Abraham Lincoln and the Lightning Rod
By David J. Kent
Monday, July 26, 2021
Abraham Lincoln had an inquisitive mind, and on July 29, 1836 he sees his first lightning rod. Poor George Forquer was to bear the result of Lincoln’s inquisition.
While traveling between debates as an Illinois state legislator, Lincoln passed the home of George Forquer. Forquer had been a Whig but switched to the Democratic party and, suspiciously, was immediately appointed to the lucrative political position of Register of the Land Office. Many questioned his motives and integrity, including Lincoln in the Sangamo Journal. Soon after his appointment Forquer built a wooden frame house, the best house in Springfield, and erected a lightning rod to protect it. It was the only such rod in the county and the first time Lincoln ever came across one.
Lincoln, of course, queried about how the rod worked. None of his companions knew so Lincoln rode into town and, according to his close friend Joshua Speed, bought a book on the properties of lightning so as to inform his knowledge. His later law partner, William Herndon, says that Lincoln told him the incident led him to study the properties of electricity and the utility of the rod as a conductor.
But back in 1836 the lightning rod was a novelty. After Lincoln gave his speech in Springfield, Forquer stood up to give a rebuttal, saying “This young man will have to be taken down; and I’m truly sorry that the task devolves to me.” He then responded to Lincoln’s speech with a great deal of condescension and moral superiority. Lincoln watched silently, then retook the stage and began “Mr. Forquer commenced his speech by announcing that the young man would have to be taken down. It is for you, fellow citizens, not for me to say whether I am up or down.” Suggesting that he is not up on the tricks and trades of politicians, and referring his recent discovery:
"I desire place and distinction; but I would rather die now than, like the gentleman, live to see the day that I would change my politics for an office worth three thousand dollars a year, and then feel compelled to erect a lightning rod to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God."
Much later, Lincoln would team up with Joseph Henry, who before becoming the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had studied electricity and conductance at Princeton. Perhaps Lincoln’s first exposure to lightning rods gave him the insights he needed to successfully use the telegraph to send “lightning messages” during the Civil War. More on that as the story unfolds.