The Platinum Lightning Rod Story
A true story written 9/10/2012 rewritten 4/2016 unedited
In 1964, I had started looking into what type of a small business I could do from my home. I was bored and I started looking for some type of business that I could do on a part time basis.
I thought about many different types of business’s, I thought about getting involved in the buying and selling of diamonds, or possibly dealing in the colored gem stone business, and I even started thinking about the getting involved with the precious metals business. The one thing all of these businesses had in common is that you could carry your inventory in an attache case, or a small box. In other words, I wanted whatever I would be dealing with to be small enough and I wouldn’t need a big building to operate out of.
I got to thinking about which business had the least competition, I didn’t want to get myself into a business that already had a million people competing against me. I knew that if you got into the diamond or semiprecious stone business or even the gold business, I would be competing with people who have been in those business’s all their lives.
For a while I even thought about getting into the jewelry business, but then I thought, about how many jewelry stores there were, so I stopped thinking about it, and that’s when I thought about dealing in gold, but then again, gold was an item that everyone knew all about. Every jewelry store had a sign out saying “We buy gold”. Then by chance I read an article about a lesser known metal called platinum. It was an item that few people knew about or could even would recognize if they saw it. Platinum was a precious metal just like gold, but it looked like many other dull silvery metals, actually it sort of looked like cheap tin and lead. But unlike tin or lead, platinum was worth a lot of money, its price went up and down like gold and its daily price could be monitored on the Chicago Board of Trade. And at the time, platinum was worth much more than gold. So dealing in platinum sounded perfect for me, especially if I could figure out where to find it, how to identify it, how to buy it and then where to sell it. So I felt that the trick to the platinum business was to learn all I could about the metal, and perhaps become an expert in it.
I went to the library and read every book that I could find on the subject. At the time there was no internet to assist me, so after the library I started visiting all the Miami used book stores that sold old chemistry books, and I bought every single book that even mentioned platinum, it took a while, but pretty soon I became very knowledgeable on the subject.
I learned that like gold, platinum is weighed by the troy ounce. I learned that there are 480 grains in a Troy ounce and there are 12 Troy ounces in a Troy pound. What this meant was that you needed special scales to weigh Gold and platinum, and that was something I knew absolutely nothing about. So I got in my car and drove down to the Miami Jewelry Exchange where I had a friend that had a booth there.
I asked him where I could buy an inexpensive troy weight scale. He said that was easy, all we had to do was walk across the street to a jewelers supply store that had the scales in stock. So we walked across the street and that’s when I first saw a troy weight balance scale. The store’s owner, sold me my first balance scale for $17.00. It was a gray wooden box about 10 inches long by 6 inches deep x 4 inches tall and it had a drawer in it. He said I also would need a pair of tweezers, and he gave me a pair. I took the scale home, unwrapped and assembled it, I couldn’t wait to see what a troy weight balance scale was all about.
The scale had a center post that screwed into a metal plate on the top of the box, there was a cross bar with two 3 inch diameter weighing pans hanging off it. It was a simple matter to hang the cross bar on the post and the scale just balanced itself. Inside the drawer was a set of troy weights ¼ ounce, ½ ounce, 1 ounce all the way up to 2 ounces, and there were lots of small pieces of aluminum with numbers on them, They were obviously the grain weights and that was what you needed the tweezer for. From what I had read, this system of weighing had been in use for a thousand years, but it was the first time for me, so I started weighing everything in sight that would fit in the scale, I was fascinated with it. So now I knew what a troy weight balance scale looked like, and I remembered seeing all kinds of them in antique shops, so I thought that the next time I saw one in an antique store I would buy it.
So now, not only was I becoming a specialist in platinum, but I was going to be a collector of balance scales, and you know what that meant. It meant that I was stopping at every antique shop I passed, always looking for balance scales. I had now become a buyer and seller of platinum as well as well as a collector of balance scales.
While I had been studying the platinum business I had read that years ago when the Spaniard’s mined silver they also mined platinum along with it. But they found platinum was hard to melt, so they called it dirty silver and they threw it away. It was years later that scientists learned that platinum had a very high melting point, around 1800 degrees centigrade, and they realized that for many uses it was better than gold. So the scientists started using platinum to make laboratory instruments and items that needed to be used at high temperatures. Then they found that platinum never tarnished, and also it was a good conductor of electricity, it was actually a better conductor of electricity than silver or gold. So it wasn’t long before they started using it to make lab equipment, medical equipment, jewelry, and for precision electrical conductors, and then the price of platinum metal started going up, and it was no longer considered just dirty silver.
Now, also the more I read up on balance scales I found that they have been used for centuries, for weighing gold, and for weighing coins, diamonds, and chemicals. Some big balance scales were even used for weighing food, and even jockeys, so I started buying every balance scale wherever I could find one. I found balance scales that were made with a very high degree of precision, for use in science laboratories, so I bought a few of them, then I bought some scales that had marble tops, they were supposedly used in drug stores and pharmacies, and then I found that there were some balance scales were just purely decorative, people used them to hold candy. What had happened was, I had now become an avid balance scale collector, I joined a scale collectors club and I never passed an antique store without stopping in to look for more scales, and soon I had more than 100 of them
One evening in 1982, my fiancée Katherine asked me what my sign of the zodiac was, and I didn’t have a clue. But to my surprise, she said my birthday was on September 27, and that made me a Libra, and the sigh of Libra was a balance scale. She said, that my Zodiac sign was the balance scale and here I was a balance scale collector, was that a coincidence, or what, I don’t know, but by that time I was already an avid scale collector.
So whenever Katherine and I were on a road trip, we were stopping at every antique and junk store that we saw, we were looking for scales. So one day in 1984 we were driving on the Palmetto expressway heading from Miami towards Fort Lauderdale, and we noticed several antique stores on the opposite side of the expressway, so on our return trip, we made it our business to stop and see if any of them had any antique balance scales for sale. Well we struck pay dirt, because in the second store we found a very nice pharmacy balance scale with a marble top and it had big wide brass weighing pans.
The antique store owner had it priced at $150.00, but we ended up paying him $100.00, and I proceeded push it on a cart up to the front counter and pay for it.
As we stood there, the store owner asked me, “Are you a scale collector?” I told him that I had started collecting scales because I was in the platinum business. So the store owner said, “I have a friend that had recently made a lot of money by selling platinum.” I was curious, so I asked him how his friend had done it. The antique dealer said, “My friend was also an antique dealer just like me, but he specialized in stuff for lighthouses. One day in 1965 he was sitting in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, doing research on old lighthouses,”
The antique dealer I was talking to said that light houses were always an interesting subject for antique dealers, as there are many people that collect just about anything to do with them. He said, “People just loved light houses, I think it was because their history goes back to the original colonies.”
He told us that when America was first colonized, ships coming to the colonies from Europe often hit rocks on the U.S. coastline and they sank. He said that so many ships were sinking that a whole industry had developed just salvaging their cargo. It became such a big industry that the people that did the salvaging were called “Wreckers.” But eventually the situation with the wreckers got so bad that the colonies tried to light fires on the highest spots on shore, to warn the ships captains to steer clear, but then the wreckers started moving the fires, which then caused even more ships to wreck.
Because the colonies depended on sea trade, the only way to prevent ships from going aground on the rocks, was to build a fire in a locked tower. They felt that the building of towers would ensure that the “Wreckers” couldn’t move the warning fires, and the colonists called the new towers light houses. The fires burning on top of the light houses were fueled by whale oil. Now each colony started building their own lighthouses according to their own specifications and it wasn’t until 1789 when the federal government decided to step in and they enacted the “Federal Lighthouse Act”, and they took over all the lighthouses. Now, once the federal government took over the ownership of all lighthouses they set about renovating and standardizing them, and they did this one by one all along the East Coast of the United States. As they renovated each lighthouse they installed newly developed “Fresnel” lenses, and they also installed new platinum metal lightning rods.
The antique dealer said that while his friend was studying the blue prints of the light houses in the Library of Congress, he noticed that they all had the platinum lightning rods, and he knew that at the time, platinum was worth about $400.00 per ounce. So the antique dealer became very excited, and he made a list of all the light houses on the east coast that the government had used platinum lightning rods on. He also found that in 1959 the government had started hiring contractors to renovate the light houses. So he went to the first light houses on the list, which was in in Maine. His intention was to steal the platinum lightening rod and sell it, but he was too late. Some contractor had already removed it and replaced it with a copper lightening rod. The dealer panicked and over the next few weeks he drove to every single lighthouse along the East Coast of the United States, but he found that the contractor had beaten him to the punch and already replaced the platinum lightning rods with copper on every one. Eventually by 1965 he found one lighthouse in upstate Florida that had not been renovated yet. In the evening, he broke the door lock, climbed up the steps, and removed an eighteen pound solid platinum lightening rod. For a while he kept the platinum lightening rod, which had over the years been painted many times, in his living room and that’s where the antique dealer telling me the story had seen it. Now if that rod weighed eighteen lbs. that meant it was worth over $100,000.00 in scrap.
Back in 1965 there was no internet or Google, so discovering that pure platinum was used for lightning rods was quite a stroke of luck on the part of that antique dealer. I recently read on the internet that there are many government statues, as well as monuments and buildings that still might have their original platinum lightning rods. There is the statue of Freedom” atop the Capitol building for one, and there is also the Washington monument, and both of them are located in Washington DC.
There are probably many more platinum lightning rods all over America, just waiting to be stolen by someone and sold for scrap.