We can’t imagine not having any lights in our house. When the sun goes down we would not be able to see anything unless we don’t have a fire. For thousands of years, people all over the world have been fascinated by lightning. Some people must have wondered how to put that kind of power to practical use. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the path to the everyday use of electrical power began to take shape.
Electricity is a natural phenomenon that occurs throughout nature and takes many different forms. Mostly we use current electricity: the things that power our electronic gadgets. It flows from a power source through wires, lighting up LEDs, spinning motors, and powering our communication devices.
Electricity is briefly defined as the flow of electric charge and it’s a set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and motion of matter that has a property of electric charge, But what is the history? How we find electricity?
The Brief History of Electricity
Electricity is a form of energy and it occurs in nature, so it was not “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 and that was the beginning of the history of electricity.
In about 600 BC, the Ancient Greeks discovered that rubbing fur on amber (fossilized tree resin) caused an attraction between the two – and so what the Greeks discovered was actually static electricity. Additionally, researchers and archeologists in the 1930s discovered pots with sheets of copper inside that they believe may have been ancient batteries meant to produce light at ancient Roman sites. Similar devices were found in archeological digs near Baghdad meaning ancient Persians may have also used an early form of batteries.
But by the 17th century, many electricity-related discoveries had been made, such as the invention of an early electrostatic generator, the differentiation between positive and negative currents, and the classification of materials as conductors or insulators.
In the year 1600, English physician William Gilbert used the Latin word “electricus” to describe the force that certain substances exert when rubbed against each other. A few years later another English scientist, Thomas Browne, wrote several books and he used the word “electricity” to describe his investigations based on Gilbert’s work.
In 1752, Ben Franklin conducted his experiment with a kite, a key, and a storm. This simply proved that lightning and tiny electric sparks were the same things.
Italian physicist Alessandro Volta discovered that particular chemical reactions could produce electricity, and in 1800 he constructed the voltaic pile (an early electric battery) that produced a steady electric current, and so he was the first person to create a steady flow of electrical charge. Volta also created the first transmission of electricity by linking positively-charged and negatively-charged connectors and driving an electrical charge, or voltage, through them. That concept changes the history of electricity.
In 1831 electricity became viable for use in technology when Michael Faraday created the electric dynamo (a crude power generator), which solved the problem of generating an electric current in an ongoing and practical way. Faraday’s rather crude invention used a magnet that was moved inside a coil of copper wire, creating a tiny electric current that flowed through the wire.
This opened the door to American Thomas Edison and British scientist Joseph Swan who each invented the incandescent filament light bulb in their respective countries in about 1878. Previously, light bulbs had been invented by others, but the incandescent bulb was the first practical bulb that would light for hours on end. Swan and Edison later set up a joint company to produce the first practical filament lamp, and Edison used his direct-current system (DC) to provide power to illuminate the first New York electric street lamps in September 1882.
Later in the 1800’s and early 1900’s Serbian American engineer, inventor, and all-around electrical wizard Nikola Tesla became an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity. He worked with Edison and later had many revolutionary developments in electromagnetism, and had competing patents with Marconi for the invention of the radio. He is well known for his work with alternating current (AC), AC motors, and the polyphase distribution system.
Later, American inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse purchased and developed Tesla’s patented motor for generating alternating current, and the work of Westinghouse, Tesla, and others gradually convinced American society that the future of electricity lay with AC rather than DC. Others who worked to bring the use of electricity to where it is today include Scottish inventor James Watt, Andre Ampere, a French mathematician, and German mathematician and physicist George Ohm.
Finally, in the history of electricity, it was not just one person who discovered electricity. While the concept of electricity was known for thousands of years, when it came time to develop it commercially and scientifically, there were several great minds working on the problem at the same time.
First 100 Years History Timeline of Electricity
1752: By tying a key onto a kite string during a storm, Ben Franklin, proved that static electricity and lightning were the same. His correct understanding of the nature of electricity paved the way for the future.
1800: First electric battery invented by Alessandro Volta. The “volt” is named in his honor.
1808: Humphry Davy invented the first effective “arc lamp.” The arc lamp was a piece of carbon that glowed when attached to a battery by wires.
1820: Separate experiments by Hans Christian Oersted, A.M. Ampere and D.F.G. Arago confirmed the relationship between electricity and magnetism.
1821: The first electric motor was invented by Michael Faraday.
1826: Georg Ohm defined the relationship between power, voltage, current, and resistance in “Ohms Law.”
1831: Using his invention the induction ring, Michael Faraday proved that electricity can be induced (made) by changes in an electromagnetic field. Faraday’s experiments about how electric current works, led to the understanding of electrical transformers and motors.
Joseph Henry separately discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction but didn’t publish his work. He also described an electric motor.
1832: Using Faraday’s principles, Hippolyte Pixii built the first “dynamo,” an electric generator capable of delivering power for industry. Pixi’s dynamo used a crank to rotate a magnet around a piece of iron wrapped with wire. Because this device used a coil of wire, it produced spikes of electric current followed by no current.
1835: Joseph Henry invented the electrical relay, used to send electrical currents long distances.
1837: Thomas Davenport invented the electric motor, an invention that is used in most electrical appliances today.
1839: Sir William Robert Grove developed the first fuel cell, a device that produces electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen.
1841: James Prescott Joule showed that energy is conserved in electrical circuits involving current flow, thermal heating, and chemical transformations. A unit of thermal energy, the Joule, was named after him.
1844: Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph, the machine that could send messages long distances across the wire.
1860’s Mathematical theory of electromagnetic fields published. J.C. Maxwell created a new era of physics when he unified magnetism, electricity, and light. Maxwell’s four laws of electrodynamics (“Maxwell’s Equations”) eventually led to electric power, radios, and television.
1876: Charles Brush invented the “open coil” dynamo (or generator) that could produce a study current of electricity.
1878: Joseph Swan, an Englishman, invented the first incandescent lightbulb (also called an “electric lamp”). His lightbulb burned out quickly. Charles Brush developed an arc lamp that could be powered by a generator.
Thomas Edison founded the Edison Electric Light Co. (US), in New York City. He bought a number of patents related to electric lighting and began experiments to develop a practical, long-lasting light bulb.
1879: After many experiments, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb that could be used for about 40 hours without burning out. By 1880 his bulbs could be used for 1200 hours.
1879: Electric lights (Brush arc lamps) were first used for public street lighting, in Cleveland, Ohio. California Electric Light Company, Inc. in San Francisco was the first electric company to sell electricity to customers. The company used two small Brush generators to power 21 Brush arc light lamps.
1881: The electric streetcar was invented by E.W. v. Siemens
1882: Thomas Edison opened the Pearl Street Power Station in New York City. The Pearl Street Station was one of the world’s first central electric power plants and could power 5,000 lights. The Pearl Street Station was a direct current (DC) power system, unlike the power systems that we use today which use alternating current (AC). The first hydroelectric station opened in Wisconsin. Edward Johnson first put electric lights on a Christmas tree.
1883: Nikola Tesla invented the “Tesla coil”, a transformer that changes electricity from low voltage to high voltage making it easier to transport over long distances. The transformer was an important part of Tesla’s alternating current (AC) system, still used to deliver electricity today.
1884: Nikola Tesla invented the electric alternator, an electric generator that produces alternating current (AC). Until this time electricity had been generated using direct current (DC) from batteries. AC electrical systems are better for sending electricity over long distances. The steam turbine generator, capable of generating huge amounts of electricity, was invented by Sir Charles Algernon Parsons.
1886: William Stanley developed the induction coil transformer and an alternating current electric system.
1888: Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first “polyphase” alternating current (AC) electrical system. His AC system including everything needed for electricity production and use: generator, transformers, transmission system, motor (used in appliances), and lights. George Westinghouse, the head of Westinghouse Electric Company, bought the patent rights to the AC system.
The first use of a large windmill to generate electricity was built by inventor Charles Brush. He used the windmill to charge batteries in the cellar of his home in Cleveland, Ohio.
1893: The Westinghouse Electric Company used alternating current (AC) system to light the Chicago World’s Fair. A 22 mile AC powerline was opened, sending electricity from Folsom Powerhouse in California to Sacramento.
1896: An AC powerline that transmits power 20 miles from Niagra Falls to Buffalo, New York was opened.
1897: Electron discovered by Joseph John Thomson.
1900: Highest voltage transmission line 60 Kilovolt.
1901: First power line between USA and Canada at Niagra Falls.
1902: 5-Megawatt turbine for Fisk St. Station (Chicago).
1903: First successful gas turbine (France). World’s first all turbine station (Chicago). Shawinigan Water & Power installs the world’s largest generator (5,000 Watts) and the world’s largest and highest voltage line—136 Km and 50 Kilovolts (to Montreal).
1908: Electric vacuum cleaner – J. Spangler. Electric washing machine- A. Fisher.
1909: First pumped storage plant (Switzerland).
1911: Electric air conditioning – W. Carrier.
1913: T. Murray created the first air pollution control device, the “cinder catcher.” Electric refrigerator – A. Goss.
1920: Federal Power Commission (FPC).
1921: Lakeside Power Plant in Wisconsin becomes the world’s first power plant to burn only pulverized coal.
1922: Connecticut Valley Power Exchange (CONVEX) starts, pioneering interconnection between utilities.
1923: Photoelectric cells were discovered.
1928: Construction of Boulder Dam begins.
Federal Trade Commission begins investigation of holding companies.
1933: Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) established.
1935: Public Utility Holding Company Act. Federal Power Act. Securities and Exchange Commission. Bonneville Power Administration. The first night baseball game in major leagues (Reds vs. Phillies) was played in Ohio on May 24th.
1936: Highest steam temperature reaches 900 degrees Fahrenheit vs. 600 degrees Fahrenheit in the early 1920s. Boulder (Hoover) Dam was completed. A 287 Kilovolt power line stretched 266 miles to Boulder (Hoover) Dam. Rural Electrification Act.
1947: Transistor invented by scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratiories.
1953: First 345 Kilovolt transmission line. First nuclear power station ordered in England.
1954: World’s first nuclear power plant (Russia) started generating electricity. First high voltage direct current (HVDC) line (20 megawatts/1900 Kilovolts, 96 Km). Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allows private ownership of nuclear reactors.
1957: Shippingport Reactor in Pennsylvania was the first nuclear power plant to provide electricity to customers in the U.S.
1968: North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) formed.
1969: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
1970: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formed. Water and Environmental Quality Act. Clean Air Act of 1970
1975: Brown’s Ferry nuclear accident.
1977: New York City blackout. Department of Energy (DOE) formed.
1978: Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) passed, ends utility monopoly over a generation. Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act limits the use of natural gas in an electric generation (repealed 1987).
1979: Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
1980: First U.S. wind farm. Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act establishes regional regulation and planning.
1981: PURPA ruled unconstitutional by Federal judge.
1982: U.S. Supreme Court upholds the legality of PURPA in FERC v. Mississippi (456 US 742).
1984: Annapolis, N.S., tidal power plant-first of its kind in North America (Canada).
1985: Citizens Power, first power marketer, goes into business.
1986: Chernobyl nuclear accident (USSR).
1990: Clean Air Act amendments mandate additional pollution controls.
1992: National Energy Policy Act.
1997: ISO New England begins operation (first ISO). New England Electric sells power plants (first major plant divestiture).
1998: California opens the market and ISO. Scottish Power (UK) to buy Pacificorp, first foreign takeover of US utility. National (UK) Grid then announces the purchase of the New England Electric System.
1999: Electricity marketed on the Internet. FERC issues Order 2000, promoting regional transmission.
For more detailed information about the discovery of electricity, see our sources, below.
Sources for the History of Electricity
A Short History of Ancient Electricity
Wikipedia: Alessandro Volta
Wikipedia: Michael Faraday
Wikipedia: Thomas Edison
Wikipedia: Nikola Tesla
Wikipedia: Guglielmo Marconi
The Historical Archive
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- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Wildside Classic)
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