Ben Franklin Installed New Hampshire Lightning Rod in 1763
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

1763 Warner House lightning Rod still in use todayHISTORY MATTERS


Did Benjamin Franklin conduct lightning rod installation at the ancient Warner House in Portsmouth, NH while serving as Deputy Postmaster to King George III in 1763? Signs point to YES. But will Portsmouth restore damaged painting that honors the event? The jury is still out. (click title to read more) 


As Portsmouth legends go, this one has juice. It is entirely possible that the lightning rod atop the ancient brick Warner House was installed under the direction of Benjamin Franklin, America's most inventive founding father. The historic record, so far, is mute on the subject, but the circumstantial evidence is charged with possibility.  

Benjamin was born in Boston in 1706 to Puritan parents. His father, Josiah, made soap and candles. His mother, Abiah, raised Benjamin, his five older brothers, and his six sisters. Even before the American Revolution, Franklin was well known as a printer, writer, inventor, ambassador, and postmaster.   


West side of Warner House in Portsmouth, NH


Enlightening research

Franklin's first invention was a set of wooden swimming fins. Besides his famous stove design, bifocals, and printing press, he is credited with creating the first flexible catheter, with publishing early political cartoons, and with charting the Gulf Stream. He created the first volunteer fire department in his adopted city of Philadelphia, established the nation's first lending library, and launched a public university.

Ben Franklin's interest in "electrical fire" began in the mid-1740s.  He described a jolting close encounter with electrical current as "...a universal blow throughout my whole body from head to foot, which seemed within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick shaking of my body."


Within a few years, already wealthy and "retired" at age 42, he began publishing his scientific findings. In 1852 Franklin risked his life in the famous kite-and-key experiment in order to demonstrate that lightning and electricity were one in the same. The following year he published "How to Secure Houses, etc. from Lightning" in his Poor Richards Almanack. His new device, Franklin wrote, could "secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief!"

He was allowed to install experimental lightning rods on key Philadelphia buildings. The invention was both simple and practical. Buildings were getting taller in the mid-18th century. Church spires and ship masts and chimneys were vulnerable to 50,000-degree bolts of lightning. Initially Franklin thought that a needle-like metal rod with a copper tip, placed above a roof, tree, or mast, would drawn the lightning from nearby clouds. If "grounded" to the earth by a brass wire, the fearsome fiery charge could be conducted harmlessly from the clouds to the earth.

Franklin Rods, technically, did not pull lightning out of the clouds, rendering storms harmless. But they did ionize the surrounding air, effectively intercepting a lightning strike. They channeled the current harmlessly into the ground, saving countless structures from destruction.



Critics argued that, by drawing so much lightning into the ground, Franklin's invention caused the great earthquake of 1755. Others claimed that his metal rods burned down hundreds of wooden houses. But at Harvard and Yale, in Europe and around the world, the inventor was hailed as a genius for the practical application of his dogged research.  By 1760, having proved that electricity was everywhere, his "lightning attractor" was widely used, and the accompanying science was widely understood. 





Lightning rod installed by Ben Franklin in 1763 in Portsmouth, NH



J Dennis Robinson meets Ben Franklin



Franklin in Portsmouth


But did Ben Franklin actually visit Portsmouth, New Hampshire? The historical record says--yes. Local accounts place him here in 1763.  At the time, a dozen years before the American Revolution, Franklin was appointed Deputy Postmaster General to the colonies. For five months he traveled from New Jersey and New York to New England, inspecting and setting up post offices and improving delivery. 

Portsmouth was the northernmost stop on his tour. He arrived here some time between August 12 and September 5. Earlier in his tour, Franklin had fallen from his coach and dislocated his shoulder. He fell again in Portsmouth. and his recuperation delayed the journey. Rerunning to friends and family in Boston, he didn't get back home to Philadelphia until early November.

John Warner, a wealthy seaport merchant, was then owner of a fine brick mansion on Daniel Street near the Piscataqua River. Warner had married Mary Macpheadris. A widow and heiress, Mary's father had built the fortress-like brick structure in 1716. Warner was a member of the King's Council, and it is reasonable to assume that he met and entertained Franklin when the Deputy Postmaster for King George III visited Portsmouth, then a Royalist stronghold.  

Franklin's letters do not specifically mention Warner or anyone else in town, or even the dates of his Portsmouth visit. But we know that this gregarious man often stayed with key people during his five-month journey. Franklin happily accepted their luxurious accommodations. Local historians have conjectured that, having hurt himself traveling from Boston to Portsmouth, perhaps Franklin convalesced here in town and consulted with Warner about lightning rods.  


It is only a theory, based on Warner family lore, and there are skeptics. No documentation of Franklin's stay in Portsmouth has surfaced. Historian Phillip Dray does not mention Portsmouth in his book, Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America (2005).  A Boston newspaper, hearing about the Warner House lightning rod in 1873, found the claim dubious. "The next thing we shall hear," the newspaper taunted, "will be that Washington was a book agent and Thomas Jefferson a stove polish seller."


Damaged 1937 Harry Harlow painting of Ben Franklin at the Warner House in Portsmouth, NH


Electrifying evidence


Now dwarfed by the Connie Bean luxury apartments across the street, the Warner House would have been a skyscraper by 1716 standards. The earliest, urban brick house in northern New England served temporarily as the governor's mansion when royal Gov. Benning Wentworth and his family moved there in 1741. It was still a prominent site in 1763. Two years after Franklin's visit, a Portsmouth mob would take to the streets in protest of the hated Stamp Act.  


Experts agree that the crude lightning rod, still attached to the west side of the historic Warner House, matches the age and style of Franklin's early devices. Years ago the rusty slice of metal that grounded the lightning rod was removed by archaeologists. Half of the grounding rod had rusted away, but the remaining chunk is consistent with a pre-Revolutionary installation.



After studying the colonial fire prevention device, archaeologist Rick Morris, found the evidence convincing. The wrought iron grounding rod and two chain links led to a clay pit seven feet from the house foundation. This system, Morris concluded in a 1996 report,  was designed to Franklin's specifications.


Visitors to the museum (it re-opens for its 300th anniversary in June) can view the surviving L-shaped scrap of metal. The crude, hand-forged artifact rests in a glass case in a closet-sized space inside the grand wood-paneled mansion. It is a humble exhibit at best. A few faded sheets of paper  tacked to the wall tell the story of Franklin's game-changing invention.



Preserving a painting


This story sparks a newsworthy footnote. A commercial artist named Harry Harlow (1882-1963) first saw Portsmouth during World War I. He moved here in 1927. Captivated by colonial Portsmouth, he produced 50 small paintings of doorways in the city. Historian Dorothy Vaughan called Harlow "the kindest gentlest man you'd ever know."



In 1937 Harlow painted a life-sized portrait of Benjamin Franklin, replete with his lightning rod, standing in front of the Warner House. According to Warner House historian Ronan Donohoe, Harlow's picture hung for years in the original New Franklin School off Dennett Street, until that building was destroyed by fire in the early 1980s. Though severely damaged by smoke and water, the painting survived and was kept in storage by the Portsmouth School Department.


In 2011 the Portsmouth Historical Society offered to raise an estimated $2,000 to $3,000 to restore Harlow's lightning rod painting. The plan was to make the painting accessible to the public at the newly created Discover Portsmouth Center. In exchange for saving the painting, the historical society would become owners of the forgotten work or art. 



Ed McDonough, then Superintendent of Schools, presented the idea to the Portsmouth School Board. But, unwilling to give up ownership of the painting, the board turned the museum's offer. School Board member Kent LaPage was quoted as saying, "I understand someone wanting to take ownership, but I could never support that."


"I thought I was doing a good thing, but it didn't work out," Ed McDonough says today from his office in Freeport, Maine, where he is currently school superintendent. "So we just kept it."


Once stored behind the office door of the secretary to the superintendent, the deteriorating Benjamin Franklin portrait has found its way into storage in the basement of Little Harbor School.

When asked how a damaged historical painting stored in a school basement contributes to the education of Portsmouth students, current School Superintendent Stephen Zadravec says, "That's a good question."


"There certainly is interest in restoring it," Zadravec says, with an eye to the city's looming 400th anniversary in 2023. "Perhaps this would be a good time to revisit that decision."


Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders.