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William Jennings, Pioneer Work in Photography of Lightning, 1930

A Debatable First

Due to the uncommon nature of Jennings' scientific achievement, there was much debate as to what exactly he should be rewarded for. He was not an inventor, but his work nonetheless made a significant impact on the study of physical science. A letter from Franklin Institute Secretary Hoadley questioned Jennings' primacy in photographing lightning: was he really the first to achieve this feat? Many documents in Jennings' case file record the discussion that went back and forth among the members regarding this question. Ultimately, the Committee on Science and the Arts was unable to verify that Jennings was the first photographer of lightning. The final Committee report on Jennings records that "The Institute has been unable to find that any photograph was taken prior to Mr. Jennings' photograph in 1882."

The letters shown here contain the initial response of the Committee members to Hoadley's question.

Barnes to Hoadley
Barnes Letter to Hoadley, responding to questions about Jennings, 11/17/1928. (2.6M)

Dorsey to Hoadley
Dorsey Letter to Hoadley, responding to questions about Jennings, 11/6/1929. (1.8M)

Humphreys to Hoadley
Humphreys Letter to Hoadley, responding to questions about Jennings, 11/1/1929. (1.7M)

Levy to Hoadley
Levy Letter to Hoadley, responding to questions about Jennings, 12/2/1929. (2.8M)

These documents record the correspondence between Secretary Hoadley, and Committee members Dorsey and Humphreys. Both Dorsey and Humphreys are requested to investigate primacy in the photographing of lightning, though the letters suggest that only Humphreys takes this task seriously. Hoadley's letter to Dorsey tersely notes that Dorsey has "never made an investigation," while Humphreys' letter from the Secretary is obliging and expresses thanks for his "courteous cooperation."

Secretary to Dorsey
Secretary Letter to Dorsey, request for information about lightning photography, 10/26/1929. (2.6M)

Secretary to Dorsey
Secretary Letter to Dorsey, acknowledging lack of investigation into lightning photography, 11/7/1929. (2.6M)

Secretary to Humphreys
Secretary Letter to Humphreys, request for information about lightning photography, 10/26/1929. (3.1M)

Secretary to Humphreys
Secretary Letter to Humphreys, acknowledging courteous cooperation, 11/6/1929. (2.7M)