Origin of electricity

In the history of electricity, no single defining moment exists. The way we produce, distribute, install, and use electricity and the devices it powers is the culmination of nearly 300 years of research and development.

Efforts to understand, capture, and tame electricity began in the 18th century. For the next 150 years, dozens of “natural scientists” in England, Europe, colonial America, and later the United States analyzed electricity in nature, but producing it outside of nature was another matter.

That didn’t happen on any large scale until the late 19th century. Setting the stage for widespread commercial use of electricity were international researchers engaged in pure scientific research, and entrepreneurial businessmen who made their own major discoveries or produced, marketed, and sold products based on others’ ideas.

Prominent contributors to today’s electrically energized world (listed in alphabetical order) include:

* Andrè-Maire Ampére (1775-1836), a French physicist who developed the Systéme International d’Unités (SI).

* Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), inventor of the telephone. A mostly home-taught member of a Scottish family interested in issues of speech and deafness, Bell followed his father, Alexander Melville Bell, as a teacher of the deaf. In the 1870s, funded by the fathers of two of his students, Bell studied how electricity could transmit sound.

* Ferdinand Braum (1850-1918), a German physicist who shared a Nobel Prize with Guglielmo Marconi for contributions to the development of radiotelegraphy.

* Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), a reclusive, unpublished English scientist whose work was replicated several decades later by Ohm.

* Thomas Doolittle, a Connecticut mill worker who, in 1876, devised a way to make the first hard-drawn copper wire strong enough for use by the telegraphy industry, in place of iron wire. The young commercial electric and telephone industry quickly took advantage of the new wire.

* Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931), the most productive electrical explorer. He invented the electric light bulb and many other products that electricians use or install.

*Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), an American diplomat and natural philosopher, he proved that lightning and electricity were the same.

* Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), an Italian physician and physicist, his early discoveries led to the invention of the voltaic pile.

* Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), an Italian physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his invention of a system of radiotelegraphy.

* Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854), a German physicist and the discoverer of Ohm’s Law, which states that resistance equals the ratio of the potential difference to current.

* Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), a Serbian-American inventor who discovered rotating magnetic fields. George Westinghouse purchased Tesla’s patent rights.

* Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827), an Italian physicist who invented the electric battery. The electrical unit “volt” is named for Volta.

* George Westinghouse (1846-1914), an able adapter of other people’s research, purchased their patents and expanded on their work. His first patent was received for a train air brake. In 1869, he formed the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Eventually, he held 360 patents and founded six companies. He lost control of his companies in the 1907 panic, but went on working for them for another three years. The experiences of electricity’s founding fathers parallel in many ways the electronic technology breakthroughs of the past half-century that have brought us a whirlwind of innovation in computer hardware, software, and Internet communications. Just as a wave of electrical inventions dramatically changed the world as the 20th century progressed, so can we anticipate a steadily escalating rate of innovation in these emerging electronic disciplines beyond the dawn of the 21st century.

Emergence of a profession

Edison, Westinghouse, and other inventors and builders of electrical equipment competed to show the wonders of their new inventions. In 1881, Lucien Gaulard of France and John Gibbs of England arranged the first successful alternating-current electrical demonstration in London.

Expositions and world’s fairs became popular places to showcase new inventions involving electricity. Almost as soon as they moved from the drawing board to operational status, electrical devices and systems were on display, to the delight of admiring crowds throughout the United States, England, and Europe.

Electricians were hired to build and operate these installations. The first successful use of electricity at one of these events occurred at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Four years later, the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago used 10 times more electricity than the Paris Exposition. Says David E. Nye in Electrifying America (MIT Press, 1997):

“The Chicago fair employed 90,000 Sawyer-Mann incandescent lamps using alternating current, installed by Westinghouse for $5.25 each, and 5,000 arc lights installed by General Electric. To understand what these figures meant, consider that in 1890 there were only 68,000 arc lights and 900,000 incandescent lamps in the entire United States.”

Columbian Exposition visitors could ride on or see electrified sites that included three cranes, elevators in some buildings, water fountains, an on-site railroad/streetcar system built by General Electric, and moving sidewalks.

Organizers of the electricity-themed 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., were challenged to improve on the Columbian Exposition.

Two of the Pan-American Exposition’s buildings were dedicated to electricity. The 400-foot Electric Tower, studded with 40,000 lights; and the Electricity Building, with a display of electrical appliances.

Meanwhile, electricity had made an appearance at the annual expositions held from 1857 to the late 1890s in St. Louis, Mo., then the fourth-largest city in the United States. The St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair took place each summer at Fairgrounds Park on the city’s north side, and each winter in the Exposition and Music Hall in downtown St. Louis.


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