Did Ben Franklin Really Invent the Lightning Rod?

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On Tuesday night, Chicago got hit by a severe thunderstorm—one that involved a crazy lightning show. During the tempest, the city's Willis Tower (once the tallest building in the world, standing more than 1700 feet tall if you include its tip) was struck by an impressive bolt.

It's all thanks to lightning rods that when a big building gets struck, the main result is awesome photos, rather than fiery destruction. But where did the simple, brilliant device that is the lightning rod come from?

In the 1750s, Ben Franklin—Founding Father, electricity expert, and storm chaser—started to advocate for metal rods to protect buildings (and the people inside them) from the destructive forces of lightning. Even before he set out in a thunderstorm with a kite and a key, he hypothesized that an iron needle on top of a building or ship could protect it from electrical fire.

For his efforts, Franklin is often thought of as the father of the lightning rod. However, he might have been beaten to the idea.

The Leaning Tower of Nevyansk in Russia. (It's the one on the right, if that's not obvious.) Image Credit: iStock

The exact non-Franklin origins of the lightning rod are hotly debated. In the early 1700s (sometime around 1730, though the exact date is unknown), Russian industrialist Akinfiy Demidov built the 189-foot-tall Leaning Tower of Nevyansk.

It’s topped with a metal spire that connects to metal within the building’s structure, grounding what might be considered the first lightning rod. It’s not clear whether Demidov intended the spire to act as such, but it could be an instance of simultaneous(ish) invention.