Electricity. It has become such an integral part of our lives isn’t it? The first thing that we do after entering the house is turn on the fan or A/C. At least that’s what we do in Mumbai, which is sweltering hot on most days of the year. The next thing that most people do is switch on the TV; people, and especially kids, can’t seem to live without them these days! And is there anyone today whose life hasn’t been touched by mobiles and computers!
All these electrical/electronic devices require electricity to work and that is something that we simply expect to get when we turn on the electric switch! Electricity has become so commonplace that its miracle is lost on us. But have you ever wondered when and how electricity was discovered? And what were the major milestones in its “journey” before becoming mainstream?
Long before any knowledge of electricity existed, people were aware of shocks from electric fish. Ancient Egyptian texts dating as far back as 2750 BC referred to them as “Thunderers of the Nile” and “protectors of all other fish”. Electric fish were again reported a millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman, and Arabic naturalists and physicians. Several ancient writers attested to and wrote about the numbing effects of shocks delivered by catfish and torpedo rays, and knew that they could travel along conducting objects. In those days, people suffering from incurable diseases were asked to touch these fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them.
Thales of Miletus, the earliest known researcher of electricity, made a series of observations around 600 BC about static electricity, which is generated when certain objects, such as rods of amber, are rubbed with cat’s fur and can be used to attract light objects like feathers. Thales believed that friction rendered amber magnetic, unlike minerals like magnetite which needed no rubbing. Thales was incorrect in his belief that the attraction was due to a magnetic effect, but science later proved a link between magnetism and electricity.
Electricity remained an intellectual curiosity at best till 1600, when English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing magnetic effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber. He was the one who coined the Latin word “electricus” which means “of or like amber” from “elektron”, the Greek word for amber. This association gave rise to the modern words “electric” and “electricity”.
In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research, selling his possessions to fund it. (I can imagine his wife/parents/relatives ridiculing him for doing that. “Benjamin, don’t you have better things to do? And what’s with selling your house for doing all this? Are you out of your freaking mind?” 🙂 Yes, he was out of his mind, and can we thank him enough for it today?) In June 1752, he attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite and flew it in a storm-threatened sky. A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of his hand showed that lightning was electrical in nature.
A few years earlier, the “Leyden jar” had already been invented by two parties, independently and almost at almost the same time: German Ewald Georg von Kleist, and Dutch scientists Pieter van Musschenbroek and Andreas Cunaeus. It was a jar that captured and stored static electricity, and was the earliest crude version of a capacitor, one of the three basic electrical devices; resistor and inductor are the other two. Daniel Gralath then connected several of these jars to each other, or “in parallel” as they say in technical parlance, to increase the amount of total charge stored, which it did; people who touched them got severe shocks thus proving the theory. And it was Benjamin Franklin who likened it to a battery of cannons and therefore called it a “battery”, a term and product that is an indivisible part of our lives today. Benjamin Franklin also captured electricity in a Leyden jar with the help of his kite, thus proving beyond a shadow of doubt that lightning was indeed electrical in nature.
In 1791, Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectricity, demonstrating that Electricity is the medium by which nerve cells pass signals to muscles. In 1800, Alessandro Volta made a battery from alternating layers of zinc and copper, and provided scientists with a much more reliable source of electricity as compared to the electrostatic machines used prior to that. Hans Christian Orsted and Andre-Marie Ampere – after whom the SI unit of current is named – recognized electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena in 1819-1820. Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821. And Georg Ohm – after whom the SI unit of resistance is named – mathematically analysed the electric circuit for the first time ever!
While the early 19th century saw good progress, the late 19th century saw the greatest progress in electrical engineering. Legendary scientists like Alexander Graham Bell, Otto Blathy, Thomas Edison, Galileo Ferraris, Oliver Heaviside, Anyos Jedlik, Lord Kelvin, Sir Charles Parsons, Ernst Werner von Siemens, Joseph Swan, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse, turned electricity from a scientific curiosity into an essential tool for modern life and becoming a driving force of the second industrial revolution.
So that was a brief history of electricity. In the next article we will try to understand what DC and AC is, and what the “war of currents” was all about.
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