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February 15: Electrical Phenomena

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In the heart of wintertime, when your furnace warms your house but dries the air, static electricity accumulates, so when you touch a light-switch, you can be zapped by a spark. And when you pull on your winter sweater, it can become a clinging swarm of sparks.

Static electricity surrounds us, and it has always existed in dry air – as on this date in 1884 when the Bismarck Tribune’s editor noted that the atmosphere for the last few weeks was unusually charged with electricity. Many Bismarck residents noticed that a spark would fly from one’s hand every time anyone opened a stove door or touch other metal surfaces. Those indoor jolts had become a common experience that winter.

Static electricity also creates other electrical phenomena. The most common are the thunderstorms of summer. But less common is “ball lightning,” also called “fire balls.” Few ever see ball lightning. One who did, a writer named Henry Wallace Phillips, experienced the phenomenon in 1885, at age 16. Phillips and a friend were riding horses in the countryside near Mandan when a “great, black, hammering, smashing, crashing, Dakota thunderstorm” approached. A “perfect column of lightning” zipped from cloud to earth, and Phillips “saw two masses of fire dancing over the prairie.” The two friends, “paralyzed with fear,” watched the ball lightning shoot around “like white-hot cannonballs,” casting a “glow on the ground” around them.

In other seasons, higher in the atmosphere, you find the aurora borealis, the “northern lights,” caused by electrical particles from the sun striking earth’s atmosphere.

Closer to the ground there’s St. Elmo’s fire, a build-up of atmospheric electricity that discharges in dust-storms. It has made rare appearances in North Dakota. A cowboy named Ben Bird told of herding steers near the Dakota Badlands, saying “an electric storm would put St. Elmo lights on the cattle horns and horses’ ears,” in the form of a glowing luminosity that mysteriously passed from steer to steer.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, retired MSUM Historian


  • “Electrical Phenomena,” Bismarck Tribune, February 15, 1884, p. 8.
  • “Varieties of Lightning,” Washburn [ND] Leader, October 9, 1914, p. 2.
  • Henry Wallace Phillips, “Ball Lightning,” Popular Science News, Vol. 35, January, 1901, p. 18.
  • “Former Dakota Writer Is Dead at Los Angeles,” Bismarck Tribune, May 24, 1930, p. 1.
  • “Power of Lightning Bolts Awesome,” Bismarck Tribune, August 14, 1978, p. 19.
  • “Odd Electrical Discharge,” Hope [ND] Pioneer, April 17, 1930, p. 3.
  • “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Minneapolis Star, April 17, 1946, p. 2.
  • “Famed Dakota Cowboy Ben Bird is Dead at 97,” Bismarck Tribune, April 4, 1962, p. 9.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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