Joanna here. I was sitting on the couch the other day with the rain coming down about sideways and hail pinging on the front porch and lightning crashing and thunder throbbing in all the little houses on the street and also no electricity. The dog crouched behind me, cowering down low and shivering in every muscle.
Me: It’s just fine. I’m here, girl. Nothing’s going to happen to you.
Dog: (expresses skepticism with a whine)
So I asked myself how folks dealt with lightning in the Regency period. I delight to imagine my heroine — in a lull between forays into adventure — sitting in her parlour, (them not having parlors over in England,) looking out at the lightning and accompanying timpani, chilling. There’d be an ugly sorta-mostly pitbull trying to dig a tunnel to safety under her chair. No electricity for her, either, but she wouldn’t have expected any, being Regency people and all.
She’d have a nice little fire on the hearth, hissing every time a drip worked its way down the chimney.
Folks were somewhat past worshipping weather by the Regency — though I can imagine some gruff old squire exclaiming, “By Thunder! They’ve all run mad.“ and shaking The Times Op Ed page.
Overall, the Regency was surprisingly knowledgeable and scientific.
What they knew:
– They knew lightning was electricity. Had known since 1752 when Ben Franklin. . .
“. . . took the opportunity of the first approaching thunder storm to take a walk into a field, to demonstrate, in the completest manner possible, the sameness of the electric fluid with the matter of lightning. Dr. Franklin, astonishing as it must have appeared, contrived actually to bring lightning from the heavens, by means of an electrical kite, which he raised when a storm of thunder was perceived to be coming on.”
Joseph Priestley (The oxygen Priestley, y’know, who was there.)
Arguably, Franklin’s kite didn’t actually get struck by lightning. The clue is he didn’t end up fried. Most likely the kite picked up the ambient electrical charge of the storm.
Franklin “presented his knucle to the key, and (let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment) the discovery was complete. He perceived a very evident electric spark.
You see the bit above about “the electrical fluid?” The Regency imagined electricity as if it were something you could keep in a jar and pour out. That was not so far from their actual experience, as folks could store static electricity in a “Leyden jar” and build up enough of a charge to deliver quite a shock.
Slosh, slosh went the electrical liquid.
I’m not going to talk about Leyden jars because wikipedia exists and also I’m still not sure just why they work.
Nowadays we talk about electrical “currents” which is much superior to calling it a fluid.
- They knew electricity was conducted with varying ease through different materials. Some, like metals and water, were good conductors. Other materials, like wood and paper, were insulators.
– They knew quite a bit about how lightning acted when it struck. They had centuries of experience to draw upon.
The combination of these two sorts of knowledge let them come up with good, common-sensical—if long-winded—advice on how to avoid being hit by lightning.
The TL:DR version is: “Don’t hide under trees in lightning storms”
The peri-Regency advice in its entirety goes like:
Thus, there is nothing more common than, during a thunder storm, to shelter under trees; which, from their height and qualities as conductors, are very dangerous objects for any person to be under or near. If the lightning is nearly overhead, it is much more probable that it will strike a tree, or other elevated object round about, than discharge itself on the level surface of the ground. If it strikes the particular tree under which any person has taken shelter, that person will almost inevitably be killed; for the tree being an imperfect conductor, and therefore incapable of carrying the lightning harmlessly into the ground, the lightning will be diverted by almost any person or thing at the foot of the tree, and destroy or injure them.
John Leigh, Directions for insuring personal safety during storms of thunder and lightning, 1833
There is a further, formerly somewhat more useful warning.
The TL:DR version is: “Let the driver take the hit.”
The original reads:
Travellers by carriages and stage coaches are safer inside than out, during a storm of thunder and lightning. In the instance of a providential escape near Tenbury in Worcestershire, when a gentleman and lady had exchanged places with their servants, to obtain a more commanding view of the scenery through which they were passing, and mounted on the barouche of their chariot for that purpose, the horses, the postillion, and the lady and gentleman, were considerably injured on the sudden discharge of lightning, while the servants inside remained unhurt.
– They knew about lightning rods and how to install them. That’s something else Ben Franklin gave the world. I really do like Ben Franklin.
The idea of lightning rods did not sweep the earth totally without opposition. Some in the church saw fire prevention as an impious thwarting of the will of God.
In 1727 and 1755, early-morning earthquakes (estimated today at 5.5 and 6.2 on the Richter scale) brought severe damage to the Boston area. The Reverend Thomas Prince of the Old South Church in Boston had his say.
TL:DR version: If you put up lightning rods, God’s going to get you with earthquakes.
The 1755 view:
"… the more points of Iron are erected round the Earth, to draw the Electrical Substance out of the Air, the more the Earth must needs be charged, the Reverend Thomas Prince with it. And therefore it seems worthy of Consideration whether any part of the Earth, being fuller of this terrible Substance, may not be exposed to more shocking Earthquakes. In Boston are more erected than anywhere else in New England; and Boston seems to be more dreadfully Shaken. O. there is no getting out of the mighty Hand of God. If we still think to avoid it in the Air we cannot in the Earth; yea, it may grow more fatal."
Thomas Prince, Earthquakes the Works of God and Tokens of His Just Displeasure,
In the long run lightning rods caught on just fine and opposition from the clergy ended. This might possibly be because church towers were the tallest building in town and thus most frequently hit by lightning. Hard to argue lightning is God’s sign of displeasure when he’s just taken out the north tower.
So. What’s your own experience with lightning?