History of Electricity

Electrical Science Was Established in the Elizabethan Age

Electrical distribution lines glowing blue in the night
Paul Taylor/Getty Images

The history of electricity begins with William Gilbert (1544–1603), a physician and natural scientist who served Queen Elizabeth the first of England. Before Gilbert, all that was known about electricity and magnetism was that a lodestone (magnetite) possessed magnetic properties and that rubbing amber and jet would attract bits of various materials to start sticking.

In 1600, Gilbert published his treatise "De magnete, Magneticisique Corporibus" (On the Magnet). Printed in scholarly Latin, the book explained years of Gilbert's research and experiments on electricity and magnetism. Gilbert raised the interest in the new science greatly. It was Gilbert who coined the expression "electrica" in his famous book.

Early Inventors

Inspired and educated by Gilbert, several Europeans inventors, including Otto von Guericke (1602–1686) of Germany, Charles Francois Du Fay (1698–1739) of France, and Stephen Gray (1666–1736) of England expanded the knowledge.

Otto von Guericke was the first to prove that a vacuum could exist. Creating a vacuum was essential for all kinds of further research into electronics. In 1660, von Guericke invented the machine that produced static electricity; this was the first electric generator.

In 1729, Stephen Gray discovered the principle of the conduction of electricity and, in 1733, Charles Francois du Fay discovered that electricity comes in two forms which he called resinous (-) and vitreous (+), now called negative and positive.

The Leyden Jar

The Leyden jar was the original capacitor, a device that stores and releases an electrical charge. (At that time electricity was considered the mysterious fluid or force.) The Leyden jar was invented in 1745 nearly simultaneously in Holland by academic Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692–1761) In 1745 and in Germany by German clergyman and scientist, Ewald Christian Von Kleist (1715–1759). When Von Kleist first touched his Leyden jar he received a powerful shock that knocked him to the floor.

The Leyden jar was named after Musschenbroek's hometown and university Leyden, by the French scientist and cleric Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700–1770). The jar was also called the Kleistian jar after Von Kleist, but this name did not stick.

Ben Franklin, Henry Cavendish, and Luigi Galvani

U.S. founding father Ben Franklin's (1705–1790) important discovery was that electricity and lightning were one and the same. Franklin's lightning rod was the first practical application of electricity. atural philosopher Henry Cavendish of England, Coulomb of France, and Luigi Galvani of Italy made scientific contributions towards finding practical uses for electricity.

In 1747, British philosopher Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) started measuring the conductivity (the ability to carry an electrical current) of different materials and published his results. French military engineer Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736–1806) discovered in 1779 what would later be named "Coulomb's Law," which described the electrostatic force of attraction and repulsion. And in 1786, Italian physician Luigi Galvani (1737–1798) demonstrated what we now understand to be the electrical basis of nerve impulses. Galvani famously made frog muscles twitch by jolting them with a spark from an electrostatic machine.

Following the work of Cavendish and Galvani came a group of important scientists and inventors, including Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) of Italy, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted (1777–1851), French physicist Andre-Marie Ampere (1775–1836), Georg Ohm (1789–1854) of Germany, Michael Faraday (1791–1867) of England, and Joseph Henry (1797–1878) of the U.S.

Work With Magnets

Joseph Henry was a researcher in the field of electricity whose work inspired many inventors. Henry's first discovery was that the power of a magnet could be immensely strengthened by winding it with insulated wire. He was the first person to make a magnet that could lift 3,500 pounds of weight. Henry showed the difference between "quantity" magnets composed of short lengths of wire connected in parallel and excited by a few large cells, and "intensity" magnets wound with a single long wire and excited by a battery composed of cells in series. This was an original discovery, greatly increasing both the immediate usefulness of the magnet and its possibilities for future experiments.

The Oriental Impostor Suspended

Michael Faraday, William Sturgeon (1783–1850), and other inventors were quick to recognize the value of Henry's discoveries. Sturgeon magnanimously said, "Professor Joseph Henry has been enabled to produce a magnetic force which totally eclipses every other in the whole annals of magnetism, and no parallel is to be found since the miraculous suspension of the celebrated Oriental impostor in his iron coffin."

That commonly used phrase is a reference to an obscure story bantered about by these European scientists about Muhammad (571–632 CE), the founder of Islam. That tale was not about Muhammad at all, in fact, but rather a tale told by Pliny the Elder (23–70 CE) about a coffin in Alexandria, Egypt. According to Pliny, the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria had been built with powerful lodestones, so powerful that the iron coffin of Cleopatra's younger sister Arsinoë IV (68–41 BCE) was said to have been suspended in the air.

Joseph Henry also discovered the phenomena of self-induction and mutual induction. In his experiment, a current sent through a wire in the second story of the building induced currents through a similar wire in the cellar two floors below.


The telegraph was an early invention that communicated messages at a distance over a wire using electricity that was later replaced by the telephone. The word telegraphy comes from the Greek words tele which means far away and grapho which means write.

The first attempts to send signals by electricity (telegraph) had been made many times before Henry became interested in the problem. William Sturgeon's invention of the electromagnet encouraged researchers in England to experiment with the electromagnet. The experiments failed and only produced a current that weakened after a few hundred feet.

The Basis for the Electric Telegraph

However, Henry strung a mile of fine wire, placed an "intensity" battery at one end, and made the armature strike a bell at the other. In this experiment, Joseph Henry discovered the essential mechanics behind the electric telegraph.

This discovery was made in 1831, a full year before Samuel Morse (1791–1872) invented the telegraph. There is no controversy as to who invented the first telegraph machine. That was Morse's achievement, but the discovery which motivated and allowed Morse to invent the telegraph was Joseph Henry's achievement.

In Henry's own words: "This was the first discovery of the fact that a galvanic current could be transmitted to a great distance with so little a diminution of force as to produce mechanical effects, and of the means by which the transmission could be accomplished. I saw that the electric telegraph was now practicable. I had not in mind any particular form of telegraph, but referred only to the general fact that it was now demonstrated that a galvanic current could be transmitted to great distances, with sufficient power to produce mechanical effects adequate to the desired object."

Magnetic Engine

Henry next turned to designing a magnetic engine and succeeded in making a reciprocating bar motor, on which he installed the first automatic pole changer, or commutator, ever used with an electric battery. He did not succeed in producing direct rotary motion. His bar oscillated like the walking beam of a steamboat.

Electric Cars

Thomas Davenport (1802–1851), a blacksmith from Brandon, Vermont, built a road-worthy electric car in 1835. Twelve years later U.S. electrical engineer Moses Farmer (1820–1893) exhibited an electric-driven locomotive. In 1851, Massachusetts inventor Charles Grafton Page (1712–1868) drove an electric car on the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, from Washington to Bladensburg, at the rate of nineteen miles an hour.

However, the cost of batteries was too great at the time and the use of the electric motor in transportation not yet practical.

Electric Generators

The principle behind the dynamo or electric generator was discovered by Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry but the process of its development into a practical power generator consumed many years. Without a dynamo for the generation of power, the development of the electric motor was at a standstill, and electricity could not be widely used for transportation, manufacturing, or lighting like it is used for today.

Street Lights 

The arc light as a practical illuminating device was invented in 1878 by Ohio engineer Charles Brush (1849–1929). Others had attacked the problem of electric lighting, but a lack of suitable carbons stood in the way of their success. Brush made several lamps light in series from one dynamo. The first Brush lights were used for street illumination in Cleveland, Ohio.

Other inventors improved the arc light, but there were drawbacks. For outdoor lighting and for large halls arc lights worked well, but arc lights could not be used in small rooms. Besides, they were in series, that is, the current passed through every lamp in turn, and an accident to one threw the whole series out of action. The whole problem of indoor lighting was to be solved by one of America's most famous inventors: Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931).

Thomas Edison Stock Ticker

The first of Edison's multitudinous inventions with electricity was an automatic vote recorder, for which he received a patent in 1868, but was unable to arouse any interest in the device. Then he invented a stock ticker, and started a ticker service in Boston with 30 or 40 subscribers and operated from a room over the Gold Exchange. This machine Edison attempted to sell in New York, but he returned to Boston without having succeeded. He then invented a duplex telegraph by which two messages might be sent simultaneously, but at a test, the machine failed because of the stupidity of the assistant.

In 1869, Edison was on the spot when the telegraph failed at the Gold Indicator Company, a concern furnishing Stock Exchange gold prices to its subscribers. That led to his appointment as superintendent, but when a change in the ownership of the company threw him out of the position he formed, with Franklin L. Pope, the partnership of Pope, Edison, and Company, the first firm of electrical engineers in the United States.

Improved Stock Ticker, Lamps, and Dynamos

Not long afterward Thomas Edison released the invention which started him on the road to success. This was the improved stock ticker, and the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company paid him $40,000 for it. Thomas Edison immediately set up a shop in Newark. He improved the system of automatic telegraphy that was in use at that time and introduced it into England. He experimented with submarine cables and worked out a system of quadruplex telegraphy by which one wire was made to do the work of four.

These two inventions were bought by Jay Gould, owner of the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. Gould paid $30,000 for the quadruplex system but refused to pay for the automatic telegraph. Gould had bought the Western Union, his only competition. "When Gould got the Western Union," said Edison, "I knew no further progress in telegraphy was possible, and I went into other lines."

Menlo Park

Edison resumed his work for the Western Union Telegraph Company, where he invented a carbon transmitter and sold it to the Western Union for $100,000. On the strength of that, Edison set up laboratories and factories at Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876, and it was there that he invented the phonograph, patented in 1878, and began a series of experiments which produced his incandescent lamp.

Thomas Edison was dedicated to producing an electric lamp for indoor use. His first research was for a durable filament which would burn in a vacuum. A series of experiments with a platinum wire and various refractory metals had unsatisfactory results, as did many other substances, including human hair. Edison concluded that carbon of some sort was the solution rather than a metal—English inventor Joseph Swan (1828–1914), had came to the same conclusion in 1850.

In October 1879, after fourteen months of hard work and the expenditure of $40,000, a carbonized cotton thread sealed in one of Edison's globes was tested and lasted forty hours. "If it will burn forty hours now," said Edison, "I know I can make it burn a hundred." And so he did. A better filament was needed. Edison found it in carbonized strips of bamboo.

Edison Dynamo

Edison also developed his own type of dynamo, the largest ever made up to that time. Along with the Edison incandescent lamps, it was one of the wonders of the Paris Electrical Exposition of 1881.

Installation in Europe and America of plants for electrical service soon followed. Edison's first great central station, supplying power for three thousand lamps, was erected at Holborn Viaduct, London, in 1882, and in September of that year the Pearl Street Station in New York City, the first central station in America, was put into operation.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Beauchamp, Kenneth G. "History of Telegraphy." Stevenage UK: Institute of Engineering and Technology, 2001.
  • Brittain, J.E. "Turning Points in American Electrical History." New York: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Press, 1977. 
  • Klein, Maury. "The Power Makers: Steam, Electricity, and the Men Who Invented Modern America." New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008. 
  • Shectman, Jonathan. "Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the 18th Century." Greenwood Press, 2003.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "History of Electricity." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-electricity-1989860. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). History of Electricity. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-electricity-1989860 Bellis, Mary. "History of Electricity." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-electricity-1989860 (accessed March 28, 2023).