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Lightning History

Can you remember the first time you ever saw a lightning bolt in a dark, stormy sky? The awesome power of a lightning strike is etched into your memory. Without scientific understanding, lightning is frightening.

Early cultures relied on myth and magic to explain lightning and to ease their fears.The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the king of all the gods, Zeus, threw lightning down from the heavens to show his anger at the people below. Lightning was his weapon.

As the study of weather science progressed, people stopped thinking of lightning as a punishment from the gods. It wasn't until the 1700s, though, that science really began to understand lightning.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the first lightning scientists. In 1752, he performed his legendary kite experiment. During a thunderstorm, he tied a metal key to the end of a kite string and set his kite flying in the storm's winds. When sparks jumped from the electrified key, he knew that electrical current had travelled from the electrified air above down the kite string to his key. He had suspected that lightning was actually a natural form of electricity. With the experiment, he was able to conclude that lightning was an electrical current.

In the years that followed, scientists learned more and more about lightning. Although there is no completely safe way to avoid a lightning strike, scientists tested theories to provide some protection.

In the 1970s, meteorologists and other scientists developed lightning detection networks. Today, they can track lightning strikes all over the country using the National Lightning Detection Network which uses magnetic sensors and computers to detect when and where lightning strikes the ground. Lightning data is instantly provided to meteorologists for analysis.

Lightning is still frightening because of its ferocious power. Lightning is classified as plasma, the fourth state of matter. So, stay out of its way.

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