MadSci Network: Science History

Re: How did Ben Franklin predict the weather?

Date: Tue Mar 10 21:11:28 1998
Posted By: Samuel Conway, Senior Scientist, Message Pharmaceuticals, Aston, PA
Area of science: Science History
ID: 886639905.Sh

Benjamin Franklin was a man of tremendous curiosity, and in my opinion was one of the greatest scientists ever for that very reason.

He observed that storms had a tendency to form in the Southwest and travel in a northeastward direction. One day he jumped on a horse and chased a storm for miles in a frantic effort to discover why.

After his famous lightning experiment (which you are NOT to try to repeat), Franklin discovered that the air itself carries an electrical charge during a storm. With this in mind, he built a very crude but functional device that would warn him when it was going to rain. The device consisted of two metal bells, between which was a little metal ball hung on a string. When a storm was approaching, the electricity in the air would cause a static charge on the metal bells. This would attract the ball, and make the bells ring as the ball struck them.

Of course, by this time he could simply look out the window and see the storm coming. It worked nicely if he was inside reading, though.

You can learn more about Franklin's experiments with weather by going to This will take you on a virtual tour of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. There is also a link to a list of telephone numbers at the Institute; if you need information right away, perhaps you can call and someone will be able to help you. If anyone would know, they would!

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