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.