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.

Posted on January 17, 2006 at 7:52 AM • 24 Comments


Stu SavoryJanuary 17, 2006 9:31 AM

Actually, I thank Ben Franklin too for inventing bifocal glasses, so you could peer close and afar without changing 'em.

He collected the opinions of several friends about them before he went to market. I believe this is the first known case if "peer review" ;-)

ZwackJanuary 17, 2006 10:52 AM


Let's see, Benjamin Franklin is arguing that 1 in 100,000 deaths is caused by Lightning strikes and it is therefore not worth protecting against, but that the Security Theatre aspects will make people FEEL much safer so we should do it after all. Is this really something that we should be celebrating?


AzeJanuary 17, 2006 11:01 AM


Instead we should be celebrating his honesty for admitting what he was doing, instead of just pretending that he's "doing something about the great lightning problem, unlike those other layabout physicists/politicians".


David ThomasJanuary 17, 2006 11:36 AM

It's much less "security theater" when (1) it actually fixes the problem and (2) you admit that it's a very small problem to begin with. The fact that it's also purely voluntary and non-invasive also makes a difference between this and more harmful kinds of security theater.

Tony VanceJanuary 17, 2006 11:45 AM


Benjamin Franklin is stating the truth that security is as much a feeling as it is a state of being. Much of our security techniques today are not only used to protect a person or asset, but to make the owner or user involved "feel" secure as well. The feeling of security can be just as valuable (or more so) than the actual security provided by the security technique.

Davi OttenheimerJanuary 17, 2006 12:01 PM

"Security Theatre aspects will make people FEEL much safer so we should do it after all"

Yes, quite. His point, it seems, was that people can become so aprehensive as to be unable to function in the face of even remote danger. Fear is a funny thing, that way, since a climate of the stuff is traditionally defined as insecure. Providing a sense of security via a simple and tested control measure is therefore a valid consideration. But if your control measures generate as much or more fear than the original threat...

ZwackJanuary 17, 2006 1:28 PM

But, airport searches of everyone make people feel more secure without significantly altering the threat.

So where is the difference?

The airport searches are an invasion of privacy, don't solve the problem of "terrists" and make people feel secure.

The only difference that I can see is the actual implementation cost of searching more people in more invasive ways (please swallow this search capsule two hours before your flight) is significantly more than that of strapping a piece of copper to a building.


JakeSJanuary 17, 2006 1:46 PM

@Zwack:  The difference is who is making the choice.

Franklin's point is that we're bad at assessing risk.  We're prepared to take elaborate precautions against dangers whose risk is actually very small, such as being struck by lightning, but by comparison we're very casual about much higher risks such as those that we run on the roads.

Security theater is different because the choice is made, not by the people who are running the risks, but by bureaucrats and politicians who don't care how much of our money they spend so long as they cover their asses.

Joe BuckJanuary 17, 2006 1:49 PM

Lightning rods can be installed once and forgotten. While they don't save a significant number of lives, they probably have a bigger effect on property damage, and they don't inconvenience people. Airport security, on the other hand, has a significant cost in time as well as in personal dignity.

Davi OttenheimerJanuary 17, 2006 1:56 PM

"The only difference that I can see is the actual implementation cost"

That IS a significant difference since implementation of checkpoints always have a dramatic impact/cost, and thus they are justified by an extreme level of fear (wherever it may come from).

For example, compare the cost of an emergency phone number (e.g. 911) versus the cost of maintaining police checkpoint outside every home.

Checkpoints are rarely justifiable unless a threat is so high and vulnerabilities so high that the process in question is almost certain to fail without constant and direct secrurity intervention.

"The airport searches are an invasion of privacy, don't solve the problem of "terrists" and make people feel secure."

That's a different problem. My sense, from early meetings with TSA, was that airport screening advocates/authorities were rushed and literally guessing about what to do, how to do it and where. I can sum it up in one word: nailclippers. Stolen personal effects might be another suitable description. And the FEMA Brown fiasco perfectly illustrates that the spoils system of governance is often what lies behind decisions about public safety and security, not experience or any kind of scientific method of evaluating risk/control ratios in order to find a reasonable balance of freedom versus regulation.

dus7January 17, 2006 8:56 PM

Lightning deaths (in the U.S. - not necessarily if ever inside the home) is about 6 per 10 mil. for about 100 k thunderstorms per year.

That's from since MovableType cleverly has no HTML linkage.

I found airport security 'for my own safety' a godsend since I was forever leaving home with the spare b*mb in my shoe. :P

Lightning rods were a big deal when I was growing up. I guess the salesmen were convincing, lol.

Now tell me about life insurance; let's see, I pay you, and then I die anyway and, what again?

RobJanuary 17, 2006 9:55 PM

Many years ago I was a student in London and enjoyed a quiet walk around the city at night. I took reasonable precautions about which areas I walked and avoided the underground rail system (running away was my preferred self-defence and it is hard to get far on a train). At that time it seemed to me that I was running very little risk and that if everyone had the same perception of risk as me there would be so many people around that it would feel even safer. My point is that a lot of the security theatre (currently at high alert state for example) skews the risk perception and makes everybody feel less safe.

TrevorJanuary 18, 2006 3:03 AM

A very interesting read, and as usual, very interesting commenters, some of whom I agree with, and some of whom I would like to be struck by lightning.

Arturo QuirantesJanuary 18, 2006 3:45 AM

If you stop to think, the risks associated with lightning are much less than for other, more mundane, threats to your health like smoking or driving. However, while most people would happily install a lighting rod on the roof, they would be more reluctant to leave smoking or driving. Ask them why, and they will come up with bad excuses like "yes, but I can choose to leave it whenever I want; on the other hand, lightning is something is unpredictable, I cannot control it, so I need protection"

In other words, we do not face threats according to the level of severity or odds, but according to whether they make us feel better or not. More cops to counter a one-in-a-zillion terrorist attack on X? (insert your favorite movie-plot target). Why, sure! Let my loving car rot in the garage? No way!

Anyway, the people of Dresden also felt secure in their cellars-turnet-into-refuges until somewhere in early April 1945...

David HarmonJanuary 18, 2006 10:11 AM

Ben: "OK, the actual odds of being hit by lightning aren't much, but if you put these rods on your house, you won't have to worry about it anyway."

TSA: "We're worried there might be another dozen terrorists among a few million air passengers, so we're requiring most of you passengers to submit to full body search and surrender any personal effects we damn please. if you don't like it, you can go home and forget travelling by plane. Try to argue and we'll arrest you on the spot. There, now don't you feel safer?"

For Zwack to claim there's no real distinction between these cases is disingenious at best.
I'm calling "troll"....

ZwackJanuary 18, 2006 4:02 PM

Thanks David Harmon, I'll go back under my bridge...

Seriously, I don't see the difference between the two other than cost (which has been noted is a huge difference).

How about these two fictional monologues...

Ben: The fear of lightning will paralyse your constituents unless you force them to buy one of my fine lightning rods. The actual risk of being struck by lightning is very small. Now won't they feel safer?

TSA: The fear of terrorists will paralyse your constituents unless you force them to use my fine search services. The actual risks of attack by terrorists is very small. Now won't they feel safer?

The same proposition to the same client... Salesmen talking to the government... The fact that Ben Franklin didn't (even try to) get a Government mandate doesn't make it any less of a piece of theatre.

Given the above can you see why I can't see the difference? In both cases these are low risks. The biggest difference is the cost of mitigating them which would probably make a costs/benefits analysis come out in favour of lightning rods.


Pat CahalanJanuary 18, 2006 4:12 PM

@ Zwack

I see at least one major difference:

If I (the government) agree to buy into Ben's lightning rod for government-owned buildings, I stick it on the outside of a building.

If I (the government) agree to buy into TSA searches, the TSA sticks the lightning rod ...

Pardon my joke, I couldn't resist.

Davi OttenheimerJanuary 19, 2006 12:40 AM

"TSA: The fear of terrorists will paralyse your constituents unless you force them to use my fine search services."

Actually, I think it was more along the lines of "I can't allow you to return to your normal routine unless you use my fine search services".

The study of London transit after bombings found that people who have routines (bus drivers, commuters, etc.) are likely to return to their normal paths almost immediately following an attack. This is obviously the case in many countries that experience domestic terrorism. You can expect a rise in demand for increased safety at a high level, but paralysis is usually highest in those who have the least reason to be afraid. Like I said, fear is a funny thing in security.

RvnPhnxJanuary 20, 2006 3:53 PM

It was also stated in the past as now that making people more aware of an unlikely threat does nothing to improve their security situation (on the whole). Ben Franklin was as good a saleman as anything else, and I take the above quote as proof of just that. At the same time, Franklin had the morals and good sense not to go about creating fear about things for which he could claim to quickly offer a remedy. That is what is different about what he said then and the situation today.

DrHowFebruary 16, 2006 6:43 PM

Bruce writes, "... 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."

The above leaves a false impression about how lightening rods work. Their purpose is not so much to conduct the current of the lightening away from the building as to PREVENT STRIKES by leaking off the charge buildup before lightening strikes. That is why lightening rods are pointed. When there are thunderstorms about, the electrical field gradient at a rod point is extremely high (an effect of the 3D geometry), which results in ionization of air molecules which are then repelled from the point. I have heard that it is actually possible to feel a "wind" from the charged molecules moving away from the point.

elambJune 21, 2006 4:34 PM

They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security

-- Ben Franklin

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