It is more than a little bit tricky to set forth a definitive list of facts about ball lightning, because there are relatively few hard facts that anyone agrees on. The very existence of ball lightning is not universally accepted by the scientific community. It is also difficult to find one set of descriptive parameters that defines or begins to explain the phenomenon. There are a few point of agreement, let’s take a look at them.
Ball lightning has been reported for a very long time:
The phenomenon is not a recent one. A frequently quoted case and one that took place in front of many witnesses occurred in 1638 in the Devonshire village of Widecombe on the Moor. Church services were taking place during a violent thunderstorm when a bolt of lightning struck the church tower, causing some damage. As a result of or following hard upon the heels of this strike a large fireball entered the church, causing death and general mayhem. In the end at least four people died and nearly sixty were injured. A graphic account of this cataclysm has been preserved by the Cromwell Association among others.
Terror at sea:
Ball lightning – not to be confused will St. Elmo’s fire -seems to love ocean going vessels, particularly those of the British Navy. A 1726 report from the British Sloop of War Catherine and Mary details the strike of a large ball lightning which extensively damaged the ship, killed one man and injured another. In 1749 it was the turn of HMS Montague which suffered a shattered mainmast and collateral damage, inflicted by ball lightning which the officers and crew saw coming from a long way out but were of course, powerless to interdict.
There seems to be little safety in port; in 1809 the HMS Warren Hastings was struck by not one, but three balls of lightning, which killed several crewmen and left behind a rancid, sulfurous stink. The later olfactory phenomenon is a common denominator of many, but not all, ball lightning manifestations.
A Mr. James Tillie, a boatload of friends and neighbors, as well as a few onlookers ashore had a similar and unforgettable encounter with the phenomenon on an August afternoon in 1757, the contemporary account of which can be read here.
What is it?
No one, with perhaps the historic exception of Nicola Tesla, seems to know. Tesla was able to generate short lived phenomenon in his laboratory which closely mimicked many of the characteristics of ball lightning and is reported to have explained or at least, attempted to explain the phenomenon as long ago as 1897.
Modern researchers have apparently been able to duplicate Tesla’s experiments and seem to agree that the resulting phenomenon closely resembles what the anecdotal reports of ball seem to tell us about its nature.
Other theories have attempted to link ball lightning to vaporized silicon, self generated plasma containing tokomak bottles and even to miniature black holes but if Tesla was correct and ball lightning is generated in a specific set of vibratory parameters in the presence of electrical potential, then these theories are overly complex and also incorrect.
The jury remains out but it may be worth noting; when it comes to matters electrical, it never pays to bet against Nicola Tesla.