Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lightning Rods and the Church

One of the many stories of the great myth of the conflict between science and religion is that the Christians tried to prevent the use of lightning rods. Whenever I asked for a reference, all I ever got is Andrew Dickson White (extract here) so I knew that there was something fishy going on. However, all serious histories were silent on the subject. I nosed around to see if there was any academic work on the question and dug up an article by IB Cohen called "Popular Prejudice against the Introduction of lightning Rods" (Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 253, pp. 393 - 440, 1952). It is rather revealing.

White is correct to say that ringing bells was a popular way to scaring off lightning from church towers. But the it was also known to be dangerous and the Church disliked the practice because it was deemed superstitious (as long ago as the seventeenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine condemned it).

The real problems that caused late adoption were two-fold. Firstly, the working of the rod was not fully understood. It had to be grounded to work, otherwise it just attracted lightning. Abbe Nollet, a French scientist and rival of Franklin, wrote a critique based on this and other misunderstandings that did have some effect on the rods use. But Cohen states that "his objections were grounded in scientific concerns."

Second, ordinary people were not convinced by scientists saying that attracting lightning and sending it into the ground was harmless. After all, lightning was scary stuff and scientists were as arrogant about popular concerns then as they are today. But, Cohen states "slowness in adopting the new invention did not proceed from ecclesiastical ban or dogma." but from local concern about whether the rod worked. In fact, even Pope Benedict XIV had been a supporter of the use of rods. St Mark's in Venice had one as early as 1766. As Cohen summarises: "Even though the ringing of church bells during lightning storms continued in Catholic Countries long after the invention of the lightning rod, it was by no means the case that the Church as an institution was opposed to the new invention."

Another myth bites the dust.

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