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History and Mystery of Lightning


Lightning research is divided into various disciplines, such as:

These detailed technical examinations may never provide all the answers about lightning, but modern investigation techniques are busy providing new information.

History and Mystery

There was another, earlier time, when lightning was the magic fire from the sky which man captured and used to keep warm at night. It kept the savage animals away. As primitive man sought answers about the natural world, lightning became a part of superstitions, myths and early religions.

Early Greeks believed that lightning was a weapon of Zeus. Thunderbolts were invented by Minerva the goddess of wisdom. Since lightning was a manifestation of the gods, any spot struck by lightning was regarded as sacred. Greek and Roman temples often were erected at these sites, where the gods were worshipped in an attempt to appease them.

Scandinavian mythology alludes to Thor, the thunderer, who was the foe of all demons. Thor tossed lightning bolts at his enemies. Thor also gave us Thurs-day.

In the pantheistic Hindu religion, Indra was the god of heaven, lightning, rain, storms and thunder.

The Maruts used the thunderbolts as weapons. Umpundulo is the lightning bird-god of the Bantu tribesmen in Africa.

The Navajo Indians hold that lightning has great power in their healing rituals. Sand paintings show the lightning bolt as a wink in the Thunderbird’s eye. Lightning is associated with wind, rain and crop growth.

19th Century

As late as the early 1800s in Russia, when rain was wanted, three men climbed a tree. One would knock two firebrands together; the sparks imitating lightning. Another one would pour water over twigs, imitating rain. A third would bang on a kettle to attract the thunder.

Throughout early Europe, church bell ringers would make as much noise as possible, hoping to scare away the storms from these holy dwellings which were struck frequently by lightning.

During the Napoleonic wars, more than 220 British tall ships were damaged - not by the French, but by lightning. The solution, of course, was to install lightning rods. But since that device had been invented by a rebel colonist named Benjamin Franklin, His Majesty’s Navy steadfastly refused. It took until the 1830’s before the admiralty finally saw the light and forgot about old colonial rebellions.

Early studies

Early superstitions were observed as Cause and Effect, which now has been fancified as science. Socrates said, that’s not Zeus up there, it’s a vortex of air.

Genghis Kahn forbade his subjects from washing garments or bathing in running water during a storm.

Thales, the Greek philosopher, in 600 BC, rubbed a piece of amber with a dry cloth and noted that it would then attract feathers and straw.

William Gilbert, court healer to Queen Elizabeth, in the late 1500s, also used amber to duplicate the earlier experiments. He named this via electrica, after electra which is Greek for amber. He was demonstrating static electricity.

Lightning is a big spark of static electricity on a giant scale. Machines for creating static electricity were invented. The Leyden jar was like a thermos bottle which stored volts. Friction machines could charge the jars and electricity could be carried around and demonstrated. Electric magic was in great demand at the royal courts of Europe as entertainment. The parlor tricks amused and fascinated people.

Early science

Sir Isaac Newton had proposed that basic mathematical laws were the foundation for understanding the forces of nature. With electric magic there was insufficient experimental investigation to explain its behavior. In 1746, Dr. Spence went from Scotland to Philadelphia. There he demonstrated some electric magic to an audience which included the local postmaster, Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin’ kites and keys experiments in 1752-53 led to his deduction that lightning was, afterall, electricity. This was followed by his lightning rod invention and its duplication in France and usefulness throughout Europe.

Recent science

Scientists have concluded that lightning may have played a part in the evolution of living organisms.

Nobel prize winning chemist Harold Urey proposed that the earth’s early atmosphere consisted of ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and water vapor. One of his students, Stanley Miller, used an electric spark to duplicate lightning and introduced it into the chemical brew. He was careful to excluded any living organisms from the experiment. At the end of a week, he examined the mixture and found it contained newly-formed amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.


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