When lightning hits a printing warehouse…in 1799

On the evening of June 26, 1799, a major summer thunderstorm passed through Worcester.  One result was that a warehouse that Isaiah Thomas used to store printing materials was struck by lightning, causing damage.  Of course something like that was newsworthy and a detailed report appeared in the next issue of Thomas’s paper, the Massachusetts Spy with a follow-up article a week later describing additional damage found.

The articles are interesting for two reasons.  One reason is the analytical way in which they describe the damage found as the path of the lightning discharge is determined.  Details of the damage caused, both large and small, are noted as the lightning jumped between chimneys, type cases, flooring, doors, nails, and other parts of the building.  It is more like a scientific report rather than a sensational news story.  At that time educated people often had an interest in “natural philosophy” or pondering how the universe operated.  Observing and reporting natural phenomena like this was part of it.

The other reason for our interest is the details given of the printing materials stored in the warehouse.  There are few descriptions of printers’ warehouses, and while this is not comprehensive, we do learn some details.  The most important fact mentioned was that Isaiah Thomas had the entire text of the Bible set in type and locked in iron chases.  Type was not cheap and at this time Thomas was the only printer to have so much type tied up ready to print an entire Bible.

We also learn that in a side room of the warehouse, Thomas stored books in sheets.  These would be sheets of paper with pages of a book printed on them waiting to be folded and bound up.  Binding up a whole run of a book was not economical at times because it would tie up a lot of capital while waiting for sales to come in.  It was easier to bind up small groups of books as orders came in.  The sheets would be waiting in the warehouse to fulfill those orders.

The article mentions a pile of rags for papermaking in the corner of one room.  Thomas’s business empire at this time did not include a paper mill (he had sold his mill the year before).  Newspapers needed a steady supply of paper and they would collect rags (newspapers often contained advertisements asking for old rags).  They would then be able to turn in the rags at paper mills and receive credit or paper in trade.

We will post below the content of both news articles about the lightning strike for your reading pleasure.  The recent discussion among the AAS staff over this incident brought to mind an advertisement from 1841 promoting the use of lightning rods (see right).  R.B. Hubbard installed a series of rods on the Society’s first building, which is shown in a stormy illustration on the advertisement fairly bristling with rods.  Perhaps the Society’s leaders remembered Thomas’s investigations of the 1799 lightning strike and took every precaution they could to keep lightning at bay.   We do not have a forest of lightning rods on the roof or the dome of our current building, but there is an elaborate grounding system in place to direct any of nature’s energy away from the electronics inside the building — including our phone and computer systems and servers, all of which could not even have been envisioned by Thomas in 1799 as he traced every fused nail and blown piece of lathe to determine the path lightning took to reach the ground.


Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy, or, The Worcester Gazette

July 3, 1799


On the evening of last Wednesday, we were visited with a thunder storm in a degree of severity unusual in this climate.  Between the hours of nine and ten, the lightning struck a house, contiguous to the Courthouse in this place, the property of the Senior Proprietor of this paper, and occupied by him as a Warehouse.  In it were about 8000 weight of printing types, and among them the types for the whole of the Bible in 12mo, these were all set up in pages, and fixed in iron frames, (by Printers called chases) ready for the Press; the frames were deposited in large cases, made for the purpose, twelve frames in a case; the cases opened in front by doors; other types lay packed in boxes; and a considerable quantity lay in Printers’ cases in piles.  The whole were in a lower room.  The lightning struck the south gable end of the building; it divided into four distinct branches; three of them came down the southeast chamber, and the room below it where the types were deposited, on the south end, and east and west sides.  The first of these three branches entered the chimney, and ran down on the inside till it reached within three feet of the garret floor; here it burst through, throwing out one or two bricks; from the chimney it entered a closet of the chamber just mentioned, which it burst open in every direction, throwing off the boards, laths and plastering, &c. a plank to which the laths were nailed, on the side next the chimney, was split and shivered into many pieces; the mouldings round the fire place  were entirely separated and thrown off.  It passed by the chimney to the closet of the room below; here it left the chimney, and took an horizontal direction to the point of the upper HL hinge of the closet door, which point it melted; in its horizontal passage it burst off the laths, and threw the plastering  into the room; rent in sunder the plank to which the mouldings of the door were nailed, and three off the mouldings, &c after taking the hinge it turned its angle and passed downwards, melting the lower corner of the hinge; a large bar of iron, five feet in length, stood leaning against the closet with its broad side to one of the large cases of Bible types in iron frames, before mentioned, the lower part of the iron bar was in contact with the lower hinge of the type case; the lightning took to the iron bar, which conducted it to the hinge of the type case; the spot, where the iron bar was in contact with the hinge, melted; the lightning then took the hinge of the type case, and entering the case by a nail, met with a corner of an iron frame, or chase, inclosing the type of twelve 12mo pages of the Bible; it is discernible that the iron chase melted at the corner where the lightning struck it; it passed on two sides of this chase till attracted by a nail, on the back of the case, it went off into the ground, melting the head of the nail; no cellar was under the case; the outside and inside of the case, where the lightning entered, and where it went off by the nail, were scorched; a large pile of paper (books in sheets) were packed on the side of the room, and in contact with the closet door; the space between the HL hinge of the closet door, and the top of the iron bar, was twelve inches, and that space, six inches in width, was scorched to blackness; the paper was also scorched and the ends burnt through.  From the gable end another branch of lightning descended to the center post of the south end of the building; the studs, above the plate, were broken and shivered to pieces, and thrown out of their places; in passing the chamber before mentioned, it removed the plastering of the wall from the window to the corner of the chamber, it passed by a large heap of rags for making paper, which lay in contact with the wall from which the plastering is removed, but the rags are not scorched; along the center post it descended to the cell; in its passage through the lower room it threw off the plastering from the wall, and passing by another large case of printing types in chases, it shattered a corner of the case, but no injury was done to the types, nor did the iron chase appear to divert its course from the cell; it there took a direction to the southeast corner of the building, gouging the under side of the cell the whole distance of its passage; at the end of the cell its visible effects ceased; on the outside of the house, at this end, the shingles, clapboards and boards were broken and thrown into the yard, from the gable end;  the boards and clapboards were rent from the post which conducted the lightning, from top to bottom and in two or three places holes of two or three feet long, and from one to two feet in breadth, were made in the house by the boards and clapboards being broken, and studs shivered to pieces; in some places the studs were entirely removed.  The third branch took its course along the ridgepole, gouging the boards , throwing off the saddle boards, and shingles, and splintering the second  spar on the west side of the roof, till it arrived in the centre; it then divided, and descended by the center spars on the east and west; the spars are twenty five feet in length; on the east spar the boards of the roof meet, and of course there were two rows of nails; this spar was split and shivered from end to end in the line of one row of the nails, and one half of the spar fell; It then entered the chamber before mentioned by a window frame, separating the frame from the stud to which it was spiked, tore off the caseing of the window inside, broke ten panes of glass, forced the plastering from the laths, and threw it across the chamber; on the outside the clapboards were separated from the boards:  It descended into the lower room by the stud to which the frame of the window was fastened, splitting the frame and separating it from the stud, forcing off the caseing of the window and plastering from the wall and throwing them, as above stairs, across the room.  In this window eight panes of glass were broken; close by the window stood a pile of common cases of printing types; and near them, another large case of types in iron frames; but it does not appear that the lightning entered these, nor can any trace of it be discovered below the frame of this window.

The fourth branch took its course on the centre spar, on the east side of the roof, till it met the plate; the west part of the house was unfinished  inside, the rooms were not even partitioned off; the outside was boarded, and the window frames in; and the windows were boarded up, except one, which was left open’ the spar on which the lightning descended on this side, was split asunder from top to bottom, and shivered; all the studs to which the window frames were spiked, were split and broken in pieces, and some  of the pieces sent to a considerable distance; three of the window frames torn off, and boards in many places rent from the studs, broken to pieces, and thrown on the ground.

The Building struck stands in an elevated situation, and within ten feet of the Courthouse.  The Courthouse has a Cupola with a small bell, a mettle vein supported by an iron rod, which terminates with a wooden ball, gilt.  The vein is a number of feet higher than any part of the house injured.  In this house were a large quantity of paper, rags for making paper, shavings and other combustible substances, it is surprising that the lighting did not enkindle a flame.

July 10, 1799


In our last, we published an account of the effects of a stroke of lightning upon the Warehouse of the Senior Proprietor of this paper.  Since that publication further discoveries have been made.  The reader will recollect, that the types in the room to which three of the four branches of lightning centered, lay in three distinct forms. – Some were set in iron frames for a 12mo Bible; none of these were injured, the lightning played upon the iron frame without any effect upon the types.  Others were contained in common printing cases, which lay in piles; the lightning entered many of these cases and melted many of the types.  Other types in the room were packed solidly in boxes as they came from the foundery; the lightning entered five or six of these boxes and did considerable damage to the types.  In some instances it passed directly through the centre of these packages, perforating the paper in which the types were enclosed and leaving its traces upon the metallic substances in its way.  In other instances the passage of the lightning was in a diagonal direction, and then the opposite corners of the packages were the parts injured.  In some instances, the fusion was so great, as to leave the types in a mass:  In others, they were heated in the degree to adhere closely.    In some places, the appearance was that of a light substance having been burnt upon the surface of the types:  In others, that the types themselves had been passed through a fire of charcoal.  Both the common printing cases of types, and the boxes solidly packed were laying in piles, and difficult to remove; and no external injury appearing, occasioned the damage done the types not to be discovered in the first examination; it is true that a few of the cases and boxes which lay uppermost were then viewed with attention, but no traces of the lightning being discovered on them, it was supposed the others had escaped.

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