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The Year Without A Summer : “Eighteen Hundred & Froze To Death”

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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.

Chauncey Jerome

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.

William Plumer

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

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

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.

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Looking Back

Ben Franklin and his miraculous lightning rod

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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!”

Dr. Benjamin Franklin: “I like it.”

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.

Franklin’s original pointed lightning rod, after being struck by lightning during his experiments. Courtesy The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.

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.

The very first photograph of lightning, by William N. Jennings. Courtesy George Eastman Museum, Rochester, N.Y.

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.”

Ben Franklin’s original design for structural lightning protection.
Courtesy The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.

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.

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