10 First Electricity Milestones

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. 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. 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. 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.


1. Discovery of Electricity (600 BC)

Thales from Miletus ( 620?- 540? B. C. )

Image: Thales from Miletus ( 620?- 540? B. C)

Thales of Miletus was one of the first Greek thinkers, who started to considerate world’s microstructure. Thales was the first to notice static electricity around 600 BC. In 600 B.C. Thales of Miletus writes about amber becoming charged by rubbing – he was describing what we now call static electricity.

Around 600 BCE, in Greece, a mathematician named Thales discovered that amber rubbed with animal fur attracted light objects. Even though other people may have noticed this before, Thales was the first to record his findings. We don’t have his writings, but from other people’s reports of his work we can guess at his experiments. We think that Thales noticed static electricity from polishing amber with a piece of wool or fur. After rubbing the amber, which created a static electric charge, other light objects such as straw or feathers stuck to the amber. At this time, magnetism was also confused with static electricity.


2. Coining of the Term  (1600)


Image: Acredited Father of Science of Electricity – William Gilbert

The accredited father of the science of electricity and magnetism was the English scientist, William Gilbert, who was a physician and man of learning at the court of Elizabeth. Prior to him, all that was known of electricity and magnetism was what the ancients knew, that the lodestone possessed magnetic properties and that amber and jet, when rubbed, would attract bits of paper or other substances of small specific gravity. William Gilbert’s great treatise De magnete, magneticisique corporibus” or “On the Magnet”, printed in Latin in 1600, containing the fruits of his researches and experiments for many years, indeed provided the basis for a new science.

William Gilbert first coined the term “electricity” from the Greek word for amber. Gilbert wrote about the electrification of many substances  in his “De magnete, magneticisique corporibus”. He was also the first person to use the terms electric force, magnetic pole, and electric attraction. William Gilbert was a pioneer of the experimental method and the first to explain the magnetic compass.


3. Invention of Electricity (1660)

Otto von Guericke, engraving by Anselmus von Hulle, (1601-1674)

Image: Otto von Guericke, engraving by Anselmus von Hulle, (1601-1674)

He was a German scientist, inventor, and politician. His major scientific achievement was the establishment of the physics of vacuums. During his discoveries, he invented this machine that for the first time produced electricity – yes static electricity.


4. The First Electronic Device Ever Invented – Relay (1835)

relay A relay is a remote switch controlled by current, magnetism, or temperature. The relay was invented in 1835 by Joseph Henry (1797-1878), an American scientist. It made modern telegraphy possible and evolved into the repeater- thus the relay- a remote controlled switch, was in effect the first ( Electronic) device, though not anything involving crystals, diodes, vacuum tubes etc. The first invented Relay was used as part of his telegraph system circa 1844. It was used in long distance telegraph circuits, repeating the signal coming in from one circuit and re-transmitting it to another. Since then, relays found extensive use in telephone exchanges and early computers to perform logical operations.


5. The First Electronic Light (1806)

first light bulb

Image: Joseph Swan’s 1860 Light Bulbs

It was Thomas Edison in 1879, wasn’t it? That’s what many people think and were taught in school. Like most stories, however, there is a lot more behind the creation of this important and ubiquitous object than just Mr. Edison.

The first electric light was made in 1800 by Humphry Davy , an English scientist. He experimented with electricity and invented an electric battery. When he connected wires to his battery and a piece of carbon, the carbon glowed, producing light. This is called an electric arc. Much later, in 1860, the English physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan was determined to devise a practical, long-lasting electric light. He found that a carbon paper filament worked well, but burned up quickly. In 1878, he demonstrated his new electric lamps in Newcastle, England. In 1877, the American Charles Francis Brush manufactured some carbon arcs to light a public square in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. These arcs were used on a few streets, in a few large office buildings, and even some stores. Electric lights were only used by a few people.

The inventor Thomas Alva Edison experimented with thousands of different filaments to find just the right materials to glow well and be long-lasting. In 1879, Edison discovered that a carbon filament in an oxygen-free bulb glowed but did not burn up for 40 hours. Edison eventually produced a bulb that could glow for over 1500 hours. In 1903, Willis R. Whitney invented a treatment for the filament so that it wouldn’t darken the inside of the bulb as it glowed. In 1910, William David Coolidge (1873-1975) invented a tungsten filament which lasted even longer than the older filaments. The incandescent bulb revolutionized the world.


6. First Commercial Electric Power Station (1879)

First commercial power station

Joseph Henry had blazed the way for others to work out the principles of the electric motor and make practical inventions. Joseph Henry’s electromagnetic experiments lead to the concept of electrical inductance. Joseph Henry built one of the first electrical motors. However the first electric motor was invented by Michael Faraday .  Electric Motors paved the way for first commercial power station which opened in San Francisco, using Charles Brush generator and arc lights. It lead to installment of  first commercial arc lighting system in Cleveland, Ohio.

2 thoughts on “10 First Electricity Milestones

  1. How can you / whats the reason for avoiding the name Nikola Tesla on a list of electric achievements ?

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