Where would we be without electricity? One answer, advanced by the Eagle comic in their 1980’s cartoon strip “The Tower King”, is that we would be sent back into a new middle ages and have to go and live in a Castle again in some kind of Game of Thrones world. Simply put then electricity is incredibly important and vital to our modern day survival. No Television, no computers, with cooking food and boiling water over open fires becoming the norm. Steam trains would have to come back though so it’s not all bad. Luckily we are not in that space in society, electricity powers some incredible technological advances such as the products provided by a Home Automation Company where you can control your home at the touch of a button. Who and how did we discover this miraculous power?
You can’t really “discover” electricity because it is a natural force that existed well before we came along with our fancy science ideas. Anyone looking out of their mud hut during a lighting storm could see that there was plainly something going on as there was all this bright hot flashing stuff shooting down from the sky blowing up trees and incinerating slow moving wildlife. Think instead of us understanding what it is and then trying to figure out how we can use it to our advantage, which is the approach that humans take to most things they find in the natural world.
Scientists knew about static electricity, probably by rubbing their feet on a carpet and then touching a mate, but the true discovery of really powerful electricity comes from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin theorised that electricity had both positively and negatively charged elements and electricity flowed between them. So, a cloud is a positive and the earth is the negative therefore the lighting is the flow of energy.
To test this he waited till there was a nice big storm and contrary to sensible advice he set off up a hill with a kite and key to illustrate this. He launched the kite up into the air with the key tied around it act as a conductor. The lightning stuck, the key glowed and Franklin got a shock but he had proved that electricity was a power. One hundred years later Thomas Edison used this power to generate a small amount of energy to pass through a metal coil in a light bulb.
Although Franklin gets the praise it turns out that using electricity might have older roots. The basics for batteries have been discovered in use by the Egyptians, who also had knowledge of steam power, and English’s scientists William Gilbert and Sir Thomas Browne were already studying it fifty years before Franklin.