The Story Book of Science  by Jean Henri Fabre

Franklin and De Romas

T HE next day Claire and her two brothers could talk of nothing but the experiments of the evening before. It was their subject of conversation the whole morning. The cat's beads of fire and the flashes from the paper had greatly impressed them; so their uncle, in order to profit by this awakening of their attention, resumed as soon as possible his instructive talk.

"I am sure you are all three asking yourselves why, before telling you about thunder, I rubbed sealing-wax, a strip of paper, and the cat's back. You shall know, but first of all listen to a little story.

"More than a century ago a magistrate of the little town of Nérac, named de Romas, devised the most momentous experiment ever registered in the annals of science. One day he was seen going out into the country in a storm, with an enormous paper kite and a ball of twine. Over two hundred persons, keenly interested, accompanied him. What in the world was that celebrated magistrate going to do? Forgetful of his grave functions, did he propose some diversion unworthy of him? Was it to witness a puerile kite-flying that these curious ones flocked from all points of the town? No, no; de Romas was about to realize the most audacious project that man's genius has ever conceived; his bold purpose was to evoke the thunderbolt from the very depths of the clouds, and to call down fire from heaven.

"The kite that was to draw the thunderbolt from the midst of the storm-clouds and bring it into the intrepid experimenter's view did not differ from those familiar to you; only the hemp cord had through its entire length a copper thread. The wind having risen, the paper contrivance was thrown into the air and attained a height of about two hundred meters. To the lower end of the cord was attached a silk string, and this string was made fast under the stoop of a house, to shelter it from the rain. A little tin cylinder was hung to the hempen cord at one point and in touch with the metallic thread running through the cord. Finally, de Romas was furnished with a similar cylinder that had at one end a long glass tube as handle. It was with this instrument or this exciter, held in his hand by the glass handle, that he was to make the fire dart from the clouds, conducted by the copper thread of the kite to the metallic cylinder at the end of this thread. The silk cord and the glass handle served to prevent the passage of the thunderbolt, either into the ground or into the exciter's arm; for these substances have the property of not giving passage to electricity unless it is too strong. Metals, on the contrary, let it circulate freely.

"Such was the simple arrangement of the apparatus invented by de Romas to verify his audacious prevision. What is to be expected from this child's plaything thrown into the air to meet the thunder? Does it not seem to you foolish to suppose that such a plaything can direct the thunderbolt and master it? The magistrate of Nérac must, however, by wise meditations on the nature of thunder, have acquired the certainty of success, to dare thus, before hundreds of witnesses, to undertake this attempt, the failure of which would cover him with confusion. The result of this terrible conflict between thought and thunder cannot be in doubt: thought, as always, when well directed, will gain the upper hand.

"Behold, now, the clouds, forerunners of the storm, are coming near the kite. De Romas moves the exciter toward the tin cylinder suspended at the end of the cord, and suddenly there is a flash of light. It is produced by a dazzling spark which darts upon the exciter, crackles, emits a flash of lightning, and immediately disappears."

"That is just what we got yesterday evening," observed Jules, "when we put the end of a key near the strip of warmed and rubbed paper; it is what the cat's back showed us when it was stroked with the hand."

"The very same thing," replied his uncle. "Thunder, beads of fire from the cat, sparks from paper—all are due to electricity. But let us return to de Romas. We see that there is electricity, the thunderbolt in miniature, in the kite's string. It is inoffensive yet, on account of its feeble quantity; so de Romas does not hesitate to draw it forth with his finger. Every time he brings his finger near the cylinder, he draws a spark like that received by the exciter. Emboldened by his example, the spectators draw near and evoke the electric explosion. They crowd around the wonderful cylinder that now contains the fire from heaven, called down by man's genius; each one wishes to call forth the lightning, and each wishes to see sparkle between his fingers the fulminant substance descended from the clouds. So they play with the thunder for half an hour with impunity, when all at once a violent spark reaches de Romas and almost knocks him over. The hour of peril has come. The storm is getting nearer, stronger, every moment; thick clouds hover over the kite.

"De Romas summons up all his firmness; he quickly makes the crowd draw back and remains alone at the side of his apparatus, in the middle of the circle of spectators, who are beginning to get frightened. Then, with the aid of the exciter, he elicits from the metallic cylinder first strong sparks, capable of throwing a person down under the violence of the commotion, then ribbons of fire that dart in serpentine lines and burst with a crash. These ribbons soon measure a length of two or three meters. Any one struck by one of them would certainly perish. De Romas, fearing from moment to moment some fatal accident, enlarges the circle of curious spectators and ceases the perilous provocation of electric fire. But, braving imminent death, he continues his perilous observations at close range, with this same coolness as if he were engaged in the most harmless experiment. Around him there is heard a roaring like the continuous blast of a forge; an odor of burning is in the air; the kite-string is covered with a luminous envelope and forms a ribbon of fire joining heaven to earth. Three long straws, lying by chance on the ground, start up, jump, spring toward the string, fall, spring up again, and for some minutes entertain the spectators with their disordered evolutions."

"Last evening," Claire remarked, "the down of the feathers and the little pieces of paper jumped in the same way between the electrified sheet of paper and the table."

"That is quite natural," said Jules, "since Uncle has just told us that the rubbed sheet of paper takes to itself the very essence of thunder, only in a very small quantity."

"I am glad to see you grasp the close resemblance between thunder and the electricity that we produce by rubbing certain bodies. De Romas made his perilous experiment on purpose to prove that resemblance. I said perilous experiment; you will see, in fact, what danger the audacious experimenter ran. Three straws, I told you, were jumping from the string to the ground, and from the ground to the string, when all at once everybody turned pale with fright: there came a violent explosion and a thunderbolt fell, making a large hole in the ground and raising a cloud of dust."

"My goodness!" gasped Claire. "Was de Romas killed?"

"No, de Romas was safe and beaming with joy: his previsions were verified with a success that bordered on the prodigious: it was demonstrated that a thunderbolt can be brought from the clouds within reach of the observer; he had proved that electricity is the cause of thunder. That, my children, was no trivial result, fit only to satisfy our curiosity: the nature of thunder being ascertained, it became possible to secure protection from its ravages, as I will tell you in the story of the lightning-conductor."

"De Romas, who made these important experiments at the peril of his life, must have been loaded with honors and riches by his contemporaries," said Claire.

"Alas! my dear child," replied her uncle, "things do not commonly happen that way. Truth rarely finds any free spot in which to plant itself; it has to fight against prejudice and ignorance. The battle is sometimes so painful, that men of strong will succumb to the task. De Romas, wishing to repeat his experiment at Bordeaux, was stoned by the mob, who saw in him a dangerous man evoking thunder by his witchcraft. He was obliged to flee in haste, abandoning his apparatus.

"A short time before de Romas, in the United States of North America, Franklin made similar researches on the nature of thunder. Benjamin Franklin was the son of a poor soap-manufacturer. He found at home merely the requisite means for learning to read, write, and cipher; and yet he became by his learning one of the most remarkable men of his time. One stormy day in 1752 he went into the country near Philadelphia, accompanied by his son, who carried a kite made of silk tied at the four corners to two little glass rods. A metal tail terminated the apparatus. The kite was thrown up toward a storm-cloud. At first nothing happened to confirm the learned American's previsions: the string gave no sign of electricity. Rain came on. The wet string let the electricity circulate more freely; and Franklin, without thinking of the danger he ran, and transported with joy at thus stealing its secret from the thunder, elicited with his finger a shower of sparks strong enough to set fire to spirits of wine."