What looks like a stream of light between the ground and the clouds, and sometimes inside of clouds. It is followed by thunder, a loud noise.
Lightning can be very frightening, to the point that psychologists have invented a word for the fear of it: “astraphobia”. Lightning can also be dangerous. Lightning can injure and even kill, it can split trees, it can damage buildings, and it can start fires. It can also damage electrical components, and knock out electricity-distribution systems.
Not surprisingly, many people have considered it a weapon wielded by some deity, and sometimes even a deity itself. Wikipedia has a big list of lightning and thunder gods. The Greek god Zeus is well-known for throwing lightning, and the Germanic god Thor makes lightning with his hammer. We also find in Psalm 18:14 that the God of the Bible also throws lightning. Looking away from western Eurasia, some North American First Nations people considered it the flapping of a supernatural bird, the Thunderbird.
But something changed. What was it?
In early modern Europe and its colonies, it was widely believed that either God throws lightning or else some aerial devil does so. But a big target of lightning was churches, especially their bell towers. This caused a rather serious theological conundrum. Why would God strike his houses of worship, or else let some demon do that?
It was also widely believed that a good way to repel lightning was to ring church bells. But that got many bell-ringers killed by lightning. Andrew Dickson White in his book The Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1898) has the story in his book’s Chapter XI: “From ‘The Prince of the Power of the Air’ To Meteorology.”
In 1798, German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote the poem Song of the Bell (Some broader context at this Schiller site; also at bartleby.com). The poem describes preindustrial manufacture of bells by casting them on-site, interspersing it with broader observations on our lives. His poem starts with
Vivos voco. Mortuos plango. Fulgura frango.
I call the living. I mourn the dead. I break the lightning.
But we no longer try to break lightning by ringing bells.
The story of that starts with Thales of Miletus (~624 BCE – ~546 BCE). He was the first in the Western philosophical and scientific tradition, and it’s hard to tell fact from fiction about him. But he apparently tried to explain the world around us without invoking the whims of deities or demons, and he apparently also described static electricity. But it was over 2000 years until we had further progress on that front.
In 1600, English scientist William Gilbert published his book De Magnete, describing his experiments with static electricity and magnetism. He used amber a lot in his static-electricity experiments, so he named that effect using the Greek word for amber, elektron, making electricity the amber effect. Likewise, he named magnetism after the Greek town of Magnesia, where lodestones, magnetic rocks, can be found. Thus making magnetism the Magnesia effect.
Advancing forward a century and a half, we find Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), an all-around Renaissance man. He was a newspaper publisher, an activist, a politician, a diplomat, a scientist, and an inventor. He was one of the United States’s Founding Fathers, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and he was also involved with founding the University of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, his hometown, there is a science museum, the Franklin Institute, complete with a big statue of him.
He worked on the amber effect, static electricity, and he clarified some of its behavior. Charles François de Cisternay DuFay had shown that there are two kinds of “electrical fluids”, vitreous (produced with glass), and resinous (produced with resins). Benjamin Franklin discovered that they can cancel each other out, and he called vitreous positive and resinous negative. It turns out to be a misidentification of the electric charge of the particles eventually discovered to carry electric currents, but Franklin could not have known about it.
He also came to suspect that lightning was a giant electric spark, and in 1750, he published a proposal to test that hypothesis by flying a kite in a thunderstorm. We don’t know for sure whether he did that experiment in the summer of 1752, but if he did, he was careful to do so while keeping dry and being under a roof, in order to avoid completing an electric circuit. Some others tried that experiment, but got electrocuted.
Having become convinced that lightning is an electric spark, he thought of ways to protect against it. Over his life, he invented several useful inventions, like bifocal glasses (upper lens: long focus for distant objects, lower lens: short focus for reading), the Franklin stove (designed for improved air circulation around it), and others. He recognized that electricity most easily flows through metals, and if lightning was a form of electricity, then it could travel though metals. So he came up with the lightning rod, a metal rod extending from the ground upward to higher than a building’s highest point. A lightning rod would attract lightning, protecting the building. Franklin experimented with lightning rods, first on his house, and then on various buildings.
Isaac Asimov in his essay “The Fateful Lightning” (The Stars in their Courses) suggests that this was a clear sign that theoretical science could have great practical benefits, and that it could outdo religion there.
But it took some years for this “heretical rod” to become widely accepted for protecting churches, even those that continued to get damaged by lightning strikes. The most extreme case was at the Church of San Nazaro in Brescia, Italy in 1767. The Republic of Venice had stored a hundred tons of gunpowder in it, and when its tower was struck by lightning, then … BOOM!!! About 1/6 of Brescia was destroyed and 3,000 people killed. Pre-Andrew-Dickson-White source: The Edinburgh review, Volume 80 – Google Books (1844).
Some theologians had a rather curious response to lightning rods. When Boston suffered an earthquake in 1755, Rev. Thomas Prince of Old South Church in Boston said about it that it was likely due to the “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” He continued that “in Boston are more erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.” (Rev. Prince vs. Prof. Winthrop) So God got frustrated by being thwarted by lightning rods and decided to send an earthquake instead. Professor John Winthrop of Harvard University responded that Rev. Prince’s claims are just plain silly, and he argued elsewhere that protecting against lightning was no morally different than protecting against any other sort of bad weather.
Numerous electrical and electronic components and systems have been used for well over a century, and they provide plenty of evidence of the electrical nature of lightning. Evidence in the form of damage from lightning-caused electrical surges, and also in the means for protecting against such surges.
I will close with a bit from a George-Adamski-inspired story that I’ve written, “Contact across the Solar System” (online at Wattpad and at Fictionpad):
Spring turned into summer, and with it came thunderstorms. On an afternoon when they were both home, there was a big one. Kalna was rather scared of its lightning and thunder but Ilmuth was curious enough to watch it. Kalna noticed Ilmuth’s seeming fearlessness and Kalna cautiously stepped forward to join Ilmuth. Ilmuth telepathically sensed Kalna’s fearfulness and put out a hand. Kalna grasped it and went to Ilmuth’s side. Ilmuth put an arm around Kalna and Kalna did likewise with Ilmuth. The two watched the storm together, sitting on a porch, wearing thrift-shop summer dresses and sandals.