” the grand Artillery of Heaven”

HANNAH WINTHROP and her husband were able to move back into their house in Cambridge after having fled to Andover following the battles of Lexington and Concord. MERCY OTIS WARREN paid a visit to her friends for which Hannah sent a letter expressing her thanks in June 1775. Hannah included a description of lightning bells in this paragraph which is of special interest.

With a painfull anxiety I parted with my dear Friend Mrs. Warren last thursday evening, & very soon found the rising Sable Cloud predicting a Rougher Scene than those happy moments afforded us in the warm Effusions of reciprocal Friendship with which the day had blest us. We had a convincing display of the Utility of pointed Conductors by the ringing of our Lightning Bells which I wish you had seen, though to some persons it appears in a Presumptous light for mortals to meddle with the grand Artillery of Heaven.

Hannah is describing an approaching storm with flashes of lightning. She makes reference to lightning rods, the “pointed Conductors” advocated by Benjamin Franklin to ground lightning and render it harmless. These tall pointed metal rods were usually attached to a house’s chimney. (There was disagreement over whether the rods should be pointed or blunt. Franklin preferred pointed.) In the Winthrop house the rods were connected to a set of bells activated by the discharge of electricity from the lightning which caused clappers to move back and forth between two oppositely charged bells. In this way Franklin converted electrical energy into mechanical energy. Hannah’s husband was a scientist and astronomer so it stands to reason that he would be interested in these “Lightning Bells.” For more complete explanations of how these worked see this article and this article.

Note Hannah’s comment that many people frowned on this sort of experimentation with lightning believing it was not for mortals “to meddle with the grand Artillery of Heaven.”

Read the entire letter by Hannah HERE. The illustration is from this ARTICLE.


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