Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Alexander Small, [c. 1764]

From [Alexander Small]2

MS not found; reprinted from Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, 1769 edition, pp. 440–1.3

[c. 1764]4

I have just recollected that in one of our great storms of lightning, I saw an appearance, which I never observed before, nor ever heard described. I am persuaded that I saw the flash which struck St. Bride’s steeple. Sitting at my window, and looking to the north, I saw what appeared to me a solid streight rod of fire, moving at a very sharp angle with the horizon. It appeared to my eye as about two inches diameter, and had nothing of the zig-zag lighning motion. I instantly told a person sitting with me, that some place must be struck at that instant. I was so much surprized at the vivid distinct appearance of the fire, that I did not hear the clap of thunder, which stunned every one besides. Considering how low it moved, I could not have thought it had gone so far, having St. Martin’s, the New Church, and St. Clement’s steeples in its way.5 It struck the steeple a good way from the top, and the first impression it made in the side is in the same direction I saw it move in. It was succeeded by two flashes, almost united, moving in a pointed direction. There were two distinct houses struck in Essex street. I should have thought the rod would have fallen in Covent Garden, it was so low. Perhaps the appearance is frequent, though never before seen by Yours,


[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

2So identified because among BF’s scientific friends, which the author of this letter obviously was, Small appears to be the only person whom the initials A.S. fit.

3Printed as Letter XLVI, as it is also in the 1774 edit., where it appears on pp. 450–1. In both places it is headed “From Mr. A.S. to B.F.

4This letter could not have been written any earlier than June 18, 1764, for it describes an event that took place on the afternoon of that day; at ten minutes before three, during a spectacular summer storm, lightning struck and “very greatly injured” the steeple of St. Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. English electricians were fascinated by the catastrophe and two of them wrote papers about it which were read before the Royal Society. On Dec. 1, 1764 (above, p. 479), Small mentioned a “former Letter” to BF which the editors have not found. The present document may have been the whole or a part of that letter. For the letters on the destruction of the church steeple, see Phil. Trans., LIV (1764), 201–27, 227–34.

5St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields on the northeast side of Trafalgar Square, St. Mary-le-Strand in the Strand (the “New Church”), and St. Clement Danes, also in the Strand; thus the lightning came from west to east.

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