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September 2, 2014, 7:59 am

Franklin Institute celebrates electrical pioneer

Colonial Philadelphia served as the setting when the lightning rod was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749. As buildings become taller, lightning becomes more of a threat as it can damage structures made of most materials (masonry, wood, concrete and steel) as the huge currents involved can heat materials to high temperature, causing a potential for fire. Franklin was on a mission to guard his fellow citizens from storm hazards by creating one of his greatest inventions, the lightning rod.

Although not the first to suggest a correlation between electricity and lightning, Franklin was the first to propose a workable system for testing his hypothesis. Franklin speculated that, with an iron rod sharpened to a point at the end, "The electrical fire would, I think, be drawn out of a cloud silently, before it could come near enough to strike…"

By June 1752, Franklin embarked on one of history’s most renowned experiments — he flew a key on a kite from the steeple of Christ Church to conduct electricity from the clouds. Today, The Franklin Institute is now home to an intriguing collection of eight artfully handcrafted antique lightning rods, dating from late 18th through mid-20th centuries. This unique collection, which is housed in the “Electricity” exhibit, will be on display for one year and open during the anniversary of Franklin’s birth on Jan. 17.

The collection is on loan from New York media executive and folk art devotee, Joshua Sapan. Sapan’s more than 100 item collection of lightning rods is believed to be the world’s largest, and some of its most beautiful and singular offerings are part of this first of its kind installation at The Franklin Institute. In his professional life, Sapan serves as the president and CEO of AMC Networks, a national programming network group which owns and operates the cable television networks: AMC, IFC, Sundance Channel, WEtv and IFC Films.

“My own interest in collecting lightning rods stemmed from reading Walter Issacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, and also my own decades-long interest in American folk and industrial art,” said Sapan. “Aside from their obvious beauty and diversity, the creation and growth of the lightning rod business is a fascinating illustration of how science, art and commerce can fuse to bring the world inventions of both great value and eternal beauty.”

Though a ubiquitous item on many American homes, farms, churches and municipal buildings since the late 18th century, these antique lightning rods (also called a "lightning attractor" or "Franklin rod") have only piqued the serious interest of collectors since the mid-1990s. The story of the introduction of lightning rods into American homes is a reflection of Franklin’s own eclectic passions and pursuits; merging science, industrial artistry and unbridled free market commerce.

“It seems only fitting that The Franklin Institute, founded on the unquenchable scientific spirit of Benjamin Franklin, would be the first venue to exhibit some of the finest selections from this collection,” explained Dennis Wint, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute. “These items are an expression of America’s rich past, the children, if you will, of one of Franklin’s own brightest and most valuable inventions.”

The Franklin Institute is located 2000 Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. For more information, visit


Contact Tribune Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .