Did Benjamin Franklin Really Discover Electricity?

You may have seen the famous Currier and Ives print depicting the electrifying kite experiment that Benjamin Franklin conducted with his son, William. In the image, William Franklin is a young boy looking up at his founding father, who has the literal key to unlocking the secrets of electricity. The print lists the date as June 1752, and the caption reads: "Demonstrating the identity of lightning and electricity, from which he invented the lightning rod." If you ignore the fact that it kind of makes Franklin look like a bad dad who tried to attract a lightning strike while his son was standing close enough to be cooked like a Thanksgiving turkey, then it's kind of heartwarming to see them make history together.

Unfortunately, the winners who write history are really into fiction because that print lies right to your face. William was born sometime in 1730, via History Collection, which means he was at least 21 years old at the time of the experiment. As Gizmodo notes, French scientist Thomas-François Dalibard performed a similar kite experiment a month earlier and may have come up with the lightning rod before Franklin. As it turns out, the biggest deception isn't in the print but what has been printed about Franklin's kite experiment.

The not-so-shocking truth

How Stuff Works describes Ben Franklin as "a heck of a kite flyer" who "may even have used a homemade kite to discover electricity." The site goes on to say that many people believe the oft-repeated story of lightning striking a key tied to a kite that Franklin was holding was probably poppycock. He had previously written about the perils of lightning likely knew how stupid it would be to hold a makeshift lightning magnet in a thunderstorm. 

More importantly, the Franklin Institute writes, "Despite a common misconception, Benjamin Franklin did not discover electricity during this experiment — or at all, for that matter." Humans had known about electrical forces for millennia by 1752. Franklin wanted to illustrate the relationship between electricity and lightning. Even the Currier and Ives print that shows his very electrocute-able-looking adult son as a little boy got that detail right, which may be the most shocking part of this whole story.