What is Electricity?

Electrical Discovery

When we think of electricity many times we think of Ben Franklin or Tom Edison. Those of us that did reports on the subject in school might toss out the name Nikola Tesla – he had nothing to do with the hair metal band of the same name.

Funny thing is the Greeks and Phoenicians back around 600 BC knew electricity. No, they weren’t using the radio or running refrigerators but when rubbing amber over cat fur – don’t ask about the cat fur – it created an electrical charge attracting objects like feathers.

It took almost 2,000 years before electricity gave science another jolt. English physician William Gilbert coined the term “electricus” which means “of amber” after he did studies on static electricity. It was at this point in time when the study of electricity went from scientific curiosity to scientific concern.

This is about the time when Franklin’s kite comes into play. He was interested in the relationship between lightning and static electricity. When an electrical charge ran from the key to Franklin’s hand, he understood lightning as being electrical.


It takes a longer leap than that of the key to the hand for us to go from Franklin’s experiment to home theaters. And many people, not only Tesla and Edison, had a hand in that leap. But all of them needed the same tiny item. All of them needed electrons.

Electrons are in every atom. They are the atom’s negative charge. In some materials (plastic, wood, glass) the electrons hang tight to the atom. This makes these materials poor conductors of electricity. In other materials, particularly metals, electrons run wild. These materials are good conductors. The atoms want to stay in balance (each atom has an equal amount of protons and electrons) so if an electron jumps out another must jump back. The movement of electrons between atoms creates an electrical current.

Think of static electricity moving from you to another object or person. What happen is the electrons from you or the person are jumping from each other and creating a current. And a zap!

Magnets and Generators

Magnets are a different animal. All their electrons sit on one end or the other and won’t move around. This creates a magnetic field around either end. Each end of the magnet is called a pole and these poles attract or repel one another. The pulling and pushing of a magnet creates energy by pushing and pulling electrons from other objects, such as copper. In copper, the electrons are easily pulled and pushed from the atoms.

A generator is created when a magnet wrapped in copper wire is spun. This repeated pushing and pulling of electrons from the copper creates electricity, which flows through power lines into our homes allowing us to watch reruns of Law and Order 24-7.

The Circuit

Electricity created by generators runs from the power plant to large electrical towers to poles to your house. But it needs a closed circuit to power your reading lamp.

When thinking of an electrical circuit imagine a hobbyist’s train set. For the train to stay on the track all the pieces of the track must be fit together. This is a closed loop. Electricity powers the light bulb when the circuit is closed. When it’s open the electricity can’t race around the track and power the light bulb.

Electricity is a simple item – an electron – blown up into one of the most important forces in our lives. Without it the world is a much different place. Imagine thinkers like Franklin, Edison and Tesla with the power of electricity at their fingertips. Or, better yet, imagine your day without a triple espresso, soy cappuccino. Bow to the power of electricity.

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