Around about 1751, Benjamin Franklin became the first person to initiate explosives with electricity. Franklin, as usual, was well ahead of other scientists around the world. While one aspect of this research leads us to modern electrical initiation of explosives and munitions another leads us towards the hazards of lightning when associated with stored munitions, and Franklin became expert at lightning conductors for munition stores.
For the past few years I’ve been mentally filing interesting accidental explosions from history and I’m now being encouraged to gather my notes together, and indeed relay some of the intriguing aspects to these stories. Shortly you’ll see a new page on this blog dedicated to such events.
Here’s a great example:
In August 1769 lightning struck the tower of the Church of San Nazaro on Brescia, Italy. In the vaults of the church over 200,000 pounds of explosive was stored. The resulting explosion killed 3000 people and destroyed a large part of the city.
For many centuries gunpowder was stored in churches – there seems to have been a belief that the church bells prevented lightning. Unfortunately I guess the opposite is true – the tall steeples and towers on a church actually encourage lightning strikes. During thunder storms teams of men rang the bells in church towers in efforts to prevent thunderstorms. During the period 1753 to 1786 lightning killed 103 French bell ringers. A triumph of belief over evidence surely.
Interestingly Franklin was extremely active in advising European governments after the Brescia event on the principles of lightning protection for munitions stores. At one stage there was a dispute over the best shaped lightning rods , with Franklin a proponent of sharp pointed rods on top of buildings and an Englishman, Benjamin Wilson urging the use of ball shaped terminals below the roof line. The argument became political, and George III decided he didn’t want American advice…. And Franklin’s conductors were replaced on several British munitions stores. One of them in Sumatra subsequently disappeared with a bang during a thunderstorm.
As late as 1856 gunpowder stored in a church in Rhodes was hit by lightning and it exploded killing , allegedly, 4000 people.