Benjamin Franklin supposedly invented the lightning conductor by attaching a key to a kite-string during a thunderstorm. The next two people who tried the same trick were both killed.
Franklin’s lightning conductor met with initial resistance because of the fear that it would actually attract lightning. Many people preferred to grow samphire in their guttering, as this was believed to ward off lightning. Rock samphire grows on cliffs and is edible; it used to be harvested by suspending children off the side of the cliff with ropes tied round their ankles. The practice is mentioned in King Lear.
Lightning is electricity with a power of up to 30 million volts reaching a temperature of 30,000C, five times hotter than the surface of the sun. A bolt of lightning travels at speeds of up to 100,000,000 feet per second, or 72,000,000 mph. It strikes the Earth more than 17,000,000 times every day, or about 200 times a second, killing about 400 Americans and injuring 1,000 annually. In Britain, between three and six people are killed each year.
Human beings are struck by lightning ten times more often than they ought to be under the laws of chance. Men are six times more likely to be struck than women. It is dangerous to stand under any kind of tree during a storm, but oaks are the riskiest, followed by poplars and Scots pines.
Lightning does strike twice in the same place. In fact, it’s more likely to than not. Electricity always follows the path of least resistance.
Martin Luther was a law student at Erfurt University when a bolt of lightning struck him. Believing this to be a sign from God he swore to become a monk, which he did, two weeks later.
A bolt of lightning struck a football pitch during a match and killed an entire team, leaving the other team completely unharmed.
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who hated cats, once tied one to a kite in a thunderstorm to try and electrocute it.
If you are about to be struck by lightning you'll feel the hairs on your body charging, hear a crackle or fizz, and smell the ions being transferred from the ground. If you recognise these signs, crouch down into a ball, feet together, with your head down to your knees and hands clasped behind your head.
Lightning travels over a mile to get to earth and will not be materially affected by small metal objects like earrings or wired bras (although you might get burns from the superheated metal). Don't stand under a tree: if it is hit, the sap boils and the tree effectively explodes, sending splinters of wood everywhere.
Death only occurs in 30% of lightning strike cases, but the safest thing you can do is to get into your car, which acts as a Faraday cage; the charge always stays on the outside surface of the cage. Proper Faraday cages block out all electro-magnetic radiation, including mobile phone signals.
A single bolt of lightning contains enough energy to cook 4,000 pieces of toast.
A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.
We don’t really understand how lightning works. It results from a build up of static electricity in clouds, but it is not known what causes this to happen. Measurements of this electric field from planes and balloons appear to show that the field is too small to initiate lightning – about a tenth of what theoretical models say it should be.
It’s true that taller objects attract lightning, but it’s a mystery how it chooses them. It's only attracted to a tall object from a limited distance away, known as the ‘radius of attraction’. For a man with an umbrella, the radius of attraction is seven metres – nothing in comparison with the three kilometres the lightning has to travel from the cloud.
In Europe until the late 18th century, it was thought that bell-ringing dispersed lightning, and many church bells bore the inscription fulgura frango ('I break the lightning'). When there was a storm, campanologists would head for the nearest bell tower - which was usually the highest point in town and, to modern eyes, the very worst place to be. And it was: in France alone between 1753 and 1786 (when the custom was outlawed) 103 bell-ringers were struck by lightning and killed.
In 18th century Paris, it was fashionable to wear hats and umbrellas with lightning rods attached (see below).
In the USA, you are 30 times more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than by a shark.
Barack means ‘flash of lightning’ in Hebrew.