This entry was posted by Tuesday, 24 May, 2011
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Dear Mister SASB: My brother (who is a complete idiot, by the way) says lightning rods don’t work. Do you agree? Cause our house doesn’t have one and I’m thinking maybe it should. – Annie Blister

Annie: I’m sure you won’t feel that way about your brother when you get a little older. (Both of my sisters happen to think I’M a dope but, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably think they’re being too kind.)


In Colonial America, lightning rods made people nervous. It was considered an affront to the Lord. Lightning was God’s wrath.

During thunderstorms, churches (which had very tall steeples)  liked to send guys that wouldn’t be missed too much up there to ring the bell. It reminded the storm that this was a holy place. But the bell ringers had a much better record of going UP the stairs than coming back DOWN. While they were up there wackin’ away at the bell, lightning would often strike the bell tower, transforming it into steaming charcoal and molten bell. In fact, lightning seemed to FAVOR houses of worship – a clue, actually, that a different process might be at work than celestial vengeance.

The inventor of lightning rods, a guy named Ben Franklin, said lightning’s not a God thing; it is, he said, a natural phenomenon that  burns down  buildings and scares the goats. Even the old ones.  Certain citizens accused Franklin of irreverence. Blasphemy, actually. Back then, you didn’t want to be a blasphemer.

No you did not.

But Franklin was cool.  A coil of wire and and an iron stick are going to stop The Almighty? He (God) can’t  come up with a work-around? Who’s the blasphemer here?, asked Franklin. You callin’ God incompetent? (I think he also said that most lightning bolts strike trees which are, by and large, innocent of all wrong doing.)

This rebuttal was so effective that it took the thunder out of the opposition and, in no time,  lightning rods became almost as common as door knobs. It wasn’t sacrilegious anymore to use one to protect a powder magazine from being blown up in a storm.

This had a good effect, as you can easily imagine. Even churches got lightning rods. And, as a result, they  burned down less frequently. If the lightning rod business hadn’t been so successful, who’s to say what the state of religion would be in modern America?



Now lets climb back into the modern era.

In 1993, the National Fire Protection Association said the science behind lightning protection sucks. (Not their precise words). May as well rescind the national standard for lightning rods that’s been around for almost a century, they said. The standard is called NFPA 780, in case you want to look it up.

Uh oh, lightning rods!

But, according to Cecil Adams (The Straight Dope), after a thorough review of what’s out there plus a heap of common sense, it was decided that the science, though sucky and pretty much out-of-date, is, nonetheless,  compelling. It would be madness to go back to the pre-lightning rod, buildings-burning-down, days merely because lightning protection has been a settled issue for so long that more recent up-to-scientific-standards studies haven’t been done.

So the NFPA 780 standard still stands. And lightning rods work.


Then, how come you can drive for miles, here in New England and see nary a home with a tell tale rod sticking up to the sky ? I’m sure some are disguised as weather vanes and such, but, overall, this region seems to have entered the “right to strike” era.  We do love a roaring fire up here, but do we love fire THAT much?

Maybe this is just a lack of public awareness. I don’t think there’s  been much discussion about lightning rods. Or, could it be that the concern about protecting high technology devices from lightning initiated VOLTAGE SURGES, has diverted attention away from the basics? Maybe the idea’s too “pre-colonial”, too quaint, to be taken seriously by a guy packing an IPhone.

Another thought? Insurance discounts. Used to be, you could get a little knock off on your premium if you stuck a lightning rod up . These days, however, the companies appear to have abandoned that practice. In a region that doesn’t get THAT much thunder and lightning, maybe the occasional smoking ruin is just  a cost of doing business?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, as is so OFTEN the case, doesn’t really have an explanation. Do you?

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  1. Madison

    We need Lightning Rods.

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