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Multiple lightning strikes on a city at night
Lightning is one of the most dramatic effects of electricity.

Electricity (from the New Latin ēlectricus, "amber-like"[a]) is a general term that encompasses a variety of phenomena resulting from the presence and flow of electric charge. These include many easily recognizable phenomena, such as lightning and static electricity, but in addition, less familiar concepts, such as the electromagnetic field and electromagnetic induction.

In general usage, the word "electricity" is adequate to refer to a number of physical effects. In scientific usage, however, the term is vague, and these related, but distinct, concepts are better identified by more precise terms:

Electrical phenomena have been studied since antiquity, though advances in the science were not made until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Practical applications for electricity however remained few, and it would not be until the late nineteenth century that engineers were able to put it to industrial and residential use. The rapid expansion in electrical technology at this time transformed industry and society. Electricity's extraordinary versatility as a source of energy means it can be put to an almost limitless set of applications which include transport, heating, lighting, communications, and computation. The backbone of modern industrial society is, and for the foreseeable future can be expected to remain, the use of electrical power.[1]



A bust of a bearded man with dishevelled hair
Thales, the earliest researcher into electricity

Long before any knowledge of electricity existed people were aware of shocks from electric fish. Ancient Egyptian texts dating from 2750 BC referred to these fish as the "Thunderer of the Nile", and described them as the "protectors" of all other fish. They were again reported millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic naturalists and physicians.[2] Several ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Scribonius Largus, attested to the numbing effect of electric shocks delivered by catfish and torpedo rays, and knew that such shocks could travel along conducting objects.[3] Patients suffering from ailments such as gout or headache were directed to touch electric fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them.[4] Possibly the earliest and nearest approach to the discovery of the identity of lightning, and electricity from any other source, is to be attributed to the Arabs, who before the 15th century had the Arabic word for lightning (raad) applied to the electric ray.[5]

That certain objects such as rods of amber could be rubbed with cat's fur and attract light objects like feathers was known to ancient cultures around the Mediterranean. Thales of Miletos made a series of observations on static electricity around 600 BC, from which he believed that friction rendered amber magnetic, in contrast to minerals such as magnetite, which needed no rubbing.[6][7] Thales was incorrect in believing the attraction was due to a magnetic effect, but later science would prove a link between magnetism and electricity. According to a controversial theory, the Parthians may have had knowledge of electroplating, based on the 1936 discovery of the Baghdad Battery, which resembles a galvanic cell, though it is uncertain whether the artifact was electrical in nature.[8]

A half-length portrait of a bald, somewhat portly man in a three-piece suit.
Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research on electricity in the 18th century

Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English physician William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber.[6] He coined the New Latin word electricus ("of amber" or "like amber", from ήλεκτρον [elektron], the Greek word for "amber") to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed.[9] This association gave rise to the English words "electric" and "electricity", which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646.[10]

Further work was conducted by Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray and C. F. du Fay. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research in electricity, selling his possessions to fund his work. In June 1752 he is reputed to have attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flown the kite in a storm-threatened sky.[11] A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of the hand showed that lightning was indeed electrical in nature.[12]

Half-length portrait oil painting of a man in a dark suit
Michael Faraday formed the foundation of electric motor technology

In 1791, Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectricity, demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which nerve cells passed signals to the muscles.[13] Alessandro Volta's battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, provided scientists with a more reliable source of electrical energy than the electrostatic machines previously used.[13] The recognition of electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena, is due to Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère in 1819-1820; Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821, and Georg Ohm mathematically analysed the electrical circuit in 1827.[13]

While it had been the early 19th century that had seen rapid progress in electrical science, the late 19th century would see the greatest progress in electrical engineering. Through such people as Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Ottó Bláthy, Sir Charles Parsons, George Westinghouse, Ernst Werner von Siemens, Alexander Graham Bell and Lord Kelvin, electricity was turned from a scientific curiosity into an essential tool for modern life, becoming a driving force for the Second Industrial Revolution.[14]



Electric charge

Electric charge is a property of certain subatomic particles, which gives rise to and interacts with, the electromagnetic force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature. Charge originates in the atom, in which its most familiar carriers are the electron and proton. It is a conserved quantity, that is, the net charge within an isolated system will always remain constant regardless of any changes taking place within that system.[15] Within the system, charge may be transferred between bodies, either by direct contact, or by passing along a conducting material, such as a wire.[16] The informal term static electricity refers to the net presence (or 'imbalance') of charge on a body, usually caused when dissimilar materials are rubbed together, transferring charge from one to the other.

A clear glass dome has an external electrode which connects through the glass to a pair of gold leaves. A charged rod touches the external electrode and makes the leaves repel.
Charge on a gold-leaf electroscope causes the leaves to visibly repel each other

The presence of charge gives rise to the electromagnetic force: charges exert a force on each other, an effect that was known, though not understood, in antiquity.[17] A lightweight ball suspended from a string can be charged by touching it with a glass rod that has itself been charged by rubbing with a cloth. If a similar ball is charged by the same glass rod, it is found to repel the first: the charge acts to force the two balls apart. Two balls that are charged with a rubbed amber rod also repel each other. However, if one ball is charged by the glass rod, and the other by an amber rod, the two balls are found to attract each other. These phenomena were investigated in the late eighteenth century by Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, who deduced that charge manifests itself in two opposing forms. This discovery led to the well-known axiom: like-charged objects repel and opposite-charged objects attract.[17]

The force acts on the charged particles themselves, hence charge has a tendency to spread itself as evenly as possible over a conducting surface. The magnitude of the electromagnetic force, whether attractive or repulsive, is given by Coulomb's law, which relates the force to the product of the charges and has an inverse-square relation to the distance between them.[18][19] The electromagnetic force is very strong, second only in strength to the strong interaction,[20] but unlike that force it operates over all distances.[21] In comparison with the much weaker gravitational force, the electromagnetic force pushing two electrons apart is 1042 times that of the gravitational attraction pulling them together.[22]

The charge on electrons and protons is opposite in sign, hence an amount of charge may be expressed as being either negative or positive. By convention, the charge carried by electrons is deemed negative, and that by protons positive, a custom that originated with the work of Benjamin Franklin.[23] The amount of charge is usually given the symbol Q and expressed in coulombs;[24] each electron carries the same charge of approximately −1.6022×10−19 coulomb. The proton has a charge that is equal and opposite, and thus +1.6022×10−19  coulomb. Charge is possessed not just by matter, but also by antimatter, each antiparticle bearing an equal and opposite charge to its corresponding particle.[25]

Charge can be measured by a number of means, an early instrument being the gold-leaf electroscope, which although still in use for classroom demonstrations, has been superseded by the electronic electrometer.[16]

Electric current

The movement of electric charge is known as an electric current, the intensity of which is usually measured in amperes. Current can consist of any moving charged particles; most commonly these are electrons, but any charge in motion constitutes a current.

By historical convention, a positive current is defined as having the same direction of flow as any positive charge it contains, or to flow from the most positive part of a circuit to the most negative part. Current defined in this manner is called conventional current. The motion of negatively-charged electrons around an electric circuit, one of the most familiar forms of current, is thus deemed positive in the opposite direction to that of the electrons.[26] However, depending on the conditions, an electric current can consist of a flow of charged particles in either direction, or even in both directions at once. The positive-to-negative convention is widely used to simplify this situation.

Two metal wires form an inverted V shape. A blindingly bright orange-white electric arc flows between their tips.
An electric arc provides an energetic demonstration of electric current

The process by which electric current passes through a material is termed electrical conduction, and its nature varies with that of the charged particles and the material through which they are travelling. Examples of electric currents include metallic conduction, where electrons flow through a conductor such as metal, and electrolysis, where ions (charged atoms) flow through liquids. While the particles themselves can move quite slowly, sometimes with an average drift velocity only fractions of a millimetre per second,[16] the electric field that drives them itself propagates at close to the speed of light, enabling electrical signals to pass rapidly along wires.[27]

Current causes several observable effects, which historically were the means of recognising its presence. That water could be decomposed by the current from a voltaic pile was discovered by Nicholson and Carlisle in 1800, a process now known as electrolysis. Their work was greatly expanded upon by Michael Faraday in 1833.[28] Current through a resistance causes localised heating, an effect James Prescott Joule studied mathematically in 1840.[28] One of the most important discoveries relating to current was made accidentally by Hans Christian Ørsted in 1820, when, while preparing a lecture, he witnessed the current in a wire disturbing the needle of a magnetic compass.[29] He had discovered electromagnetism, a fundamental interaction between electricity and magnetics.

In engineering or household applications, current is often described as being either direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC). These terms refer to how the current varies in time. Direct current, as produced by example from a battery and required by most electronic devices, is a unidirectional flow from the positive part of a circuit to the negative.[30] If, as is most common, this flow is carried by electrons, they will be travelling in the opposite direction. Alternating current is any current that reverses direction repeatedly; almost always this takes the form of a sinusoidal wave.[31] Alternating current thus pulses back and forth within a conductor without the charge moving any net distance over time. The time-averaged value of an alternating current is zero, but it delivers energy in first one direction, and then the reverse. Alternating current is affected by electrical properties that are not observed under steady state direct current, such as inductance and capacitance.[32] These properties however can become important when circuitry is subjected to transients, such as when first energised.

Electric field

The concept of the electric field was introduced by Michael Faraday. An electric field is created by a charged body in the space that surrounds it, and results in a force exerted on any other charges placed within the field. The electric field acts between two charges in a similar manner to the way that the gravitational field acts between two masses, and like it, extends towards infinity and shows an inverse square relationship with distance.[21] However, there is an important difference. Gravity always acts in attraction, drawing two masses together, while the electric field can result in either attraction or repulsion. Since large bodies such as planets generally carry no net charge, the electric field at a distance is usually zero. Thus gravity is the dominant force at distance in the universe, despite being much weaker.[22]

Field lines emanating from a positive charge above a plane conductor

An electric field generally varies in space,[33] and its strength at any one point is defined as the force (per unit charge) that would be felt by a stationary, negligible charge if placed at that point.[34] The conceptual charge, termed a 'test charge', must be vanishingly small to prevent its own electric field disturbing the main field and must also be stationary to prevent the effect of magnetic fields. As the electric field is defined in terms of force, and force is a vector, so it follows that an electric field is also a vector, having both magnitude and direction. Specifically, it is a vector field.[34]

The study of electric fields created by stationary charges is called electrostatics. The field may be visualised by a set of imaginary lines whose direction at any point is the same as that of the field. This concept was introduced by Faraday,[35] whose term 'lines of force' still sometimes sees use. The field lines are the paths that a point positive charge would seek to make as it was forced to move within the field; they are however an imaginary concept with no physical existence, and the field permeates all the intervening space between the lines.[35] Field lines emanating from stationary charges have several key properties: first, that they originate at positive charges and terminate at negative charges; second, that they must enter any good conductor at right angles, and third, that they may never cross nor close in on themselves.[36]

A hollow conducting body carries all its charge on its outer surface. The field is therefore zero at all places inside the body.[37] This is the operating principal of the Faraday cage, a conducting metal shell which isolates its interior from outside electrical effects.

The principles of electrostatics are important when designing items of high-voltage equipment. There is a finite limit to the electric field strength that may be withstood by any medium. Beyond this point, electrical breakdown occurs and an electric arc causes flashover between the charged parts. Air, for example, tends to arc across small gaps at electric field strengths which exceed 30 kV per centimetre. Over larger gaps, its breakdown strength is weaker, perhaps 1 kV per centimetre.[38] The most visible natural occurrence of this is lightning, caused when charge becomes separated in the clouds by rising columns of air, and raises the electric field in the air to greater than it can withstand. The voltage of a large lightning cloud may be as high as 100 MV and have discharge energies as great as 250 kWh.[39]

The field strength is greatly affected by nearby conducting objects, and it is particularly intense when it is forced to curve around sharply pointed objects. This principle is exploited in the lightning conductor, the sharp spike of which acts to encourage the lightning stroke to develop there, rather than to the building it serves to protect.[40]

Electric potential

Two AA batteries each have a plus sign marked at one end.
A pair of AA cells. The + sign indicates the polarity of the potential difference between the battery terminals.

The concept of electric potential is closely linked to that of the electric field. A small charge placed within an electric field experiences a force, and to have brought that charge to that point against the force requires work. The electric potential at any point is defined as the energy required to bring a unit test charge from an infinite distance slowly to that point. It is usually measured in volts, and one volt is the potential for which one joule of work must be expended to bring a charge of one coulomb from infinity.[41] This definition of potential, while formal, has little practical application, and a more useful concept is that of electric potential difference, and is the energy required to move a unit charge between two specified points. An electric field has the special property that it is conservative, which means that the path taken by the test charge is irrelevant: all paths between two specified points expend the same energy, and thus a unique value for potential difference may be stated.[41] The volt is so strongly identified as the unit of choice for measurement and description of electric potential difference that the term voltage sees greater everyday usage.

For practical purposes, it is useful to define a common reference point to which potentials may be expressed and compared. While this could be at infinity, a much more useful reference is the Earth itself, which is assumed to be at the same potential everywhere. This reference point naturally takes the name earth or ground. Earth is assumed to be an infinite source of equal amounts of positive and negative charge, and is therefore electrically uncharged – and unchargeable.[42]

Electric potential is a scalar quantity, that is, it has only magnitude and not direction. It may be viewed as analogous to height: just as a released object will fall through a difference in heights caused by a gravitational field, so a charge will 'fall' across the voltage caused by an electric field.[43] As relief maps show contour lines marking points of equal height, a set of lines marking points of equal potential (known as equipotentials) may be drawn around an electrostatically charged object. The equipotentials cross all lines of force at right angles. They must also lie parallel to a conductor's surface, otherwise this would produce a force that will move the charge carriers to even the potential of the surface.

The electric field was formally defined as the force exerted per unit charge, but the concept of potential allows for a more useful and equivalent definition: the electric field is the local gradient of the electric potential. Usually expressed in volts per metre, the vector direction of the field is the line of greatest slope of potential, and where the equipotentials lie closest together.[16]


A wire carries a current towards the reader. Concentric circles representing the magnetic field circle anticlockwise around the wire, as viewed by the reader.
Magnetic field circles around a current

Ørsted's discovery in 1821 that a magnetic field existed around all sides of a wire carrying an electric current indicated that there was a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism. Moreover, the interaction seemed different from gravitational and electrostatic forces, the two forces of nature then known. The force on the compass needle did not direct it to or away from the current-carrying wire, but acted at right angles to it.[29] Ørsted's slightly obscure words were that "the electric conflict acts in a revolving manner." The force also depended on the direction of the current, for if the flow was reversed, then the force did too.[44]

Ørsted did not fully understand his discovery, but he observed the effect was reciprocal: a current exerts a force on a magnet, and a magnetic field exerts a force on a current. The phenomenon was further investigated by Ampère, who discovered that two parallel current-carrying wires exerted a force upon each other: two wires conducting currents in the same direction are attracted to each other, while wires containing currents in opposite directions are forced apart.[45] The interaction is mediated by the magnetic field each current produces and forms the basis for the international definition of the ampere.[45]

A cut-away diagram of a small electric motor
The electric motor exploits an important effect of electromagnetism: a current through a magnetic field experiences a force at right angles to both the field and current

This relationship between magnetic fields and currents is extremely important, for it led to Michael Faraday's invention of the electric motor in 1821. Faraday's homopolar motor consisted of a permanent magnet sitting in a pool of mercury. A current was allowed through a wire suspended from a pivot above the magnet and dipped into the mercury. The magnet exerted a tangential force on the wire, making it circle around the magnet for as long as the current was maintained.[46]

Experimentation by Faraday in 1831 revealed that a wire moving perpendicular to a magnetic field developed a potential difference between its ends. Further analysis of this process, known as electromagnetic induction, enabled him to state the principle, now known as Faraday's law of induction, that the potential difference induced in a closed circuit is proportional to the rate of change of magnetic flux through the loop. Exploitation of this discovery enabled him to invent the first electrical generator in 1831, in which he converted the mechanical energy of a rotating copper disc to electrical energy.[46] Faraday's disc was inefficient and of no use as a practical generator, but it showed the possibility of generating electric power using magnetism, a possibility that would be taken up by those that followed on from his work.

Faraday's and Ampère's work showed that a time-varying magnetic field acted as a source of an electric field, and a time-varying electric field was a source of a magnetic field. Thus, when either field is changing in time, then a field of the other is necessarily induced.[47] Such a phenomenon has the properties of a wave, and is naturally referred to as an electromagnetic wave. Electromagnetic waves were analysed theoretically by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. Maxwell developed a set of equations that could unambiguously describe the interrelationship between electric field, magnetic field, electric charge, and electric current. He could moreover prove that such a wave would necessarily travel at the speed of light, and thus light itself was a form of electromagnetic radiation. Maxwell's Laws, which unify light, fields, and charge are one of the great milestones of theoretical physics.[47]

Electric circuits

A basic electric circuit. The voltage source V on the left drives a current I around the circuit, delivering electrical energy into the resistor R. From the resistor, the current returns to the source, completing the circuit.

An electric circuit is an interconnection of electric components such that electric charge is made to flow along a closed path (a circuit), usually to perform some useful task.

The components in an electric circuit can take many forms, which can include elements such as resistors, capacitors, switches, transformers and electronics. Electronic circuits contain active components, usually semiconductors, and typically exhibit non-linear behaviour, requiring complex analysis. The simplest electric components are those that are termed passive and linear: while they may temporarily store energy, they contain no sources of it, and exhibit linear responses to stimuli.[48]

The resistor is perhaps the simplest of passive circuit elements: as its name suggests, it resists the current through it, dissipating its energy as heat. The resistance is a consequence of the motion of charge through a conductor: in metals, for example, resistance is primarily due to collisions between electrons and ions. Ohm's law is a basic law of circuit theory, stating that the current passing through a resistance is directly proportional to the potential difference across it. The resistance of most materials is relatively constant over a range of temperatures and currents; materials under these conditions are known as 'ohmic'. The ohm, the unit of resistance, was named in honour of Georg Ohm, and is symbolised by the Greek letter Ω. 1 Ω is the resistance that will produce a potential difference of one volt in response to a current of one amp.[48]

The capacitor is a device capable of storing charge, and thereby storing electrical energy in the resulting field. Conceptually, it consists of two conducting plates separated by a thin insulating layer; in practice, thin metal foils are coiled together, increasing the surface area per unit volume and therefore the capacitance. The unit of capacitance is the farad, named after Michael Faraday, and given the symbol F: one farad is the capacitance that develops a potential difference of one volt when it stores a charge of one coulomb. A capacitor connected to a voltage supply initially causes a current as it accumulates charge; this current will however decay in time as the capacitor fills, eventually falling to zero. A capacitor will therefore not permit a steady state current, but instead blocks it.[48]

The inductor is a conductor, usually a coil of wire, that stores energy in a magnetic field in response to the current through it. When the current changes, the magnetic field does too, inducing a voltage between the ends of the conductor. The induced voltage is proportional to the time rate of change of the current. The constant of proportionality is termed the inductance. The unit of inductance is the henry, named after Joseph Henry, a contemporary of Faraday. One henry is the inductance that will induce a potential difference of one volt if the current through it changes at a rate of one ampere per second.[48] The inductor's behaviour is in some regards converse to that of the capacitor: it will freely allow an unchanging current, but opposes a rapidly changing one.

Production and uses

Generation and transmission

A wind farm of about a dozen three-bladed white wind turbines.
Wind power is of increasing importance in many countries

Thales' experiments with amber rods were the first studies into the production of electrical energy. While this method, now known as the triboelectric effect, is capable of lifting light objects and even generating sparks, it is extremely inefficient.[49] It was not until the invention of the voltaic pile in the eighteenth century that a viable source of electricity became available. The voltaic pile, and its modern descendant, the electrical battery, store energy chemically and make it available on demand in the form of electrical energy.[49] The battery is a versatile and very common power source which is ideally suited to many applications, but its energy storage is finite, and once discharged it must be disposed of or recharged. For large electrical demands electrical energy must be generated and transmitted continuously over conductive transmission lines.

Electrical power is usually generated by electro-mechanical generators driven by steam produced from fossil fuel combustion, or the heat released from nuclear reactions; or from other sources such as kinetic energy extracted from wind or flowing water. The modern steam turbine invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884 today generates about 80 percent of the electric power in the world using a variety of heat sources. Such generators bear no resemblance to Faraday's homopolar disc generator of 1831, but they still rely on his electromagnetic principle that a conductor linking a changing magnetic field induces a potential difference across its ends.[50] The invention in the late nineteenth century of the transformer meant that electrical power could be transmitted more efficiently at a higher voltage but lower current. Efficient electrical transmission meant in turn that electricity could be generated at centralised power stations, where it benefited from economies of scale, and then be despatched relatively long distances to where it was needed.[51][52]

Since electrical energy cannot easily be stored in quantities large enough to meet demands on a national scale, at all times exactly as much must be produced as is required.[51] This requires electricity utilities to make careful predictions of their electrical loads, and maintain constant co-ordination with their power stations. A certain amount of generation must always be held in reserve to cushion an electrical grid against inevitable disturbances and losses.

Demand for electricity grows with great rapidity as a nation modernises and its economy develops. The United States showed a 12% increase in demand during each year of the first three decades of the twentieth century,[53] a rate of growth that is now being experienced by emerging economies such as those of India or China.[54][55] Historically, the growth rate for electricity demand has outstripped that for other forms of energy.[56]

Environmental concerns with electricity generation have led to an increased focus on generation from renewable sources, in particular from wind and hydropower. While debate can be expected to continue over the environmental impact of different means of electricity production, its final form is relatively clean.[57]


The light bulb, an early application of electricity, operates by Joule heating: the passage of current through resistance generating heat

Electricity is an extremely flexible form of energy, and has been adapted to a huge, and growing, number of uses.[58] The invention of a practical incandescent light bulb in the 1870s led to lighting becoming one of the first publicly available applications of electrical power. Although electrification brought with it its own dangers, replacing the naked flames of gas lighting greatly reduced fire hazards within homes and factories.[59] Public utilities were set up in many cities targeting the burgeoning market for electrical lighting.

The Joule heating effect employed in the light bulb also sees more direct use in electric heating. While this is versatile and controllable, it can be seen as wasteful, since most electrical generation has already required the production of heat at a power station.[60] A number of countries, such as Denmark, have issued legislation restricting or banning the use of electric heating in new buildings.[61] Electricity is however a highly practical energy source for refrigeration,[62] with air conditioning representing a growing sector for electricity demand, the effects of which electricity utilities are increasingly obliged to accommodate.[63]

Electricity is used within telecommunications, and indeed the electrical telegraph, demonstrated commercially in 1837 by Cooke and Wheatstone, was one of its earliest applications. With the construction of first intercontinental, and then transatlantic, telegraph systems in the 1860s, electricity had enabled communications in minutes across the globe. Optical fibre and satellite communication technology have taken a share of the market for communications systems, but electricity can be expected to remain an essential part of the process.

The effects of electromagnetism are most visibly employed in the electric motor, which provides a clean and efficient means of motive power. A stationary motor such as a winch is easily provided with a supply of power, but a motor that moves with its application, such as an electric vehicle, is obliged to either carry along a power source such as a battery, or to collect current from a sliding contact such as a pantograph, placing restrictions on its range or performance.

Electronic devices make use of the transistor, perhaps one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century,[64] and a fundamental building block of all modern circuitry. A modern integrated circuit may contain several billion miniaturised transistors in a region only a few centimetres square.[65]

Electricity and the natural world

Physiological effects

A voltage applied to a human body causes an electric current through the tissues, and although the relationship is non-linear, the greater the voltage, the greater the current.[66] The threshold for perception varies with the supply frequency and with the path of the current, but is about 0.1 mA to 1 mA for mains-frequency electricity, though a current as low as a microamp can be detected as an electrovibration effect under certain conditions.[67] If the current is sufficiently high, it will cause muscle contraction, fibrillation of the heart, and tissue burns.[66] The lack of any visible sign that a conductor is electrified makes electricity a particular hazard. The pain caused by an electric shock can be intense, leading electricity at times to be employed as a method of torture. Death caused by an electric shock is referred to as electrocution. Electrocution is still the means of judicial execution in some jurisdictions, though its use has become rarer in recent times.[68]

Electrical phenomena in nature

The electric eel, Electrophorus electricus

Electricity is not a human invention, and may be observed in several forms in nature, a prominent manifestation of which is lightning. Many interactions familiar at the macroscopic level, such as touch, friction or chemical bonding, are due to interactions between electric fields on the atomic scale. The Earth's magnetic field is thought to arise from a natural dynamo of circulating currents in the planet's core.[69] Certain crystals, such as quartz, or even sugar, generate a potential difference across their faces when subjected to external pressure.[70] This phenomenon is known as piezoelectricity, from the Greek piezein (πιέζειν), meaning to press, and was discovered in 1880 by Pierre and Jacques Curie. The effect is reciprocal, and when a piezoelectric material is subjected to an electric field, a small change in physical dimensions take place.[70]

Some organisms, such as sharks, are able to detect and respond to changes in electric fields, an ability known as electroreception,[71] while others, termed electrogenic, are able to generate voltages themselves to serve as a predatory or defensive weapon.[3] The order Gymnotiformes, of which the best known example is the electric eel, detect or stun their prey via high voltages generated from modified muscle cells called electrocytes.[3][4] All animals transmit information along their cell membranes with voltage pulses called action potentials, whose functions include communication by the nervous system between neurons and muscles.[72] An electric shock stimulates this system, and causes muscles to contract.[73] Action potentials are also responsible for coordinating activities in certain plants and mammals.[72]

Cultural perception

In the 19th and early 20th century, electricity was not part of the everyday life of many people, even in the industrialised Western world. The popular culture of the time accordingly often depicts it as a mysterious, quasi-magical force that can slay the living, revive the dead or otherwise bend the laws of nature.[74] This attitude began with the 1771 experiments of Luigi Galvani in which the legs of dead frogs were shown to twitch on application of animal electricity. "Revitalization" or resusciation of apparently dead or drowned persons was reported in the medical literature shortly after Galvani's work. These results were known to Mary Shelley when she authored Frankenstein (1819), although she does not name the method of revitalization of the monster. The revitalization of monsters with electricity later became a stock theme in horror films.

As the public familiarity with electricity as the lifeblood of the Second Industrial Revolution grew, its wielders were more often cast in a positive light,[75] such as the workers who "finger death at their gloves' end as they piece and repiece the living wires" in Rudyard Kipling's 1907 poem The Sons of Martha.[75] Electrically powered vehicles of every sort featured large in adventure stories such as those of Jules Verne or the Tom Swift books.[75] The masters of electricity, whether fictional or real—including scientists such as Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz or Nikola Tesla—were popularly conceived of as having wizard-like powers.[75]

With electricity ceasing to be a novelty and becoming a necessity of everyday life in the later half of the 20th century, it required particular attention by popular culture only when it stops flowing,[75] an event that usually signals disaster.[75] The people who keep it flowing, such as the nameless hero of Jimmy Webb’s song "Wichita Lineman" (1968),[75] are still often cast as heroic, wizard-like figures.[75]

See also


a. ^  the New Latin ēlectricus, "amber-like", came from the classical Latin electrum, itself coming from the Greek ἤλεκτρον, (elektron), meaning amber


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  • Bird, John (2007), Electrical and Electronic Principles and Technology, 3rd edition, Newnes, ISBN 0-978-8556-6  
  • Duffin, W.J. (1980), Electricity and Magnetism, 3rd edition, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 007084111X  
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  • Naidu, M.S.; Kamataru, V. (1982), High Voltage Engineering, Tata McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-451786-4  
  • Nilsson, James; Riedel, Susan (2007), Electric Circuits, Prentice Hall, ISBN 978-0131989252  
  • Patterson, Walter C. (1999), Transforming Electricity: The Coming Generation of Change, Earthscan, ISBN 185383341X  
  • Sears, et al., Francis (1982), University Physics, Sixth Edition, Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-2010-7199-1  
  • Benjamin, P. (1898). A history of electricity (The intellectual rise in electricity) from antiquity to the days of Benjamin Franklin. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ELECTRICAL (or [[Electrostatic) Machine]], a machine operating by manual or other power for transforming mechanical work into electric energy in the form of electrostatic charges of opposite sign delivered to separate conductors. Electrostatic machines are of two kinds: (I) Frictional, and (2) Influence machines.

Frictional Machines

A primitive form of frictional electrical machine was constructed about 1663 by Otto von Guericke (1602-1686). It consisted of a globe of sulphur fixed on an axis and rotated by a winch, and it was electrically excited by the friction of warm hands held against it. Sir Isaac Newton appears to have been the first to use a glass globe instead of sulphur (Optics, 8th Query). F. Hawksbee in 1709 also used a revolving glass globe. A metal chain resting on the globe served to collect the charge. Later G. M. Bose (1710-1761), of Wittenberg, added the prime conductor, an insulated tube or cylinder supported on silk strings, and J. H. Winkler (1703-1770), professor of physics at Leipzig, substituted a leather cushion for the hand. Andreas Gordon (1712-1751) of Erfurt, a Scotch Benedictine monk, first used a glass cylinder in place of a sphere. Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800) in 1768 constructed his well-known form of plate electrical machine (fig. A glass plate fixed to a wooden or metal shaft is rotated by a winch. It passes between two rubbers made of leather, and is partly covered with two silk aprons which extend over quadrants of its surface. Just below the places where the aprons terminate, the glass is embraced by two insulated metal forks having the sharp points projecting towards the glass, but not quite touching it. The glass is excited positively by friction with the rubbers, and the charge is drawn off by the action of the points which, when acted upon inductively, discharge negative electricity against it. The insulated conductor to which the points are connected therefore becomes positively electrified. The cushions must be connected to earth to remove the negative electricity which accumulates on them. It was found that the machine acted better if the rubbers were covered with bisulphide of tin or with F. von Kienmayer's amalgam, consisting of one part of zinc, one of tin and two of mercury. The cushions were greased and the amalgam in a state of powder spread over them. Edward Nairne's electrical machine (1787) consisted of a glass cylinder with two insulated conductors, called prime conductors, on glass legs placed near it. One FIG. I. - Ramsden's electrical machine. of these carried the leather exacting cushions and the other the collecting metal points, a silk apron extending over the cylinder from the cushion almost to the points. The rubber was smeared with amalgam. The function of the apron is to prevent the escape of electrification from the glass during its passage from the rubber to the collecting points. Nairne's machine could give either positive or negative electricity, the first named being collected from the prime conductor carrying the collecting points and the second from the prime conductor carrying the cushion.

Influence Machines. - Frictional machines are, however, now quite superseded by the second class of instrument mentioned above, namely, influence machines. These operate by electrostatic induction and convert mechanical work into electrostatic energy by the aid of a small initial charge which is continually being replenished or reinforced. The general principle of all the machines described below will be best understood by considering a simple ideal case. Imagine two Leyden jars with large brass knobs, A and B, to stand on the ground (fig. 2). Let one jar be initially FIG. 2.

charged with positive electricity on its inner coating and the other with negative, and let both have their outsides connected to earth. Imagine two insulated balls A' and B' so held that A' is near A and B' is near B. Then the positive charge on A induces two charges on A', viz. a negative on the side nearest and a positive on the side most removed. Likewise the negative charge on B induces a positive charge on the side of B' nearest to it and repels negative electricity to the far side. Next let the balls A' and B' be connected together for a moment by a wire N called a neutralizing conductor which is subsequently removed. Then A' will be left negatively electrified and B' will be left positively electrified. Suppose that A' and B' are then made to change places. To do this we shall have to exert energy to remove A' against the attraction of A and B' against the attraction of B. Finally let A' be brought in contact with B and B' with A. The ball A' will give up its charge of negative electricity to the Leyden jar B, and the ball B' will give up its positive charge to the Leyden jar A. This transfer will take place because the inner coatings of the Leyden jars have greater capacity with respect to the earth than the balls. Hence the charges of the jars will be increased. The balls A' and B' are then practically discharged, and the above cycle of operations may be repeated. Hence, however small may be the initial charges of the Leyden jars, by a principle of accumulation resembling that of compound interest, they can be increased as above shown to any degree. If this series of operations be made to depend upon the continuous rotation of a winch or handle, the arrangement constitutes an electrostatic influenceenachine. The principle therefore somewhat resembles that of the self-exciting dynamo.

The first suggestion for a machine of the above kind seems to have grown out of the invention of Volta's electrophorus. Abraham Bennet, the inventor of the gold leaf electro e described a doubler or machine for multiplying Bennet'. scope, ?

electric charges (Phil. Trans., 1787).

The principle of this apparatus may be explained thus. Let A and C be two fixed disks, and B a disk which can be brought at will within a very short distance of either A or C. Let us suppose all the plates to be equal, and let the capacities of A and C in presence of B be each equal to p, and the coefficient of induction between A and B, or C and B, be q. Let us also suppose that the plates A and C are so distant from each other that there is no mutual influence, and that p' is the capacity of one of the disks when it stands alone. A small charge Q is communicated to A, and A is insulated, and B, uninsulated, is brought up to it; the charge on B will be - (q/p)Q. B is now uninsulated and brought to face C, which is uninsulated; the charge on C will be (q/p) 2 Q. C is now insulated and connected with A, which is always insulated. B is then brought to face A and uninsulated, so that the charge on A becomes rQ, where + 7- -) .

A is now disconnected from C, and here the first operation ends. It is obvious that at the end of n such operations the charge on A will be r n Q, so that the charge goes on increasing in geometrical progression. If the distance between the disks could be made infinitely small each time, then the multiplier r would be 2, and the charge would be doubled each time. Hence the name of the apparatus.

Erasmus Darwin, B. Wilson, G. C. Bohnenberger and J. C. E. Peclet devised various modifications of Bennet's instrument (see S. P. Thompson, "The Influence Machine from 1788 to 1888," Journ. Soc. Tel. Eng., 1888, 1 7, p. 569).

Bennet's doubler appears to have given a suggestion to William Nicholson (Phil. Trans., 1788, p. 403) of "an instrument which by turning a winch produced the two states of electricity without friction or communication with the earth." This "revolving doubler," according to the description of Professor S. P. Thompson (loc. cit.), consists of two fixed plates of brass A and C (fig. 3), each two inches in diameter and separately supported on insulating arms in the same plane, so that a third revolving plate B may pass very near them without touching. A brass ball D two inches in diameter is fixed on the end of the axis that carries the plate B, and is loaded within at one side, so as to act as a counterpoise to the revolving plate B. The axis P N is made of varnished glass, and so are the axes that join the three plates with the brass axis N 0. The axis N 0 passes through the brass piece M, which stands on an insulating pillar of glass, and supports the plates A and C. At one extremity of this axis is the ball D, and the other is connected with a rod of glass, N P, upon which is fixed the handle L, and also the piece G H, which is separately insulated. The pins E, F rise out of the back of the fixed plates A and C, at unequal distances from the axis. The piece K is parallel to G H, and both of them are furnished at their ends with small pieces of flexible wire that they may touch the pins E, F in certain points of their revolution.

From the brass piece M there stands out a pin I, to touch against a small flexible wire or spring which projects C sideways from the rotating plate B when it comes op posite A. The wires are so ad justed by bending that B, at the moment when it is opposite A, com municates with the ball D, and A communicates with C through GH; and half a revolution later C, when B comes opposite to it, communicates with the ball D through the contact of K with F. In all other positions A, B, C and D are completely disconnected from each other. Nicholson thus described the operation of his machine: "When the plates A and B are opposite each other, the two fixed plates A and C may be considered as one mass, and the revolving plate B, together with the ball D, will constitute another mass. All the experiments yet made concur to prove that these two masses will not possess the same electric state ....The redundant electricities in the masses under consideration will be unequally distributed; the plate A will have about ninety-nine parts, and the plate C one; and, for the same reason, the revolving plate B will have ninety-nine parts of the opposite electricity, and the ball D one. The rotation, by destroying the contacts, preserves this unequal distribution, and carries B from A to C at the same time that the tail K connects the ball with the plate C. In this situation, the electricity in B acts upon that in C, and produces the contrary state, by virtue of the communication between C and the ball; which last must therefore acquire an electricity of the same kind with that of the revolving plate. But the rotation again destroys the contact and restores B to its first situation opposite A. Here, if we attend to the effect of the whole revolution, we shall find that the electric states of the respective masses have been greatly increased; for the ninety-nine parts in A and B remain, and the one part of electricity in C has been increased so as nearly to compensate ninety-nine parts of the opposite electricity in the revolving plate B, while the communication produced an opposite mutation in the electricity of the ball. A second rotation will, of course, produce a proportional augmentation of these increased quantities; and a continuance of turning will soon bring the intensities to their maximum, which is limited by an explosion between the plates" (Phil. Trans., 1788, p. 405).

Nicholson described also another apparatus, the "spinning condenser," which worked on the same principle. Bennet and Nicholson were followed by T. Cavallo, John Read, Bohnenberger, C. B. Desormes and J. N. P. Hachette and others in the invention of various forms of rotating doubler. A simple and typical form of doubler, devised in 1831 by G. Belli (fig. 4), consisted of two curved metal plates between which revolved a pair of balls carried on an insulating stem. Following the nomenclature usual in connexion with dynamos we may speak of the conductors which carry the initial charges as the field plates, and of the moving conductors on which are induced the charges which are subsequently added to those on the field plates, as the carriers. The wire which connects two armature plates for a moment is the neutralizing conductor. The two curved metal plates constitute the field plates and must have original charges imparted to them of opposite sign. The rotating balls are the carriers, and are connected together for a moment by a wire when in a position to be acted upon inductively by the field plates, thus acquiring charges of opposite sign. The moment after they are separated again. The rotation continuing the ball thus negatively charged is made to give up this charge to that negatively electrified field plate, and the ball positively charged its charge to the positively electrified field plate, by touching little contact springs. In this manner the field plates accumulate charges of opposite sign.

Modern types of influence machine may be said to date from 1860 when C. F. Varley patented a type of influence machine which has been the parent of numerous subsequent forms (Brit. Pat. Spec. No. 206 of 1860. In it the field plates were sheets of tin-foil attached to a glass plate (fig. 5). In front of them a disk of ebonite or glass, having carriers of metal fixed to its edge, was rotated by a winch. In the course of their rotation two diametrically opposite carriers touched against the ends of a neutralizing conductor so as to form for a moment one conductor, and the moment afterwards these two carriers were insulated, one carrying away a positive charge and the other a negative. Continuing their rotation, the positively charged carrier gave up its positive charge by touching a little knob attached to the positive field plate, and similarly for the negative charge carrier. In this way the charges on the field plates were continually replenished and reinforced. Varley also constructed a multiple form of influence machine having six rotating disks, each having a number of carriers and rotating between field plates. With this apparatus he obtained sparks 6 in. long, the initial source of electrification being a single Daniell cell.

Varley was followed by A. J. I. Toepler, who in 1865 constructed an influence machine consisting of FIG. 5. - Varley's Machine. two disks fixed on the same shaft and rotating in the same direction. Each disk carried two strips of tin-foil extending nearly over a semi-circle, and there were two field plates, one behind each disk; one of the plates was P > P positively and the other negatively electrified. The carriers which were touched under the influence of the positive field plate passed on and gave up a portion of their negative charge to increase that of the negative field plate; in the same Nichol= FIG. 3. - Nicholson's Revolving Doubler.

FIG. 4. - Belli's Doubler.

way the carriers which were touched under the influence of the negative field plate sent a part of their charge to augment that of the positive field plate. In this apparatus one of the charging rods communicated with one of the field plates, but the other with the neutralizing brush opposite to the other field plate. Hence one of the field plates would always remain charged when a spark was taken at the transmitting terminals.

Between 1864 and 1880, W. T. B. Holtz constructed and described a large number of influence machines which were for a long time considered the most advanced development of this type of electrostatic machine. In one form the Holtz machine consisted of a glass disk mounted on a horizontal axis F (fig. 6) which could be made to rotate at a considerable speed by a multiplying gear, part of which is seen at X. Close behind this disk was fixed another vertical disk of glass in which were cut two windows B, B. On the side of the fixed disk next the rotating disk were pasted two sectors of paper A, A, with short blunt points attached to them which projected out into the windows on the side away from the rotating disk. On the other side of the rotating disk were placed two metal combs C, C, which consisted of sharp points set in metal rods and were each connected to one of a pair of discharge balls E, D, the distance between which could be varied. To start the machine the balls were brought in contact, one of the paper armatures electrified, say, with positive electricity, and the disk set in motion. Thereupon very shortly a hissing sound was heard and the machine became harder to turn as if the disk were moving through a resisting medium. After that the discharge balls might be separated a little and a continuous series of sparks or brush discharges would take place between them. If two Leyden jars L, L were hung upon the conductors which supported the combs, with their outer coatings put in connexion with one another by M, a series of strong spark discharges passed between the discharge balls. The action of the machine is as follows: Suppose one paper armature to be charged positively, it acts by induction on the right hand comb, causing negative electricity to issue from the comb points upon the glass revolving disk; at the same time the positive electricity passes through the closed discharge circuit to the left comb and issues from its teeth upon the part of the glass disk at the opposite end of the diameter. This positive electricity electrifies the left paper armature by induction, positive electricity issuing from the blunt point upon the side farthest from the rotating disk. The charges thus deposited on the glass disk are carried round so that the upper half is electrified negatively on both sides and the lower half positively on both sides, the sign of the electrification being reversed as the disk passes between the combs and the armature by discharges issuing from them respectively. If it were not for leakage in various ways, the electrification would go on everywhere increasing, but in practice a stationary state is soon attained. Holtz's machine is very uncertain in its action in a moist climate, and has generally to be enclosed in a chamber in which the air is kept artificially dry.

Robert Voss, a Berlin instrument maker, in 1880 devised a form of machine in which he claimed that the principles of Toepler and Holtz were combined. On a rotating glass or ebonite disk were placed carriers of tin-foil or metal buttons machine. against which neutralizing brushes touched. This armature plate revolved in front of a field plate carrying two pieces of tin-foil backed up by larger pieces of varnished paper. The studs on the armature plate were charged inductively by being connected for a moment by a neutralizing wire as they passed in front of the field plates, and then gave up their charges partly to renew the field charges and partly to collecting combs connected to discharge balls. In general design and construction, the manner of moving the rotating plate and in the use of the two Leyden jars in connexion with the discharge balls, Voss borrowed his ideas from Holtz.

All the above described machines, however, have been thrown into the shade by the invention of a greatly improved type of influence machine first constructed by James Wimshurst about 1878. Two glass disks are mounted on two shafts wlms- in such a manner that, by means of two ulle s Y P Y worked from a winch shaft, the disks can be rotated rapidly in opposite directions close to each other (fig. 7). These glass disks carry on them a certain number (not less than 16 or 20) tin-foil carriers which may or may not have brass buttons upon them. The glass plates are well varnished, and the carriers are placed on the outer sides of the two glass plates. As therefore the disks revolve, these carriers travel in opposite directions, coming at intervals in opposition to each other. Each upright bearing carrying the shafts of the revolving disks also carries a neutralizing conductor or wire ending in a little brush of gilt thread. The neutralizing conductors for each disk are placed at right angles to each other. In addition there are collecting combs which occupy an intermediate position and have sharp points projecting inwards, and coming near to but not touching the carriers. These combs on opposite sides are connected respectively to the inner coatings of two Leyden jars whose outer coatings are in connexion with one another.

The operation of the machine is as follows: Let us suppose that one of the studs on the back plate is positively electrified and one at the opposite end of a diameter is negatively electrified, and that at that moment two corresponding studs on the front plate passing opposite to these back studs are momentarily connected together by the neutralizing wire belonging to the front plate. The positive stud on the back plate will act inductively on the front stud and charge it negatively, and similarly for the other stud, and as the rotation continues these charged studs will pass round and give up most of their charge through the combs to the Leyden jars. The moment, however, a pair of studs on the front plate are charged, they act as field plates to studs on the back plate which are passing at the moment, provided these last are connected by the back neutralizing wire. After a few revolutions of the disks half the studs on the front plate at any moment are charged negatively and half positively and the same on the back plate, the neutralizing wires forming the boundary between the positively and negatively charged studs. The diagram in fig. 8, taken by permission from S. P. Thompson's paper (loc. cit.), represents a view of the distribution of these charges on the front and back plates respectively. It will be __--. - FIG. 6. - Holtz's Machine.

FIG. 7. - Wimshurst's Machine.

seen that each stud is in turn both a field plate and a carrier having a charge induced on it, and then passing on in turn induces further charges on other studs. Wimshurst constructed numerous very powerful machines of this type, some of them with "multiple plates, which operate i - almost any climate, and rarely fail to charge themselves and deliver a torrent of sparks between the disf El charge balls whenever the winch is turned. He also devised an alternating current electrical machine in which the discharge balls were alternately positive and negative. Large Wimshurst multiple plate influence machines are often used instead of induction coils for exciting Röntgen ray tubes in medical work. They give very steady illumination on fluorescent screens.

In 1goo it was found by F. Tudsbury that if an influence machine is enclosed in a metallic chamber containing compressed air, or better, carbon dioxide, the insulating properties of compressed gases enable a greatly improved effect to be obtained owing to the diminution of the leakage across the plates and from the supports. Hence sparks can be obtained of more than double the length at ordinary atmospheric pressure. In one case a machine with plates 8 in. in diameter which could give sparks 2.5 in. at ordinary pressure gave sparks of 5, 7, and 8 in. as the pressure was raised to 15, 30 and 45 lb above the normal atmosphere.

The action of Lord Kelvin's replenisher (fig. 9) used by him in connexion with his electrometers for maintaining their charge, closely resembles that of Belli's doubler and will be understood from fig. 9. Lord Kelvin also devised an influence machine, commonly called a" mouse mill,"for electrifying the ink in connexion with his siphon recorder. It was an electrostatic and electromagnetic machine combined, driven by an electric current and producing in turn electrostatic charges of electricity.

FIG. 9. - Lord Kelvin's Replenisher.

C, C, Metal carriers, fixed to a, a, Receiving springs.

ebonite cross-arm. n, n, Connecting springs or F, F, Brass field-plates or conneutralizing brushes. ductors.

In connexion with this subject mention must also be made of the water dropping influence machine of the same inventor.' The action and efficiency of influence machines have been investigated by F. Rossetti, A. Righi and F. W. G. Kohlrausch. The electromotive force is practically constant no matter what the velocity of the disks, but according to some observers the internal resistance decreases as the velocity increases. Kohlrausch, using a Holtz machine with a plate 16 in. in diameter, found that the current given by it could only electrolyse acidulated water in 40 hours sufficient to liberate one cubic centimetre of mixed gases. E. E. N. Mascart, A. Roiti, and E. Bouchotte have 1 See Lord Kelvin, Reprint of Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetism (1872);" Electrophoric Apparatus and Illustrations of Voltaic Theory,"p. 319;" On Electric Machines Founded on Induction and Convection,"p. 330;" The Reciprocal Electrophorus,"P. 337.

also examined the efficiency and current producing power of influence machines.

"` BIBLIOGRAPHY. - In addition to S. P. Thompson's valuable paper on influence machines (to which this article is much indebted) and other references given, see J. Clerk Maxwell, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (2nd ed., Oxford, 1881), vol. i. p. 294; J. D. Everett, Electricity (expansion of part iii. of Deschanel's Natural Philosophy) (London, 1901), ch. iv. p. 20; A. Winkelmann, Handbuch der Physik (Breslau, 1905), vol. iv. pp. 50-58 (contains a large number of references to original papers); J. Gray, Electrical Influence Machines, their Development and Modern Forms (London, 1903). (J. A. F.)

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