Mastery, Mystery and MYTHS of Lightning
Science investigates the Known, the Unknown, and
Unknowable. Today, lightning research is divided into various
disciplines, some of which are:
- Atmospheric Physics and Electrostatics.
- Electrical Engineering.
- Climatology, including thunderstorm morphology &
- Meteorology and other sub-sectors.
These detailed technical examinations may never provide all
the answers about lightning, but modern investigation
techniques are busy providing new information.
There was another earlier time when lightning was the magic
fire from the sky which man captured and used to keep warm at
night . It kept the savage animals away. As primitive man
sought answers about the natural world, lightning became a
part of his superstitions, his myths and his early
Early Greeks believed that lightning was a weapon of Zeus.
Thunderbolts were invented by Minerva the goddess of wisdom.
Since lightning was a manifestation of the gods, any spot
struck by lightning was regarded as sacred. Greek and Roman
temples often were erected at these sites, where the gods were
worshipped in an attempt to appease them. The Moslems also
attributed lightning and thunder to their god. The Koran says
"He it is who showeth you lightning and launches the
Scandinavian mythology alludes to Thor, the thunderer, who
was the foe of all demons. Thor tossed lightning bolts at his
enemies. Thor also gave us Thurs-day.
In the pantheistic Hindu religion, Indra was the god of
heaven, lightning, rain, storms and thunder. The Maruts used
the thunderbolts as weapons. Umpundulo is the lightning
bird-god of the Bantu tribesmen in Africa. Even today their
medicine men go out in storms and bid the lightning to strike
The Navajo Indians hold that lightning has great power in
their healing rituals. Sand paintings show the lightning bolt
as a wink in the Thunderbird's eye. Lightning is associated
with wind, rain and crop growth.
As late as the early 1800s in Russia, when rain was wanted,
three men climbed a tree. One would knock two firebrands
together; the sparks imitating lightning. Another one would
pour water over twigs, imitating rain. A third would bang on a
kettle to attract the thunder. And throughout early Europe,
church bell ringers would make as much noise as possible,
hoping to scare away the storms from these holy dwellings
which were struck frequently by lightning.
Even Santa Klaus gets into the act with his reindeer Donner
(thunder) and Blitzen (lightning).
Early superstitions were observed as Cause and Effect,
which now has been fancified as science. Socrates said,
"that's not Zeus up there, it's a vortex of air." Ghengis Kahn
forbade his subjects from washing garments or bathing in
running water during a storm. Thales, the Greek philosopher,
in 600 BC, rubbed a piece of amber with a dry cloth and noted
that it would then attract feathers and straw. William
Gilbert, court healer to Queen Elizabeth, in the late 1500s,
also used amber to duplicate the earlier experiments. He named
this via electrica, after electra which is Greek
for amber. He didn't know it, but he was demonstrating static
Lightning is a big spark...static electricity on a giant
scale. Machines for creating static electricity were
invented...the Leyden jar was like a thermos bottle which
stored volts. Friction machines could charge the jars and
electricity could be carried around and demonstrated.
"Electric magic" was in great demand at the royal courts of
Europe as entertainment. The parlor tricks amused and
Science was in its infancy during these times. Sir Isaac
Newton had proposed that basic mathematical laws were the
foundation for understanding the forces of nature. With
"electric magic" there was insufficient experimental
investigation to explain its behavior. In 1746, Dr. Spence
from Scotland came to Philadelphia. He there demonstrated some
"electric magic" to an audience which included the local
That man was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was curiosity
personified. At age eight he left the Boston Grammar School,
ending his formal studies. He was endowed with a strong sense
of investigation and self-discipline. He learned and studied
things all his life. He invented the bifocal glasses and the
Franklin stove. An expert swimmer, a vegetarian,
multi-lingual, and a word-smith publisher, his Poor Richard's
Almanac was selling 10,000 copies a year in the colonies. Even
today some of those aphorisms about thrift and hard work are
valuable to recall:
Honesty is the best policy.
He who drinketh fast,
Sloth maketh all things difficult, but
Industry all easy.
At age 42, Franklin sold his Philadelphia printing business
for half the profits for 20 years. He retired. He involved
himself in social experiments like the American Revolutionary
War and the Declaration of Independence. He dabbled with the
electric Leyden Jar and pondered questions..."how many small
jars would kill a chicken? How many large jars for a turkey?
Why did an electrocuted turkey taste better than a
conventionally-killed bird? What is lightning? Why is it
burning down churches? Can it be captured to a Leyden jar? Can
it be captured to earth safely?..." Then came the kites and
keys experiments in 1752-53 and Franklin's deduction that
lightning was, afterall, electricity.
This was followed by his lightning rod invention and its
duplication in France and usefulness throughout Europe.
Franklin was a celebrated figure in his time. Franklin has
been called America's patron saint of common sense. Perhaps,
had he not been close to the French Royal Court, and been able
to influence France to finance the American Revolutionary War,
all of us here in the USA today might be speaking with English
Recently some scientists have concluded that lightning may
have played a part in the evolution of living organisms. Nobel
prize winning chemist Harold Urey proposed that the earth's
early atmosphere consisted of ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and
water vapor. One of his students, Stanley Miller, used an
electric spark to duplicate lightning and introduced it into
the chemical brew. He was careful to excluded any living
organisms from the experiment. At the end of a week, he
examined the mixture and found it contained newly-formed amino
acids, the very building blocks of protein. Did lightning play
a role in creating life itself? Science now is pushing the
envelope of lightning's secrets. More has been learned about
this transient phenomenon in the past 3-4 years than in the
preceding two hundred forty four years since Franklin's "kites
and keys" experiments. Stay tuned...
Most of the above was adapted from Viemeister, P.: 1961,
The Lightning Book, MIT Press, Cambridge MA. (Worth buying
your own copy.) See also Martin Uman's several books on
lightning from an introductory physics perspective.
This factsheet courtesy the National
Lightning Safety Institute, Louisville, CO.
303-666-8817. WWWeb =