The Influence of Bell Upon Thunder Storms

by Albany Poyntz

Science has long demonstrated the folly of ringing church bells during a storm. The vibration of the air, produced by the movement of a bell, was formerly supposed to disperse the fluid; which, on the contrary, it attracts. For these fifty years past, the civic authorities have compelled the bell-ringers to be silent during a storm. In former ages, when the priests caused the bells to be rung during a storm, it was an act of piety and not a physical experiment. Scientific men, on the contrary, have been justified in declaring the vibration caused by the sound of a church bell upon a cloud charged with electricity to be injurious, from the fact that ringers have been struck dead by the electric fluid during the discharge of their functions. But though bells are no longer rung during a storm, the fluid falls just as often upon church steeples. It is, however, as well to forbid the ringing of bells during a storm, for the simple reason that to ring the bells, the ringer must be in the tower, where he is in greater danger than elsewhere. Steeples are often surmounted by an iron cross, or weathercock, which attracts the fluid.

It is only lately we have made any proficiency in electrical science. Franklin, who at the same moment brought fire from heaven and wrested the sceptre from the potentates of the earth, was the inventor of the conductor, which has probably preserved many monuments from destruction. In the reign of Louis XIV, sailors were in the habit of affixing a pointed sword to the summit of the mast, most likely acting under the experience and impression which produced the conductor. A learned priest, the Abbé Thiers, who died in 1703, in enumerating the superstitious practices of his time, mentions the custom of affixing a pointed sword to a mast during storms. The good old priest saw in it only a kind of superstition; while the discovery of Franklin commanded the admiration of the world. It is not unlikely that from the bosom of vulgar superstitions, science might extract many a valuable discovery.

In a late number of the Almanack of the Board of Longitude, Monsieur Arago published a curious theory upon thunder, citing many interesting facts; the only means of conferring popularity on knowledge, which, in its severer garb, is too often banished to the lecture-room. The influence of storms upon animate as well as inanimate bodies, is incontestable; for which of us has not felt or witnessed the effects? Previous to the approach of the storm, the depression of the air is perceptible upon our limbs and spirits; and on beholding the dejected, languid, and uneasy demeanour of the animal species, it might be supposed that so powerful a sensation would be more oppressive to ourselves, were it not restrained by reason. A similar sensation is experienced in a far higher degree, previous to the shock of an earthquake.

With the first drops of rain of a thunder storm, however, we experience relief. Both animal and vegetable substances become decomposed during a storm. Objects formed of goat or sheep-skin give out a nauseous smell. White paper and other substances have been known to become covered with spots of various hues. Oxen killed by lightning are unfit for use, so nauseous and black is the flesh. Dairy-maids place a nail under the vessels containing the milk, to prevent it turning, as well as under a hen which is sitting. Remote approaches towards the conductor!

Of the phenomena which signalize storms, nothing is more remarkable than the repugnance of the electric fluid for silk. The steel ornaments of a purse have been known to become twisted by the fluid, while the silk remained uninjured. A covering of silk is accordingly the surest preservative. But it is a curious fact that to none of the insect species is a thunder-storm more fatal than to the silk-worm; as the silk-growers know to their cost.

The protective power of the laurel is now known to be fabulous; the laurel tree being as much a conductor as any other.