Ben Franklin on the Feeling of Security
Today is Ben Franklin’s 300th birthday. Among many other discoveries and inventions, Franklin worked out a way of protecting buildings from lightning strikes, by providing a conducting path to ground—outside a building—from one or more pointed rods high atop the structure. People tried this, and it worked. Franklin became a celebrity, not just among “electricians,” but among the general public.
An article in this month’s issue of Physics Today has a great 1769 quote by Franklin about lightning rods, and the reality vs. the feeling of security:
Those who calculate chances may perhaps find that not one death (or the destruction of one house) in a hundred thousand happens from that cause, and that therefore it is scarce worth while to be at any expense to guard against it. But in all countries there are particular situations of buildings more exposed than others to such accidents, and there are minds so strongly impressed with the apprehension of them, as to be very unhappy every time a little thunder is within their hearing; it may therefore be well to render this little piece of new knowledge as general and well understood as possible, since to make us safe is not all its advantage, it is some to make us easy. And as the stroke it secures us from might have chanced perhaps but once in our lives, while it may relieve us a hundred times from those painful apprehensions, the latter may possibly on the whole contribute more to the happiness of mankind than the former.