Hot Flashes: 10 Uses For Lightning That Ben Franklin Never Guessed

Illustration for article titled Hot Flashes: 10 Uses For Lightning That Ben Franklin Never Guessed

Click to viewIt can power a time machine, steal Superman's strength and even help Zack Morris graduate high school. Oh, lightning – is there anything you can't do? Long before nuclear energy and genetic engineering joined the team, lightning reigned as the top catch-all explanation for the funky phenomenon of the week, even transcending genre to become a standard sitcom plot device. Click through for clips of the flashiest lightning this side of Mt. Olympus.


Prometheus stole fire from the gods but Hollywood nabbed lightning from Zeus himself - and here are the ten best ways they've put those thunderbolts to use.

Create Life
This is the one that started it all. Before Frankenstein, lightning was just a handy way to collect some insurance money. After Frankenstein, it could do anything. Although Mary Shelley's novel provided no description of Victor Frankenstein's methods, the classic 1931 film cemented lightning's place in the popular imagination as the giver of life. Part classical Zeus imagery and part flashy spectacle, the revivifying lightning bolt is now inseparable from Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.

Save gas on your DeLorean
Great Scott! The entire plot of the first Back to the Future is centered around a lightning strike, necessary to power the DeLorean and send Marty McFly back to… well, you know. Doc Brown's plan to swap lightning for plutonium to get the necessary 1.21 gigawatts is also a clever nod to the history of technobabble – by the 80s, nuclear power had become the all-powerful pseudo-science of choice, but in the 50s lightning was still the dominant fix-it. Which leads to the most dramatic "should've gotten the longer extension cord" moment in all of movie history.

Scramble tv transmissions and DNA samples
Considering Doctor Who's long history with scientific hand-waving, you'd think they'd be old pros at the lightning fixit. But lightning saves the day in only the very lamest of the new series episodes, proving that we are better off with paradox machines and timey wimey detectors after all.

First, the mildly dreadful Idiot's Lantern climaxed with the Doctor clinging to a tv tower while some flashy pink lightning somehow trapped a face-eating television monster inside a Betamax tape. Then a year later, the exuberantly dreadful Daleks in Manhattan two-parter found the Doctor once again struck by lightning while clinging to a tower, this time the Empire State Building, causing his Time Lord DNA to mix with that of the already genetically awkward Human-Dalek hybrids. Somehow this saves the day. I don't know. I really try not to think about these episodes too much, and neither should you. If you want to try to suss it out, here's a clip:

Leap tall buildings in a single bound
It's a fairly established bit of Superman lore that a freak lightning accident can transfer the Man of Steel's powers to an ordinary human – a random Army private in a 1958 comic, a woman who would become electric villain Livewire in The Animated Series, even Lana Lang on Smallville. But my favorite example is Lois & Clark's "A Bolt From The Blue," in which lightning strikes while Superman is stopping a suicide, turning a 90 pound weakling into a 90 pound Hercules. Metropolis's newest superhero charges citizens for his services, asking Lois to print his price list, but in the end everything is put back to normal thanks to that other great scifi fixit – reversing the polarity.

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Control lightning itself
The power to control lightning is not as common a side effect as you might think – so leave it to The X-Files to cover the obvious angle for us. Third season episode "D.P.O." features a young man whose lightning strike left him able to harness the power of electricity. Soon, four other men in town are conveniently struck dead by lightning, bringing in our favorite FBI agents so that poor Mulder's cell phone can get zapped as well. Check out the clip below to see Giovanni Ribisi use his powers to defibrillate Jack Black.

Teach robots to love
Yes, yes, we know: Short Circuit's Johnny 5 bears a remarkable resemblance to his adorable robot successor Wall-E. But while Wall-E gained his sentience through years of isolation on the desiccated Earth, Johnny 5's personality burst into life and into our hearts in a bolt of lightning. The lightning itself isn't the interesting part, so here's Johnny 5 busting out the moves with his friend Stephanie.

Help you cheat on tests
Saved By The Bell's Screech was one of the greatest of the tv nerds – you never knew when he was going to fall out of a locker, masquerade as a woman/teacher/alien to further one of Zack's schemes, or get struck by lightning. The wonderfully cheesy Saturday morning sitcom never shied away from patently ridiculous plot devices – see the famous Jessie Spano caffeine pill freakout and, my personal favorite, Zack's 1502 on the SATs – and it only took till the series' third episode for lightning to strike. The bolt hits Screech, of course, who becomes instantly but temporarily clairvoyant, and he uses his newfound lightning-powers to help Zack and the gang cheat on a history exam. Good thing it wasn't earth science!


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Magnetize all available metals
You may be seeing Danny Kaye on your tv this time of year in White Christmas, but it was in the 1956 classic The Court Jester that he taught us how lightning can save the day even in vaguely-medieval England. The lead-up to the jousting scene is well-remembered for its impossible tongue twister about the pellet with the poison in the flagon with the dragon, but it wasn't fancy word-play that saved Danny Kaye's neck in the end – just good old-fashioned lightning. The bolt, in all its cheesy 50s special effects glory, magnetizes his suit of armor, giving him that vital edge against his enemy's mace. This is one of the greatest sketches of all time, so if you watch only one of the clips in this article, make it this one.

Magnetize all available non-metals
In another fine instance of random lightning-induced magnetism, Gilligan's Island had good old Gilligan go bowling in a storm and get struck just as he's throwing a strike. Naturally, this causes the bowling ball to become magnetized to Gilligan's hand. If the idea of a rock getting magnetized to a hand sounds implausible to you, just wait for the Professor's explanation at 3:30 on the video, one of the finest feats of technobabble ever recorded. Oh, and when they try to remove the bowling ball? Gilligan turns invisible. Of course.


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Score free plastic surgery
And sometimes, lightning just makes you pretty. In a subversion of the classic Frankenstein trope, 1960's monster-family sitcom The Munsters had patriarch Herman Munster – normally green-skinned and bolt-necked like a traditional Frankenstein monster – turn magically, hideously normal after a freak lightning accident in Grandpa's lab. True to family form, the rest of the Munster clan is disgusted by Herman's newly handsome appearance. But fear not! Another lightning strike at the end of the episode turned Herman back into his usual ugly self. Check out the clip to see actor Fred Gwynne in his only appearance as Herman Munster sans make-up.

So next time you walk through a storm, hold your head up high - because if you get struck by lightning, who knows! You just might discover another fantastic power of the sci fi world's greatest fix-it.



Chris Braak

I thought it was 1.21 gigawatts.

Also: The Court Jester is a fantastic movie.