What Really Happened: Benjamin Franklin's Kite Experiment

The Authorea Team

Ben Franklin, his kite, and lighting.  Likely, you've seen or heard about Ben Franklin's Kite experiment somewhere--a stamp, a textbook, or a popular science magazine. It's nearly as famous as the apple that fell on Sir Isaac Newton's head, but did he really conduct the experiment?  If so, was he the first? The first report of extracting energy from lightning was published in May 1752 from Thomas Dailbard and his group in France.  They used a forty foot tall iron structure, not a kite.  A few months later Jacques De Roma, described his proposal to use "a child's toy" to test if electricity could be captured from the clouds.  It was not until August of that year that Franklin published his own description. Although typically a man of detail, Franklin wrote how one could use a kite to capture electricity from the clouds during a storm. He described how easy it would be to conduct the experiment, as if to convince readers to try.  In fact, a few months after his publication he published a call to his readers for their own experiences with different materials, maybe the first example of #citizenscience?
Critics of Franklin's news story called for a more accurate reporting of experiments beyond that of a news story. De Romas published a detailed account of his experiments with kites and electricity in 1753, down to exact measurement of string (or copper wire) used.  Despite this, De Romas was forced to argue his case to the Paris Academy of Sciences that he was the first to conduct the experiment.  In 1764, a committee declared him to be the first to conduct the experiment.   This finding was only to be muddled by another account by Josephy Priestly.  Priestly described (and dated) Franklin's experiments back to 1952 and even described Franklin's son as the one holding the kite.
Ultimately, although Franklin reaps all the credit, who flew the kite in the storm first is not as clear as night and day. In fact, it may even have been Franklin's son! #BestDadAward