A Disaster in Luxemburg and Lightning Awareness Week

Yeah, like living in the Great Lakes we’re not “aware” of lightning.

Anyway, 26 June is one of those days that, well, is not blessed with an excess of National Days (except for National Hair Stylist Appreciation Day and (National Chocolate Pudding Day), and a plethora of events including the murder of Pizarro in 1541, the battle of Mechanicsville in 1862, the beginning of the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.  But today, we have to be obscure…and talk about lightning.

In the early 19th century, during the French occupation of Luxembourg , the 75 year old fortress of Fort Thungen in Kirchberg (now a part of Luxembourg City), was being used as a magazine and gunpowder factory by the ammunition-hungry armies of Napoleon.  On 26 June 1807, a lightning strike touched off the powder, destroying two city blocks and killing at least 300 people.  If my sources are right, most simple gunpowder in the pre-industrial era was made from November to March to avoid dampening the mixture, so its not clear if the powder works was operating.

At this distance it’s hard to say exactly what happened, but either the walls of the fortress were very stout or there wasn’t a great deal of powder there.  This accident took place just twelve days after the battle of Friedland in Prussia, the battle that ended the War of the Fourth Coalition, enabled the Treaty of TIlsit and pulled Russia into the Continental System, at least for a while.  It was also four months after the battle of Eylau, and barely a month after the siege of Danzig ended.  In six months, Napoleon had consumed several magazines of powder so far that year, so it’s just possible that the magazine was lower than normal.

National Lightning Awareness Week was last week (last full week in June), regrettably, but I couldn’t resist the connection.  Neither accidental explosive detonations nor lightning strikes are that rare or unusual, but this one was both.  It’s called the deadliest lightning strike in history by some, but the Lightning Safety Council doesn’t mention it on its web site.  As of 2001 lightning strikes killed about 50 people a year in the US: at this writing that number is about 30.  The Lightning Safety Council claims its because of their efforts, but it seems more likely that people are spending less time outside and electrical codes have caught up with the need for extensive grounding.  I’ve been in airplanes when they were struck by lightning (flash/boom/passenger hollers/PA says “nothing to worry about”), but with modern aircraft the problem isn’t what it once was.

Lightning and gunpowder–dangerous mix.


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