Electricity Research Paper

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Although the word electric was first introduced in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until after the Scientific Revolution of the eighteenth century that serious investigation of electricity began. Scientists worldwide experimented with electricity, and in the nineteenth century society recognized the usefulness of electric power. The current human reliance on electricity calls for a need to research alternative forms of power for the future.

Electricity is so common today that it would be difficult for anyone to imagine how life would be without the well-known applications we use every day in our homes and jobs. But things were not always that way. It is just four hundred years since scientists began to study electrical phenomena and the nature of electricity, and no more than 150 years since electrical applications started to be a part of our way of living.

Around 600 BCE, one of the natural philosophers of ancient Greece, Thales of Miletus (c. 625–547? BCE), observed that rubbing amber against a piece of cloth attracted light bodies. This remained the only reference to an electrical phenomenon for almost two thousand years, and though it was considered quite impressive, the cause of this strange effect remained unexplained.

At the end of the sixteenth century, the Englishman William Gilbert (1540–1603) became the godfather of electricity, as he was the first natural philosopher who introduced the word electric, in his book De Magnete.

The Eighteenth Century

A more systematic investigation of electrical phenomena took place during the course of the eighteenth century, following the scientific revolution.

Stephen Gray (1667–1736) in England and Charles Francois de Cisternay DuFay (1698–1739) in France worked seriously on electricity. Gray in 1732 demonstrated electrical conductivity. A decade later, in 1745, the Dutch physicist Peter van Musschenbroek (1692–1761), the most important popularizer of Newtonian physics, invented the first kind of electrical condenser, the Leyden jar. (Some argue, however, that the real inventor of the Leyden jar was Ewald Jurgen von Kleist, in Kammin, Pomerania.)

The years to come were very productive with regard to electricity. Electrical experiments, especially those using electrostatic machines, became very popular. Scientists performed experimental demonstrations using static electrical charges in the salons of the French and Italian nobility and the courts of the European kings. The audience sometimes participated actively in these experiments, and their fascination with the impressive results can be seen in engravings of the period. One example is the experiment performed by the French physicist Pierre Charles Le Monnier (1715–1799) in the court of the king in order to prove the strength of an electric shock caused by a Leyden jar—a test in which 140 people participated.

Around 1750 there were two leading figures investigating electricity: Abbe Nollet (1700–1750) in France and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. They proposed two different theories of electricity, and a strong debate started in the scientific community. Nollet devoted himself to the study of electricity, and his theory, presented in his book Essai sur l’electricite des corps (Essay on the electricity of the bodies) (1746), can be summarized by the proposition that electrical matter is a combination of elementary fire and denser matter.

According to Benjamin Franklin’s biographers he first became engaged with electricity following his astonishment at some spectacular electrical demonstrations performed by Dr. Archibald Spencer in Boston in 1743. Today Franklin is mostly known for his experiment with kites, intended to demonstrate that lightning is a form of static electricity. But his work on the nature of electric matter is much more fundamental from a scientific point of view. He was the first to propose, in contrast to previous theories, that electricity was a single common element, or fluid, passing through all matter (the “single-fluid” theory), and that it had no weight. Differences in electrical charge were caused by an excess (+) or deficiency (–) of this fluid.

As Franklin’s theory gradually came to prevail during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, two new thinkers contributed to the development of the theoretical and experimental concept of electricity. In 1785, Charles August Coulomb (1736– 1806) used the torsion balance to find the inverse square law governing the electrical force between two charges. In 1791 the Italian Luigi Galvani (1737–1798) conducted a well-known experiment with a frog’s leg to prove that there was a relationship between living beings and electricity. Galvani’s conclusions were proved wrong some years later by his rival in the scientific field, Alessandro Volta (1745–1827).

The Nineteenth Century

During the nineteenth century there was dramatic progress in the study of electrical phenomena. In 1800 Alessandro Volta, a professor at the University of Pavia in Italy, created the so-called voltaic pile, the first battery, opening new horizons to electrical applications. For the first time the general public, and scientists in particular, had steady and reliable access to an electrical current over an extended period of time.

The Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851) found that electrical current would deflect a magnetic needle, thus establishing the discipline of electromagnetism. The basic mathematical equations of electromagnetism were developed by Andre-Marie Ampere (1775–1836) in 1820s.

In 1826 Georg Simon Ohm (1787–1854) proposed the law defining the resistance of metallic conductors. During the same decade Michael Faraday (1791–1867) impelled electromagnetism even further by building the first electric motor, transforming electric energy to kinetic energy. In addition, Faraday’s theoretical proposal about dynamic lines provided a foundation for the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879), who in 1856 wrote the essay “On Faraday’s Lines of Force,” establishing in pure mathematical language the new subject of field physics, unifying magnetism, electricity, and light. Maxwell’s laws of electrodynamics were important for the development of many useful applications during the twentieth century like electric power stations, radio, television, and even the computer.

But before these applications came the electric telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse (1791–1872) around 1840, which caused a real revolution in communications. After Morse, Thomas Edison (1847– 1931) became famous for his electric lamp, not to mention his many other inventions, like the phonograph. Carbon arc lamps were used around the world extensively until the late 1970s, but the invention of the incandescent filament lamp by the Englishman Joseph Swan (1828–1914) in 1878 and by Thomas Edison in 1879 in the United States reduced their use dramatically in the years to follow.

As the usefulness of electricity was recognized by society, the need for electric power started to become immense. Carbon, oil, and waterfalls became the main sources for the energy needed. In 1896 George Westinghouse (1846–1914) used Niagara Falls to produce electric power and transmit it to cities like New York. Westinghouse collaborated closely with the Serbian physicist Nicola Tesla (1856–1943) in the development of an electrification system based on alternating current (AC). This advance led to long discussions with the supporters of direct current (DC) like Edison, but finally alternating current prevailed.

The Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century the use of electricity became fundamental in the lives of Western societies, but it is no less important for the developing world. The continuous increase in the need for electricity led to the establishment of nuclear-powered electric stations and the establishment of huge dams to collect the necessary quantity of water for use in hydroelectric plants. One of them, for example, the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, changed the whole economic and social profile of the country. During the last decades of the twentieth century alternative sources for the production of electricity became more popular. Among them, solar energy and wind energy are the most widely used. In countries with high tides like England and France, these are also used for the production of electricity.

There is no doubt that civilization as we know it could not exist without electricity, yet we must not forget that electricity is a product of that civilization. Therefore, it is necessary for people to secure the use of electric energy in the future by constructing the necessary factories and networks, having always in mind that oil and carbon will not last forever, and that sun, water, and air can provide cheaper and more environmentally friendly sources for the power supply we need.


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