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History of Engineering: Electricity

  • by: Jennifer Robinson
  • On: 19, Jun 2019
3 min read

How Electricity Changed Engineering:

The discovery of electricity allowed mankind to harness vast amounts of energy, powering new technologies which improved lives around the world. It was one of the driving forces behind the second industrial revolution, and allowed for huge leaps forward in the fields of transport, heating, lighting, and communications.

The Discovery of Electricity:

Ancient Knowledge of Electricity and Lightning

Human knowledge of electricity has been around since at least 2750 BCE, thanks to electric shocks from certain fish. Ancient Egyptian texts refer to these as ‘Thunderers of The Nile.’ Ancient Greeks would later learn that the shocks from these fish could be carried along conducting objects. Sick people were often encouraged to touch the fish, in the hope that a shock would cure them.

There have also been discoveries of ancient ‘batteries’ in Persia and Baghdad. Clay pots with sheets of copper and an upright iron rod may have been used to generate power, but what for is currently unknown.  

William Gilbert

The word ‘electric’ comes from William Gilbert’s treatise ‘On The Magnet’, published in 1600. Written in Latin, he coined the term ‘electricus’, coming from the Greek word elektron, meaning amber. When rubbed, amber can attract light objects towards it, and Gilbert believed this to be linked to magnetism. We now know this was static electricity.

Otto von Guericke

Von Guericke was inspired by Gilbert’s work, and would go on to invent the first vacuum, a vital step for the study of electricity. In 1660, he would create the first static generator.

Benjamin Franklin

American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin firmly established the link between lightning and electricity in 1752, when he famously ran around in a thunderstorm with a key tied to a kite. He would later develop the lightning rod – the first practical application for electricity.

Alessandro Volta

In 1800, Alessandro Volta created the first battery, known as the Voltaic pile, which provided the world’s first steady electrical charge. The scientific unit ‘volt’ is named after him.

Michael Faraday

The first electric motor was invented by Michael Faraday in 1831. He also invented the Faraday cage, a protective structure that negates electromagnetic forces.

James Clerk Maxwell, creator of Maxwell’s Equations

James Clerk Maxwell was a 19th century scientist, and is widely considered the father of electrical engineering.

His equations showed that electricity, light, and magnetism are all different manifestations of the same phenomenon: electromagnetism.This would lead to the invention of television.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla is one of the most important figures in the history of electricity. He worked on Alternating Current (AC), which would become the industry standard.

Practical Applications of Electricity:

The advent of electric power allowed for massive leaps in technological capability, and ushered in an age where every home could have power. This led to new inventions that changed how people could work and communicate.

The Telegraph

One of the first inventions that was facilitated by electricity was the Telegraph, which allowed people to send messages over long distances across a wire. It was invented by Samuel Morse, who also invented the Morse Code.

The Telephone

The telephone was invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. This revolutionised how people communicated, and allowed for huge leaps forward in global trade. 

Electric Light

The first incandescent light was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879. He would create one of the first electric generating plants in New York a few years later, which would create a huge demand for skilled electrical workers. 

The history of electricity is full of fantastic inventions and famous engineers. One of the most important and significant developments in human history, electric power has changed all of our lives.

Read about the future of energy, or learn about how engineering impacts every area of modern life.

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