J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

When Did Benjamin Franklin Fly His Kite?

Today, 15 June, is the anniversary of the date in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin conducted his famously picturesque experiment with a kite, a key, and a lightning storm.

At least, this is the anniversary according to The New American Cyclopædia, edited by George Ripley and Charles A. Dana and published in 1860. Many other reference books of the nineteenth century echoed that statement.

That date might come as a surprise for people who remember that just five days ago, on 10 June, many institutions sent out tweets saying that was the anniversary of Franklin’s kite experiment. The 10 June date appears as early as 1935 and dominates recent books and the web.

However, still other authorities differ. In an article for the American Antiquarian Society’s Proceedings titled “The Date of Franklin’s Kite Experiment” (P.D.F. download), Alexander McAdie wrote: “Most biographers say that experiments were made by Franklin on June 6, 1752.” (He cited no examples, and I haven’t found any. In any event, McAdie was skeptical.)

Yet another strain of information gives the auspicious date of 4 July 1752, as in Richard Anderson’s Lightning Conductors (1885).

In fact, there’s no real information about what date Franklin flew that kite. He wrote about how scientists might trap lightning as a form of electricity in 1750 and explained how to do so with a kite in a letter dated 19 Oct 1752.

In 1767 Joseph Priestley wrote about Franklin’s experiment in his History and Present Status of Electricity, probably based on conversations with the experimenter himself. Priestley stated the doctor and his son William flew their kite in June 1752, but gave no specific date.

In that month, a letter was coming to Franklin from Europe describing a similar experiment, so to maintain his originality Franklin might have been keen to state that he had flown his kite before seeing that letter. A small number of authors doubt Franklin did the experiment at all, given that he wasn’t electrocuted. But most accept the kite story without a specific date.

We might therefore ask how 15 June, or 10 June, or any day of the month became attached to the event. Yet it might be more fruitful to ask why.

Some articles about Franklin’s kite experiment, such as these from the Constitution Center and History.com, acknowledge the lack of a definite date. But many more sources of information, especially single sentences in timelines or tweets, state a particular day in June with no doubt attached.

I see similar pressure to assign definite dates to when Olaudah Equiano or Phillis Wheatley were born, when Wheatley became free, and when a Massachusetts court ruled in the Quock Walker cases.

Our culture likes to have a date as an anchor for historical discussions. I ran across lots of material for teachers in the early twentieth century pointing to the 15 or 10 June dates as a prompt for classroom lessons. I’m sure the now-prevalent 10 June appears on a lot of timelines for people in the media looking for “on this date” hooks. And with information coming at us faster than ever, those hooks have to be sharp.

1 comment:

Charles Bahne said...

The June 1752 date for Franklin's experiment is particularly problematic. The British Empire was still observing the Julian calendar ("old style") and wouldn't switch to the Julian calendar ("new style") until September of that year. June 6, old style, would be equivalent to June 17, new style. Depending on your reference point, the same "date" could be expressed in two different ways.

It's the same thing as George Washington having been born on February 11, as that date was referred to in the year of his birth, but today we celebrate on February 22.