History of Electricity

Most people nowadays don’t think of or remember a time without electricity.  To them, it is a foreign concept of not living with electricity.  However, that is not the case, relatively speaking electricity is a newer, modern convenience, seeing as how electricity as we know it has only been around roughly 300 years.

Thomas Browne first used the word electricity in print in 1640, when referring to static electricity.  In the Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Browne described the production of static electricity occurs, when two items are rubbed together.  Otto Von Guericke, invented the electrostatic generator in the mid-1600s, which would generate a high voltage charge at a low current.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1745 the Leyden jar was invented.  The invention of the Leyden jar was enormous.  The Leyden jar was a glass jar, that was coated with metal foils and then filled with water.  There was a stopper connected to one end of a wire that ran through it and at the other end an electrostatic generator was hooked to it.

In 1746, while visiting family in Boston, Benjamin Franklin met Dr. Spence.  Spence showed Franklin a Leyden jar, which sparked his interest in electricity.  Six years later, Franklin performed his most famous experiment, the Kite experiment.  The Kite experiment proved that electricity could be harnessed from the clouds.

Luigi Galvani published his “De Viribus Electricitatis in mutu musculari commentarius,” that explained animal electricity (electrical fluid in the body), in 1791.  Galvani noticed that his dissected frog legs would seamlessly come to life under various conditions, for example, his lab tech placed a dissected frog on a table that was previously used for electrostatic experiments, when Galvani placed a scalpel to the frog, the frog’s leg twitched.

Galvani’s most notable opponent was Alessandro Volta.  Volta believed in metallic electricity, which is explained by an electrical charge that passes between two dissimilar metals. Then in 1800 Volta, created the Volta pile.  It was first battery and provided constant electricity to a circuit.  Many advances have been made to Volta’s battery, the first one took place in 1836, and known as the Daniell Cell.

British scientist Michael Faraday found the basic principles of electric generation in 1831.  Faraday realized that he could create an electric current by moving magnets inside copper wires.  The process that he invented in 1831, is what is used on a much larger scale today.

1858 the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid; however, there was still no standard names in measurement.  Then in 1861 Josiah Clark and Charles Bright proposal a universal standard for names; however, they are not the names we use today.

There are four basic physical quantities for electricity and four units of measurement.  There is voltage, which is measured in Volts (V), after Alessandro Volta.  A volt is an electrical force, which is determined by the current flowing in a circuit multiplied by the resistance. Volts and current have a direct relationship, as volts increase, so does the current.  The rate of electrons passing through a conductor is called the current.  The current is measured in Amps and named after Andre-Marie Ampere.  Ohms is the unit of resistance and named after Georg Ohm.  Resistance is very important because if there was no resistance then a current would continuously flow.  Watts measure the amount of power released per second and is named after James Watt.

Thomas Edison patented the incandescent light bulb in 1880.  The lightbulb was brighter, safer, and more consistent then fire and gas.  Edison partnered with JP Morgan to give privileged members of New York City society, homes with electricity.  The lightbulbs were run by small generators.  The invention of the lightbulb, not only introduced a new type of energy but threatened the gas light industry.

With the backing of JP Morgan, Edison launched several businesses that eventually turned into General Electric in 1882.  In September of that same year, the first central power plant was built in Manhattan, known as the Pearl Street Station.  Edison connected a large bank of generators to homes and businesses with a network of underground copper wires.  This was an important shift from a small scale to a larger one and was the model for the entire industry.

Edison hired Samuel Insull as his assistant in 1881.  Insull had a strong head for business and created the model for electricity because it was different from anything from anything else at the time.  Electricity needed to be consumed the moment it was produced; Insull wanted to make it more efficient, affordable and accessible for everyone.  Insull knew that whoever mastered the power grid, would control electricity, so he left General Electric for Chicago Edison.

In Chicago, he built the power grid.  He consolidated smaller electric providers and closed some of the smaller generators, and created larger and more efficient GE generators.  He was able to make high voltage transmission lines and was able to give electricity to the suburbs and the countryside.  He created a network power grid, which made it more reliable.

Insull wanted to keep electricity inexpensive, however, electricity had always been intertwined with politics. Edison had to bribe New York politicians to start the Pearl Street Station.  Eventually, a statewide regulation was created by public utility commissions and was modeled after the one that the railroads used.  The states were able to establish a maximum rate that could be charged to consumers, in return the electric companies were virtually granted a legal monopoly.  In 1907, only Wisconsin and New York followed this practice, then by 1914, 45 states followed this model.

In 1920, the Federal Power Commission was created.  In 1935 the Federal Power Commission created the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under the Federal Power Act.  The FERC wanted a cost-based regulation and it no longer allowed electric companies to operate out of state.  The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 wanted to have power bought from an independent generator.  It also pushed for renewable sources and to promote a safer environment.  The EPA was established in 1970 and the Department of Energy was created in 1977.

In the 1996 FERC imposed open access, however, it still remains heavily regulated with federal intervention from the EPA, FERC and the Department of Energy.  FERC decided in 2005, to regulate the power grid to make it more reliable.  The EPA in 2014 put a limit on carbon dioxide emissions to try and push towards a more reliable natural resource.

Electricity has come a long way since the 1600s.  It is a growing industry that is essential to modern life.  Electricity provides modern civilization with multiple conveniences for our everyday life.