Fortean Times, September 2004
Bolt of Fate: Benjamin
Franklin and his electric kite hoax
Sutton Publishing, 2004
Hb, xx+297pp, illus, notes, bibl, index, ISBN 0 7509 3680 0
In the middle decades of the 18th century, electricity was quite the craze. The latest technology, in the shape of Leyden jars and friction machines, was the dernier cri in the stylish circles of London and Paris, powering experiments in everything from electrotherapeutic healing to weirdly erotic parlour games. Gentleman philosophers meanwhile implicated electricity in phenomena from spontaneous combustion to human reproduction.
But the defining image of the age is set not in the salons of Europe, but in a field in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin, later to become one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, flies a kite in a thunderstorm, harnessing the very power of the lightning through a key suspended from the kite's string. Reports of the experiment helped make Franklin a near-legendary figure on both sides of the Atlantic, a status which helped him secure the French king's support for the nascent American Revolution a quarter century later.
It's an extraordinarily powerful image: Franklin as Prometheus, stealing fire from the heavens for the New World; the sparking key unlocking the Age of Reason. Except, as author Tom Tucker sets out, the kite experiment almost certainly never happened.
Franklin was famously a man of many parts, but one of his neglected traits was that he was an enthusiastic hoaxer. As a young printer launching his own almanac, he used a fictional persona to engineer a feud with a rival publisher, the resulting controversy making his almanac a best seller. Throughout his life, he fabricated or published an array of often pseudonymous tracts and letters designed to make mock or stir trouble, often with a political agenda.
The claim of the kite experiment came in 1752, after Franklin had tried and failed to win acceptance in London's philosophical circles. His first account of the experiment, in contrast to his verifiable scientific writings, is extremely vague in the details of exactly where, when and how it took place. And as well as being remarkably dangerous, the experiment as it was described simply wouldn't work.
Tucker provides a thorough debunking of the myth in this very enjoyable book, which also contains a wealth of background on the science and society of the age. Its core argument might be more provocative to American readers, who are apparently ingrained with the tale of Franklin's bravura genius, but even us cynics in the Old World should find this a highly stimulating read. If the style is overly florid in some parts, the book often crackles with the inquiring and even revolutionary spirit of the times. And even with his bullshitting, Franklin emerges as a truly remarkable character a master of spin as much as science.