Electricity is such a universal and accepted part of our lives it has become ubiquitous. Yet, through the course of its history, there have been several eureka moments and breakthrough inventions that have shaped our modern lives. Here at Live Oak Electrical we thought it would be interesting to look into some of the most defining moments in the development of electricity and power.
Who Discovered Electricity?
Electricity is a form of energy and it occurs in nature, so it wasn’t really “invented.” As to who discovered it, many misconceptions abound. Some give credit to Benjamin Franklin for discovering electricity, but his experiments only helped establish the connection between lightning and electricity, nothing more.
The truth about the discovery of electricity is a bit more complex than a man flying his kite. It actually goes back more than two thousand years.
500 BC – The Discovery of Static Electricity
In about 500 BC, the Ancient Greeks discovered that rubbing lightweight objects such as fur or feathers on amber (fossilized tree resin) caused an attraction between the two. What the Greeks discovered was actually static electricity. Additionally, archeologists in the 1930s discovered pots with sheets of copper inside that they believe may have been ancient batteries to produce light at ancient Roman sites. Similar devices were found in archeological digs near Baghdad, meaning that the ancient Persians may have also used an early form of batteries.
1600 AD – The Origins of the Word Electricity
The Latin word “electricus,” which translates to “of amber” was used by the English physician William Gilbert to describe the force exerted when items are rubbed together. A few years later, English scientist Thomas Browne translated this into electricity in his written investigations in the field
1751 – Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity
The book of Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries about the behavior of electricity was published in 1751. In 1752, Franklin conducted his experiment with a kite, a key, and a storm, thus proving that static electricity and lightning were indeed the same thing.
1800 – A Different Kind of Power: The Battery
Documented records of battery-like objects date back to 250 BC, but the first true battery was invented by the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta in 1800. He soaked paper in salt water, placed zinc and copper on opposite sides of the paper, and watched the chemical reaction produce an electric current. Volta had created the first electric cell.
By connecting many of these cells together, Volta was able to “string a current” and create a battery. It is in the honor of Volta that we rate batteries in volts. Finally, a safe and dependable source of electricity was available, making it easier for scientists to study electricity.
1800s – The First Electric Cars
Breakthroughs in electric motors and batteries in the early 1800s led to vast experimentation and even into electrically powered vehicles. The British inventor Robert Anderson is often credited with developing the first crude electric carriage at the beginning of the 19th century, but it would not be until 1890 that American chemist William Morrison would invent the first practical electric car (through it more closely resembled a motorized wagon) which boasted a top speed of 14 miles per hour.
1831 – A Current Began
An English scientist Michael Faraday was the first person to realize that an electric current could be produced by passing a magnet through a copper wire. It was an amazing discovery. Almost all the electricity we use today is made with magnets and coils of copper wire in giant power plants.
Both the electric generator and the electric motor are based on this principle. A generator converts motion energy into electricity. An electric motor converts electrical energy into motion energy.
1879 – Mr. Edison and His Light Bulb
If we ask you, “who invented the light bulb?”, the first answer that springs to mind might be Thomas Edison, the famous American engineer. But if you say that, you’d only be half right. The light bulb doesn’t have a single inventor, but instead is a product of the collective work of several engineers, some historians claim it was as many as twenty. Edison, however, patented the first practical and incandescent light bulb.
In 1802, a scientist named Humphrey Davy invented the first proper electric light, which consisted of a battery connected to a piece of carbon. The power flowing through it caused the carbon to glow, producing light. Davy’s invention was known as the electric Arc Lamp, but the light was much too bright and short-lived to be of much practical use.
Further advances were made by British scientists Warren de la Rue and Joseph Wilson Swan as well as Henry Woodland and Mathew Evans. The latter eventually sold the patent to Edison who focused on creating a practical light bulb, one that would last a long time before burning out.
The problem was finding a strong material for the filament: the small wire inside the bulb that conducts electricity. Finally, Edison used ordinary cotton thread that had been soaked in carbon. This filament didn’t burn at all, it became incandescent, that is, it glowed.
1882 – The World’s First Public Power Station Opens
The next challenge for Edison was developing an electric system that could provide people with a practical source of energy to power these new lights. Edison wanted to make electricity both practical and inexpensive. He designed and built the first two electric power plants that were able to produce electricity and carry it to people’s homes.
On January 12, 1882, the Hoburn powerstation, also known as the Edison Electric Light Station (located in London), burned coal to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. It initially lit 968 16-candle incandescent lamps to provide street lighting. It was later expanded to 3,000 lamps.
Edison opened a second coal-fired station in September 1882, at Pearl Street Station in New York City. About 85 customers in lower Manhattan received enough power to light 5,000 lamps.
1880s – The Question: AC or DC
Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison waged what came to be known as the current war in 1880s America. Tesla was determined to prove that alternating current (AC), which generated power at stations, was safe for domestic use. This went against Edison Group’s opinion that a direct current (DC), as delivered from a battery, was safer and more reliable.
The turning point of the electric age came with the development of AC power systems. Croatian born scientist Nikola Tesla came to the United States to work with Thomas Edison. After a falling out, Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field and created the alternating current electrical system that is widely used today. Tesla teamed up with engineer and businessman George Westinghouse to patent the AC system and provide the nation with power that could travel long distances, a direct competition with Thomas Edison’s DC system. Tesla later went on to form the Tesla Electric Company, invent the Tesla Coil (which is still used in science labs and radio technology today), and design the system used to generate electricity at Niagara Falls.
Now using AC, power plants could transport electricity much further than before. While Edison’s DC plant could only transport electricity within one square mile of his Pearl Street Power Station, the Niagara plant was able to transport electricity over 200 miles.
1901 – Great Britain’s First Industrial Power Station Opens
Before Charles Mertzy and Williams McLellan (of Mezy & McLellan) built the Neptune Bank Power Station in Tyneside, England, individual factories were powered by private generators. By contrast, Neptune Bank Power Station could supply reliable, cheap power to multiple factories that were connected through high voltage transmission lines. This was the beginning of Britain’s national grid that many countries followed.
1947 – The First Transistor Built by AT&T Bell Labs
The transistor is perhaps the most important discovery in the history of engineering. At its most basic level, it’s essentially an electronic switch; it can turn currents on and off automatically and is crucial to almost all modern electronic circuits. Transistors changed the face of technology across the entire plane; without them we’d have no computers, no smart phones, not even things like electric scooters (just to name a few).
1990s – The First Mass Market Electric Vehicle (EV)
Concepts for electric cars had been around for a century, however the General Motors EVI was the first model to be mass produced by a major car brand, and was made possible with the breakthrough invention of the rechargeable battery. However, this EVI model could not be purchased, only directly leased on a monthly contract. Because of this, its expensive build, and relatively small customer following, the model only lasted six years before General Motors crushed the majority of their cars.
2020 – Renewable Generation Accounts for a Third of Global Power Capacity
The International Renewable Energy’s (IRENA) 2020 annual statistics revealed that renewable energy electricity generation accounted for a third of global capacity in 2020, with hydropower accounting for almost half of that total, while wind and solar energy accounted for most of the remainder.
Electricity didn’t have an easy beginning. While many people were thrilled with all the new inventions, some people were afraid of electricity and wary of bringing it into their homes. They were afraid to let their children near this strange new power source. Many social critics of the data saw electricity as an end to a simpler, less hectic life. Poets commented that electric lights were less romantic than gas lights. Perhaps they were right, but the new electric age could not be dimmed.
In 1920, about two percent of US energy was used to make electricity. In 2020, with the increasing use of technologies powered by electricity, it was almost 42 percent.