Electricity plays a huge role in almost everything we depend on in our daily life. But do you know how electricity works, its history, and what makes it so useful? This article covers some of the most interesting facts about electricity throughout history to the modern day.
When talking about electricity facts, it's fitting we begin with the first human contact with electricity which goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. In 2750 BC, Ancient Egyptians referred to the electric catfish Malapterurus electricus as the Thunderer of the Nile and considered it the protector of other fish in the Nile.
Ancient texts revealed that Egyptians used an electric marine ray, a torpedo, as an electrotherapy treatment for epilepsy5. In 1200 AD, Abd al-Latif discovered another type of electric catfish stronger than the torpedo ray in the river Nile2.
Philosophers Plato and Aristotle also mentioned the torpedoes in 300 BC. Another philosopher named Plutarch spoke about the experiments on torpedo ray fish, noting that when the electric fish came ashore, people poured water on them and experienced numbing shock. Roman doctors also utilized electric fish to shock their patients with an electric current, seemingly to cure chronic headaches.
There is a common misconception about electric current and its speed: electricity travels at the speed of light, but this is false.
Electricity occurs due to the movement of electrons in a conductor. Electricity can't travel in a vacuum. Unlike light, it needs a conductor. Drift velocity is electricity's actual speed rather than a singular electron's speed. Instead, the actual speed of electricity is the average speed of electrons when connected to an electrical field, which depending on the conductor, is usually around 90% of the speed of light or 270,000 km per second.
Contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin did not invent electricity. On a stormy night in 1752, Franklin famously flew a kite in an endeavor to prove that lightning was, in fact, electricity.
To make the experiment work, he attached a wire to the top of the kite and a hemp string that would carry the charge. During the experiment, the kite picked up static electricity from the storm, and he felt a spark through the damp hemp string. Dispelling another myth related to this famous story, it's improbable that the kite was actually struck by lightning, as Franklin would not have lived to tell the tale.
The experiment proved that lightning carried an electric charge; however, a wide range of experiments with static electricity had occurred prior, and this wasn’t the first time it was discovered.
The Statue of Liberty, in 1986, was the first American lighthouse to use electricity. The world-famous Statue of Liberty monument is 46m tall, and its torch can be seen from over 30km away.
President Grover Cleaveland commissioned the Statue of Liberty's torch on October 28, 1886. It functioned as a lighthouse between 1886 and 1902. During these times, an on-site generator powered its nine arc lamps.
Worldwide, the Souter Lighthouse in Southshields, UK, was the first purpose-built lighthouse to use electricity and started protecting ships from treacherous reefs on the Tyne and Wear coastline in 1871.
German immigrant John Augustus Roebling designed and monitored the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge from the beginning of its construction in 1869. Many mishaps and accidents occurred during construction but didn't deter them. As the bridge neared completion, construction workers installed 70 blue and white electric arc lamps 100 feet apart along the promenade to illuminate its structure.
After Roebling completed his final corrections on the bridge, President Chester Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland conducted an opening ceremony on May 24, 1883. Thus, the Brooklyn Bridge became the first bridge in the world to use electricity.
Between 1882 and 1839, Robert Anderson invented the first successful electric carriage, a motorized vehicle that used galvanic battery cells.
Another inventor, Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, created an electric locomotive prototype in 1837. Later, in 1841, he built a better and bigger version that could travel 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons.
In England, Thomas Parker built electric trams and prototypes of electric vehicles in 1859. Also, American inventor William Morrison invented the first electric carriage in the US in 1887, which appeared in a city parade in 1888, powered by 24 batteries. These inventors created a wave of electric cars, later replaced by fossil fuel-powered alternatives that were more efficient and cheaper to run. However, their work began the journey toward today's EVs.
Since the discovery of electricity, many inventors have created various household electrical appliances. In 1892, Thomas Ahearn patented an electric oven. In 1897, William Hadaway created a design for an electric stove.
However, electric stoves didn't become popular until the 1900s, when electricity had become a common phenomenon. David Curle Smith patented the Kalgoorlie Stove in November 1905, and his wife wrote the first cookbook for the appliance. This early version of the stove didn’t have a thermostat; instead, users controlled the temperature by varying the number of elements used.
Consequently, other stove designs followed suit with further alterations that gave us the electric stoves we use today. In 1915 Lloyd Copemand invented and patented an electric stove with a thermostat and later sold the patent to Westinghouse, the precursor of many of the appliances we now have in our kitchens. Other electrical appliances like microwaves, ovens, refrigerators, and toasters became popular in the 1990s.
We all attribute the invention of conventional bulbs to Thomas Edison. However, he wasn't the one that invented light bulbs. Many inventors experimented with and contributed to the creation of today’s modern light bulbs.
The invention of light bulbs started with Italian inventor Alessandro Volta. He developed the voltaic pile, the first practical method to create an electric current and generate electricity reliably. It signaled the beginning of incandescent lightning.
Later on, the inventor Davy made the first electric arc lamp in the world using the voltaic piles created by Alessandro Volta. Manufacturers used his design to produce light bulbs throughout the 1800s until Warren De La Rue built an efficient light bulb with coiled platinum.
After Warren's invention in 1840, Joseph Swan created a light bulb that used carbonized paper filaments. Some years later, Thomas Edison built light bulbs with high electrical resistance, which were later widely used as commercial bulbs, suitable to generate a volume of light.
One of the interesting facts about electricity relates to our brains, which generate electric currents. The cells in our brains and bodies communicate through messages that create electricity. The neurons in our bodies have ion particles that move around in the outer cell membrane. These ion particles generate power when charged, and their movements cause an electrical wavelength.
Electrical current moves from one neuron to another through the release of neurotransmitters8, chemical signals released by the nerve cell. Then, it travels across the synapses to another neuron to generate electrical wavelengths. Electricity travels through our neurons because it has tiny channels that allow energy to pass through.
Worldwide, refrigerators consume a lot of energy1. About 70% of homes use refrigerators worldwide, with the vast majority of homes in the developed world having one. In the United Kingdom, refrigerators used in supermarkets consume around 1% of the country's electricity production. Statistics say their consumption is enough to power almost 800,000 homes.
Research shows that in 2021 Iceland used the most electricity per capita4, beating Norway and Qatar to the top spot. Several reasons exist, including the cold climate year-round requiring the heating of homes and businesses, as well as the abundance of relatively cheap electricity.
Iceland has a great deal of geothermal activity, which it uses to cost-effectively supply around 25% of the country's electricity demand.
Related: Read more on the environmental impact of geothermal energy
The tiny light-emitting diodes in LED bulbs are far more efficient at turning electricity into light sources for our homes and businesses. Using regular incandescent bulbs with a filament requires 4 times as much electricity to create the same amount of light. Even better, they usually last as long, saving you the cost of replacing them regularly. Whereas they can cost more to purchase initially, you can still save around 90% versus the more frequent purchase of regular bulbs and factoring in the increased cost of running them.
Alongside firing in our brains, another interesting fact about electricity is its significant role in our body, especially our heart. How do we need the energy to keep our heart pumping?
Our heart needs a source of energy and oxygen to function healthily. Some parts of the heart produce electric impulses to help ensure the heart beats regularly and correctly. Energy generation starts from the right side of the heart in a place called the Sinus node.
It generates electrical energy 60 to 100 times in a minute. Then, it moves through conduction pathways, and the ventricle muscle cells contract, pumping blood. The movement of electricity through our hearts is responsible for our heartbeats. Sometimes, energy moves too slow or too fast, causing heart problems like Tachycardia and Bradycardias, problems scientists can often solve by introducing electric pacemakers.
A microwave oven’s digital clock uses more energy than it does to heat a small amount of your food. Additionally, the Energy Star program, which rates the energy usage of appliances around the home, states that using microwaves uses 80% less energy the reheating conventionally on the stove or in the oven.
An electrocardiogram is a simple test used to evaluate the heart's health status by displaying the heart's electrical activity. It doesn't send shocks into the body. Electrocardiogram ECG machines have electrodes attached to them with lead wires which, when placed on specific parts of the body, show the rhythm of your heartbeat.
Augustus D. Waller revealed the first electrocardiogram measurement in 1887. He did it using a mercury capillary electrometer and a toy train to trace the electrical activity of an intact heart3.
As time passed, other scientists and inventors improved his original design. Now, we have accurate ECG machines that measure electrical impulses of the heart and alert us about heart conditions that cause a change in its standard reading.
We often see birds sit on power lines and not get electrocuted. How is that possible? We know that if a human being touches a power line, the person could die from electric shocks. A bird sits on a power line with two feet on a cable and doesn't trigger the electrons in the wire to move through the bird's body.
We get electric shocks because we trigger the movement of electric currents and provide a path for electric currents to pass through, normally to the ground. However, the bird will experience electrocution if it places its legs on two different electrical wires because its body has created a path for moving electrons.
A power plant is an industrial facility producing electricity from primary energy, including coal, crude oil, fossil fuels, and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Thomas Edison built the first power plant in 1882 in London, which could power up to 5,000 lights.
Electric eels, also known as Electrophorus electricus, are native to South America's Amazon and Orinoco basins. They generate high amounts of electric charge to protect themselves from predators. They also use their powerful electric charge to disarm their prey before consumption.
Electric eels can produce up to 600 watts of electricity because of their 6000 specialized cells, referred to as electrocytes. These electrocytes store power and discharge it when needed7.
A taser is an electronic device that releases an electric shock to incapacitate a living organism. An average taser produces up to 50,000 voltages of power. It is powerful enough to overwhelm nerve signals and causes involuntary muscle contractions6. It also impairs motor skills.
Static electricity is an imbalance of electrons on a surface. Static electricity builds up inside a storm cloud, and it causes lightning. The polarization of positive and negative charges within a storm cloud is the precursor to any lightning strike. Storm clouds' tops pick up extra positive charges while bottoms pick negative ones.
The typical lightning bolt transfers 100 million volts to the ground.
A cloud's surrounding air should typically act as a sufficient insulator to stop an electron discharge to Earth. A cloud's potent electric fields have the power to ionize the air in the area and increase its conductivity.
Apart from lightning, humans' first known contact with static electricity was as early as 1660. A German scientist, Otto van Guericke built an electric generator that produced static electricity.
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Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.