History of Electricity

Human fascination with electricity dates back thousands of years. In 600 BC Thales of Miletus, a Greek Philosopher discovered that electricity could generated from electron which we now call amber.  Years later, the Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote about similar experiments in 70 AD in his Natural History. He also mentioned shocks given by torpedo fish – one of the first few records of electrical charges in nature.

In 1600, the English Scientist William Gilbert published a report that proved that attraction by amber was not magnetic. He was the first person to use the term electric.

In 1672 the German physicist Otto Von Guericke reported the invention of an electric gadget and showed that electrified objects were able to transfer a part of their charge, or the ability to attract, to non-electrified objects. In about 1736, the French chemist Charles Francois Du Fay hypothesised that electricity consists of two kinds of fluid. Approximately ten years later, a German Clergyman, E Georg Von Kleist and a professor of the University of Leyden, Pieter van Musschenbroek, discovered (separately) that a glass vessel filled with water and charged by a friction source could reserve the charge for later use. This device because known as Leyden Jar and the prototype of the electric condensor.

Sir William Watson and Dr John Bevis of England improved the jar by coating the inside and the outside with tin foil, which could store enough charge to make sparks. Not until 1890s, however, when people understood electricity a little better, did they realize that both Du Fay and Watson were correct in their own individual ways. By then, the stage had been set to electrify human existence.

One parson who believed in Watson’s model of electricity as a single fluid was Benjamin Franklin of United States. Franklin’s lightning rod demonstrated that lightning was a form of electricity discharged from the clouds. In 1753 John Canton from England discovered electrostatic induction. Henry Cavandish, also English, compared the electric conductivities of equivalent solutions of electrolytes and also proved that the electric attraction is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the charges.

However, the French Scientist, Charles Augustine de Coulomb was one of the first few scientists to measure electric charge. In 1780 an Italian anatomist Luigi Galvani executed experiments that observed the effects of static electricity on nerves and muscle of animals and became famous for his experiments on ‘animal electricity’, which led another Italian, Count Alessandro Volta to the discovery of electricity. In 1800, Volta announced that he had found a new source of electricity – what is now known as the battery.

In 1807 Sir Humphry Davy from England used current from a powerful battery based on Volta’s to recover the electrolysis, pure sodium and potassium from molten soda and potash. In 1810, Davy demonstrated the Arc Lamp, the first electric lamp. In 1820 Hans Christian Oersted of Denmark noticed that the electric current in a wire causes a compass needle to deflect.

Assisted by the voltaic cell and spurred on by Oersted’s discovery of electromagnetism in the 1820s scientists throughout Europe and America explored the nature of electricity and its relationship with other forces. The Englishman William Sturgeon invented the first electromagnet. Andre Marie Ampere, Professor of Mechanics in Paris, extended this investigation of the magnetic effect of electricity to include the interaction between two current carrying wires, which he showed to be the same as that between a wire and a magnet.

In France, Francois Arago discovered the magnetic effect of rotating copper disc. In England, Charles Babbage, famous as the pioneer of the digital computer, attempted to explain Arago’s effect in terms of Ampere’s electrodynamics. In 1821, in Germany, Thomas Johann Seebeck discovered a connection between electricity and heat. In 1826 Georg Simon Ohm, a German, performed the experiment that led to the statement of his law, relating to current in a wire to voltage and resistance in the circuit. In New York, Hoseph Henry of Albany learned how to greatly increase the power of electromagnets and in 1831 devised the first electric bell. The Frenchman Simenon-Denis Poisson and Joseph-Louis Lagrange and the Englishman George Green also worked out many fundamental laws of electro-dynamics.

The long-term effect of the discoveries of this highly productive age may best be judged from some of the products that emerged from the discovery of electromagnetism … motors, dynamos, transformers, telegraphs and telephones. In 1821, the Englishman Michael Faraday started a survey of experiments and theories of electro-magnetism and fascinated by the presumably circular nature of electromagnetic effects, madea ‘rotator of an upright magnet in a cup of mercury, with a current carrying wire hanging down from above, with one end in mercury’. When the circuit of wire and mercury and battery was completed, the wire began rotating around the magnet. This experiment, a decade later led to his momentous discovery ‘ THE PRODUCTION OF ELECTRICITY FROM MAGNETISM’ or electromagnetic induction. His idea of magnetic lines of force turned out tobe one of the most popular ideas in all of electrical science, though its true power was only realized by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clarke Maxwell more than thirty years later.

Another scientist whose work was of significance was the British physicist James Prescott Joule who observed that the amount of heat produced by each form of energy is directly proportional to the amount of heat expended. Joule and Thomson worked together and in 1852 they observed that when a gas expands without performing work, its temperature falls. This was later applied to refrigeration technology.

19th Century was scattered with electrical inventions, an inevitable result of the research efforts of the first half of the century. While the pure scientists experimented in their laboratories, others were looking for practical applications for this wonderful new field with seemingly endless possibilities. Sir Humphry Davy invented his Arc Lamp. Faraday, his dynamo and transformer, Joseph Henry developed the electric bell, an electric motor in 1829, an early kind of telegraph in 1831 and the relay in 1835. Hyppolite Pixii in 1832 devised the first effective electric generator. Thomas Davenport of Virginia demonstrated practical application of motor in 1837. Prof. Charles Page of Washington built the first electric loco in 1839.

By the 1840s, generators were being used for electroplating which was one of the first practical uses of electricity. In 1850s the first efforts were made to apply generators to electric lighting using bright, glaring arc lights. In the 1860s more efficient generators like steam turbines were made, electricity became available on a large scale.

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and several other gadgets. Thomas Alva Edison demonstrated  electric street lighting with incandescent lamp on the New Year’s Eve 1879. Ten months earlier Joseph Swan of Great Britain had demonstrated his first successful electric lamp, a prototype of which he had developed in 1860. In the last quarter of the century there was a fabulous growth of electrical technology. Electric light was, of course, the most visible electrical invention. Between 1880 and 1910 the carbon filament lamp was the most important form of lighting. In 1898 Count Auer Von Welsbach of Germany introduced filaments of osmium and later of tantalum. Although tungsten was the ideal material, it was not used until 1908 when the American inventor William D. Coolidge compressed tungsten power into a rod. The evolution of lighting went on, and in 1910 neon lamp was developed and 1939 saw the first fluorescent light.

Of all the new technologies of the early 1900s one of the most exciting was ‘wireless’ or radio technology. It drastically reduced distances between people with improved communications. Maxwell had predicated existence of eletromagnetic waves, but it took 25 years after his statements and equations were published for the waves to be produced and detected for the first time by Heinrich Hertz, a Professor of Physics at Karlsruhe University, Germany. Marchese Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian young man of 21 transmitted the first radio message in Morse code across the Atlantic in 1901 which used a ‘coherer’ or detector for which he relied on the French Physicist and Physician Edouard Branly.

The one person who had contributed the maximum to ‘coherer technology’ however, was a brilliant Indian Scientist Jagadis Chunder Bose, whose ideas were unfortunately not acknowledged. Bose’s demonstration of his mercury coherer technology had astounded member of the Royal Society, London in 1879. He had received his DSc from London University in the same year for this achievement. Marconi successfully suppressed this fact (A hundred years later Marconi’s invention was challenged at the Denver Convention of the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, USA June in 1997). Another contemporary scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun of Germany introduced the use of the crystal detector in receivers. His work of observing waveforms using a phosphor – coated screen paved the way for cathode ray tubes, and eventually the television picture tube in 1926. John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor developed a mechanical television system. His work became the basis of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) first regular television broadcasts.

Development of Electricity

Men knew the methods of harnessing rivers for irrigation and transport for many centuries. In 1810, the Italian genius Leonardo da Vinici illustrated the turbine principle. The word turbine was however coined by the French Engineer Claude Burdin. His pupil Benoit Fourneyron produced the first practial turbine in 1827 to power factories. But soon its important role with the development of hydroelectric power was realised after the momentous invention of dynamo and transformer by Michael Faraday and light by electricity by Sir Humphry Davy who later invented the miner’s safety lamp. Davy’s process of burning of electrodes was expensive. The first arc lamps were installed in 1855 for street lighting in Rue Imperiale Lyon, France. In 1876 the Russian-born engineer Paul Jablochkoff invented the electric candle.

In December 1878 London’s Victria Embankment became the first street in Britain to be permanently lit by electricity, Jablochkoff candles being used. The first home illuminated throughout by electricity was that of Col. Crompton, who lit his own residence in Porchester Garden, London in December 1879.  The first electricity-lit house in the world, Berechurch Hall near Colchester, Essex was installed by him, powered by a Crompton Dynamo. In the late seventies of the nineteenth century, electricity meant lighting. Public supply was not essential to domestic and industrial usage, as they did not exist.

Every lighting installation was independent. Driven by steam or gas engines, the current generated by a small dynamo was sufficient to keep few lamps running. However, the scope of electric lighting was growing very fast. By this time Thomas Alva Edison in USA and Joseph Swan in England had brought to a practical stage the incandescent filament lamp.

By the early 1880s electric light had progressed rapidly and reached the status of industry. With the incandescent filament lamps now available there was an increase prospect for the lighting of houses, business premises, public buildings and the idea of distribution of electricity on a large scale from a Central Station supplying to the entire area around it emerged. With the improvement of Dynamo, and Electric Motor capable of practical applications already installed by Thomas Devenport in 1839, electricity progressed very fast. Rail roads, which had already arrived in 1825 became its logical partner for progress and development. Richard Trevithic, a man from Cornwall demonstrated a steam locomotive to a group of people in Wales in 1804. His locomotive was plagued with mechanical problems until George Stephenson and his son Robert brough about the progress and success of this invention.

Prof. Charles Page made an early demonstration of an electric locomotive in Washington DC in 1839. Scientists in the 1850s had developed considerable curiosity in the development of a proper electric traction until Edward and John Hopkinson made possible ‘the first electric railway in the world’ for the London underground, inaugurated by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) on November 4, 1890 at King William Street. The initial locos were built by Mather and Platt, Crompton and Co., Siemens Bros and Co., and carriages were built by Ashbury Carriage, Brush Electric Engg. Hurst Nelson, GF Milnes and Co. etc.

As electricity began to enter in people’s lives, the electric power industry continued its speedy growth. In 1881 a small plant supplied by Siemens installed at Pullman’s Leather Mill at Godalming in Surrey, England was the world’s first power station. It was a hydroelectric plant on the river Wey using the river’s waterpower to generate electricity and selling most of the output to Godalming Town Council.

The power station supplied electricity for street lighting, and offered to connect up private premises as well, through the cables running along the gutters. Since not   many people were willing to pay for the more expensive and less durable electric light (electric light was at that time more expensive than the gas and the early electric bulbs had very short life) the venture was not profitable, the plant was closed down after three years in 1884. In 1882 two power stations of more lasting significance opened. In January the Edson Company (later General Electric) at Holborn Viaduct in London was commissioned. The machinery, consisting of an Electric Dynamo (Generator) coupled to a steam engine generated enough current at 110Volts to provide power for 1000 Edison light bulbs. The same type of machinery was installed later in the year in the Edison Company’s Pearl Street Power Station in New York.

In 1886, Crompton formed the Kensington Court Lighting Co. Ltd. To supply electricity to a number of private houses in the same locality. Earlier in the year he set up a power station at Shenkenstrasse in Vienna with eight 200hp Crompton – Willans Engines coupled to 400V dynamos to light all imperial theatres and a large number of public buildings and offices facing the Ring Boulevard. Around this time a small central station had been started at Berlin at Friedrichstrasse for supplying electricity to few homes on either side of it.

The first commercial scale hydropower plant (220kW) was put into operation by Jacob Schoelkopf in 1881 on Niagara River at Appleton, Wisconsin. Major hydroelectric Power stations installed in the last decade of the 19th century include Niagara Falls Hydro electric Scheme (1893) in USA, Montomarence, near Quebec and at the Lachine Rapids on St. Lawrence River both in Canada. By 1895 two more hydroelectric power plants were functioning in the USA – the Edward Adams Plant at Schenectady, New York and the other at Salt Lake city, Utah. Mexican Light & Power Co. took up a 30 kW project on river Necaxa for supply to Mexico City. A 60 MW Shiznoke project was undertaken in Japan. Gas and Steam driven generators were installed in almost all big cities in Europe and America. By the turn of the 19th Century, Europe had an installed capacity of over 2500 MW.

In any flourishing young industry, it is common that various leaders come up with different ideas, some times quite loudly to be heard. In the early years of power generation, around the 1890s a battle developed between the supporters of Direct Current (DC) and those of Alternating Current (AC). In DC rechargeable batteries (accumulators) could be used in the system ensuring continuity of supply in the event of a generator breakdown. Moreover DC was the cheaper system in densely built urban areas. However, for long distance transmission losses are reduced by increasing transmission voltage and then reduced by step down transformers for distribution to individual premises. With no moving parts AC transformers are more complex machines. While Crompton in England and Edison in the America advocated supply of DC system, S.Z de Ferranti, a brilliant young engineer of London Electric Supply Corporation and George Westinghouse of Pitsburg were its main opponents. AC machinery constructed by  Westinghouse in 1889 was chosen to power the electric chair received adverse criticism but he gained the argument when he received the contract for supply of electric machinery for the Niagara Falls Scheme in 1893.

The Second World War had an enormous impact on electrical technology. Most importantly people realized that the electric power was now a necessity, not a luxury. In addition to the use of electricity for industry and lighting, it was used to make aluminium and explosives that were so important during the time of war. Radio technology also developed radically along with the need to keep people across the world in touch with each other at war time. Radiotelephony began to replace coded wireless, and there were significant milestones in technical developments. One of the more brilliant was Edwin Howard Armstong’s super heterodyne circuit. Between 1939 and 1945 another crucial development took place as radio engineering developed into electronics. It was now a technology to harness the most advanced and subtle knowledge of the very parts of matter itself, manipulating electrons and eletromagnetic waves almost at will in an effort not to simply communicate, but to detect, control and even, as some saw it, think. Science and technology began to merge as advances in electronics made the use of the latest findings, theories and even techniques of physicists and chemists, while scientific discovery came to rely progressively more on the instrumentation created by engineers. The post-war years were the ones of growth and change. War was followed by prosperity, and most of the western world developed a consumer society that ran on electricity and used electronics.

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