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Historical Background of Lightning

Lightning has probably been present on earth long before life developed. Humans have also been affected by lightning for centuries which is evident from the more than 50 known gods of thunder in ancient mythology.  Lightning research however only started in the 18th century when Benjamin Franklin conducted experiments about electricity in thunderstorms, with his kite experiment being the most famous. His work paved the way for lightning research around the world. In the 19th century, spectrometry and photography became the new tools for lightning research, but was replaced in the 1970s when electric and magnetic field measurements began a new era in lightning research. Lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon that has been studied extensively, however many questions remain unanswered. Extensive research around the globe has resulted in answers to many of these questions and provided insights into the science of lightning.

South Africa also made significant contributions to the field of lightning research with names like Schonland, Anderson, Proctor, Eriksson, Malan and Geldenhuys being internationally recognised for their contributions to the field. Early lightning research was conducted at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which also operated a network of about 400 lightning flash counters. The data from these lightning flash counters were used to produce the first lightning flash density map of South Africa which could be used to get an idea of the distribution of lightning across the country and was used up until recently for lightning safety standards. The CSIR also operated a 60m high lightning research mast in Pretoria for 15 years from which direct measurements of lightning discharges could be made. Eskom, the major power utility of South Africa, operated a network of six Lightning Position and Tracking System lightning sensors that was mainly used for the monitoring of power lines and the correct distribution of the infrastructure. It was not until 2005 that the South African Weather Service installed a state of the art lightning detection network (SALDN) across the country, which enabled South Africa to detect cloud-to-ground lightning with great accuracy for the first time. This new lightning detection network can detect 90% or more of all cloud-to-ground lightning and accurately position a lightning stroke within 500 meters. This new network of sensors paved the way for new lightning research in South Africa.

Source: http://www.lightningsa.org.za