But not without resistance from some quarters, including the clergy. In fact, the Reverend Thomas Prince, pastor of Boston’s Old South Church, asserted that the Cape Ann earthquake of 1755 could be attributed to the ubiquitous placement of lightning rods in New England, especially in Boston. Centered off the coast of what’s now Massachusetts, the earthquake, Reverend Prince seemed to imply, was no accident given man’s unwise attempts to deflect the hand of God.
Today, Franklin’s lightning rods are known by many names: air terminals, finials, lightning conductors, or strike-termination devices among them. To me, calling them strike-termination devices makes it sound as if once a lightning bolt strikes the rods, the danger is averted. Instead, the rods, typically a half-inch in diameter, are connected to a metal cable hidden within the building or structure. The diameter of both the rod and cable vary depending on the height of the building and the type of metal. In general, the higher the building, the heavier the rods and cables. No matter the size, the cables make their way down to Earth, where they are anchored. Grounded, the lightning rod dissipates the lightning strike’s energy.
Without this seemingly simple system, damage to a structure can range from a minor insult to a complete loss. Parker M. Willard Jr. has seen just that. “We see a lot of damage from indirect strikes that come in through the utility lines,” he says. “The average insurance claim is $7,400, and I’ve seen some in excess of $700,000.”
Willard is the co-owner of Boston Lightning Rod Company, along with his father, Parker M. Willard Sr. Willard Jr.’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Willard, founded the company, which is based in Dedham, Massachusetts, 144 years ago. Now 40, Willard Jr. started working for Boston Lightning Rod when he was 16. The lighting-rod industry is “family oriented,” according to Willard. Multigenerational, really. “We’re one of the oldest [lightning rod companies] in the United States,” he tells me. “It’s not unusual to go to trade seminars and meet the next generation. There are a lot of lightning-protection families out there.”
When it comes to lightning and its stupendous energy, the bottom line, says Willard, is that lighting rods, when installed correctly, provide an effective path to ground for electrical energy, thus mitigating or avoiding damage to buildings. Especially when surge protection for incoming telecommunications, electric lines, and the internet is added to the setup.
“A lot of times people will put lightning rods up on their home or business and think they’re protected, but the structure can take an indirect strike to a utility line or a transformer outside the structure and the lightning rod is defenseless against that kind of strike,” Willard says. That’s why surge protection for telecommunications and cable have become a bigger and bigger part of his business: “Twenty years ago, people had a telephone, a TV, and an electrical line. Now they have high-end electronics, stuff that’s highly susceptible to any kind of electrical surge. A lightning rod system protects against a direct strike. Surge protection protects against an indirect strike.”