Monday, July 27, 2015

The Franklin Law

February 2015


 I was awakened abruptly by pounding at my door. “Mr. Croft! Mr. Croft! Come quickly!”

 I struck a lucifer and touched it to the wick of my bedside lamp. By its light I could see that my alarm clock read a few minutes after 1 AM. I had been late falling asleep because of the evening’s ferocious thunderstorm. Two hours of sleep would not leave me at my best.

 The pounding resumed. “Mr. Croft! Fires are burning in Brooklyn!”

 I hurried to the door in my nightshirt to let him in before the people in my neighboring apartments would become annoyed.  It was Jack Harris from the Tribune.  He was flushed and trembling. He must have run here from the office, fully ten blocks--not a safe thing to do in New York at this time of night, when heavy, poorly-lit delivery wagons fill the streets. “There have been many lightning strikes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. There are at least a dozen fires visible from the Tribune tower, from the Bronx to Coney Island. The fire brigades are out, but of course the streets are congested and they’ll be slow to respond.”

 “What do I need to do?  And who’s on the night news desk? Curtis?”

 “Yeah, Curtis—he wants you to check out the situation in Brooklyn. He wants you to write a front-page story about it.”

 I sent Harris back to the Trib with word that I was on my way to Brooklyn. I dressed quickly, choosing a rainproof overcoat against the cool, blustery October weather and the threat of continuing rain.

At the curb I looked about for a carriage, but at this hour there were none to be seen. The streets were nearly filled with heavy horse carts and ox carts laden with coal, perishable foods and ice, coming in from farms in Jersey by ferry, and down the roads along the Hudson from the train terminus. I decided that the only way I could get about was on foot, and I could walk as fast as these carts were moving. I headed for the Brooklyn Bridge, crossing the streets with care, skirting the business district at the tip of Manhattan with its towering skyscrapers of ten to fifteen stories. Except for the Tribune tower, they were all dark and unoccupied, the stokers for their steam elevators having retired for the night. The streets were left to the carts and animals.

The evening’s rain had made a foul soup of the horse and ox ordure that coated the streets. The wind was at my back. The smell was overwhelming, without even a hint of smoke from the fires ahead. I could not see any fires because my view was blocked by the tenement blocks and warehouses that lined the East River, but an eerie orange glow flickered on the low clouds overhead.

As I approached the bridge I found all of Manhattan at a standstill. Traffic came only from the Brooklyn side, the entire Brooklyn bridge blocked by a river of citizens and carts surging into Manhattan. Wails, sobs, even screams pierced the background rumble of carts, but the general tide of humanity flowed on in silence, grim-faced and bowed under loads of household goods. Flames rose from the opposite side of the East River, no more than a block or two from the water's edge. How could I cross the bridge to Brooklyn as I had been assigned to do?

The first responsibility of a reporter is to interview those who know what was happening. I stepped in front of a man with a heavy load of clothes and household items. “What is going on over there? Do you know how widespread the fire is?”

 He grimaced and shook his head. "Gone, all gone" he seemed to say.

I could see converging fires cut off access to the bridge on the other side of the river, staunching the stream of foot traffic coming across the bridge. I ventured to walk against the flow on the narrow northern sidewalk, leaving the wagon lanes to the refugees. I tried to interview a dozen of them, but they had no heart or mind to share more than a sentence or two about the horrors they had seen. Bundles were abandoned, children lifted up, as the crowd pressed on to safety. 

As I finally neared Brooklyn the flames seemed to grow higher, towering hundreds of feet into the overcast sky, dwarfing the 5- and 6-story wooden tenements. The clouds reflected the glow of the fire, turning the heavens a sullen red. And as the flames pulsed and roared, the wind picked up ever more strength.  Soon I could feel the intense heat of the blaze on my face and found myself being impelled toward the flames by the ever-strengthening wind. 

The last stragglers of the exodus were passing me now. It was a heart-wrenching sight, for many were burned or were carrying victims of the flames in their arms or on their backs. So strong were the winds by this time that some could make no headway against them. Many simply collapsed in the roadway, barely able to crawl into the wind. One last refugee staggered along at the end of the line, terribly burned, the back of his coat smoldering, and collapsed in front of me.  I went to him and found him still alive, but too weak to arise. I beat out the embers in his coat, but there was nothing else I could do for him. I left him there and continued cautiously, the wind propelling me toward the fire.

A gust knocked me off my feet, and I fell on my face on the pavement.  The wind was enough weaker at road level that I could crawl on toward the fire. I was well past the east pier of the bridge, still far above the level of the river. I could see far up the Brooklyn shore, a vista of the most utter devastation. The separate fires I had seen only minutes earlier seemed to have merged into a roaring single wall of flames, whipped by its own winds into a hellish frenzy. I suddenly had the thought that there was nothing left living in front of me; that I, if I wanted to live, should go no farther. I crossed the bridge to the south sidewalk on hands and knees, and there also I saw utter destruction. All approaches to the bridge had been blocked by intense fires and the glowing rubble of collapsed tenements. All that remained standing were masonry chimneys and the occasional iron fire escape, heated red-hot and stretching into the flaming sky. There was indeed nowhere for me to go except back.

The enormity of the tragedy struck me so profoundly that I lost all strength. Exhausted, devastated, in despair, I collapsed in the roadway to collect my wits. I must have lain there for an hour before I could muster the strength to continue.

 Rather than return directly to my apartment, I made my way to the Tribune to write my story. The paper was published hours late because of the shortage of press workers, many of whom lived in Brooklyn and normally arrived by streetcar. But Brooklyn was gone, and so were the streetcars.
 I went home to a fitful sleep, haunted by the most gruesome dreams. When I finally awoke, I was obsessed with the idea of writing an op-ed piece on the tragedy. I sat down at my desk and wrote it out in a single sitting. Here it is:

The Franklin Law: Seed of Tragedy, by Arthur Croft
Every schoolchild knows the story of Benjamin Franklin, back in 1751, flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and of the tragic lightning strike that killed him. This promising young man, editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, organizer of the Philadelphia Fire and Police Departments, inventor of the Franklin stove, had just begun the study of lightning in the atmosphere and in the laboratory. Notes found among his personal effects laid out a scheme to protect buildings from lightning by means of metal wires or rods.  

But because of the manifest hazard of studying lightning and other “electrickal” phenomena, and reinforced by the deaths of Franklin, the Russian physicist Georg Richmann, and other imitators of Franklin’s experiment, Parliament passed, in 1753, the well-known “Franklin Law” forbidding further experiments with lightning in all its manifestations. The law was an effective deterrent that doubtless saved lives throughout the Empire. The law was strictly enforced and few dared challenge it. Historians tell of the prosecution of Joseph Priestly in 1767 upon his attempts to publish a book entitled “History and Present State of Electricity”. The first few hundred copies of this book, printed in Leeds, were confiscated and burned by the authorities by order of the Court, and Priestly narrowly averted prison by abjuring the contents of his book, destroying his notes and personal copy of the manuscript, and paying a heavy fine. In Catholic countries, the 1757 encyclical Against Meddling with the Powers of God by Pope Benedict XIV specifically defined the study of lightning as impious, and effectively extended the ban on electrickal research throughout the rest of the Christian world.

Yet now, in the wake of yesterday’s tragic fires, in which the death toll may well exceed one million souls, the value of protection against lightning has become manifest. Had it not been for this well-meaning Law, might not Franklin, or others following in his footsteps, have perfected the means to protect structures against lightning?

It is not the purpose of this writing to incite disobedience to the law and expose this journal to prosecution; however, it may be time to rethink the ban on electrickal research, which has in recent years been conducted with care and safety in Japan and the Netherlands. The benefit of saving one or two lives can scarcely outweigh the cost of the loss of a million.
This Law, and this tragedy, are not a legacy that Franklin would have wanted to bear his name.

Published on the op-ed page of the New York Tribune
New York City, Crown Colony of New York, October 11, 2015


Ranstom said...

-->Asteroids :)

Hop David said...

Interesting alternate history.