Philadelphia, June 1752
The clouds were the kind of grey that would make any quarry rock proud, as if they were so pleased to echo the earth. All the grey, all that swirling water in the sky, condensation was bound to happen sooner rather than later.
I peered out of my window, looking up at the impending storm. The sky darkened and I saw most people hurrying indoors, eager to escape the rain that would surely lash down in a few minutes. If I were most people, I too, would close the curtains and curl up beside the roaring fireplace with a cup of chocolate and a good book on physics.
Alas, I wasn’t most people. I was Benjamin Franklin.
The greatest inventor of all time. Well, according to my son, Will. I just found that I had too many ideas crammed into my small brain and smothered by a blasted powdered wig.
So when I saw those clouds darkening over Philadelphia, I decided it was the perfect time to go fly a kite. I had been waiting for an opportunity like this for quite some time now. I wanted to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning and to do so, I needed a force of nature that allowed me to use lightning.
And the one rumbling toward us like a great beast was simply magnificent. It would do quite nicely.
I hurried away from the window and grabbed my satchel sitting next to William as he quickly scribbled down the materials we had. My eldest son had inherited my love for inventing and discovering, and I looked down at him fondly.
Inside the satchel, I had my few items at the ready: a simple kite made with a large silk handkerchief, a hemp string, and a silk string. I also had a house key, a Leyden jar, which was a device we had created which could store an electrical charge for later use, and a sharp length of wire.
“Are you ready, Will?” I asked, excitement thrumming through my words. He looked up eagerly, his dark blond hair falling into his mother’s eyes.
“More than ready, Father,” he said. I inhaled deeply.
“Then let’s harness some lightning,” I declared, picking up my satchel and with Will in tow, walked out of the front door, to the chagrin of our maid, Mallory.
“Mr. Franklin!” she called desperately after us. Even though she knew how driven I was to constantly explore something new, she always had her misgivings. I waved to her over my shoulder.
“Keep supper warm, Mallory,” I called to her, the wind whipping away my words and drowning out her exasperated reply.
The rain hadn’t started yet, but the wind gusted around us as we slowly made our way down the street to the nearest field.
Originally, I had planned to conduct the experiment atop the Philadelphia church spire, but I changed my plans when I realized that I could achieve the same goal by using a kite. Will, who had a slight fear of heights, had looked immensely relieved when I burst into our lab with the revelation.
So as the thunderstorm rumbled closer overhead, we took the opportunity to walk into a field to demonstrate the sameness of the electric fluid with the matter of lightning. I, astonishing as it may have appeared, contrived to actually bring lightning from the heavens, by means of an electrical kite.
Now, I must clarify something. I did not discover electricity during this experiment—or at all, for that matter. Electrical forces had been recognized for more than a thousand years, and scientists had worked extensively with static electricity in the past. My experiment would simply demonstrate the connection between lightning and electricity.
As we walked into the field, the sky opened up as the rain started to fall. The rain came, oblivious to the life it gave. It washed the world, quenching soil and the life that depended upon it. In either warmth or coldness, sunlight or moonlight, rain comes, humble to its role.
I closed my eyes and felt the rain fall steadily onto me. Each raindrop was a kaleidoscope, and if only we could only see more closely. I wondered how it would be to stop time, to suspend this watery gift, and peek through each one. Perhaps it would be fun to sit inside those raindrops and take that gravity-propelled ride to the earth. As I imagined it I felt my inner self laughing - a little at the crazy daydream and a little at my own silliness.
I only realized the rain was cold because my skin carried the heat of my blood, because my inner fires burned strong. And as I opened my eyes and strode onwards, I felt renewed vigor coursing through me as we reach the outskirts of the field. We had built a small overhead shed for this purpose only.
We opened up the satchel, and I put together my experiment. I had constructed a simple kite and attached a wire to the top of it to act as a lightning rod. To the bottom of the kite, I attached the hemp string, and to that, I attached a silk string.
Why both? The hemp, wetted by the rain, would conduct an electrical charge quickly. The silk string kept dry as it was to be held by me in the doorway of a shed, wouldn’t.
The last piece of the puzzle was the metal key. I attached it to the hemp string.
Will and I stared down at our invention, panting slightly. We waited, just staring down at it, not quite ready to begin, yet at the same time, completely ready.
We looked at each other with bright eyes, and then with Will’s help, I got the kite aloft.
Then we waited.
The lightning took its own sweet time to come. We could see it in the distance, great networking forks that looked as if they were starlight pulsing through the graphite sky. Will and I waited, and waited until finally, the metal rod on our kite attracted attention. With a sizzling crackle, lightning struck the metal.
I stared at my invention in awe. It was as if the lightning recharged my soul while the rain cleansed, while the thunder resonated so deep in my bones.
I saw the loose threads of the hemp string standing erect, just as if they had been suspended on a common conductor. I moved my finger near the key and as the negative charges in the metal piece were attracted to the positive charges in my hand, I felt a spark.
I turned, elated to Will, who was staring at me in awe.
“Keep going, Father,” he prompted when I didn’t move. I moved as if I myself had been struck by lightning. I immediately moved my knuckle to the key and perceived a very evident electrical shock. With my hair standing on end, the smell of burnt Franklin strong in the air, and my heart stuttering to counteract the shock I had just received, I had never felt more alive.
“The Leyden jar, Will!” I shouted, the wind whipping away my words. Luckily I had raised a smart boy. He dug through the satchel and handed me the jar, into which I scooped the “electric fire” as I so aptly called it in my mind.
It seemed like an eternity, but the phenomenon only lasted a couple of minutes. I held the jar up, the white electricity arcing in a small ball within the strong poly-fiber glass.
“We have done it. Successfully proved the electricity from lightning,” I whispered in awe. As if it heard me, the wind instantly died down and the rain slowed, finally stopping. The thunderstorm rumbled as it moved on, its wrath spent for tonight.
Will and I walked back to the city, hearts light and feet heavy. Maybe it was the carelessness of an experiment that actually worked, but before we got to our house, I stopped, intent on the Leyden Jar.
“What are you doing, Father?” Will asked, backing up a little as I stared, fascinated, at the white ball of electricity.
“Oh, nothing,” I replied absentmindedly. Before I could change my mind, I twisted off the cover and-
Will and I were thrown to the ground as the electricity from the jar connected with the electricity from the storm and the electricity from the houses. We watched, stunned, as the electricity arced from one house to another, sucking the electricity out of the houses. It was a veritable blackout. And within a few seconds, as Will and I watched, dumbfounded, the entire city of Philadelphia went black.
It took a few minutes for people to realize what had happened, but they came out of their houses, the air still damp with the thunderstorm that had just moved on. We struggled to our feet, as all along my street, people turned to look up at Will and me. We were standing with the Leyden jar opened, hair still standing on end, and eyes wide with shock. The murmurs started, and I saw Mallory standing contemptuously on our front porch, arms crossed.
“Mr. Franklin?” she asked, voice carrying across the street, “Were you somehow responsible for this?” I gulped, trying to put the jar inconspicuously behind me. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose.
“Ah-apologies, everyone,” I said. People rolled their eyes. “But on the bright side, we can harness electricity through lightning!” I added, excitedly. People grumbled at me, turning to go back inside. I turned to Will with a disappointed look.
“They don’t appreciate you, Father,” he said. I sighed and nodded, pushing my glasses back up my nose. We walked down the street, the Leyden jar still sparking every so often, sending static electricity down my arm.
“They don’t. But you know what, Will? Someday our discovery will break the very foundations of the modern world.”