Within every object on Earth lies concealed a positive or a negative electric charge. From the very structure of the atom to the essential functioning of our brains, the natural power of electricity is all around us, and it is one of the most potent symbols of our Modern World. Making the story of electricity, the story of life itself…
From Frankenstein’s monster taking his first breath to the brutal simplicity of the execution chair, electricity permeates our everyday life and popular culture.
Life-giving < Electricity & Magnetism > Death-dealing
We look at the story of how humankind has striven to understand electricity. And how researchers over the ages have sought to unlock and take control over this invisible, all encompassing force of Nature, which continues to mystify and amaze.
Electricity in Nature
Ever since the ancient Greeks discovered amber‘s natural ability to acquire an electric charge and produce spontaneous sparks when rubbed with animal fur, electricity has fascinated scientists and engineers. Long-celebrated for its colour and natural beauty, amber is fossilised tree resin, much valued as a gemstone.
Amber’s light-inducing effect prompted those early philosophers to name it elektron – the very word from which our modern term “electricity” was eventually derived throughout the centuries.
Prior to the Enlightenment, elemental displays such as thunder and lightning were generally regarded as acts of God.
Later, attempts by scientists to recreate these effects in the laboratory began to push the boundaries between the divine and material realms.
By the end of the 17th century, researchers had developed practical means of generating electricity by friction. By the 18th century, the development of electrostatic generators, or “friction machines”, had begun in earnest.
Early experiments by scientists on the potential of electricity and illumination would begin to challenge the ingrained belief that all natural forces were divinely created.
Humans’ ability to tame Nature and control the wrath of God heralded the end of an era of miracles, bringing in a new world order – one where science and reason would challenge religious authority.
Studies in Electrostatics and The Scientifically-Curious Gentlemen
Electrostatic generators became fundamental instruments in the new study of electricity.
Clergyman Jean Antoine Nollet (1700-1770) was one of the great popularisers of the new electrical science in the salons and court of 18th-century France. His own invention, the electroscope, detected the presence of an electric charge by using electrostatic attraction and repulsion. Following the Dutch invention of the Leyden jar in 1745, Abbé Nollet began to promote it to an audience of wealthy and scientifically-curious gentlemen.
The Leyden jar is a device that stores static electricity between two electrodes on the inside and outside of a glass jar. The static electricity storage device was named after the city of Leiden, where it was invented independently by German cleric Ewald Georg von Kleist (1700-1748) and Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) of Leiden (Leyden) in 1745.
The invention was of fundamental importance to electrostatics. It was the first means of storing an electric charge that could subsequently be discharged at will.
Essentially, it was an early form of what we know today as a capacitor (or “condenser”), which could be used by the experimenter to demonstrate the principles of electrostatic in a spectacular fashion.
The Flying Boy
As the new science of “electricity” emerged, demonstration and spectacle became fundamental to scientific discovery and innovations. Perhaps the most famous of these 18th century popular displays was the static electricity experiment conducted by English scientist Stephen Gray (1666-1736).
A young boy was suspended on silk cords, and then charged by Gray bringing his static electric generator close to the boy’s feet, causing tissue paper, chaff and other light objects to become attracted to his hands. The famous “flying boy” became celebrated around Europe.
It begs to wonder what Gray was trying to show that could not have been demonstrated with a simpler set-up. But…
You must be part scientist, part P.T. Barnum!
Also in the 1700s, Martinus van Marum (1750-1837), designed the largest electrostatic generator of its time.
It was built in Amsterdam by English instrument maker, John Cuthbertson (1743-1821).
At the time, the concept of an electrostatic generator was still new, and the battery array of Leyden jars was the largest ever built. The two glass disks of the generator are 1.65 metres in diameter.
The machine could produce potentials of approximately 300,000 volts, and its discharge could be lethal!
And soon, the ambition was to capture electricity in its visible form – to catch the elusive moment of a spark!
Mid-18th century, American polymath Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) carried out a series of experiments designed to establish if the properties of lightning were the same as those of electricity, by… flying a kite in a lightning storm.
The result of the experiment was a succession of sparks jumping from the key attached to the kite string to the back of his hand, which convinced him lightning was indeed electrical in nature.
If Franklin did in fact carry out this risky experiment, he must have been careful enough to stand on an insulator, keeping dry under a roof to avoid the danger of an electric shock.
Franklin also explained the apparently paradoxical behaviour of the Leyden jar as a device for storing large amounts of electrical charge in terms of electricity consisting of both positive and negative charges.
Franklin developed a simple rod-like device that, when mounted atop a building, attracted lightning from a passing thunderstorm and conducted the current away harmlessly into the ground – the lightning rod was born.
In public demonstrations, scale-models were used to prove the effectiveness of the lightning rod in protecting houses, and other tall structures. An operator would make a spark strike the pointed metallic conductor on top of the ship (or house), simulating lightning.
If the conductor was grounded, nothing would happen. However, if the conductor was not grounded, the spark would ignite gunpowder placed inside, resulting in a dramatic explosion.
A number of experiments carried out with an electrostatic generator attracted scientific interest from all over the World.
Van Marum also experimented with the fusion of metal wires and the effect of battery discharge on different metals and alloys. From his results, van Marum concluded that copper was the best material for conductors, and lead was the worst.
Instrument-maker John Cuthbertson was amazed that a spark, seemingly so insignificant and small in normal air, has so much effect in a rarefied gas. His Aurora globe demonstrated this phenomenon.
The glass globe contains a partial vacuum, and it can be connected to an electrostatic generator that generates static charge by friction.
As soon as a discharge takes place, bands of light are formed in the globe. Depending on the strength of the electric charge, the globe would generate enough light to read by – emulating the Aurora Borealis, the result of a dramatic interaction between electrically charged particles from the Sun and molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Lichtenberg figures take the form of branching, tree-like patterns created by high-voltage electric discharges that sometimes appear on the surface of insulating materials.
The very first Lichtenberg figures were actually two-dimensional “dust figures” that formed when airborne dust settled on the surface of electrically-charged plates of resin in the laboratory of their discoverer, German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799). The fractal pattern resembles a bolt of lightning.
French astronomer and artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) created mesmerising photographs of electric sparks, without a camera, by directly exposing photosensitive plates to brief bursts of electrical energy from an electrostatic generator – Trouvelot figures.
At the time, it was thought that their characteristic shapes might reveal the nature of positive and negative electric “fluids”.
Volta v. Galvani – Bio-Electromagnetism
Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), demonstrated that electricity could be chemically generated and flow steadily like a current of water, by putting together the first true battery, or Voltaic pile, in 1800.
Volta’s pile was made from alternating 49 pairs of zinc and copper plates, separated by pieces of cloth drenched in saline or acid. It provided scientists with a more reliable source of electrical energy than the electrostatic machines previously used.
The study of bio-electricity, or “animal electricity”, concerned itself with the electric potentials and currents produced by or occurring within living organisms.
Italian scientist Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) published his discovery of bioelectricity in his treaty De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari in 1791. Galvani was able to demonstrate that electricity was the medium by which nerve cells passed signals onto the muscles.
Galvani coined the term animal electricity to describe the force that activated the muscles of his specimens. With his contemporaries, Galvani regarded their activation as being generated by an electrical fluid that is carried to the muscles by the nerves.
After numerous tests with different metals and even lightning, Galvani concluded that animal electricity was different from atmospheric or machine-generated electricity, that it was a vital force, intrinsic to animal tissue, essential to muscle contractions and nerve conduction.
Volta was among the first scientists who repeated and checked Galvani’s experiments. After initially embracing the idea of animal electricity, he began to doubt that the conduction was caused by a specific electricity intrinsic to the animal’s legs or other body part.
Volta believed that the contractions depended on the metal cable Galvani used to connect nerves and muscles in his experiments. Instead, Galvani did believe that the animal electricity came from the muscle in its pelvis. But Volta reasoned that the animal electricity was a physical phenomenon caused by rubbing frog skin, and not a metallic electricity. He objected to Galvani’s conclusions about “animal electric fluid”.
Volta’s intuition turned out to be correct. The two scientists disagreed respectfully, and Volta coined the term “Galvanism” for a direct current of electricity produced by chemical action.
Thus, owing to an argument between the two about the actual source or cause of the electricity, Volta went on to build the first battery in order to specifically disprove his associate’s theory. You might not have phone roaming and on-the-go web access if it had not been for those two great scientists falling out of friendship.
Scientific competitiveness for you!!
Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834) – Galvani’s nephew – would further popularise the animal electricity experiments pioneered by his uncle, in which static electricity applied to the nerves and muscles of a dead frog, was causing it to move. Aldini’s more sensationalist demonstrations famously included a public experiment on the body of an executed murderer, at Newgate Prison in London in 1803.
Popularising Electricity and Magnetism
For a while, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, electrotherapy was a popular treatment for a range of ailments, based on the belief that passing electric currents over the skin stimulated the body to recovery. The Royal Polytechnic Institution (1838), established to provide an educational service for Londoners, frequently featured popular demonstrations of science, famed for their “abominable smells and the occasional explosion”.
However, the boundaries between serious scientific displays and showmanship were continually in dispute as entertainers took advantage of the popular fascination with electricity, claiming curative powers in staged performances of mesmerism and magnetism.
Eccentric, eclectic, electric…
Scottish performer Walford Bodie (1869-1939) was billed as
“The Man who Tamed Electricity”
“The Human Resistance Coil”
Bodie created a sensation when he used an electric chair for mock electrocutions performed on terrified audience members, whom he shocked with a harmless static electric charge.
The Spark of Being
Writer Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was familiar with the work of Galvani, Aldini, and other leading electrical researchers of her time. Her keen interest in electricity and the reanimation experiments prompted by
Galvanism is said to have been the central inspiration for her Gothic horror novel, in which she described the creature as infused with a “spark of being”.
Initially, 19th century scientists really thought they were bringing corpses back to life. Of course, those early attempts turned out to be merely giving the illusion of life.
But in 1899 by Jean-Louis Prévost (1838-1927) and Frédéric Batelli, two physiologists from the University of Geneva, were the first to demonstrate that small electrical shocks could induce ventricular fibrillation in dogs, and that larger charges would reverse the condition.
The technique became known as defibrillation.
Defibrillators can successfully treat life-threatening irregular cardiac conditions by delivering a dose of electric current to the chest, and effectively depolarising a large amount of the heart muscle, thus ending the dysrhythmia. Subsequently, the body’s natural pacemaker in the SA node of the heart can re-establish normal sinus rhythm.
The external cardiac defibrillator as we know it was invented in 1930 by Electrical Engineer William Kouwenhoven, also known as the “father of cardiopulmonary resuscitation” (CPR).
Defibrillation was a novel way of reviving patients who were at immediate risk of suffering a cardiac arrest, still in use today.
In 1933, two researchers Dr. Albert Hyman, a New York heart specialist, and his brother Charles Hyman, an electrical engineer, looking for an alternative to injecting powerful drugs directly into the heart, came up with an invention that used an electrical shock in place of drug injection. Together, they constructed one of the very first artificial pacemakers.
As the pioneers of electrical energy began to transmit current over greater and greater distances, a focus became the application of electricity to communications.
Building on previous advances of Morse code and telegraph in the new United States, the next ambition was the transmission of messages across the sea, which led to one of the World’s greatest engineering endeavours:
“A Telegraph Cable Across the Atlantic Ocean.”
After several unlucky attempts between 1858 and 1866, the vast endeavour resulted in commercially viable transatlantic telegraph communications from Foilhommerum Bay to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland.
The cable stretched for 2,500 miles. It consisted of seven copper wires, insulated with gutta-percha – a type of tree resin similar to rubber -, wound with tarred hemp, over which a sheath of iron wires was laid in a close spiral.
The cable conducted short electrical impulses that appeared as a series of dots and dashes that could be translated into a decipherable message. The system had its limitations, but it could transmit eight words a minute.
This revolutionary, almost instant, form of communication created the first truly global network.
Transatlantic telegraph cables operated from Valentia Island for one hundred years, ending with Western Union International terminating its cable operations in 1966.
Humankind’s mastery of engineering heralded the conquest of the World by electrical technology. And this was the start of a global revolution in human communications.
Electricity transformed our World.
Electricity in the Limelight
In bringing light to darkness, electricity transformed the life of our cities.
City of Lights
The first International Electrical Exhibition held in Paris in 1881 at the Palais de l’Industrie, was an important showcase for a new branch of electrical engineering in presenting historical innovations, such as van Marum’s giant electrostatic generator.
Among the ground-breaking exhibits were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and an electric tram by Siemens, which ran between the exhibition hall and Place de la Concorde.
A flurry of arc lights and incandescent bulbs demonstrated interior and external illumination, turning Paris into a city of lights.
Following the success of the 1881 exhibition, the Exposition Universelle opened its doors in 1900 to 50 million visitors who marvelled at the exhibition’s own “Palais de l’Électrique”, and the electric moving walkway that conveyed the public above the streets of the French capital.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Channel…
The Savoy Theatre opened in London on 10 October 1881. It was the first public building in the World to be entirely lit by electricity, using over 1,000 swan lamps.
The electric power was generated by steam engines on an adjacent site. The following year, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe featured a chorus with electrically-powered illuminated head-dresses.
The Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair was one of the first to install electric lighting.
A power plant was built on-site. After problems with the gallery’s generator, Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti (1864-1930), one of the rare experts in alternating current (AC) at the time, was appointed chief engineer. Designed initially to supply lighting for the gallery, the network was extended to start supplying electricity to the nearby shops and residences of the West End from August 1887.
Deptford Power Plant
As the trend for electric lighting grew, a larger power-generating plant was opened at Deptford in 1884. It was the first of its kind. The existing cables were unable to cope with the 10,000-volt current that it was due to supply to substations. As a result, Ferranti had to manufacture his own mains cables and convince the authorities of their safety. These were paper-insulated concentric cables designed to limit the risk of fire and electric shock, and subsequently used for high-voltage underground electricity lines all over the World.
Despite initial fear and mistrust among early consumers, electricity soon became increasingly synonymous with wonder and convenience by the end of the 19th century electricity.
Soon, bigger stations began to rise up along the Thames to meet the growing demand.
The National Grid
In 1926, Parliament passed the Electricity (Supply) Act to resolve Britain’s problem with an inefficient and fragmented electricity system, and supply cheap and abundant power to everyone. The Electricity Act paved the way for the biggest peacetime construction project Britain had ever seen.
The National Grid was completed in 1933, the National Grid comprised 4,000 miles of cables, mostly overhead, linking 122 of the most efficient power stations.
Electricity has become so integral to modern life that it is often overlooked.
By the 1950s, electricity had revolutionised household living through a new range of labour-saving and time-saving devices. From cookers to heaters, to clocks, radios and radio alarm clocks. The humble electric kettle went from the status of a luxury object for the better-offs to that of an everyday object – a symbol of the democratisation of the availability of modern electric power in the West.
The introduction of electricity in the home also became synonymous with spare time to enjoy leisure activities, in turn encouraging the use of electrical power to create opportunities and spark on new fashions.
Electricity has been the catalyst for widespread social and economic change.
We never consider it as a privilege many do not have access to. We give little or no thought as to where that electricity has come from or how it has been generated. We think even less about the voyage of discoveries and the great inventors who made it all possible.
We make that all-important call to a contact on the other side of Earth.
We plug labour-saving electrical appliances into ubiquitous power outlets, and we turn them on at the flick of a switch.
We adjust the central heating.
We freeze. We microwave.
We check our tablets, our smartphones. We download the latest novel.
We switch on the large-screen TV that connects us to the global gossip…