As with most scientific discoveries, no one person can be accredited as the one who “created” electricity. In fact, electricity was always there as a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Humankind was perplexed by flashes of electricity in the world. Over time and through many hours of scientific observation and experimentation, the nature of electricity was understood. As scientists grasped more about electrical fields, magnetism, and the flow of currents, the power of electricity was harnessed and made useful.
Now electrical light, power, and backups run the system of our world and are almost overlooked until we experience an unexpected power outage.
In this post, we’ll look at some of the earliest discoveries on the way to understanding electricity, the progression of that understanding into practical applications, and where we are now.
Who Created Electricity?
People in the ancient world made note of witnessing the awesome power of electricity in the sky during lightning storms. Some saw the flash of lightning bugs, torpedo fish, electric eels and wondered how these two natural occurrences could possibly be connected.1
The Ancient Greeks were the earliest known adopters of static electricity in 600 BC. They discovered that rubbing fossil pine tree resin and fur together created an electrical charge. This early discovery is known as triboelectricity and happens because the fur builds up negatively charged electrons and the resin loses electrons, creating a positive charge.2
Archeological digs in 1936 uncovered what were possibly early battery models in ancient Babylon, which is near present day Baghdad. These clay pots contain a copper cylinder, an iron rod, and an asphalt plug and were dated between 248 BC and 226 AD.
Early Harnessing of Electricity
Though these early applications were the beginnings of putting electrical energy to use, there were many more to come thousands of years later.
In 1600, the English physician William Gilbert first coined the phrase “electricus” to describe electrical force. He performed many experiments with various materials to determine what was capable of generating an electrical charge, and what was not.
He also noted how fluids and environment affected how capable different materials were in carrying an electric charge. His discoveries laid the groundwork for the first electrostatic machines capable of producing quick bursts of electricity through friction.3
Another major step forward in harnessing the power of electricity was in 1746 when Pieter van Musschenbroek, a Dutch scientist, invented what became known as a Leyden Jar. The jar was covered with wires inside and out and was able to keep an electrical charge for several days when connected to an electrostatic machine.4
Tapping into the Power of Electrical Current
Later, in 1752 Benjamin Franklin put the Leyden Jar to use in his famous lightning storm, kite, and key experiment. He theorized that lightning was, in fact, the same kind of electricity that people witnessed in other sparks throughout nature. At that time, this was a debate among the scientific community.
Franklin anticipated that the lightning would strike the kite and travel down the wet string and into the key within a Leyden jar at the end, powering the jar. Thankfully, the kite was not directly hit by the lightning, or else Mr. Franklin may not have lived to confirm his experiment had worked as planned.5
The 1800s saw huge leaps forward in electrical knowledge as Danish scientist Hans Christian Orsted accidentally discovered that a metal electric wire could cause a compass needle to move. This lead him to correctly theorize that electricity moved in a magnetic field.6
Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are perhaps the most well-known scientists who experimented and moved electricity forward by leaps and bounds.
Edison invented the incandescent electric light bulb and touted the value of direct current (DC) electricity,7 while Nikola Tesla researched and popularized the value of using an alternating current (AC), which is used by homes and businesses today.8
Electricity Today - Toasters, EVs, and Solar Panels
Now electricity is used to power homes, businesses, personal electronic devices, cars, and even to provide clean power to homes with solar.
One interesting electrical fact about solar panels is that they still generate DC power. This is due to the nature of how the silicon wafers or thin film cells absorb the sun’s light energy and generate an electrical charge.
But a power inverter changes the DC current to a usable AC current for your home outlets. AC power is preferable since it transfers over long distances well and can easily and safely be stepped down for household use.
Read more about DC, AC, and the speed of electricity here.