Ben Franklin’s Hempen Kite String

CANNABIS CULTURE – It seems that among hemp’s many benefits to mankind, it helped Benjamin Franklin prove that there is electricity in the atmosphere.

For in his famous experiment where he flew a kite in a 1752 lightning storm, Franklin fashioned the kite’s string from hemp twine, since he knew that when wet, hemp conducts electricity. He added a nonconducting silk string to serve as a ground, but by one account couldn’t resist touching the hemp string himself and getting a shock after he “watched the lightning raise the hairs on the hemp kite string.”

In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin wrote in 1742:

“As honest Hodge the Farmer, sow’d his Field,
Chear’d with the Hope of future Gain ’twould yield,
Two upstart Jacks in Office, proud and vain,
Come riding by, and thus insult the Swain.
You drudge, and sweat, and labour here, Old Boy,
But we the Fruit of your hard Toil enjoy.
Belike you may, quoth Hodge, and but your Due,
For, Gentlemen, ’tis Hemp I’m sowing now.”

Which may have meant that Hodge would also enjoy the fruits of his labor because it was smokeable hemp, but more probably just meant it was a profitable crop. Our Founding Fathers were much concerned with the profitability of the hemp crop, grown mainly for fiber.

Franklin also wrote in 1739:

“Hemp will grow faster than the Children of this Age, and some will find there’s but too much on’t.”

Peter Collinson (1694–1768), who “was one of the most important persons” in Franklin’s life, was a English horticulturalist who “urged his American correspondents to cultivate flax, hemp, silk, and grapes.”

There’s an early hemp processing machine idea in a 1763 letter to Franklin from Alexander Small. But as late as 1837, both the US and the UK were relying on slaves to do the back-breaking work of processing hemp, as in this 1837 UK cartoon, wherein slaves lament, “Beating this here hemp is worser than breaking stones. Lord ha’ mercy on us poor.”

Under the UK’s New Poor Laws, paupers were required to work from 4 in the morning until 10 at night, and ironically could told to “go to the hemp” (be hanged, though not around the neck).

Oliver Twist was also published in 1837. In it, one of Oliver’s jobs is to pick hemp oakum.

Ellen Komp is Deputy Director of California NORML and a regular contributor toCannabis Culture. She manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com and blogs at Tokin Woman.

Ellen Komp
Ellen Komp

Ellen Komp is Deputy Director of California NORML and a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture. She manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com and blogs at Tokin Woman.