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The History of Electricity and the Technology Behind Your Everyday Appliances

Without electricity the world would be a very different place. Air conditioning, television sets, radios, modern medicine and modern surgery- all of these would be impossible without the power of electricity. Household chores would also be much more difficult. Your dishwasher, laundry washer and dryer, and microwaves all require electricity to run.

History of Electromagnetism

With a life changing development as huge as electricity it becomes important to know how such a development originally came about. The first known observation of electromagnetism was by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus in 600 BC when he noticed iron's attraction to a magnetic “lodestone.” Not knowing the science behind the phenomena he attributed the magnetism to the lodestone's soul. As scientific knowledge and exploration grew so too did the understanding of the forces behind magnetism and electricity. The first concrete observation of the relationship between electricity and magnetism took place in 1820 when it was discovered that a current carrying wire wrapped around an iron bar created a magnetic field- this was the first electromagnet. In 1865 James Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, tying together equations describing electricity and magnetism into a unified field of electromagnetism. Albert Einstein, in 1905, took Maxwell's equations a step further and used them to show that light moves at a constant speed (300,000 km/sec) regardless of the observer's velocity, overturning classical Newtonian physics and forever changing the way we understand the universe. Below are some of the major developments, in chronological order, in the search to understand electromagnetism.

  • Lodestones: The history of magnetic lodestones, one of the first recorded references to magnetism.
  • The Baghdad Batteries: A description of the Baghdad Batteries, created in 300 BC.
  • The First Electromagnet: A picture essay describing the first electromagnet.
  • Maxwell's Equations: A description of first laws describing the relationship between electric and magnetic fields.
  • Special Relativity: An explanation of Albert Einstein's special relativity which clarified a paradox between Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's equations.

Researchers of Electricity

Without the scientists who have tirelessly studied the phenomenon of electromagnetism we would have no idea how electricity works. Indeed, we have come a very long way since the days where magnetism was explained through animism and lightning was a weapon of the gods. Michael Faraday, in 1831, learned that by passing a magnet through a coil of wires he could generate an electric current, creating the first electric generator. Thomas Edison was able to manipulate an electric current to create a long-lasting light source by running it through a filament in a vacuum tube, in the process discovering the phenomena of thermionic emission, otherwise known as “the Edison effect.” Nikola Tesla, in 1894, is able to light up an electric lamp without the use of wires, building upon the work of previous researchers. In 1897 J.J Thomson turned the world of science on its head when he proved that cathode rays were a stream of particles, which we now call electrons, disproving the common belief that the atom was the smallest unit of matter. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, a Dutch physicist, proved in 1911 that electrical conductivity increases at lower and lower temperatures, allowing more information and energy to be passed along a conductor, paving the way the use of supercomputers today. Below are some more details on these influential researchers.

  • Michael Faraday: A link describing Faraday's discovery of the phenomenon of electromagnetic induction, including an interactive experiment.
  • Thomas Edison: A biography of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the first commercial light bulb.
  • Nikola Tesla: A collection of links about Nikola Tesla, the inventor of wireless energy.
  • J.J. Thomson: A collection of links about J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron.
  • Heike Kamerlingh Onnes: A biography of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered superconductivity.

Making Electricity Work

It is very important to understand how electricity works, but that's not enough to change the way people live. In order for the research into electricity to make a difference in people's lives one must create an infrastructure to make electricity accessible. Over the past 150 years the size and power of our electrical grid has grown. The first widespread electric-wire system was utilized by the telegraph (which, after the installation of the transcontinental telegraph system, in 1866, put the Pony Express out of business). Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla battled one-another over whose method of energy distribution should be used as the American standard; in 1893 Niagara Falls Power Company awarded Westinghouse, who sponsored Tesla and his AC method of power distribution, a major contract, placing AC as the American standard. Now, more than ever before, we have many different options for how we acquire and distribute electricity, from coal to nuclear to renewable energy sources. Below are several links describing the history of power distribution and power sources.

  • The Telegraph System: A description of the beginning of electric America: the telegraph system. Includes information on how to make a working telegraph.
  • War of the Currents: The history of AC and DC currents and the clash between Tesla and Edison. Includes information on how AC and DC currents work.
  • Coal Power Plants: An explanation on how coal power plants work. Includes pictorial diagrams.
  • Nuclear Power Plants: An FAQ on what nuclear power is and how it works.
  • Renewable Energy: A description of different types of renewable energy sources-- includes links with more information.

Technological Discoveries and Researchers

There have been thousands upon thousands of inventions which use electricity to function. The inventors of these technologies have made a concrete impact in the evolution of mankind, allowing people to live longer, with greater ease, in greater comfort. One of the first major inventions, the first powerful chemical battery, was created by Alessandro Volta in 1799, making available a constant form of electricity which could be manipulated for scientific research. The creation of the electromagnet allowed for more powerful currents, as well as opening the door for the creation of power plants and the widespread distribution of electricity. The telegraph allowed, for the first time, near-instantaneous communication between far-away places; no longer would people have to wait weeks or months to hear news from across the country. The lightbulb brought light to dark places and paved the way for inventions such as movie projectors, redefining media. And without lasers we wouldn't be able to perform accurate measurements, watch DVDs, or scan groceries. Below is more information on some of the most important inventions since electricity has been harnessed.

  • The Chemical Battery: Information on the first powerful chemical battery, created by Alessandro Volta.
  • The Electromagnet: Instructions on how to build an electromagnet-- includes an explanation on how the electromagnet works.
  • The Telegraph: Information on the history and the impact of the telegraph.
  • The Light Bulb: A multiple page walk through on the invention and perfection of the light bulb.
  • The Laser: A definition of how a laser works-- includes an interactive demonstration.

The Future of Electricity

Currently the main source of electricity across the world is from the burning of fossil fuels or from nuclear fission. These process create byproducts that cannot be used for any other purpose. These byproducts are dangerous for both the people who work with them, as well as the environment as a whole. This is why many scientists are working towards clean energies that do not produce pollutants. Wind turbines which, like windmills, use air power to move turbines and store energy. Solar power work by using the heat of the sun to either create steam to power generators, or by using solar cells which convert sunlight into electricity. Fuel cells work by separating an electron from a hydrogen atom which then powers an electrical circuit; the only byproduct from this process comes from the hydrogen atom bonding with an oxygen atom, creating H20- water! Nuclear fusion is the process by which the sun creates energy. One of the holy grails in energy, nuclear fusion, has been achieved by scientists, but currently it takes more energy to achieve fusion than is created by the process.

  • Wind Turbines: An explanation of the mechanics behind wind turbines. Includes diagrams and common terms.
  • Solar Power: Information on the history of solar power and how it works.
  • Tidal Power: Descriptions of different ways to get energy from the movement of the tides.
  • Fuel Cells: Information on how fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity-- includes diagrams.
  • Nuclear Fusion: An explanation of the science and math behind possible nuclear fusion reactors.

Additional Facts and Information

Electricity as a natural force affects just about everything we do. Every day we use hundreds of objects that work with electricity. Even our brain uses electricity to send signals to different parts of our body! Below is some additional information on how we use electricity every day, from the science behind electric motors and computer circuits to an explanation on how EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) are able to disrupt electronics.