The Friday Report: Gunpowder in the belfry

Jon deVos
The Friday Report
Jon DeVos
Staff Photo |

Amber is fossilized tree sap and comes to us today as old as 300 million years while still looking like the day it ran out of the tree. Ancient Greek philosophers rubbed it with a cloth, noting how it attracted hair and feathers. They did not connect this attraction with lightning.

Rather, they knew that lightning bolts were forged deep in the bowels of a fiery volcano by the three Cyclops brothers. They were one-eyed monsters who hammered out the bolts for Zeus to throw at the neighbors in a silly little squabble over Helen of Troy, the beauty that launched the Trojan War. Despite the divine help, Troy got sacked and pillaged anyway.

Up into the 1750s people believed that lightning was merely a form of airborne fire, leaving scorch marks where it struck. They also noticed that lightning caused a whole lot of churches to burn down. Reverent folks were appalled that lightning seemed to prefer churches. What kind of God burns down his own house? They figured it was divine retribution but they couldn’t figure out for what.

They thought that perhaps they just needed to get God’s attention and started ringing church bells during thunderstorms. Surely that would protect the church and its occupants from lightning. Many bells cast during Medieval times carried the Latin inscription, “Fulgura Frango” which translated as, “I break the lightning.”

It wasn’t very effective. European records indicate 133 bell-ringers were killed by lightning in the early 1400s. Despite this fact, churches were believed to be safe places to store munitions. In 1769, the steeple of the church of Saint Nazaire in Brescia, Italy, was used to store 100 tons of gunpowder. Lightning triggered a horrific explosion killing more than three thousand people and leveling one-sixth of the city,

It took no less than the nimble American mind of Benjamin Franklin to figure out that God doesn’t hate churches; steeples were the tallest structure in the village, a natural attractant to lightning. His lightning rod was no more than a tall metal spike mounted high atop the steeple, fastened by a wire to another spike buried in the ground but it created a safe pathway for the electricity in its desperate attempt at neutrality. So equipped, churches stopped burning down from lightning strikes. Well, they still burned but now it was just with religious fervor.

After dwelling on it for 10 centuries, we call this attraction electricity and understand it is caused by the fight for neutrality between positive and negative ions. Advances in technology have allowed us to control this energy to light up our homes and Skype our friends. Grand County is closer to God than 98 percent of the world’s population and we know, first-hand, that electricity also runs wild and free as a bolt of lightning. 3D lightning imaging has recorded lightning bolts over 100 miles long. The good news is that 80 percent of all the lightning strikes stay in the clouds, never hitting the ground at all.

Just three years ago, it was then Colorado Governor Bill Ritter who proclaimed the last week in June as Colorado Lightning Safety and Wildfire Awareness Week. I guess the subtext is that some of us do need government help to figure out when to come in out of the rain.

About 70 Americans die from lightning strikes every year. That’s roughly the same number killed in tornados. For the last 10 years Colorado has been second in the nation in lightning-related deaths but ranked towards the bottom in number of ground strikes. The disparity is attributed to the high levels of outdoor enthusiasts.

Mom’s advice was good: “Get outta the rain!”

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