For more than two centuries, some perched high atop barns, silos, homes and sheds throughout much of rural America during the 19th and 20th centuries. These silent sentinels guarded buildings from lightning that attacked from the heavens.
Even going back to the ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s, just about every house or barn sported one or more of these gadgets on the roofs.
Lightning rods, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, were iron rods sharpened to a point and designed to draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it could come near enough to strike. Typically, the rods measured a half-inch in diameter and were connected to a metal cable hidden within the structure, or sometimes attached to the outside of a building.
The size of the rods varied depending on the height of the building and the type of metal. Regardless of the size, the cables crawled their way down to Earth, where they were anchored. Grounded, the lightning rod directs the lightning strike’s energy harmlessly into the ground, thus sparing the building.
During the 19th Century, the lightning rod became a decorative motif. Lightning rods were embellished with ornamental glass balls (now prized by collectors). The ornamental appeal of these glass balls were also used in weather vanes.
The main purpose of these balls, however, was to provide evidence of a lightning strike by shattering or falling off. If after a storm a ball is discovered missing or broken, the property owner should then check the building, rod and grounding wire for damage.
Today, one can drive all over the countryside and never spot a lightning rod on a house. Occasionally, I spot one still sticking up on top of an old barn somewhere in rural Kansas.
While few people rely on lightning rods today, many select surge protection for telecommunications and cable. Twenty years ago, most people used a land-line telephone, a television and an electrical line.
Now, most use high-end electronics and other technology that remains highly susceptible to any kind of electrical surge. A lightning rod system protects against a direct strike. Surge protection guards against an indirect strike.
With the new technology, most of the old lightning rods wound up in the dump or continue to rust in the weather on old abandoned barns — the few remaining upright. Still, because they were once so prominent across the rural United States, people have begun collecting them. Others are being used for decoration.
Some of the more sought-after designs were once made from copper with a starburst tip, and other vintage lightning rods consisted of ornate, hammered aluminum with a cobalt-blue ball. But beware, some are now replicas and made of plastic.
Today’s modern technology has also resulted in the end of the notorious lightning rod salesmen of yester year. You know, those flim-flam men who used to travel the countryside, looking for houses without lightning rods. Once they spotted such a house, they’d swoop down and unleash a hard-pressure sales pitch concerning the grave dangers of lightning strikes and burning down of unprotected homes and buildings.
Following the collection of a tidy sum of money, they’d install a cheap rod on top of the house, and often not even bother to attach a ground wire. The whole business, of course, was totally useless.
Lest we forget, the world remains filled with shyster salesmen of various sorts. As far as I know, however, selling lightning rods is not one of their current scams.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.