Atmospheric Electricity

Note:  Please do not attempt to recreate any of the experiments shown here.  Flying a kite with a wire line can result in death by electricution from atmospheric electricity or power lines!

Ben Franklin is probably the best known of the early experimenters who investigated atmospheric electrostatics.  Most who have heard of his experiments (possibly performed in 1752) with the kite and the key think that he was struck by lightning, which is not true.  He was fortunate not to be struck by lightning, as it would have resulted in severe injury or death.  What Ben Franklin experienced was a jolt of atmospheric electricity which is always present, to some degree, even in the absence of an electrical storm.  

Ben Franklin originally proposed to use a metal rod to conduct atmospheric electricity to a "sentry box" holding a man.  At the time, Franklin lacked the funds to contruct the device. Plans for the proposed experiment were published in England in 1751.  A French naturalist, D'Alibard, reading a French translation of Franklin's proposal, built a "sentry box" and by 1752 had sucessfully tested it in Marly, France.

Details surrounding Ben Franklin's kite experiment are not well documented.  Some researchers insist that he may not have conducted the experiment at all.

 One version of the story is as follows: A few weeks after D'Alibard's experiment, Franklin, holding an insulating silk ribbon, flew a kite with a wet hemp string in stormy weather.  The atmospheric electricity was conducted by the wet string and passed to a key attached to the string.  Supposedly, Ben touched the key and received a mild shock.

 Other early experimenters such as Professor Georg Richmann were not so lucky:

Georg Richmann

On August 6, 1753, Professor Georg Richmann of St. Petersburg tried with a colleague, M. Sokolaw, engraver to the Academy at St. Petersburg, to attract the lightning. He attached a wire to the top of his house and led it down to an iron bar suspended above "the electrical needle" and a bowl of water partly filled with iron filings. "The Professor," stated a letter from Moscow which Franklin published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, "judging from the Needle that the Tempest was at a great Distance, assured M. Sokolaw that there was no Danger, but that there might be at the Approach. M. Richmann stood about a Foot from the Bar, attentively observing the Needle. Soon after M. Sokolaw saw, the Machine being untouched, a Globe of blue and whitish Fire, about four inches Diameter, dart from the Bar against M. Richmann's Forehead, who fell backwards without the least Outcry. This was succeeded by an Explosion like that of a small Cannon which also threw M. Sokolaw on the Floor, feeling as it were some Blows on his Back. It has since been found that the Wire breaking, some Bits had hit him behind, and left the Marks of Burning on his Clothes," Professor Richmann was killed--  "his body [being] found in the midst of his apparatus, like an artilleryman dead under the wreck of his gun,"

Source: Benjamin Franklin, A Biography, by Ronald W. Clarke. Random House (1983) p. 87.
Richmann Image Source:

Some researchers assert that atmospheric electricity originates from an excess of positive ions present in the lower 3 km of the atmosphers.  The ionization of the atmosphere is believed to be caused by cosmic rays and radon.  Other theories point to the friction generated as air molecules pass one another and the surface of the earth.  As a result, static electricity builds up and contributes to the potential, which may be as high as 100 volts per meter of altitude above the earth's surface.

In a quest to determine the electrical potential of the atmosphere, Dangerous Laboratories engineers procured a kite, wire line, and a deep sea fishing reel.

Item Source Specifications Cost ($)
32" "SkyDog" Diamond Kite Hobby Shop 32" X 31" 15.00
Mason Multistrand Trolling Wire Ebay 45 Lb test/1000 feet
Weight of line 361 g
Penn #49 Super Mariner Fishing Reel Ebay Used 55.00

The kite was flown several times in fair weather, location Golden, Colorado (8/30/2010).  The reel was grounded with a cheap multimeter.  No voltage was detected, even with 500 feet of line out.

The following day, the a 7' delta kite was flown.  Just as our engineers were getting discouraged, a significant shock in the forearms of the operator was felt when flying the kite at less than 100 feet altitude.   The reel was quickly grounded with a wire, and the shocks ceased.  The grounding clip was unhooked and held about 1 cm from the reel.  A noticible continuous spark and buzzing sound was observed (see photo below).   The source of the high voltage was most likely a localized rainstorm (not thunderstorm)  which appeared about 2.5 km from the kite.  As the wind was gusting up to 25 mph, it was decided that the 7' delta was too big for this type of experiment.

map, golden, Coloradostorm
The storm went on to hang around for another hour and produce a beautiful rainbow.

Here is a camera phone movie of the event:

phone movie

The spark is barely visible in the low-resolution movie:


Later that week, the SkyDog diamond kite was flown on top of North Table Mountain by Dangerous Laboratories Engineer Philip H who noted electrical shocks.

Check out the movie: atelec1.mp4

Learn more about early "electric kite" and meteorological kite experiments by reading "Kites: An Historical Survey" by Clive Hart (Chapters 5 and 6).


Want to know more about atmospheric electricity?  Read Atmospheric Electrostatics by Lars Wahlin

ben franklin with kiteelectric kite

Return To Main