Dakota Datebook

Lightning Rods on Barns

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Lightning rods provide real protection against lightning strikes on houses, but it seems that modern homeowners don’t care to use them anymore.  But there was a time when most barns and farmhouses had lightning rods installed upon the rooftops – each with a sharp point reaching skyward, often with a distinctive glass ball on the shaft.  The glass ball was supposed to break if a lightning bolt hit the rod.

On this date in 1911, the Bismarck Tribune published a short article about the invention of lightning rods by Ben Franklin in 1753, calling it a marvel “for which the world had waited so long.”

Franklin’s knowledge of electricity helped him design the lightning rod, which was a metal rod attached to a high point of a building.  A copper cable ran from the rod, down the side of the building, and into the ground.  When lightning hit, the electrical-juice flowed harmlessly down the rod and cable to the ground instead of tearing through the building with destructive force.  Franklin believed it was his most important invention. Farmers in Dakota understood the need, especially for barns, which stood taller than trees.

Many people in the 1800s even believed that the points of lightning rods actively repelled lightning, created rainclouds, and brought rainfall by “commingling” the positive atmospheric charge with a negative earth charge.

The problem with lightning rods in the 1870s was not with the rods, but with the lightning rod salesmen, who had swindlers among them – selling the product with “cunning and trickery” and then not delivering it.  The deeply-rooted prejudice against the unscrupulous salesmen extended quite naturally to the rods themselves.  Fear of swindlers often exceeded fears of lightning.

An honest lightning-rod salesman elicited admiration, as in the case of Mr. T. R. Rosier, said to be the first lightning rod man who, in 1877 “mustered up sufficient courage to visit Bismarck.”

Eventually, local hardware stores and lumberyards stocked high-quality lightning rods so reputable and effective lightning protection became readily available to farmers and homeowners alike.

State fire marshals recommended installation of lightning rods.  In 1916, un-rodded buildings in North Dakota suffered nearly 100 thousand dollars in losses, “while rodded buildings . . . showed no loss” during the year.

Today, homes are often indirectly protected by taller neighboring structures, but many homeowners, especially in rural areas, still heed the call to place lightning rods on every rooftop.


Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


Sources: “Lightning Rods,” Bismarck Tribune, April 3, 1911, p. 5.

“R. F. Warren, Shinn’s Copper Cable Lightning Rod,” advertisement, Ward County Independent [Minot, ND], March 25, 1909, p. 5.

“Runge Investigates Devils Lake Blaze,” Bismarck Tribune, November 2, 1916, p. 8.

“Benjamin Franklin: Inquiring Mind,” PBS.org, accessed March 3, 2014.

Burton McCollum and George Ahlborn, “Special Studies in Electrolysis Migration,” in U.S. Department of Commerce, Technologic Papers of the Bureau of Standards, vol. 6, no. 54 (Washington, D.C: G.P.O., 1916), p. 106, 115, 116.

Alfred J. Henry, “Recent Practice in the Erecting of Lightning Conductors,” in U.S. Weather Bureau, Bulletin, vol. 37, no. 349 (Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., 1913), p. 7, 9.

“T.R. Rosier,” Bismarck Tribune, May 16, 1877, p. 4.

“Hunter & Smith, General Agents for the Celebrated Franklin Lightning Rod,” advertisement, Grand Forks Herald, May 22, 1886, p. 4.

“Expert Tells What To Do During Storm,” Bismarck Tribune, June 17, 1925, p. 3.

“Lightning Rods,” Bismarck Tribune, December 2, 1881, p. 3.

“Lightning,” Bismarck Tribune, June 22, 1921, p. 6.

“Lightning Protection,” Bismarck Tribune, June 15, 1911, p. 4.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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