When Electricity Was Invented

B.E.E (Before electricity event)

Before there was 55 inch 4k HD OLED TVs, or before the television, before the lightbulb, or electric motors, before the battery, before wires, as far back as before there was electricity.  There was none. A candle, or oil lamp was used for light, instruments provided musical entertainment. Books, letters, and spoken word were the internet of the day, a performance or play would be the closest equivalent to youtube or twitch.

So how did this all come about?  Did electricity evolve from magnets? Like humans evolved from the neanderthals.

A man wrote a book and electricity was invented

This is a story about science, the scientific method, a story about curiosity, questions, hypothesis, tests, documentation, and more.  So what happened? Well let’s go back 418 years ago to 1600 when William Gilbert released his book on the magnet. William was a physician, curious about the properties of natural magnets called lodestone.   William had devised a number of experiments with magnets, and in his books he described these properties.

Magical Rocks

By Chris Oxford [CC BY-SA 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Like when a line of lodestone are put in a line there is a natural order, front to and back.   He described how when one rock is move or turned around, it will spin and align itself back in perfect order.   This was very curious, and he believed that there must be healing properties to these stones. His book went on to examine materials of similar properties of attraction.

For my next trick

Amber is fossilized tree sap from prehistoric ages.   At the time William wasn’t certain of the source of amber, but he did examine the properties of amber’s ability to hold a state of attraction when he rubbed it with a soft cloth.   This was well known and was a common trick of magic. When the amber is charged by rubbing the amber with a cloth, it attracts light objects like feathers, or small bits of dried plant material called chaff.

Similar to these experiments, Bill Nye demonstrates with balloons:

Elektron becomes Electrica

In his book, William Gilbert named these charges and the attraction properties of these materials as electrica.   Inspired by the latin name of amber, elektron. Years later another man, Sir Thomas Browne refined the name and electrical properties were referred to as electricities.  Not exactly the electricity as we know today, but that is the current understanding of the birth of electricity.

While his original book was released in 1600, you can read an english copy from 1893 from the archive of the internet.  In the english transposed book below, the english common terms for electricity are used fairly frequently. The Second book which starts on page 142 is interesting as he describes his findings.

So what?

So electricity is about 418 years old. Actually it has always been around, but it wasn’t until 418 years ago that we started playing seriously in the realm of this physical science.  So here we are, looking at our devices and worrying if our phone’s charge is going to last the rest of the day. How does this help us?

When approaching understanding how our electrical devices tick and work.   It’s important to understand that this is not any more magical than magnetic rocks attracting each other, or rubbing amber with a cloth.   As our understanding for electricity and other areas of science improves so does our capability to build smaller, and faster devices. As we explore the world around us our discoveries are not new, they have always been with us, we are just learning to see them.  

Electricity is fundamentally simple.  When we use electricity to create machines it is marvellous.  Learning to work with electricity is not magic, it just takes time.

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