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From Research in Review Magazine, Florida State University, Spring 2006:

Fried Bats in the Belfry

Since Galileo, the fault line between religion and science has triggered events that, through the lens of modern physics and the life sciences, now seem quaint, even comical.

Consider the invention of the lightning rod, surely one of Ben Franklin’s finest gifts to civilization. After he introduced his “lightning attractor” in 1753, the invention was surprisingly slow to catch on among church-going crowds both in this country and overseas.

Despite repeated demonstrations of its effectiveness in keeping lightning from damaging church steeples, sparking terrible fires and killing or maiming parishioners, the religious set was reluctant to embrace Franklin’s new gadget. The principal objection stemmed from suspicions that the new technology was a haughty attempt by man to thwart the works of God, who clearly had His reasons, however inscrutable, for frequently dispensing electrical wrath upon His flock.

From the Middle Ages, worshippers had sought deliverance from terrible storms in several piously correct ways, from intensive prayer to witch-burning. One of the most popular customs for dispelling the malevolence of thunderstorms was to ring church bells, assuredly a practice not for the faint of heart.

Decades after Franklin’s lightning rod appeared, bell ringers were still climbing church towers during storms and pulling on damp ropes in desperate attempts to save their beloved houses of worship and the saints therein. By the mid-1780s, in Germany alone more than 400 church towers were reported damaged by lightning with at least 120 bell ringers killed.

Franklin, meanwhile, scoffed at notions that his invention circumvented Divine intentions for mankind. He countered that people commonly built their houses with roofs to stave off flood and misery from rain, another contrivance of the Deity, yet he heard no complaints that rooftops were designs of the devil.

Still, his pointy, rooftop rods remained suspect in clerical circles, even after they became widely popular in his Boston, Mass. hometown. After a violent earthquake shook the area in 1755, Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of the town’s Old South Church, wrote a sermon suggesting that the quake was caused by the city’s large number of “iron points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin.” —F.S.

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