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Plains Folk

The Imminent Danger of Lightning

On June 5, 1886, lightning struck the Washington Monument, with alarming effect. The strike induced a crack in the stone of the north face of the pyramidal structure, near the top. Site managers did two things in response.

First, they pushed the displaced stone back flush and anchored it with bolts. Second, they reassessed and improved the lightning rod coverage for the monument. Plans for construction during the early 1880s had incorporated lightning rods, but now they were deemed inadequate. Workmen climbed up to install many more small points, which fed into copper rods running down the corners. This was in line with an emerging scientific consensus about lightning rods in the late nineteenth century.

You may be wondering why, in a feature called Plains Folk, I am nattering on about the Washington Monument. The events in Washington described above took place during the period we in Dakota Territory have labeled the First Dakota Boom, the great 19th-century efflorescence of Euro-American agricultural settlement. Buildings were going up all over the land. In a country characterized by violent weather, including violent thunderstorms.

Thus lightning rod men, salesmen, poured from the depots, rented rigs from the liveries, and invaded the countryside with their wares. The historian Earl Hayter writes about this in a full chapter of his classic work, The Troubled Farmer. “These loquacious itinerants,” as Hayter calls the lightning rod men, “had an almost sacred enthusiasm for their trade. If one was permitted to make his pitch, he could convince the most skeptical farmer that he lived in imminent danger.” Thus the gentle warning issued by the editor of the Jamestown Alert I quoted in my previous essay.

This was a literate generation, but as farm folk pondered the pitches of the salesmen, scientific counsel was divided. There was a certain argument from authority out there, as Benjamin Franklin was an early exponent of lightning rods, and who could doubt the sage of Philadelphia? He performed his famous kite experiment in the summer of 1852. By fall of that year, having read some French literature on the subject, he had engineered the fitting of prominent buildings in the City of Brotherly Love with lightning rods.

In 1887 the Irish professor of physics at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, John Tyndal, weighed in with advice for manufacturers and buyers of lightning rods. Be sure, he said, to connect the conducting wires to a large metal plate buried in the ground, so as to overcome the resistance for electricity to enter the soil.

The writer George J. Romanes, in Science magazine in 1891, and more so Alexander McAdie, who authored a series of circulars for the US Weather Bureau in the 1890s, were more concerned about the other end of the proposition--the rods on the roof. They cautioned not to install large metal fixtures, but rather multiple small, pointed, plated rods clustered along the roofline.

The weather bureau also pointed out why lighting and lightning rods were matters of particular concern to country folk, and I would add, country folk in an open country. In towns, a homeowner would reason, lightning will strike, of course, but it’s more likely it will hit one of the other many houses nearby--I’ll just buy some insurance. The weather bureau pointed out, however, that “the risk in the country is five times greater than in the city.” And thus higher insurance rates, too.

So literate farmers were hardly dupes when they bought lightning rods. Unfortunately, human frailty and cupidity wrought controversy and conflict at the flash point where salesman, the lightning rod man, met farmer. More on that next week.

-Tom Isern

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