Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Don't Try This At Home

On the 10th of June 1752 - I think it was 1752 - Benjamin Franklin did, or is alleged to have done, that lunatic thing with a kite. He went out and flew a kite right up into a storm cloud (I believe he took shelter in the porch of his house - though still holding the string - once the kite was up) and was able to gather a bit of the cloud's electric charge.
Now if he really did this, then how? Surely the string would in fact have needed to be wire? Was there wire of sufficient length and strength available in Philadelphia in 1752? Well, let's allow that string, when wet, as it must soon have been, would have been a good enough conductor at such high voltages. But wouldn't any charge coming down it run to earth through our Ben, with perhaps unfortunate results? Did he wear wellies? Had wellies been invented? I have seen a picture suggesting that he tied a key by the big oval loop of its handle to the end of the string. Also tied to the handle was a nice dry length of blue silk ribbon, which Franklin held. The rest of the key hung downwards to contact the knob of a Leyden Jar (Yes all right, another day perhaps) in which the charge was gathered.
Well, perhaps. Personally I have doubts that Franklin ever did this thing. Certainly if he did he was either very brave or very foolhardy.

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On the 10th of June 1865 Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' got its first performance. Only try listening to the whole thing at home if you are feeling brave or foolhardy, and have either good earphones or very tolerant (or no) neighbours.
Monty Python once did a Proust-Summarizing Competition, and discussing 'Tristan' to any purpose in a mere page or two would be just as silly. I might - perhaps tomorrow - (you lucky people) say a bit about one seemingly small technical detail that is in fact crucial to the whole magnificent work.

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