
On the 12th of May, strong winds and freezing temperatures from Canada killed the buds on fruit trees. Inch-thick ice formed on ponds and streams from Maine to upstate New York. By the end of May, corn plants froze in central Maine.
Then, on the 6th of June 1816, six inches of snow fell on New England. Clockmaker Chauncey Jerome of Plymouth, Conn., wrote in his autobiography that he walked to work that day wearing heavy woolen clothes, an overcoat, and mittens.
Snow flurries fell in Boston the next day, the latest ever recorded. The snow was 18 inches deep in Cabot, Vt., on the 8th of June. Three days later, on the 11th of June, a temperature of 30.5 degrees F. was recorded in Williamstown, Mass. Frozen birds dropped dead in the fields; in Vermont, some farmers who had already shorn their sheep tried to tie their fleeces back on, but many froze to death anyway.
Benjamin Harwood, a Bennington, Vt., farmer, wrote in his diary for the 11th of June that “…it rained all night, then it began to snow from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The tops of all the mountains on every side were crowned with snow. The most gloomy and extraordinary weather ever seen.”
And then it got warm again.
Temperatures seesawed up and down throughout the Year Without a Summer, bringing hope on warm days that the crops could be harvested after all. Then sharp cold spells brought new despair. On the 22nd of June, for example, temperatures reached 101 degrees F. in Salem, Mass. But the 4th of July was quite cool. Our Plymouth, Conn., clockmaker observer Chauncey Jerome noted in his autobiography that it was hard to feel patriotic while watching men play quoits in overcoats. Then a northwest wind brought a three-day cold spell, with 30-degree cold temperatures in northern New England, and 40 degrees F. in Hartford and New Haven.
The frost destroyed the bean crop in Franconia, N.H., and bean, cucumber, and squash crops in Kennebunkport, Maine. Young plants grew so slowly they were vulnerable to frost, and farmers harvested so little hay they had to either slaughter their livestock or feed them oats and corn. As depressing as the second severe cold spell was, the drought which enveloped most of the United States, including New England, seemed worse. “I never saw our streets so dry,” complained a minister in East Windsor, Conn.
Gov. William Jones of Rhode Island issued a proclamation designating a day of public ‘Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving,’ noting the “coldness and dryness of the seasons” and the “alarming sickness.” In New Hampshire, Gov. William Plumer believed the weather was divine Providence’s judgment in the earth and urged people to humble themselves for their transgressions. Fears of famine began to grow during the Year Without a Summer.
He blamed God for the Year Without a Summer.
Early August was sunny and warm. Farmers planted new crops, hoping the growing season might last beyond the first frost in October. But on the 13th and 14th of August, a cold spell froze the corn crop on farms north of Concord, N.H.
Less than a week later, on the 20th of August, at Amherst, N. H., a short but violent storm struck, signaling a steep drop in temperature of 30 degrees within a few hours. It snowed that day in Vermont; in Maine, farmers wrapped rags around their plants to protect them.
In some of the New England states, at least the wheat, rye, and potatoes were holding up, staving off famine. In Ashland, N.H., Reuben Whitten was able to grow wheat on his south-facing farm. He shared what he had with his neighbors. After he died thirty years later, in 1847, his neighbors paid for his gravestone and later erected a monument that read, in the spelling of the local stonecutter :
“A pioneer of this town. Cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushils of wheat on this land whitch kept his family and his neighbours from starveation.”
Hopes of salvaging what remained of the corn crop were dashed by another severe frost on the 28th of August. In Maine and New Hampshire, farmers cut-up whole fields of corn for cattle and horse fodder. Writing in his diary in Kittery, Maine, Rev. William Fogg summed up the Year Without a Summer: “Crops cut short and a heavy load of taxes.”
There were reports of people eating raccoons, mackerel, and pigeons.
As is usual in early Autumn in New England, the days warmed up again in September, but then at sunrise on the 26th of September in Hanover, N.H., thermometers read 26 degrees F. Snow fell throughout the region, followed by a killing frost which froze crops in the field and apples on the branch. As if this was not enough, the drought caused wildfires to break out in the woods throughout New England. Fires in western New York produced so much smoke that sailors were blinded on Lake Champlain.
The Year Without a Summer was especially hard on the poor. The New Hampshire Patriot reported on the 22nd of October 1816: “Indian corn, on which a large proportion of the poor depends, is cut off.” Vermont farmers lost much of their livestock, and Vermonters foraged for food such as nettles, wild turnips, and hedgehogs.
Three-quarters of the corn crop throughout New England was lost during Eighteen Hundred & Froze To Death. Prices soared for wheat, grains, meat, vegetables, butter, milk, and flour. In Maine, the price of oats tripled and potatoes doubled. Hay was $180 a ton in parts of New Hampshire—six times its usual cost.
New England was not the only region afflicted by global cooling. 1816 brought cold and widespread famines in Europe as well. The bad weather in Switzerland forced a group of poets of a literary club to remain in their rooms. In a friendly competition among the writers, the group held a contest to see who could write the best piece. Perhaps reflecting on the atmospheric conditions and the boredom they brought, Mary Shelley wrote her tale of Frankenstein.
At least the Year Without a Summer had been good for producing maple syrup in Vermont, and Vermonters traded syrup for fish, which is why they called 1816 the “Mackerel Year.”
In Washington, Members of Congress seemed insensitive to the suffering of the people they were elected to represent and voted to double their own salaries. It did not go over well. Nearly 70 percent of the incumbent U.S. representatives were voted out of office in the next elections. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was one of them.
Daniel Webster lost his bid for re-election during the Year Without a Summer.
In 1817, after the Year Without a Summer was history, Josiah Meigs, commissioner-general of the Land Offices, began a more systematic approach to observing weather phenomena. He ordered the twenty Land Offices under his authority to take thrice-daily recordings of the temperature, winds, and precipitation. Author Samuel Goodrich visited New Hampshire, observing:
Samuel Goodrich described the despair that seized people during the Year Without a Summer.
“At last a kind of despair seized upon the people. In the pressure of adversity, many persons lost their judgment, and thousands feared or felt that New England was destined, henceforth, to become part of the frigid zone.” Indeed, 1817 started out cold as well, convincing Northeast farmers it was time to migrate to the Midwest.
Rev. Samuel Robbins in East Windsor, Conn., wrote, “We have had a great deal of movings this spring. Our number rather diminished here.”
At the time, many reasons were given for the weird weather phenomena: sunspots, deforestations, great fields of ice floating in the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod experiments (more than fifty years before), and, of course, the wrath of God.
As we now know, the Year Without a Summer was most likely caused by the massive volcanic explosion on Mt. Tambora in April 1815, killing 15,000 instantly, and, as time went on, another 65,000 perishing of disease and starvation.