Accession No


Brief Description

‘Thunder house’ (aka powder house) demonstration apparatus to show the effect of lightning conductors, 2/2 19th C.




electrical; demonstration

Earliest Date

Jan. 1, 1850

Latest Date

Dec. 31, 1900

Inscription Date


metal (brass, tin); rope (string)


height 535mm; breadth 194mm; length 275mm

Special Collection


Purchased from T. Philips and Harris, 1991.


Description Notes

‘Thunder house’ (aka powder house) demonstration apparatus to show the effect of lightning conductors, 2/2 19th C.

Painted tin plate house and attached tower. Top of tower and roof of house detachable, the latter partly restrained by strings. Three walls of the house hinged to collapse outwards. To demonstrate the disastrous effects of lightning, the house collapsed with a small bit of gunpowder and an electric charge. Fitting for discharge now not apparent. Brass rod with spike was sold with this house but seems not to fit.

Condition fair; incomplete (discharge fitting missing)


Allison Ksiazkiewicz; 'What is meteorology?'; Explore Whipple Collections online article; Whipple Museum of the History of Science; University of Cambridge:


The thunder house (also known as a powder house) is a model used to demonstration the damaging effects of lightning and the defence against these effects that a lightning rod provides. It would likely have been used as part of public lectures and displays on the powers and effects of electricity that were popular during the nineteenth century.

The model was designed so that the walls and roof would fall apart easily. The demonstrator would hide a container of gunpowder inside the house and apply an electric charge supplied from an electrostatic generator. Without a lightning rod, this charge would pass into the house, ignite the gunpowder, flattening the model. But when a lightning rod was introduced to the model, the electric charge would pass harmlessly through the rod directly to earth.

Benjamin Franklin first proposed the idea of a lightning rod as a defence against thunderstorms in 1749, and his friend and scientific collaborator Ebenezer Kinnersley was using a thunder house to publicly promote Franklin’s invention by 1751. Three dimensional models that incorporated gunpowder were in use in France by 1775, and the thunder house remained part of several instrument makers’ inventories throughout the nineteenth century.
Created by: Joshua Nall on 17/04/2014


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