It seems that more people ask “who invented electricity?” than “who discovered electricity?” There’s a difference between inventing and discovering, but there’s also a difference between discovering the existence of electricity and the invention of technic to produce it.
What is electricity?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines electricity this way:
- a fundamental form of energy observable in positive and negative forms that occurs naturally (as in lightning) or is produced (as in a generator) and that is expressed in terms of the movement and interaction of electrons.
- a science that deals with the phenomena and laws of electricity
Who discovered electricity?
The best way is to begin with the natural occurrence of electricity. In that domain, the Greeks seem to take the first place (not Benjamin Franklin, he’ll come way later in history). In fact, the word “electricity” comes from the Greek elektron which means “amber,” because they rubbed amber with fur and observed the attraction of feathers and other objects. That was the discovery of static electricity—this phenomenon was not perceived as connected to the electric current until the 19th century.
It was in about 600 BC. With time, researchers and archeologists discovered what they believe may have been ancient batteries meant to produce light at ancient Roman sites, but also in archeological digs leading to Persians artefacts.
Who invented electricity?
The famous Ben Franklin’s kite experiment—with a kite, a key, and a storm—occurred in 1752. It proved that lightning and electric sparks were connected. But it didn’t lead to the use of the word “electricity.’ That came even before. English physician William Gilbert used the Latin word ‘electricus’ in the year 1600 to describe the product of that first Greek experiment. And a few years later, another English scientist, Thomas Browne, used the word ‘electricity’ in a paper in which he talked about his research based on William Gilbert’s work. That said, Franklin’s work inspired a lot of Europeans.
English scientists were really dedicated to exploring the possibilities of electricity. In the early 1700s, Francis Hauksbee invented the first electrostatic generator based on German scientist Otto von Guericke’s invention—it was a primitive form of the frictional electrical machine. But it’s another discussion, one about lamps.
Francis Hauksbee was a member of The Royal Society—formally The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge—as was William Nicholson who, with surgeon Anthony Carlisle, discovered electrolysis in May 1800, the decomposition of water into hydrogen and oxygen by voltaic current. This led Italian physicist and chemist Alessandro Volta to the discovery of the voltaic pile, a battery. That’s why batteries are rated in volts.
Englishman Michael Faraday is also famous for the construction of a voltaic pile, one with seven British halfpenny coins stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water—as it was learned in 1812. A few years later, in 1821, after the Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted discovered the phenomenon of electromagnetism, Faraday built devices to produce what he called ‘electromagnetic rotation’—one of these is known as the homopolar motor, and helped build the foundation of modern electromagnetic technology. These discoveries can’t all be credited to Faraday though. He based his work on the failed experiments of William Hyde Wollaston and Humphry Davy, fellow members of the Royal Society.
But Faraday didn’t stop there. He explored the electromagnetic properties of materials, worked with light and magnets, and more. In 1831, he discovered electromagnetic induction—the production of an electromotive force across an electrical conductor in a changing magnetic field. What he established was then modeled mathematically by James Clerk Maxwell as Faraday’s law. This discovery leads Faraday to construct the electric dynamo, the ancestor of modern power generators and the electric motor. Finally, Faraday established that only a single ‘electricity’ exists—at that time, it was thought that there was more than one.
Faraday was not the only one influenced by Hans Christian Ørsted’s discovery. Another one was André-Marie Ampère, a French physicist and mathematician who was one of the founders of the science of classical electromagnetism, which he referred to as ‘electrodynamics.’ For him, it really started when his friend François Arago showed the members of the French Academy of Sciences the discovery made by Ørsted. After that, Ampère began developing a mathematical and physical theory to understand the relationship between electricity and magnetism. He showed that two parallel wires carrying electric currents attract or repel each other, depending on whether the currents flow in the same or opposite directions, respectively. This is what laid the foundation of electrodynamics and, of course, Ampère’s law, which states that the mutual action of two lengths of current-carrying wire is proportional to their lengths and the intensities of their currents. The base unit of electric current in the International System of Units (SI) was subsequently named after him—the ‘ampere’ or ‘amp.’
In 1826, German physicist Georg Ohm defined the relationship between power, voltage, current, and resistance in what is now known as ‘Ohm’s Law.’ That’s why the ohm became the basic unit for resistance.
Really, the late 19th century saw the greatest progress in electrical engineering. As you may have noticed, I avoided talking about lights, and more precisely the light bulb, because it will be the subject of another article. For now, let’s go back to electricity.
James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish scientist who specialized in the field of mathematical physics. In 1865, he published ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,’ a paper on electromagnetism in which he derived an electromagnetic wave equation with a velocity for light in close agreement with measurements made by experiment, and deduced that light is an electromagnetic wave. Basically, he demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves move at the speed of light. His work made him a founder of the modern field of electrical engineering.
It certainly influenced German physicist Heinrich Hertz who, in 1886, was the first to conclusively prove the existence of the electromagnetic waves predicted by Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. Hertz’s proof of the existence of airborne electromagnetic waves led to an explosion of experimentation with this new form of electromagnetic radiation, which was called ‘Hertzian waves.’ That was until the 1910s when the term ‘radio waves’ became current.
Other discoveries were made after that. A lot. We will explore those subjects in subsequent articles.
The Commercial Electricity
Discoveries, theories, and experiments had to lead somewhere. We needed practical uses of electricity. Michael Faraday’s power generator set the stage for an electrical revolution—this is where the history of the light bulb became important. Having light bulbs was useless unless you had a practical source of energy to power them. Thomas Edison wanted to provide that. In order to make electricity practical and inexpensive. In 1882, he built the first electric power plant that was able to produce electricity, the Pearl Street generating station’s electrical power distribution system, which provided 110 volts of direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan.
By working in Paris with the Continental Edison Company, Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla gained a lot of practical experience in electrical engineering. Soon, he started to design and build updated versions of generating dynamos and motors. In 1884, he moved to the United States with the help of his manager, Charles Batchelor. He ended up working on street lighting but quit after six months with the company. That didn’t stop his work and his new systems didn’t go unnoticed. Nevertheless, investors were not interested in his ideas for new types of alternating current (AC) motors and electrical transmission equipment.
Thomas Edison’s direct current had limitations that were overcome by the AC. In fact, in Europe, the AC power system was developed and adopted rapidly after 1886. In the US, Edison tried to discredit alternating currents as too dangerous in a public campaign called the ‘war of the currents.’ But progress can’t be stopped and, in 1888, alternating current systems gained further viability with the introduction of a functional AC motor—Nikola Tesla’s design for an induction motor was one of them. With Thomas Edison leaving the electric power business, direct current lost the war, and, by October 1890, Edison Machine Works began developing AC-based equipment. Mergers, patents, and other financial deals pushed AC power to the front. Well into the 20th century, some cities still used DC, but most adopted AC quickly.
A lot of people contributed to the ‘invention’ of electricity as we think of it today. Now, the difficulty is to produce more and more of it. That leads to new inventions!