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The Beginnings of Electricity: Its Origin

From the writings of Thales of Miletus, it seems that the Westerners in their day knew since 600 B.C. that amber is charged by rubbing. But apart from that, there was little real progress until the English scientist William Gilbert in 1600 described the electrification of many substances and coined the term «electricity» from the Greek word for amber.

As a result, Gilbert is called the father of modern electrical energy. In 1660, Otto von Guericke invented a crude oil machine to produce static electricity. It was a ball of sulfur, rotated by a crank with one hand and rubbed with the other. Successors, such as Francis Hauksbee, made improvements that provided experimenters with a ready source of static electricity.

The highly developed descendant of these early machines is the Van de Graaf generator, which is sometimes used as a particle accelerator. Robert Boyle realized that attraction and repulsion were mutual and that electrical force was transmitted through vacuum. Stephen Gray distinguished between conductors and non-conductors. C. F. Du Fay recognized two types of power, which Benjamin Franklin and Ebenezer Kinnersley of Philadelphia later called positive and negative.

Previously, the generation of electricity began more than 100 years ago, houses were lit with kerosene lamps, food was cooled in ice boxes, and rooms were heated with wood or coal stoves. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with a kite on a stormy night in Philadelphia, the idea of electricity slowly became implicit.

The invention of the light bulb used electricity to bring indoor lighting into our homes. Progress accelerated after Pieter van Musschenbroek invented the Leyden flask in 1745. The Leyden flask stored static electricity, which could be discharged at once. In 1747, William Watson discharged a Leyden flask through a circuit, and the understanding of current and circuitry began a new field of experimentation.

Henry Cavendish, by measuring the conductivity of the materials (he compared the simultaneous shocks he received when discharging Leyden jars through the materials), and Charles A. Coulomb, by mathematically expressing the attraction of electrified bodies, began the quantitative study of electrical energy. In the mid-1800s, life was changed by the invention of the electric light bulb. By 1879, electricity had been used in arc lights for outdoor lighting.

Despite what you’ve learned, Benjamin Franklin didn’t «discover» electric energy. In fact, electric power didn’t begin when Benjamin Franklin flew his kite during a thunderstorm or when light bulbs were installed in homes around the world. The truth is that electric power has always existed because it exists naturally in the world. Lightning, for example, is simply a flow of electrons between the ground and the clouds. When you touch something and you get a shock, that’s really static electricity moving towards you.

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