Summer 2001

Eyewitness Accounts of Kugelblitz

Great balls of fire

­­Edmond M. Dewan­­­

The following article is excerpted from a sixty-page government report published by Edmond M. Dewan in March 1964 at the Air Force Cambridge Research­ Laboratories on the subject of ball lightning, a rarely observed phenomenon that oc­curs during severe thunderstorms: A hovering, gliding or bouncing sphere of energy tha­t can disappear quickly and harmlessly or terminate in a violent explosion. Because ball lightning, or “kugelblitz,” has seldom been seen, the testimony of witnesses has often been dismissed as superstitious imaginings. Nevertheless, historical accounts of kugelblitz chronicled characteristic behaviors with enough regularity to arouse the curiosity of scientists in the twentieth century.

Research published by Russian scientist Peter Kapitza in 1955 postulated that kugelblitz were the result of microwaves feeding energy into a ball of plasma, the wavelength determining the size of the kugelblitz, approximately the size of a tennis ball. Unbeknownst to Kapitza, this same theory was both advanced and disproved by scientist Manuel Cerrillo in 1943 in a Mexican scientific journal. The microwave theory presumed that the ball’s energy was supplied by an external source. Another possible explanation was that the source was internal: a contained, naturally occurring thermonuclear fusion. If the microwave theory were correct, this would rule out the possibility of kugelblitz as controlled nuclear fusion. If kugelblitz were indeed nuclear fusion, understanding kugelblitz could lead to the harnessing of a power sou­rce of unprecedented potency and cheapness, as well as finding applications in weapons technology. Both the Russian and American governments funded research in this field. The chief difficulty was that no scientist had ever been able to create kugelblitz in the laboratory. Without an experiment, no empirical data could be collected, and to this day the phenomenon is little understood.

Dr. Edmond Dewan first heard about kugelblitz as a child from his grandmother (my great grandmother), who described seeing it float through a window, glide across the table where the family was seated, evaporate a fork, then harmlessly disappear. When kugelblitz became an object of study at Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories at Hanscom Field, he published an inquiry in The Boston Globe soliciting letters from people who had seen ball lightning, and asking them to describe their experiences. These letters were published in the AFCRL report, together with appendices of previously published material. In the absence of any measurable or verifiable data (Dewan and colleague Martin Stiglitz attempted to make kugelblitz on the roof of the lab), the only information available was the subjective testimony of those who happened to behold these capricious apparitions.

—Brian Dewan

This report records a number of eyewitness accounts of ball-lightning which were submitted to the author spontaneously in response to a newspaper request.

As the accounts show, there is a wide variety in the movement, general behavior, and appearance of the phenomenon. In fact, one might say that the only occurrence common to all of the sightings was the profound psychological reaction upon the observer ranging from amazement to intense fear. Such reaction had the effect of interfering with the objectivity of the observations. For the most part, the text of this report consists of a series of “stories” by the observers, either in their own words or paraphrased as closely as possible.

It is hoped that perhaps some small detail or even a seemingly insignificant observation in some of these accounts might give a new clue to this most challenging phenomenon. In some of the accounts there are indications that when the Kugelblitz explodes large currents are set up in nearby conductors. This apparent association might have one of the following interpretations: (a) the explosion of a Kugelblitz involves an associated (normal) lightning stroke or (b) the explosion involves a very sudden collapse of a large magnetic field which induces an electric field which in turn causes the current to flow. Possibility (a) implies that the Kugelblitz (KB) is intimately related to the surrounding electromagnetic field while (b) implies that the KB is a magnetically self-contained plasma. This second possibility seems preposterous in many ways; but, since the mere existence of KB is almost “preposterous,” we are not at this time in a position to ignore any possibility.

Another important clue is the frequent report of a sharp sulfurous smell almost certainly indicating the presence of ozone and, in turn, implying that the air has been ionized in some way. However, this with few exceptions occurs only in the case when the KB explodes.

From time to time a strange form of lighting is seen. It appears as a ball of fire and travels slowly, constantly changing its direction. In this picture we see the course of one of these fireballs, known as globe lightning. It originated as one ball, but on touching the ground split into two. These rose and while one went down the chimney of a house and exploded, doing great damage, the other followed a more erratic course. It went down the chimney of another house, crossed a room in which were a man and a child, doing no harm to either and then making a small hole in the floor, went through into the chamber beneath, used as a sheep-fold. The lambs started jumping about, and five older sheep were killed. The shepherd’s son at the door was not injured. The ball then passed out at the doorway.

In reading the eyewitness accounts, the reader will gain the impression that this subject is very mysterious. In addition all theoretical attempts to date have failed. A better understanding of Kugelblitz would give obvious and important benefits to technology; however, there is in addition the very pressing need for scientific “peace of mind.” Almost no inanimate natural phenomenon exceeds the extent to which the KB mocks science by its complete lack of even a plausible hypothesis. In a letter from a woman living in Allston, Massachusetts, we have an account of two KB observations:

27 April 1960
Dear Sir:
Regarding “Ball Lightning”—
When I was a child I remember my relatives who lived on a farm in Ware, Massachusetts, tell that often in a thunderstorm if they used their telephone a ball of fire came bouncing in the room and ran in and out, but did no harm. I saw it once myself.

Then when I was in my teens during a thunderstorm in West Peabody I saw a ball of fire descend from a flash of lightning, race across a lake and disappear.

A 33-year old mechanical engineer from Springfield, Ohio, wrote the following account:

10 January 1961
Dear Dewan:
I observed this phenomena at close range approximately 25 years ago during a thunderstorm at an amusement park near Cincinnati, Ohio.

It was a pleasant summer day, the week of June ninth (which is my birthday). The thunderstorm came up quite suddenly and was over in a matter of a few minutes. It rained quite heavily.

The stroke of lightning was very close, the flash and the thunder occurring simultaneously. I was standing inside an open pavilion. The ball of lightning appeared immediately following the flash, between the columns at the entrance, and at a height of about two feet off the floor. It then drifted inside the building for a distance of ten to fifteen feet where it just as suddenly extinguished.

There was intense electrical activity with the sort of sputtering typical of arc lamps. It is my distinct impression that the ball reduced in diameter as it traveled.

The intensity was approximately that of a 100-watt bulb if you were to look directly at it. I do not recall having the temporary blind spot or after-image one usually gets when exposed to a bright object like a flash bulb.

I was less than six years old when this happened. You might say I stood there dumfounded. It remains, nonetheless, one of the most vivid recollections of my childhood.

From a woman in Lynn, Massachusetts:

22 October 1960
In 1942 I was on the crest of a hill in the south-west corner of Germany spreading cow dung with a pitchfork across a meadow for fertilizing. I was only seventeen then and day-dreaming of a boy—so was completely oblivious of the darkening sky. I stood there with my legs spread, the pitchfork prongs planted in the ground and my hands and chin resting dreamily on the upper end of it.

To my amazement I saw a ball of blue flame about 5 1/2 to 6 inches large roll down the trunk of an apple tree and right toward me. I thought it to be some sort of lightning—but no thunder followed—and my first reaction was to throw the metallic fork from me. But the ball continued on right between my feet—down the hill into a small brook from hence I did not see it emerge.

I could not understand why the ball was not attracted to the metal or touch me being a tall object in the grass. When I told people excitedly of my experience they thought it to be a fabrication of my imagination and did not believe me. But I knew that I had seen a marvel of nature and felt enriched by it.

This account by a girl from Rhode Island:

17 May 1961
Dear Dr. Dewan:
The following is an experience we had in our home April 16, 1961. It was a stormy day and lightning occurred once in a while. My mother was ironing clothes in the kitchen when all of a sudden, she saw a bright ball of fire, the phone gave a quick ring and the ball disappeared. It is still a mystery as to where the ball of fire came from, and to where it went. The ball appeared between the telephone and the iron, a distance of four feet.

A Lexington woman telephoned an account which is an example of a “bouncing” KB: she had just finished cooking on a stove which was two feet from her window. Suddenly she noticed a flame bouncing in the frying pan. It made a noise in time with the bouncing that sounded like “plink, plink…”

The following letter from a woman living in Needham, Massachusetts:

Dear Dr. Dewan,
This experience happened to us in 1947.

We purchased an old house in 1946 in Bridgewater, New Hampshire on a mountain side. A very bad thunderstorm hovered over us most of the afternoon and toward early evening this ball of fire seemed to be jumping around inside the house looking as tho’ it was trying to escape, when it seemed as tho’ it went thru the floor with a loud bang and exploded.

It dashed around and even burned a metal chain which held a stopper for a bathroom sink and blackened it. We also noticed the nails on the floor had been scorched. All the fuses were burned out and light bulbs also.

At the front door it ripped off some of the portico and hit the light switch and smashed it.

The sulphur smell was very strong and we thought the house was afire, but the fire department found nothing burning.

It certainly was something to go through and I often wonder that none of us was injured by it — quite dazed by it all.

Thought you might be interested to know of a family who really went through a “Kugelblitz.”

A letter from a man in Portsmouth, New Hampshire gives two observations of KB, one of the “attached” type and the other “free floating.” In the first case there was an explosion while in the second there was a mysterious bit of biological damage—the loss of an observer’s sight in one eye. This last observation is especially significant from the point of view of the Cerrillo Kapitza theory since eyes are especially prone to damage by the influence of intense radio waves.

27 April 1960
Dear Doctor:
On a humid day in August, 1907, I was on the upper level of the Casino at Hampton Beach when a heavy thunder shower came up and during the almost incessant lightning, a ball of lightning came along on the wires along the beach front, from the direction of Salisbury Beach, traveling around 25 miles an hour. When it reached one of those elongated wooden boxes, which were common on poles of that period, it seemed to go into it with no visible opening, and in a fraction of a second the box blew apart with bits scattered over the boardwalk. The ball was seen no more. In the other instance my uncle told of a heavy storm while in school at Rye, New Hampshire. A ball of lightning came down the chimney and out of the stove door, wandered around on the floor and finally went out a window. From that time my uncle lost the sight of the right eye. In both instances there was strong sulphur odor.

A Belmont, Massachusetts woman wrote an account of a KB exhibiting heat effects, bouncing motion, ability to pass through a barrier, and perhaps ozone generation (near the screen). The bulge of the screen, although very likely caused by the passage of the KB, might also have been a “normal” bulge in the screen (this often happens if the people push the screen instead of the wooden part of the door) which no one noticed until it became the center of attention.

27 April 1960
Dear Sir:
I believe this is what I saw in the early 1940s. My husband and I were at my parent’s camp on Lake Wyman at the foot of Mt. Wachusett. Five people sitting on a screened-in porch—the orange-red ball appeared from nowhere—“bounced” from wall to floor, etc., “scooted” along edge of blanket on a glider on which my brother was lying, scorched it and went through metal screen, leaving a hole, about size of handball, with the rest of the screen bulging out as if pressure had been applied.

There was no chimney for entrance and no marks where it seemed to have bounced. As it went through the screen there was a flash of lightning. Being open we noticed no particular odor until the wool blanket was seared; and a strange acrid smell near the screen.

We never knew what this could have been or why, if lightning is attracted by metal, it didn’t affect the glider—only the blanket hanging over the edge. Could this have been a Kugelblitz?

A retired telephone worker told of an incident which occurred when he was between the ages of 10 and 12. He was playing in the yard in the late afternoon while a thunderstorm gathered overhead. Nearby some painters were working. Suddenly he simultaneously saw and heard a lightning stroke which hit and demolished a chimney 200 yards away. Five to ten seconds later a ball came out of a nearby cellar window. It was the size of a baseball, it had the color of “burned leather,” and it “smoldered.”

As it “rolled” it wobbled “like a top.” It looked like a “solid object” and it emitted black smoke. He walked over to it out of curiosity but before he could get too close, one of the painters came over to him and in a panic kicked him away from the KB. This turned out to be fortunate because the KB then exploded. It left behind a bit of very light purple smoke (“the size of a spoon”) which smelled of sulphur. In the house from which it came there was a scorched grooved path from the fireplace to a hole in the floor.

From a man in Marlborough, Massachusetts:

2 May 1960
Dear Dr. Dewan:
Sometime before 1909, a violent thunder storm took place in Marlborough, Massachusetts. My mother was home alone at the time. There was a flash of lightning and almost simultaneously a clap of thunder and at that moment she saw a large ball of red fire roll across the kitchen stove.

Close by was a stable and a pair of big, gray draft horses were killed in their stalls. No damage was done to the houses or the stable as far as I can recall hearing the story told.

Personally, I have no acquaintance with kugelblitz and no ardent desire to strike one up. However if you ever produce this phenomenon in your laboratory, I’d enjoy the demonstration, if completely controlled.

This account was from Fayetteville, North Carolina:

16 December 1960
Dear Dr. Dewan:
I saw a round ball of “kugelblitz” come down and explode in an open field one time while sitting out on my front porch. It was amber color and white with a reddish circle around it separated somewhat from the rest of it like so:

There were pine trees on one side of the field and a highway with one row of houses on the end of the field. The field was as big as an ordinary city size lot. Grass and weeds growing in it.

Two miles down the highway a filling station door window was knocked out and the casing of the window and door split. It was heard as a loud “bang.” Just as we heard it setting on our front porch. It was the funniest lightning I have ever seen. The ball was about 32 ft. in diameter. About as round as an emergency parachute perhaps.

Have you heard anything about flying saucers lately? I haven’t for about two years now. I have even had dreams about those things. I saw the inside of one in one dream. Little white men were in the process of bailing out through an opening in the bottom. And there were rows of latrines and lockers or something like that. Maybe it held a lot of passengers.

A man on the faculty of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts wrote the following letter describing a KB with internal structure consisting of “sparks.”

27 April 1960
Dear Sir:
When I was on an island at Kenora, on Lake of the Woods, Ontario, in the summer of 1924 there was an occurrence of ball-lightning.

I had been standing in a ground-floor porch with another man, when lightning struck a pine-tree about 50 yards away. From the point of impact about 200 crinkly, bluish-white ribbons radiated out in all directions to a distance of 40 or 50 yards. I have often been near where lightning struck, but this time there was a terrific smell of brimstone—a real stench.

Well, we went to a porch at the back of the house, and a moment later another bolt hit a shingle-roof on the second floor. The bolt apparently followed a stove pipe down to the kitchen for a moment later it came out of the open oven in the form of a ball of lightning. There were two men in the kitchen. The cook was leaning against the wall facing the oven, and the other man was leaning against the lintel of a door, talking to the cook. I questioned both men closely for I came in while they were still standing there petrified. They said the ball was about eight inches in diameter, and that it was a ball of lightning. They kept repeating that it was “full of sparks.”

I think the explanation is this: the lightning bolt, circling the stovepipe, was given a terrific spinning motion, and went whirling off like a “frisbee”—a plastic pie plate. But I think a sort of gyroscopic effect was produced, too. You have the whirly, or curly, effect of electricity in the flares on the surface of the sun, in tornadoes, and in high and in low pressure areas in the atmosphere.

I think the Universe is globe-shaped, and under tremendous pressure from all sides. Any disturbance of the equilibrium would send the bouncy and elastic ether into spinning coils.

It might be mentioned that accounts of KB in airplanes have included stories of a ball coming in and “rolling rapidly down the aisle” of the passenger compartment terrifying all who beheld it. One such account was related to the author by a pilot. His subsequent comment was “Flying consists of long hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror.”

In 1965 Dewan published a follow-up report on kugelblitz, and since 1966 there has been no further research on the subject at Hanscom Field. In 1988 an international conference on ball lightning was held in Tokyo, and a book, Science of Ball Lightning, edited by Yoshihiko Ohtsuki, was published the following year. But these papers, too, were theoretical, not experimental.

Brian Dewan makes filmstrips, record albums, and instruments. He also plays electric zither with the Raymond Scott Orchestrette. He lives in Brooklyn.

Edmond M. Dewan has been a research scientist at Hanscom Field Air Force Base since 1957. He has published in the areas of special relativity, satellite scintillation effects, ball lightning and cybernetics. The latter included a theory of REM sleep and the first demonstration of a machine controlled directly by a human brain. His recent work involves atmospheric gravity waves and the discovery and mathematical explanation of mesospheric bores.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.