Most Illustrations of Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia Kite Experiment Filled with Historical Inaccuracies

Ben Franklin's kite experiment.
Image via iStock.

Most of the illustrations of Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment on the outskirts of Philadelphia are riddled with historical inaccuracies, writes Jennifer Ouellette for Ars Technica.

According to a new report published in the journal Science and Education, those images are heavily influenced by Joseph Priestley’s 1767 account of the event, which is likely not the most accurate source.

According to a letter written by Franklin to a friend in October of 1752, the same year he did the experiment, which was reproduced in The Philadelphia Gazette, Franklin built an “X” shaped kite using two strips of cedar nailed together.

A large silk handkerchief formed the body as silk could withstand the wet and wind of a thunderstorm. The wire at the top of the kite served as a makeshift lightning rod while the hemp string provided conductivity. He also attached a key to the string.

Then, anticipating a thunderstorm in June 1752, he stood under a shed roof ensure a dry portion of the silk remained nonconductive. After a while, he pressed his knuckle to the key and received an electric spark, which proved that lightning was actually static electricity.

Despite popular opinion, he was not struck by lightning. If he had been, he most likely would have died. Instead the spark proved that the kite was in a strong electric field.

Read more about Ben Franklin’s kite experiment in Ars Technica.


You’ve probably heard of Ben Franklin and the kite. But do you know the TRUE story of how his famous experiment changed the world? Here’s the tale of how one person’s quest for scientific knowledge altered the direction of history.

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