The Greatest Minds of History Who Unlocked The Secrets of Electricity
What makes today’s world tick? We live in a society where technology seems to evolve non-stop, where communication happens at the speed of light, where efficient transportation connects even the most distant of places, and where all modern conveniences are powered at will and almost endlessly.
But just as most of today’s advancements stand on the backs of giants, so too does the whole fabric of our lives stand on the bedrock of discoveries and inventions made throughout the centuries. It is, after all, electricity that powers everything we have today, from the smallest microchip to the largest appliance, and everything in between.
Who Invented Or Discovered Electricity? In What Year?
But who invented electricity? It’s not really a matter of who invented or developed it, as electricity is already a dominant force in nature even before the time of man. In fact, it is said that it was a burst of lightning (electricity) which provided the first spark for life to form. It’s rather a question of which enterprising minds harnessed it, and unlocked its layers of secrets. Here is a list of the most influential people in the field of electrical research and development, from the early discovery of its existence to its modern-day applications.
It was back in 1600 when the English physician from Queen Elizabeth I’s court became fascinated with the magnet. Around this time in history, belief in the paranormal was very common. In fact, it permeated a large part of daily life. And to the people of this time, the “lodestone” (as the magnet was known during those days) was simply a magical stone that drew metals to it. Also magical was the idea that some objects (like jet and amber) started attracting small items to it when rubbed together.
But Gilbert was a scientist, and he believed there was something rational at work. His years of research and experiments were enshrined in the Latin book “De Magnete, Magneticisique Corporibus” (loosely translated to “On the Magnet”). In the book, he coined the term “electricus” to describe that invisible force that caused the interaction between objects. The work generated great interest in the new field, and just a few years later his work was reviewed by a contemporary named Thomas Browne. In Browne’s work, we have the first mention of the word “electricity”.
Pieter van Musschenbroek and Ewald Christian von Kleist.
Pieter is a Dutch Scientist and Ewald is a German clergyman/scientist. The one thing they have in common is that they both independently invented a version of the Leyden jar. This simple contraption was the first known device that can store electricity through charging, and became the prototype for the capacitor. This was also the first time man had directly conquered some of the properties of electricity, proving it can be stored.
The jar was named after Pieter’s hometown, and the full term “Leyden Jar” was coined by French physicist Jean-Antoine Nolett. Before this, Ewald had his time with the invention being called the “Kleistian Jar”, but it did not last. It was said that when Ewald first conducted experiments on his jar, the shock was so strong that it knocked him clean off his feet!
Henry Cavendish is known for many things. He is a chemist and a physicist, and is most famous for discovering hydrogen — “inflammable air”. He also conducted several experiments on everything from the composition of the atmosphere, to the mass of the earth (yielding the gravitational constant in the process), to the creation of water. In the field of “electrics”, he was among the first to study the idea of electrical attraction and repulsion.
In 1771, Cavendish published a mathematical theory that sought to cover what was known at the time about electricity. This was, sadly, the first and only paper he published on the matter, even though he continued work on the subject. His findings were not publicized until they were rediscovered later on by another genius and electrical pioneer, James Clerk Maxwell.
Among Cavendish’s important findings was his measurements on the conductivity of various materials. He also discovered the idea of “electric potential”, and even standardized an early unit of capacitance. He even discovered the relationship between electrical current and potential, which was later standardized by George Ohm. Other greats such as Charles Wheatstone and Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.
American statesman and jack-of-all-trades Ben Franklin created one of the most memorable experiments about the as-of-yet hidden nature of electricity, in 1752. Ben had his suspicions that lightning — that bright and scary, yet totally unexplainable flash in the sky — was created by electricity. He adapted this from the theories of one Abbe Nollet, the same guy who named the Leyden Jar. To test out the theory, Franklin tied a metallic key adorned with a pointed wire to a kite, then flew it under a thunderstorm.
The kite string, wet by the rain, conducted electricity from the key to the ground. Franklin was kept insulated by holding a dry strand of silk thread. The electricity from the wet string was then channelled to Leyden jars which were then used to perform further experiments. Contrary to popular conception, Franklin’s kite wasn’t hit by lightning itself. Instead, the key collected static electricity and channeled it down. The experiment, which was narrated by Franklin himself in the Pennsylvania Gazette, proved the electrical nature of lightning and paved the way to understanding more of electricity’s properties.
Thomas Newcomen and James Watt.
Around this time, scientists have also discovered that electricity can be artificially produced by a certain mechanism. The next question was how to produce it in such quantities that it could be made readily available and usable. While this was only fully answered several decades later, two scientists started the race with the creation of the steam engine.
In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the very first steam engine, which was improved in 1776 by James Watt. The design of the steam engine, while not using electricity, was later incorporated into the very first electric generators.
For his contributions, James Watt’s name was chosen for the SI unit of power. Now, we know that “wattage” is another facet of electricity.
A French mathematician, Ampere was among the first to delve into the science of electromagnetism. He was the first to conceive of the solenoid and the telegraph, along with their possible applications.
Ampere’s work had him attempting to unite the then-disparate fields of magnetism and electricity, in effect starting the whole field of electrodynamics. He also discovered a relationship between the current on two lengths of wires and their magnetic effect on each other, subsequently named Ampere’s Law in his honor. He also lent his name to the SI unit of current, the ampere.
Not long after Franklin demonstrated that there is “ambient electricity” in the atmosphere, Luigi Galvani also demonstrated that animals also exhibit a form of electrical generation through their bodies. Galvani discovered the idea of “animal electricity”, which is an early demonstration of bioelectricity. It was in 1780 when Galvani applied an electrical spark to a dead frog’s legs, and watched them twitch in response.
This added a new dimension to the idea of electricity, as Galvani demonstrated the animal (and therefore human) body relied on this for movement and other functions. One mistake that Galvani made at this time was assuming that the electricity was intrinsic or built into the animal’s body. This idea was soon doubted by another pioneer of the electrical sciences, Alessandro Volta, who created the battery in large part to debunk it.
Aside from his work on animal electricity, Galvani’s name lives on in the process of “galvanization” (and every verb and noun derived from it).
Most recognizable by the name he lent to the basic unit of electric potential (the volt), Alessandro Volta was an Italian physicist and Chemist. He is known for taking the capacitor (Leyden Jar) one step further, and created the world’s first battery back in 1799. This creation had a two-fold effect on the burgeoning science of electrics. First, he conclusively debunked the idea that electricity can only be produced by living beings. Second, his findings took electrical research to all-new heights, with future discoveries anchoring themselves upon his work.
Called the “Voltaic Pile”, Volta’s creation was among the very first examples of the electrochemical cell. It has two electrodes, one made of zinc and the other made of copper. He used two kinds of electrolytes — brine, and sulfuric acid diluted with water. This same battery structure (two electrodes and an electrolyte) is still the dominant form of the battery even today.
Aside from inventing the battery, Volta also studied the concept of capacitance. He developed a means to study both electrical charge and potential separately, being the first to establish that these two have a definite and proportional relationship.
In his work as a chemist, Volta also discovered methane — a gas which is today used as a source of heat and electricity! This was inspired, among all things, by a prior research done by Benjamin Franklin on the phenomenon of “flammable air”.
German physicist Georg Simon Ohm began his foray into electricity after Volta invented his battery. Ohm studied the properties of the cell, and found that there is a set relationship between voltage and current. This was later known as Ohm’s law. Ohm is also known for lending his name to the SI unit for resistance, the Ohm.
Ohm’s work, sadly, was not well received at the time. In fact, his most lasting contribution to the field of electrics was not made apparent until several years later. His studies had paved the way for the study of circuit theory, which was delved into until the end of the century.
William Sturgeon and Joseph Henry.
So far, researchers have delved into the idea of electricity and magnetism but no one had yet been able to make anything practical out of it. Enter William Sturgeon, a self-taught scientist who served in the military, and who created the world’s first artificial magnet — the “electromagnet” — in 1824. Sturgeon was also enterprising enough to see through the invention and to its practical application, in the process creating an early example of the DC motor.
Sturgeon’s electromagnet took the idea of electricity to a new direction. Before long, scientists started looking for ways to generate a means of communicating through electricity. With the electromagnet at the core, they raced towards the creation of the first telegraph.
Now, Sturgeon’s electromagnet was powerful enough to lift around 9 pounds of material, all from a seven-ounce piece of iron wrapped with 18 turns of copper wire, and charged by a single battery. Joseph Henry was an American scientist who was at the forefront of these developments, and sought to turn the electromagnet into something more useful. In his experiments, he discovered the principles of electromagnetic self-inductance, and the idea of mutual inductance (which was later finalized by Michael Faraday). These findings led him to develop an immensely more powerful version of the electromagnet, using insulated wire and a series of battery cells. His creation had enough strength to lift a whopping 3,500 pounds of weight, which is unheard of at the time.
Henry then used this powerful magnet to transmit electric signals a mile away (previous experiments failed after a few hundred feet). This came in 1831, a year before Samuel Morse refined the idea into the first working telegraph. Thus was planted the seed of modern communications.
It’s impossible to talk about electricity without talking about Michael Faraday, who is one of the most influential scientists in the field. He contributed many discoveries, from the principles of mutual induction and electromagnetic induction to his attempts to connect the phenomena of light and magnetism.
His greatest contribution, arguably, is the “Faraday Disk” — an early dynamo, and the very first example of electric generator/motor. Completed in 1831 after a string of experiments, this was the direct ancestor of modern-day generators and motors.
Another significant contribution Faraday made to the field was the debunking of the idea that there were different “kinds” of electricity at work around us. He proved that there was just one kind of electricity, and the change in the values of its various properties resulted in different manifestations and effects.
Thomas Davenport, Moses Farmer, and Charles Grafton Page.
Elsewhere, other inventors were striving to turn Faraday’s findings into more practical products. First among them was Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Vermont, who created a roadworthy electric car back in 1834.
Some time later in 1847, Moses Farmer demonstrated a locomotive driven by electricity. This one moved pretty slowly, and was improved in 1851 by Charles Grafton Page. His version of the electric locomotive ran at 19 MPH, which was pretty impressive for the time.
The greatest impediment to the practicality of electric vehicles, however, was not its speed or mileage, but the cost of the batteries used to power the motors. Without a reliable method of electric generation, the motor stalled in its development.
Charles Brush and Thomas Edison.
But transportation was not the only thing to improve with the advent of electricity. Lighting was a perpetual problem, and by 1878 an Ohio engineer by the name of Charles Brush created “arc light”. This was similar to the modern-day Christmas light in terms of function, strung in series and powered by a single dynamo. These bright lights were perfect for outdoor lighting and for use in large indoor spaces, but their construction made them impractical for small living spaces.
This was the problem solved (among many others) by one of the most prolific inventors of the time. Since his career started, Edison already showed keen aptitude in repurposing existing ideas and making them even more useful. Such was the idea of his early inventions, such as the automatic stock ticker, an improved (and automated) telegraph machine and an automatic vote recorder. The invention that propelled him to the history books, of course, is the electric lamp
For this, he had to pursue multiple lines of research outside electrics. He had to find a suitable filament, and the right environment. In 1879, after more than two years and $40,000 in expenditures, Edison successfully created a light bulb that would burn for forty hours. After some time, he improved upon his invention and created bulbs that could burn for approximately 100 hours.
Aside from creating the electric bulb, Edison was also hard at work creating his own dynamo — the largest of its kind at the time. This directly led to the installation of “power plants” that could power a multitude of Edison’s bulbs at once. The first such plant was created in London in 1882, capable of powering 3,000 lamps. New York followed suit in the same year, with Pearl Street Station being the first of its kind in America.
Now, today’s readers would be very familiar with the bitter competition between Edison and his intellectual rival, Nikola Tesla. One thing that most people don’t know is that Tesla once worked for Edison, in New York City.
Unlike many other geniuses of the time, Nikola Tesla pursued no other field of interest than electronics. He is famous for conducting very advanced experiments involving everything from the development of motors to the use of electricity to create x-ray images. He was also fascinated with the wireless transmission of electricity, independently developing the radio and creating the predecessor of the modern-day remote control (used to wirelessly control a boat!).
Tesla’s most enduring mark on history, however, is with his work on a motor that runs on alternating current. Whereas Edison focused mainly on direct current (DC), Tesla explored the idea of AC as a means to lower the maintenance cost and improve both the safety and efficiency of motors. The resulting invention, unveiled in 1887, was eventually licensed by Westinghouse. Tesla also attempted to create his own version of a steam-powered AC generator, which failed to catch on.
Aside from a storied life of inventions that also touched on near-field sources of power (partially explored in today’s NFC technology), Nikola Tesla lent his name to the Tesla coil which has found multiple uses in various industries.
Charles Parsons and Charles Curtis.
Despite all these magnificent discoveries, we wouldn’t be experiencing the convenience of electricity as we do today without those who found ways to produce it en masse. There have been countless developments over time, and now we can use a whole hose of resources to generate power. But for now, we will pay homage to the first two who made the big leap to big-time power generation.
Sir Charled Parsons was the first person to demonstrate a feasible steam turbine generator back in 1884. His invention started off at a measly thermal efficiency of just 1.6%, a number that was significantly improved just two years later by the addition of a condensing turbine. This was the core of a slew of power generation developments. By the early 1900s, the net efficiency of power generators was up to 15%.
Charles Curtis, an American inventor, also created his own version of the turbine generator in 1901. He offered his design to General Electrics, and by 1903 the original 500kW generator was improved to a 5MW capacity. This was the world’s most powerful steam turbine at the time.
From here onwards, power generation reached new and magnificent heights. Nuclear power came into play, and not long afterwards scientists began rediscovering the potential of renewable resources. Thus electricity continues to be the core driving force of today’s society, powering everything we know. The Internet may go down, your favorite piece of tech may get broken, and the rules of society may be bent in some way or another… but if electricity suddenly disappears things would be truly bleak.
Now we are sure that won’t happen. And we owe it all to these great pioneers who sought to harness all the complications of electricity to bring its benefits to mankind.