Authors: Scott Skinner
Date Submitted: February 28, 2007
Article Type: Journal

I felt a little like a Kansas school teacher when Darwin is mentioned; my faith was challenged by a new set of facts. So it was when I read Tom Tucker’s Bold of Fate: Ben Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax. Could it be that the patron saint of kitefliers, Ben Franklin, never flew that famous kite? Could all the images on paper, ceramics, plaster, and bronze be inspired by myth? Could Ben have created this “experiment” out of whole cloth?

I’m suspicious of revisionist history, especially when modern norms are superimposed upon very different historical situations. Tucker wins me over though, at least as far as the actual kite experiment is concerned. In his balanced and thoughtful discussion of Ben Franklin, the printer, the politician, the celebrity, and the quick-witted hoaxer, I can believe that Franklin never actually performed the kite experiment. I think Tucker reaches when he accuses Ben of consciously planning a deadly hoax—-much more likely that Franklin was not aware of the potential for danger and proposed the experiment to ensure his own fame.

By discussing the personalities involved, the rivalries, the egos, and the intellects, Tucker makes clear the high stakes of scientific fame as well as the enormous risks of failure. He identifies the people on both sides of the Atlantic who would advance the science of electricity and notes their strengths and weaknesses. Through inconsistencies in the written record as well as pragmatic problems that have been raised before, Tucker makes a strong case that Franklin never flew that famous kite. Beyond that, is the realm of conjecture, because Franklin was immensely famous in his own lifetime and learned to use fact and myth as his ally.

PDF Link: Journal Issue