Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, a series of lightning bolts blasted the top of the Empire State Building during a strong thunderstorm. Die-hard building-gazer ESBisMyMuse caught the assault on tape, although a fourth strike that night slipped by undocumented. Says the videographer: “I've never seen so many hits on the ESB in one night. It was ridiculous! But so much fun to watch. Whoever said lightning doesn't strike twice was wrong. :)”
Whoever coined that maxim also must not have lived in NYC, where the Empire State Building sustains a fierce battery of lightning strikes each year. A firm annual average is tough to unearth – estimates range from 25 to 100 strikes – but the building has been attracting electrical discharges since the day it opened for business. In fact, some say it was designed to function as a giant lightning rod to keep neighboring structures safe.
The iconic tower, 1,454 feet tall from the ground to the tip of its antenna, has an interesting history as far as gigantic explosive bolts from the sky are concerned. Scientists measured some of the very first oscillographic readings of lightning currents there using tethered balloons in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Lightning researcher and General Electric engineer Karl McEachron recorded 48 strikes in one year during the 1930s, employing an arsenal of cameras mounted on the 26th floor of the Daily News Building on 42nd Street. Later, on a quest to determine the speed at which lightning travels, scientists with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers filmed every strike from 1934 and 1937. They concluded the bolts whip along at 10,000 miles per second, although that finding is still up for debate.
The first major lightning strike at the Empire State Building occurred in August 1931, the year construction was completed. John Tauranac gives a good description of what that electrifying event looked like in his 1997 tome, “The Empire State Building, The Making of a Landmark”:
One particularly fierce bolt that was accompanied by "detonations" produced a great flash of fire seen as far as a mile away. Telephone operators on the eighty-sixth floor saw a sheet of flame shoot down the sides of the building, a report corroborated by a policeman on Fifth Avenue, who described the electricity as a "stream of electric fire" that sped down the building’s side and disappeared when it hit the sidewalk.
No damage was reported inside, though. So why isn’t the building blasted into oblivion with these baths of white-hot lightning? Its structure actually makes it an effective charge-channeling device. The architecture is “essentially an enormous set of steel cages” in which “energy is divided and subdivided,” according to Tauranac, much like a Faraday cage. The way it’s built allows for stranger weather phenomena, too. On one night soon after it opened, the tower became enwrapped with a radiant coat of St. Elmo’s fire. Writes Tauranac:
All the outer metalwork glowed with what engineers call a brush discharge. It makes a hissing sound and, although it is not dangerous, it might create a tingling sensation if you’re around it.