Lightning has been a source of fear and mystery through the entire history of mankind. Violent, unpredictable, and potentially deadly, it was often seen as an indication of divine judgment or displeasure. Now we know it is a natural electrical discharge, but even today there are some aspects of lightning that have remained mysterious and nearly inscrutable. The most famous of these is ball lightning, an exceedingly rare phenomenon in which luminous spherical objects, up to a meter in diameter, appear, move erratically…
… and even kill.
The most devastating example of this is the tragedy that struck during the Great Thunderstorm at Widecombe-in-the-Moor on October 21, 1638. At least four people were killed and around 60 injured when lightning struck the a church during service, and ball lightning burst through the window and fell among the parishioners. It was a stunning, unthinkable tragedy and, thanks to its instant notoriety, its effects were painstakingly documented.
We will draw directly from the contemporary accounts of the event, the so-called “Widecombe Tracts” of 1638. There were evidently three of these; the first, printed on 17th November, apparently sold out immediately, leading to a reprinting on the 19th of November. A third tract, with some more details, was printed on November 27th. No copy of the original pamphlet survives, so most discussions of the tragedy refer to the “two Widecombe Tracts.”
Before we begin, it is worth noting that the Widecombe tragedy occurred about 100 years before the lightning rod was invented and, indeed, before lightning was truly understood as an electrical phenomenon. The high steeples and towers of churches were prime targets for strikes, being the shortest path for electricity to travel from cloud to ground, or vice-versa. In the Middle Ages, desperate and futile measures were taken for protection, as one book notes :
When a thunderstorm was approaching, church bells were rung to ward off lightning. Saint Thomas Aquinas declared “the tones of the consecrated metal repel the demon and avert storm and lightning.” This was surely not effective. In Germany, for example, during one period of just thirty-five years, 386 churches were struck by lightning and more than one hundred bell ringers were killed.
Congregating in a church in a thunderstorm was, in the day, essentially making oneself a target. Without a lightning rod to provide a path for the electricity to go to ground, the energy would be released explosively in the church tower and church itself, with often deadly results.
The Widecombe tract describes the beginning of the event as follows (antiquated spellings maintained):
Vpon Sunday the 21. of October last, In the Parish Church of Withycombe in Devonshire neare Dartmoores, fell in time of Divine Service a strange darkenesse, increasing more and more, so that the people there assembled could not see to reade in any booke, and suddenly in a fearefull and lamentable manner, a mighty thundering was heard, the ratling whereof did answer much like unto the sound and report of many great Cannons, and terrible strange lightening therewith, greatly amazing and astonishing those that heard and saw it, the darkenesse increasing yet more, till they could not (in the interim) see one another ; the extraordinarie lightning came into the Church so flaming, that the whole Church was presently filled with fire and smoke, the smell whereof was very loathsome, much like unto the sent of brimstone, some said they saw at first a great ball of fire come in at the window and passe thorough the Church, which so much affrighted the whole Congregation that the most part of them fell downe into their seates, and some upon their knees, some on their faces, and some one upon another, with a great cry of burning and scalding, they all giving up themselves for dead.
We are already given the description of the “great ball of fire” that is reasonably interpreted as ball lightning. The original tract includes a woodcut illustration of the event, presumably drawn from witness descriptions.
In a situation that is common in lightning strikes, the electricity was capricious, devastating some and leaving others unharmed. Warning: the descriptions following get quite graphic.
The Minister of the Parish, Master George Lyde, being in the Pulpit or seate where prayers are read, however bee might bee much astonished hereat, yet through G O D S mercy had no other hurt at all in his body ; but to his much griefe and amazement heard, and afterward beheld the lamentable accident; and although himselfe was not touched, yet the lightening seized upon his poore Wife, fired her ruffe and linnen next to her body, and her cloathes ; to the burning of many parts of her body in a very pitifull manner. And one Mistresse Ditford sitting in the pew with the Ministers wife, was also much scalded, but the maid and childe sitting at the pew dore had no harme. Beside, another woman adventuring to run out of the Church, had her cloathes set on fire, and was not only strangely burnt and scorched, but had her flesh torne about her back almost to the very bones. And another woman had her flesh so torne and her body so grievously burnt, that she died the same night.
This seeming randomness reminds me of this rather stunning video of a South African football match, in which a lightning strike on the corner of the field incapacitated roughly half the players, leaving the others untouched.
Some parishioners had an even more gruesome fate, as the tract then describes.
Also one Master Hill a Gentleman of good account in the Parish, sitting in his seate by tbe Chancell, had his head suddenly smitten against the wall, through the violence whereof be died that night, no other hurt being found about his body ; but his sonne sitting in the same seate had no harme. There was also one man more, at the same instant, of whom it is particularly related, who was Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds, his head was cloven, his skull rent into three peeces, and his braines throwne upon the ground whole, and the haire of his head, through the violence of the blow at first given him, did sticke fast unto the pillar or wall of the Church ; so that hee perished there most lamentably.
Others were burned and injured as well. The author of the tract had an odd view of God’s mercy, however:
Some other persons were then blasted and burnt, and so grievously scalded and wounded, that since that time they have died thereof ; and many other not like to recover, notwithstanding all the meanes that can bee procured to helpe them. Some had their cloaths burnt and their bodies had no hurt, and some on the contrary, had their bodies burnt, and their cloathes not touched. But it pleased God yet in the midst of judgement to remember mercy, sparing some and not destroying all.
There was evidently no safety in fleeing the church immediately, either:
Also there were some Seats in the Body of the Church turned upside downe, and yet they which sate in them had little or no hurt. And one man going out at the Chancell doore, his Dogg running out before him, was whirled about towards the doore and fell downe starke dead: at the sight whereof his Master stepped backe within the doore, and God preserved him alive.
The electrical strike also produced great physical force, which resulted in additional casualties:
Moreover the Church it selfe was much torne and defaced by the thunder and lightning ; and thereby also a beame was burst in midst, and fell downe betweene the Minister and Clarke and hurt neither; and a weighty great stone, neare the Foundation of the Church is torne out and remooved, and the steeple it selfe is much rent, and there where the Church was most rent there was least hurt done, and not any one was hurt either with the wood or stone, but only a maid of Manaton, which came thither that afternoone to see some friends, Master Frind the Coroner by circumstances, supposed she was killed by a stone. There were also stones throwne from the Tower as thick as if an hundred men had beene there throwing. Also a Pinacle of the Tower torne downe and beate through into the Church.
In the aftermath of the destruction, the congregants were in a daze. Perhaps an indication of the religiosity of the era, the Minster suggested that everyone stay put and finish their prayers. The other survivors had a more sensible reaction.
The terrible lightening being past, and all the people being in a wonderfull maze, so that they spake not one word, by and by on Master Raph Rouse, Vintener in the Towne, stood up, saying, Neighbours, in the name of GOD shall we venture out of the Church, to which Master Lyde answering, said, it is best to make an end of prayers, for it is better to die here then in another place, but they looking about them, and seeing the Church so terribly rent and torne over their heads, durst not proceed in their publike devotions, bnt [sic] went forth of the Church.
Surprisingly little is said in the first and second tracts of the “great ball of fire,” which is featured in all illustrations of the Widecombe storm and seems to have been taken as a particular divine sign. A little more detail is provided in the “third” Widecombe tract, however.
From the third tract:
Master Lyde with many others in the Church did see presently after the darknesse, as it were a great ball of fire, and most terrible lightening come in at the window, and therewithal the roofe of the Church in the lower part against the Tower to rend and gape wide open, whereat he was so amazed, that hee fell downe into his seate, and unspeakable are the mighty secret wonders the Lord wrought immediately, of which, because thou hast the generall Relation before; I will give thee this as neare as can bee discovered in the order and course thereof, which first began in the Tower, and thence into the Church, the power of that vehement and terrible blast struck in at the North side of the Tower, tearing through a most strong stone wall into the staires, which goes up round with stone steps to the top of the leades, and being gotten in, struck against the other side of the wall, and finding not way forth there, it rebounded back againe with greater force to that side next the Church, and piercing through right against the higher window of the Church, tooke the greatest part thereof with it and likewise some of the stones, and frame of the window, and so struck into the Church, comming with a mighty power it struck against the North-side wall of the Church, as if it were with a great Cannon bullet or somewhat like thereto, and not going through, but exceedingly shaking and battering the wall, it tooke its course directly up that lie strait to the Pulpit or Seate where Master Lyde sate, and in the way thence going up it tooke all the lime and sand of the wall, and much grated the stones thereof, and tore off the side desk of the Pulpit, and upon the Pulpit on the side thereof it was left as black and moist as if it had beene newly wiped with Inke.
Aside from being an incredibly long run-on sentence, this section suggests that the ball of fire was merely a herald of sorts to a massive lightning stroke that did the majority of the destruction.
And it was truly horrifying destruction; one final macabre story is added in the third tract, which is perhaps more ghastly than the rest:
But as strange a thing as any of these was that, concerning Robert Meade the Warriner; he being not mist all this while, immediatly Master Rouse his deare acquaintance remembred him, and seeing him not, nor none knowing what was become of him, Master Rouse stepping to the window, looked into the Church where the Warriner used to sit, and there saw him sitting in his Seate, leaning upon his elbow, his elbow resting upon the deske before him, hee supposed him to bee a sleepe, or himselfe; aston ‘d, not yet come to hee calling to awake him, wondered hee made no answer, then his love to him caused him to venter into the Church, to jogg him awake, or to remember him, and then to his much griefe hee perceived his friend to bee a dead man ; for all the hinder part of his head was cleane cut off and gone round about his neck, and the fore-part not disfigured, as they supposed when they drew neare him.
In that era, the tragedy was interpreted as a sign from God, and the tracts themselves were written in part to “acquaint thee with the great and mighty works of Gods Power and Iustice, who in a moment can doe mighty things to us, and arme the creatures against us at his owne pleasure.” It would take another 100 years for science to provide an effective defense against lightning, in the form of the lightning rod.
I’ve told this story in some detail in a previous post. It began in 1746, when Benjamin Franklin received an electrical tube as a gift from the London bookseller Peter Collinson. Fascinated by electricity, Franklin began private experiments on the subject, and quickly made a number of important theoretical and experimental discoveries. These discoveries were relayed by Collinson to a somewhat skeptical and dismissive Royal Society of London, but Collinson also spread word of Franklin’s work to the greater European public. In 1749, Franklin suggested, in print, that lightning is a form of electricity. This by itself was not necessarily a new hypothesis, but soon after, Franklin proposed a way of proving it: the lightning rod.
In a letter to Collinson around 1750, Franklin remarked:
There is something however in the experiments of points, sending off, or drawing on, the electrical fire, which has not been fully explained, and which I intend to supply in my next. For the doctrine of points is very curious, and the effects of them truly wonderfull; and, from what I have observed on experiments, I am of opinion, that houses, ships, and even towns and churches may be effectually secured from the stroke of lightening by their means; for if, instead of the round balls of wood or metal, which are commonly placed on the tops of the weathercocks, vanes or spindles of churches, spires or masts, there should be put a rod of iron 8 or 10 feet in length, sharpen’d gradually to a point like a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting, or divided into a number of points, which would be better-the electrical fire would, I think be drawn out of a cloud silently, before it could come near enough to strike; only a light would be seen at the point, like the sailors corpusante. This may seem whimsical, but let it pass for the present, until I send the experiments at large.
It is interesting to note that Franklin was, in fact, completely wrong about how lightning rods would work! Franklin imagined that they could draw the “electrical fire” out of the clouds silently, before a traumatic strike; in reality, a lightning rod provides a target for lightning, giving it a free path to the ground that allows it to bypass the building it is attached to. This mistake ended up being of deadly significance, as we will see.
Franklin’s ideas were put to the test by the French scientist Thomas-François Dalibard in 1752 in Marly-la-Ville in northern France. Dalibard erected a 40-foot-high iron bar in a garden and, when a storm passed overhead, found that he could draw sparks from the bar. The identification of lightning as a form of electricity was therefore proven, and the efficacy of Franklin’s lightning rod in drawing down electricity was demonstrated. Franklin himself, unable to erect a rod in short order, decided to fly a kite in a thunderstorm, a feat that became an instant legend.
Franklin’s lightning rods, though not working exactly as originally intended, nevertheless saved countless lives and property. Ironically, however, they also drew inquisitive scientists into danger like moths to a flame. One of those attracted by the glow of electricity was Georg Wilhelm Richmann, who was killed by his own experiment on August 6, 1753. As described in a 1905 book on electricity ,
Richman had erected an insulated vertical iron rod on the roof of his laboratory. This rod communicated by a metallic chain, also insulated, with a metal rod fixed to the ceiling of the laboratory. The rod projected downward some little distance from the ceiling, and was terminated by a metallic ball. He had arranged, in connection with this ball, a form of electrometer of his own construction, consisting of a thread fastened to its lower extremity. The thread hung down by the side of the rod when it was uncharged, but when charged or electrified, was repelled in a manner similar to the pith ball electroscope already described.
At the approach of a thunderstorm, while observing the effects of the electricity of the clouds on the vertical thread of the electrometer, he leaned his head toward it, and while doing so, a gentleman, who was in the laboratory at this time, observed a globe of blue fire, as large as a man’s fist, to jump from the rod of the electrometer toward Richman’s head, which was at this moment about one foot distant from the rod. This flash instantly killed Richman, and so stunned the gentleman with him, that the latter could afterward give no account of the particular manner in which he had been affected by the stroke. He could only say that, at the moment the professor was killed, there arose, he thought, a sort of steam or vapor which benumbed him, and made him sink upon the ground, and that he could not remember even that he heard the clap of thunder,
which was very loud.
Emphasis mine. Here we see that Richman was apparently killed by a direct hit of ball lightning, which also devastated the room.
Like all lightning strokes, the one which killed Richman did considerable damage to surrounding objects. Half of the glass vessel employed to insulate the rod of the electrometer was broken and discharge. thrown in all directions about the room. The casing of the door of the laboratory was split half through, and the door torn off and thrown into the room.
Richmann’s own body was a testament to the power of the blast that hit him.
Richman was apparently killed instantly by the effect of the lightning stroke. A red spot was formed on his forehead, the shoe belonging to his left foot was burst, and, on uncovering the foot at that place, a blue mark was found, evidently showing that the discharge had entered at the head, and made its way out at one of the feet.
So ball lightning, though rare, is potentially deadly — or is it? Though both cases described involve a “ball of fire,” events happened quickly and involved significant trauma; one wonders if the witnesses may have misinterpreted what they saw. In fact, this seems to have been the scientific consensus until at least the 1960s. Even in 2010, it was suggested that ball lightning might be an optical hallucination, similar to a seizure, triggered by intense magnetic fields accompanying lightning and thunderstorms. There have been a variety of explanations provided over the years, though none has been conclusive.
Why is it so hard to explain ball lightning? A number of factors contribute, most notably the rarity of the phenomenon as well as the inability to reproduce it reliably in the lab. Also, it is clear that ball lightning (if it exists) is a complex phenomenon: it is not unreasonable to think that there may be multiple effects that produce superficially similar glowing balls during storms!
Nevertheless, progress has been made in the past few years and a number of intriguing ideas have appeared. One of the most recent suggestions, made in 2012, is that an excess of ions in the aftermath of a lightning strike induces a ball-like discharge of air molecules. In 2007, however, researchers in Brazil produced long-lasting balls of electrically-charged silicon vapor, acting very much like reported ball lightning. They even produced a video of these glowing, bouncing, sparking balls!
Early this year a serendipitous breakthrough was announced: Chinese researchers managed to spot the formation of a ball of lightning with a spectrograph and video camera, allowing them to analyze its contents! The data indicates a high silicon content, supporting the work done by the Brazilian team and others. A video of this monumental observation is shown below, and more details can be found here.
Nevertheless, I suspect it will take much more work, and time, to conclusively understand ball lightning. Until that time, stories and descriptions, even tragic ones like the storm of Widecombe, provide precious clues to the mystery.
 C. Bouquegneau and V. Rakov, “How Dangerous Is Lightning?” (Dover, NY, 2010).
 Edwin James Houston, “Electricity in Every-Day Life” (P.F. Collier & Son, 1905).