GeekHistory II

Who discovered electricity?

Asking who discovered electricity is the equivalent to asking who first discovered fire. Electricity existed before humans walked the earth. You could probably make the case that the first human to discover fire also discovered electricity as they watched a bolt of lightning strike the earth to start a fire. The bolts of static electricity we see in the sky in the form of lightning during a thunderstorm show the power of electricity.

Ancient writings show that various cultures around the Mediterranean knew that rods of amber could be rubbed with cat fur or silk to attract light objects like feathers. Amber is fossilized tree resin gemstone used in making a variety of decorative objects and jewelry. Amber has been used as a healing agent in folk medicine. The first particle known to carry electric charge, the electron, is named for the Greek word for amber, ēlektron.

If you are looking for a name of someone "who discovered electricity" you could possible look to the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624 B.C. to 546 B.C.). Thales was known for his innovative use of geometry, but his writings are some of the first to document the principles of magnetism and static electricity. Thales documented magnetism through his observations that loadstone attracts iron, and static electricity through his observations of static electricity by rubbing fur on substances such as amber.

Some stories claim that various artifacts found shows some electricity production was possible in the Middle East thousands of years ago. For telling the story here at Geek History, and busting the myth that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity we will start in more modern times offering the name of William Gilbert as the first person to define electricity around 1600. Each person on the list that follows contributed to our modern understanding of electricity.

William Gilbert (1544-1603) is regarded as the father of electrical engineering and one of the first scientists to document the concept of electricity in his book De Magnete published in 1600. William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism and defined the distinction between electricity and magnetism in his series of books. Gilbert coined the term electricity from the Greek word elecktra.

Robert William Boyle (1627-1691) is regarded as the first modern chemist and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. Boyle is also credited with experiments in the fields electricity and magnetism. In 1675, Boyle published "Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origine or Production of Electricity."

Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790) is often credited in various books and websites as having discovered electricity in the 1750s. The legendary story of Franklin's experiments with flying a kite in a thunderstorm allegedly took place in 1752. Although Franklin was quite a scientist and inventor, which included inventing the lightning rod, scientists such as William Gilbert and Robert William Boyle began documenting the concept of electricity long before Franklin's experiments.

Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) was an Italian physicist that is regarded as one of the greatest scientists of his time. Before we move on to the next section where we look at AC power distribution we give thanks to Alessandro Volta, the scientist who discovered that particular chemical reactions could produce electricity. Volta invented the first battery in 1799 known as the Voltaic Pile. The unit of electromotive force, the volt, was name to honor Volta.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) British physicist and chemist, demonstrated the first simple electric motor, in 1821, in London. The original "science guy," in 1826 Faraday founded the Friday Evening Discourses and in the same year the Christmas Lectures for young people at the Royal Institution. In 1832 Faraday demonstrated that three types of electricity thought to be different that induced from a magnet, electricity produced by a battery, and static electricity were in fact all the same. Faraday introduced several words into the electricity vocabulary such as ion, electrode, cathode, and anode.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) introduced his mathematical conceptualization of electromagnetic phenomena to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1855. The Scottish physicist's best-known discoveries concern the relationship between electricity and magnetism and are summarized in what has become known as Maxwell’s Equations. Maxwell's pioneering work during the second half of the 19th century unified the theories of electricity, magnetism, and light.

Graphic: Long before television Michael Faraday nineteenth century scientist and electricity pioneer took science to the people as illustrated here delivering the British Royal Institution's Christmas Lecture for Juveniles during the Institution's Christmas break in 1856.

Learn More:

George Westinghouse used Tesla power to defeat Edison in Currents War


README 1ST GeekHistory II the sequel

The idea for the website GeekHistory started when I was teaching Internet and web building courses in 1996. I would start each course with a brief history lesson showing the evolution of the internet that started in the 1960s. Some students commented that it was a boring waste of time, some students praised it as an interesting and information introduction to the course.  It seems that history is a topic that people either love it or hate it.

Because of many positive comments by students on the brief history on the internet lesson I registered the domain back in 2001 with the hopes of developing a history of technology website. I still have a lot of notes collected over the years. With web site URLs as references for my material. some of my resources are notes from websites that no longer exist. Very few of the sites still exist in the from they did back then. I found a lot of good reference material on the Altavista website. Thankfully I printed a lot of that content and have paper copies of the material in a binder.

GeekHistory was just a shell of a website for many years, just an idea bouncing around in my brain. After more than a decade of owning the domain name I finally started devoting time to building the website on the history of technology. In recent years I have immersed myself into research on various topics, looking for the original sources, in order to tell the story of the history of technology based on various generations of ideas and timelines.

We are developing the website GeekHistory like a book with chapters focused on various generations of inventors and inventions.  As we sort through all the information we have gathered over the years, and continue to sort through, we decided to create the companion website GeekHistory II more in the format of an almanac with various lists, fast facts and quick answers to simple questions.

The goal of GeekHistory

My lifelong love of history and technology comes together at GeekHistory. I began working with radios and telecommunications in the Army National Guard in the 1970s and my first certification was a FCC general class radiotelephone license. A life long evolution from field service technician for various office automation companies through my current career in systems administration and telecommunications has inspired me as a writer and web developer of technology topics.

Even though my personal collection of material for the study of geek history dates back to my early days in technology as far back as the 1970s, I am always finding new questions and new myths and legends to address. Through question and answer, Twitter wars, and various other social media outlets, I keep running across myths and misinformation represented as facts, sending me off on a quest to find the truth. Anytime a claim is made or a fact is stated from a website or blog that does not appear to have first hand knowledge of the subject I make a note to follow up on it.   I am continuously finding articles by allegedly credible newspapers and magazines and respected organizations that are based on popular myths, which sets me off in search of original sources of information to find the truth.

I am not a university professor with a team of editors and advisers working with me developing a website. I am one man who loves technology and history and is amazed by how little people know about the great minds in the world of technology. Geek History is not meant to be an authoritative source for technology history. We are just trying to get you to think about the many amazing people that have contributed to the work of technology. Our goal is to increase awareness, educate, and entertain.

One of my inspirations for the Guru42 Universe is the Oliver Wendall Holmes quote, "Man's mind once stretched never goes back to its original dimension." The more I learn about geek history, the more questions I have, and the more I want to know.

The who invented myth and eureka moment that never happened

Every question that begins with "who invented" should get this as an auto response, "it is usually a fallacy to credit a single individual with the invention of a complicated device. Complicated devices draw on the works of multiple people."

We spend a lot of time looking where to give credit to people for various invention when they were nothing more than the next step in the evolution of the world of technology.

Inventions during the Industrial Revolution involved a series of new devices and creations where man power, and literally horse power, was being replaced by machines. From steam engines that turned manual labor in mechanical contraptions, to the automobile, that turned the horse power of a live horse, to the horse power of an internal combustion engine. The inventions of the industrial age were an evolution of doing existing things in very new ways. The 18th century idea of an invention was genuinely more individual and less systemic.

It was a different world in the industrial age of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The greatest minds and the greatest laboratories were not inventing things at universities, but were working in what resembled an industrial machine shop. Thomas Edison institutionalized the concept of the individual inventor, his invention factory took the concept of one man in a lab tinkering with an issue and changed it into project management where one man hired a team to do more than he could as an individual. People say that Edison stole ideas because he had other people do the experiments and he took credit. No, that was the real genius, he created the invention factory. There are many menial tasks that need done, he automated the process.

When the internet and personal computers were being developed in the 1960s and 1970s, most of the geeks were doing their work at universities, much of the work sponsored by government agencies like DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.)

What does it take to become a great inventor?

Being an inventor is not a field of study, it is a state of mind. Great inventors, innovators, industrialists, all had one thing in common, a passion for their ideas, and a passion to turn their visions into reality. There are endless stories of "inventors" who were always tinkering with things. They had a burning desire to understand how things worked.

Using a tree branch to help us pry something apart, we have invented a lever. Using a tree trunk that rolls to help us move something heavy, rather than dragging it across a flat surface, we have the beginnings of a wheel. As these very simple solutions to very simple problems became refined, they become inventions.

The nature of man is solving problems, and the solutions to these problems are inventions. And the successful inventor will tell you, it is more than just having an idea, it is turning that idea into something people can use.

Inventor or innovator?

Often there is a bit of a smug attitude that favors giving someone credit for an invention versus just being an innovator. A good example for my thought is remarks I've seen is regarding Henry Ford, "he didn't invent anything."

Even if Henry Ford invented nothing, he changed everything. Ford did not invent the automobile, Ford did not invent the assembly line. What Ford did is improve upon the assembly line with a passion that drove down the price of an automobile significantly. He turned the automobile from just a rich man's toy, to something the average American could afford. Ford improved upon the design of the automobile and the assembly line and revolutionized an industry.

The concept of the automobile, and specifically the electric automobile, is an idea that has been around for more than 100 years. Henry Ford thought about electric automobile, as did other inventors, over a hundred years ago. But what is one of the hottest topics in modern technology? The electric car? There is a fascination in recent years of the work of Tesla Motors and recently Faraday Future made news with the showing of a new electric automobile prototype.

Isn't technology an ongoing evolution of ideas and innovations? Do you see the work of modern electric car companies like Tesla Motors and Faraday Future as inventing new things or combining existing things? The more important question I would ask, is why does that distinction even matter?

In search of the glorified eureka moment

There are many special individuals have those eureka moments, where one idea changes everything. There are visionaries who have an idea and see what is possible before the technology exists to make it real. There are inventors who take visions and made them real. There are innovators who take a good invention and make it great. There are the industrialists who take an invention and develop it into an industry.

Study people to learn from their success, and their failures. Try to understand when a burning desire can turn into a dangerous obsession.

Question everything. Find something that really interests you, and learn everything you can about the topic. How does it work, how could it be made better.

Geeks introduce us to brave new worlds, with visions of the future. Geeks pick up where others left off, to turn a vision into a reality.