Guide to Vintage Lightning Rods

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Old-fashioned static lightning machine

Lightning-rod salesmen of yore often traveled with machines like this one, which simulated lightning strikes. (Illustration: Courtesy of Ferro Weathervanes)

Much has changed since the early days of lightning protection, when it was widely believed that the glass balls adorning lightning rods were an indicator of whether the rods were functioning properly. We now know that the glass balls were purely decorative—in fact, the balls' different patterns and colors were how installers advertised their businesses.

Jim Donahue, a third-generation lightning rod installer known as The Lightning Rod Man, tells the story of an itinerant lightning rod salesman who went by the name of Dr. Boom and, paradoxically, drove a black hearse with lightning bolts painted on the side. Legend has it that the first thing the good doctor did after rolling into town was to round up a team of boys with BB guns and pay them to shot out the rooftop balls to drum up business.

If local hooligans (whether working as mercenaries or just horsing around) have used the glass balls on your vintage lightning rods for BB gun practice, replacements are available from New Old Products, a company that says they have more glass balls than anyone in the country.

Matching an existing rod can be tricky, but the folks at East Coast Lightning Equipment, Inc. can duplicate missing parts in their foundry. The company also has an extensive collection of original match plates—an impression device used in sand casting—from which they can make reproduction rods.

For collectors in search of the genuine article, Ferro Weathervanes has a small selection of antique lightning-protection equipment, including balls, rods, and finials. And if you find yourself getting way into vintage rods, subscribe to Crown Point magazine, a quarterly journal aimed at antique lightning-rod collectors. A one-year subscription is $20; you can sign up by contacting the editor at (630) 876-1316 or crownpoint@ntsource.com.