Electricity is a set of physical phenomena occurring in just about everything around us. It can be found in the light bulb on the ceiling, it generates energy for our PC, TV and smartphone. Even brain cells use electricity and chemicals to communicate. However, despite the fact electricity is ubiquitous, it was not used until 1882. That year, Thomas Alva Edison helped establish the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which brought electric light to parts of Manhattan. But who discovered electricity and who was the first to find out how to harness its immense potential?
Table of contents
- How Does It Work?
- The Discovery of Static Electricity
- Pioneers of Electricity
- Mass Production of Electricity
- Other Important Contributions in the Field of Electricity
How Does It Work?
Electricity is defined as the flow of electric charge. However, it is much more complex than that. Electricity is a natural phenomenon. For example, lightning is an electrical discharge from the atmosphere, caused by imbalances between storm clouds and the ground.
One of the most basic units of the composition of matter, atoms, consist of three basic particles: protons, electrons, and neutrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge while electrons have a negative charge. In an isolated system, they exist in equal quantities. However, some materials, like metals, have loose electrons which form a “cloud” of free negative charge. These free electrons have the ability to move freely throughout the material. An electric current is the flow of these free electrons in one direction.
The Discovery of Static Electricity
When did humans first discover how electricity works? In the 6th century BC, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus experimented with amber rods. By rubbing a piece of amber on the skin of an animal, he realized that it attracted small objects, such as pieces of straw.
The philosopher thought that he observed magnetism, but in fact he discovered static electricity. His experiments were the first attempts at the production of electrical energy. In fact, the origin of the term electricity is the Greek word elektron which means amber.
In 1600 the study of static electricity began to advance following the publications of William Gilbert. Otto von Guericke, in 1650, put this knowledge into practice. He invented one of the first devices capable of producing electricity for research; the first electrostatic machine that generated electricity by friction.
Pioneers of Electricity
It was not until the 18th century that scientists began to grasp that electricity is a natural phenomenon. In June 1752, Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous lightning rod experiment. He flew a kite with a conductive rod near thunder clouds to collect electricity from the air during a storm. His experiment demonstrated that lightning and electricity were the result of the same phenomenon.
Then, it became much easier to understand what electricity was and study it further. Over time, Italian scientists discovered that electricity generation is also a chemical process and that it happens inside our body.
Alessandro Volta’s Lithium-Ion Battery
Luigi Galvani made a frog’s legs move using electrical discharges, but he didn’t quite understand how it happened. Later, Alessandro Volta discovered that these contractions were caused by metals in the nerves and muscles. As well as that the nervous system uses electrical impulses to send signals to the body.
Volta is the inventor of the lithium-ion battery, which powers everything from smartphones to electric cars. The voltaic pile consisted of stacked copper and zinc plates, separated by acid-soaked fabric. In 1799 Volta published his experiments, it was the first time that a constant electrical charge was produced. Volt further discovered that energy could be transmitted by connecting positive and negative charge connectors.
Volt, a unit of electric potential, also known as electromotive force, was named after Volta. Basically, voltage is the potential for energy to move and is comparable to water pressure.
Michael Faraday’s Dynamo
But there was still a long way to harnessing electric power on a large scale. There was no point in understanding the properties of electricity, if we did not know how to produce this energy for mass consumption. And that’s where Michael Faraday came in.
In addition to the Faraday cage experiment his theoretical contribution to the laws of electromagnetic induction, the scientist created in 1831 the so-called dynamo. It was the first functional generating device to transform mechanical energy into electrical energy. It has a basic combination of magnets forming a magnetic field and a metal disk.
In order to generate light in the first decade of the 1800s, Humphry Davy heated pieces of metal with electricity. As a result the metal shined and generated energy. This was the first step toward the invention of the electric light bulb, an early version of an arc lamp. Despite being revolutionary at the time, it heated up the metal and its surroundings way too much to be useful.
Thomas Edison’s Electric Light Bulb
Who appreciated these two new inventions was none other than the American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison. In 1878 Edison began developing a practical incandescent lamp, very similar to the one we use today. He filed his first patent application on 14 October 1878. His first successful test was that of a carbon filament, vacuum light bulb that lasted for 13.5 hours. Edison’s main contribution to the field of electricity was making this product marketable. Essentially, Edison created a new industry based on the idea of a simple light bulb.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Edison’s name. He is often credited as the inventor of many products because he has patents registered in his name. However, it is known that he registered inventions developed with other people. Inventions that had previously been invented elsewhere in the world or just needed improvement.
Nikola Tesla and Alternating Current (AC)
The history of electricity cannot be complete without the mention of Nikola Tesla. One of the most renowned scientists in the world in terms of electricity, but also one of the least credited ones. Without him we would have known much less about the alternating current (AC) and complex energy distribution systems. The study of alternating currents is particularly important for understanding electromagnetic induction, as well as one of its greatest applications, transformers.
Alternating current is one of the forms of electric current. In this type of current, the direction of charge conduction changes rapidly, causing electrons to flow in opposite directions periodically. It is widely used in the transmission of electrical energy and electric motors. Conversely, direct current (DC) flows only in one direction. AC is more efficient than DC when energy is transmitted over long distances, which was the theory advocated by Edison.
Tesla was fascinated with the idea of transmitting electricity wirelessly to long distances. In 1891, he created the so-called Tesla coil, an electric transformer that generated high frequency alternating-current electricity by resonance. It was made of a series of coupled resonant electrical circuits. Tesla experimented with a wide variety of coils and configurations. So, the patented prototype was different from his early prototypes and those he continued to later. Large Tesla coils can cause electrical sparks that are several meters long.
Mass Production of Electricity
The need to generate electricity on a large scale became evident after the development of a wide range of electrical products. The first commercial central power plant in the world was Pearl Street Station in New York. It was inaugurated in 1882, and used steam engines that initially powered 400 lamps.
The first time that water was used to generate energy was in the same year in Wisconsin. In a sense, this was the first form of hydroelectric plant, used to illuminate the home of a rich paper producer. Within a decade, hundreds of hydropower plants were in operation in the USA.
Electricity production was essential throughout the Second Industrial Revolution and World War II, becoming an alternative to steam energy along with oil. Electricity then came to dominate our lives, and developments do not stop here. Batteries are getting smaller and more powerful and lamps use different and more economical materials. Even the machines that were previously dominated by other sources of energy, such as cars, are surrendering to electricity.
Global access to electricity has been rapidly rising in recent decades. In 1990 around 71% of the world population had access to electric energy, by 2016 it had risen to over 87%. Most of the growth took place between 2005 and 2016. During this period 1.26 billion people got access to electricity for the first time.
Other Important Contributions in the Field of Electricity
There were many advances and important scientists that we left out from this brief history of electricity. To name just a few, Charles Du Fay who studied materials and noted the difference between conductors and insulators. Thomas Davenport created the first electric motor to be used on public transport trams. James Maxwell pioneered the field of electromagnetism. And the theories of William Thompson, also known as Lord Kelvin, helped to make electric cables more efficient.
In 1922 Niels Bohr developed a new atomic theory, known as the Bohr model. According to this important model, matter is made up of atoms and each atom is made up of three fundamental types of particles. There are protons with positive charge, electrons with negative charge and neutrons with no electrical charge. This model explains the constitution of matter and allows us to better understand how electricity works.