The Franklin Lightning Rod


Dome of the Maryland State House from drawing by Charles Willson Peale"Dr. Franklin is well known to be the greatest phylosopher of the present age;--all the operations of nature he seems to understand,--the very heavens obey him, and the Clouds yield up their Lightning to be imprisoned in his rod. 

From William Pierce: Character Sketches of Delegates to the Federal Convention, p. 91.

The Lightning Rod on the dome of the State House is the largest 'Franklin' lightning rod ever attached to a public or private building in Benjamin Franklin's lifetime. It was constructed in accord with Franklin's recommendations and has served the State House and the dome well for at least 208 years, with only one recorded instance of damage caused by lightning. Indeed the dome and the lightning rod passed their first real test when they weathered the severe hurricane of July 1788 without incident.

The lightning rod is of wrought iron painted to protect it from corrosion. It is 28' tall and 2.5" square at its maximum thickness. It was in place by the time Charles Willson Peale drew the State House (dated July 1788, but probably drawn in June). A Columbian Magazine article (probably by Peale) refers to the lightning rod as a 'spire' and indicates that it is 18' above the acorn and pedestal which it passes through and which are themselves 10 feet tall. (recent measurements by Orlando Ridout V and information taken from "A Description of the State-House in Annapolis, the Capital of Maryland" from the Columbian Magazine, February 1789.)

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 2: The History of Students’ Own State or Region 

STANDARD 3: The people, events, problems, and ideas that created the history of their state. 

Standard 3E: The student understands the ideas that were significant in the development of the state and that helped to forge its unique identity.

K-4: Draw upon visual and other data to identify symbols, slogans, or mottoes, and research why they represent the state.
K-4: Research in order to explain why important buildings, statues, monuments, and place names are associated with the state’s history. [Obtain historical data] 
3-4: Analyze how the ideas of significant people affected the history of their state. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 

Topic 4: The History of Peoples of Many Cultures Around the World

STANDARD 8: Major discoveries in science and technology, their social and economic effects, 
and the scientists and inventors responsible for them. 

Standard 8A: The student understands the development of technological innovations, the major scientists and inventors associated with them and their social and economic effects. 

K-4: Identify and describe the significant achievements of important scientists and inventors. [Assess the importance of the individual in history] 
3-4: Identify and describe various technological developments to control fire, water, wind, and soil, and to utilize natural resources such as trees, coal, oil, and gas in order to satisfy the basic human needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter. [Obtain historical data] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Benjamin Franklin 
    ARTIST: Charles Willison Peale
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: c [between 1900 and 1920]
    NOTES: Photograph of painting at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Detroit Publishing Co. no. M311.
    Gift; State Historical Society of Colorado; 1949. 
    SOURCE: Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

  2. DESCRIPTION: [Benjamin Franklin, head and shoulders portrait] 
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: c [between 1900 and 1920]
    NOTES: Title devised by cataloger; Caption on negative: Ben Franklin. Photograph of a painting. Detroit Publishing Co. no. 029337. Gift; State Historical Society of Colorado; 1949.
    SOURCE: Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

  3. DESCRIPTION: A Front View of the State House etc. at Annapolis the Capital of Maryland
    ARTIST: Attributed to Charles Willson Peale
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: Published February 1789 in the Columbian Magazine
    NOTES: Drawing shows acorn and Franklin lightning rod.
    SOURCE: Thomas Bond Collection, MSA SC 194
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: [Pen and ink drawings of the Maryland State House]
    ARTIST: Attributed to Charles Willson Peale
    SOURCE: William Voss Elder Collection, MSA SC 1051-1
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: [Chapter 32, Acts of 1773 includes specifications for construction of an iron lightning rod.]
    NOTES: General Assembly and the Loan Office directed to appropriate money to pay for the difference of the expense between a copper and slate covering and for the iron rod, and to pay Charles Wallace for his work
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Volume 64, 270
    RESPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  6. DESCRIPTION: Newspaper account of violent storm that damages the State House
    September 7, 1775
    "On Saturday night last we had a most violent storm from the north-east, which for several hours blew a mere hurricane, with heavy rain; the water rose three feet perpendicular above the common tide; a great quantity of the copper on the state-house was torn up, and the market-house blown down; the damage sustained in different parts of the province, we are told, is very considerable." 
    Maryland Gazette Collection
    Maryland State Archives

See also: Maryland State House at Annapolis

Additional Media Resources

History of the Maryland State House. From the staff of the Maryland State Archives. Includes information about the State House dome, acorn, and lightning rod.

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Walsh, Jr., December 4, 1818, with Anecdotes about Benjamin Franklin. From Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827

The Electric Franklin Project

Benjamin Franklin. An Extraordinary Life. An Electric Mind. From PBS

Additional Instructional Resources

Benjamin Franklin. An Extraordinary Life. An Electric Mind. From PBS. See also Teacher's Guide.

Benjamin Franklin: Citizen of the World. From A&E Classrooms.

Secondary Resources

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Jernegan, Marcus W. "Benjamin Franklin's 'Electrical Kite' and Lightning Rod" The New England Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2. (Apr., 1928): 180-196. 

Miles, Richard D. Miles "The American Image of Benjamin Franklin." American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Part 1. (Summer, 1957): 117-143. 

Rotch, A. Lawrence. "When Did Franklin Invent the Lightning-Rod?" Science, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 612. (Sep. 21, 1906):  374-376. 

Sparks, Jared. Life of Benjamin Franklin: A Continuation of Franklin's Autobiography.

Trowbridge, John. "Thunder-Storms." Science, Vol. 4, No. 78. (Aug. 1, 1884): 97-99. 

Tunbridge, Paul A. "Franklin's Pointed Lightning Conductor." Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 28, No. 2. (Apr., 1974): 207-219. 

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Maryland State House
State Circle
Annapolis, MD 21401
Franklin Institute Science Museum
222 North 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: (215) 448-1200

Copyright and Other Restrictions

Access to materials linked within these document packets is intended for educational and research purposes. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or holders of other rights (such as publicity and privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. The responsibility for making an independent legal assessment and independently securing any necessary rights rests with persons desiring to use particular items in the context of the intended use.

Password Access to Materials

The use of any user name and password to access materials on this web site constitutes an agreement by the user to abide by any and all copyright restrictions and is an acknowledgement that these materials will be used for personal and educational use only. In most instances, the username aaco and password aaco# will work. Contact if you have any questions or have difficulty accessing files.


Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.


Teaching American History | Document Packets Index

  An Archives of Maryland Online Publication • © Copyright 2001-2005 Maryland State Archives
Maryland State Archives • 350 Rowe Boulevard • Annapolis, MD 21401 • 410-260-6400 •