Introduction to Electricity

Take an average person from the early 1800s, and put him into a time machine.  Now, imagine that your goal is to maximize this person’s dazzlement by sending him to an era utterly alien to his own, but you have only two choices: you can either send him two hundred years into the future or two thousand years into the past.  Which would you choose?  Which age would be the more baffling to him?  That of his descendants some eight generations on, or that of his ancestors eighty generations back?

In the event that our early 1800s time traveler were sent back to arrive, let’s say, among the ancient Romans around 200 BC, he would encounter a set of somewhat unfamiliar customs and contrivances, and he would certainly notice many things missing that had defined his own daily life – from guns to glass for windows and spectacles.  Yet, the fundamentals of daily life, how people communicated with one another and entertained themselves, their level of comfort, all would be pretty close to his own experience.  It wouldn’t take long for our early 1800s man to settle into the world of even his ancient ancestors.

Arriving in the early 21st century, on the other hand, he would probably assume he had stumbled into some kind of wizard’s dream.  Just a single smart phone would be so mysterious, so contradictory to his sense of what was even possible, that he might appear hopelessly incapable of rational comprehension.  As an ambassador of the modern age, how might you enlighten him?  Presented with a smartphone, the man from the past would ask dozens of questions: where does the light come from?  Is this thing alive?  How are you talking to someone someplace else?  And on and on.  Listening to his questions, you might realize that they all seemed to point toward the same underlying concept, a principle technology from which the phone and most other modern technologies derive.  The more you talked with your time traveler, the more you would see that the prime mover of modern life is electricity.

Most of what would make our world so bizarre to this man, after all, is energized by electricity, everything from the smartphone to food refrigeration.  Electricity would represent the real alchemy of his wizard’s dream.  If he understood its history, maybe the smartphone wouldn’t seem so impossible to him after all.

Let’s tell him of electricity then, and how it began.


Select Bibliography for Electricity

David Bodanis, Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity, Crown Publishers, 2005.

Herbert W. Meyer, A History of Electricity and Magnetism, MIT Press, 1971.

Jim Al-Khalili, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, BBC Horizon Television Series, 2011.

Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon, Faraday, Maxwell, and Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics, Prometheus Books, 2014.

Robert Friedel, A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium, MIT Press, 2010.