Organizing and Analyzing the Observations

  • Herbert Boerner


In the eighteenth century, considerable progress was made in understanding lightning and electricity. One of Benjamin Franklin’s experiments is a famous example of the investigations done at that time: he flew a kite under thunderstorm conditions and was able to extract sparks from the wet, conducting line, demonstrating that lightning is electrical in nature. At the same time, machines were constructed that generated electricity by rubbing rapidly rotating glass balls, cylinders, or disks. These devices produced high voltages, but only low currents. Then Alessandro Volta detected the principle of batteries, opening the way to experiments with low voltages but higher currents. All these experimental results and inventions then led in the nineteenth century to scientific breakthroughs in understanding electricity and magnetism, culminating in the theory of electromagnetism due to James Clerk Maxwell in 1865. In other fields there was also much progress: it was understood that stones really could fall from the sky, and this led to an explanation of the fiery bolides that were sometimes seen streaking across the heavens, and the Solar System was extended with a new planet, Neptune, which had been found using predictions based on perturbations in the orbit of the newly found planet Uranus. It is obvious that, in this climate of general scientific progress, reports of ball lightning would also become the subject of scientific study. The French scientist François Arago was the first to publish an analysis of the reports available to him in his book “Sur la tonnerre” in 1838, but he concluded that it was one of the most inexplicable problems of physics at that time. Unfortunately, this is still the case almost 180 years on. In the second part of the nineteenth century, small compilations of ball lightning observations were produced by several people, but the first serious effort to organize and analyze the data was only made after WWI by the German teacher W. Brand.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Herbert Boerner
    • 1
  1. 1.MainzGermany

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