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Throwback Thursday: Science edition: Who brought the spark?

Welcome to this week’s edition of our blog series, Throwback Thursday! It goes without saying, electricity is something the modern world takes for granted. So, who do we have to thank for bringing us the spark…? Who invented electricity?! Let’s find out…

First of all, let’s establish that as a form of energy, electricity cannot be “invented”, however, it can be discovered. Electricity is a natural phenomenon, simply referring to the movement of electrons through a conducting material. There are many claims to the discovery of electricity and who first harnessed its power, and as we’ll find out, it has been studied by many, stretching across the centuries. It’s a common misconception that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, but in fact, electricity was discovered thousands of years before Franklin was even born!

As far as we know, the ancient Greeks were the first ones to dabble with the powers of electricity over 2,600 years ago! They found that when rubbing fossilised tree resin, otherwise known as amber, against animal fur, it would attract dried pieces of grass. In other words, they had stumbled upon static electricity. Ancient texts also tell us that the Egyptians knew that certain species of electric fish triggered shock in the body. It’s even thought that they used the Nile Catfish to treat headaches and pains. This practise, known as Ichthyoelectroanalgesia, remained in use for medical purposes until the late 1600s.

If we skip forward to somewhere in the late 1500s, English physicist William Gilbert used the Latin word “electricus” to describe the force that particular substances produce when rubbed together. Another English physicist, Thomas Browne, wrote several books a few years later in which he used the term “electricity” to describe his findings and the investigations he carried out based on Gilbert’s work. Although these two men can’t be credited with “discovering” electricity, maybe they can at least get naming rights?

This brings us to Mr Benjamin Franklin. In 1752 he conducted his infamous experiment using a kite, a key and a storm. Although a big breakthrough, this experiment simply proved that lightning and tiny electric sparks were the same thing. If we’re really getting into it, Franklin actually wasn’t the first to perform the experiment. Talk of Franklin’s theories had reached Europe, where Frenchman Thomas Francois D’Alimbard used a 50-foot metal rod in an effort to attract lightning, and he was successful with this experiment on 10th May 1752. Franklin’s experiment took place the following month, so he was just beaten to the post! Despite not actually discovering electricity, or even being the first to perform the experiment to show that lightning is electricity and cite his findings, Franklin is, however, credited as the first to draw up the hypothesis. Who knows, perhaps the lightning storm hit France first…

The next big development came in 1800, when Italian doctor, Luigi Galvani, noticed that when a frog touched two different metals, its legs twitched. This inspired his peer, Alessandro Volta, enabling him to conclude that electrical potential exists between two metal plates and that it was an electrical charge flowing through the frog’s legs that made it twitch. This concept led Volta to invent the first modern battery! One of the properties of electricity, Voltage, is named after Mr Volta. Perhaps a certain pink battery bunny mascot should have been a frog, though. Just a thought.

Around 30 years later, Michael Faraday (whom we’re already acquainted with) discovered a way for electricity to be used in a viable way, with his early version of a power generator. This invention paved the way for American inventor Thomas Edison and British scientist Joseph Swan, who each invented the incandescent light bulb in their respective countries around 1878. These were the first practical light bulbs and would stay lit for hours on end. In 1882, Edison and Swan set out on a joint venture and created the first practical filament lamp. Their system was used to provide power to illuminate New York City with the first electric streetlamps!

Another honourable mention goes to Serbian-American inventor, Nikola Tesla, the namesake for Elon Musk’s Tesla, yet a pioneer in his own right. Tesla’s work played a vital role in commercialising electricity. His experimentation became famous, plus he was responsible for revolutionary developments in electromagnetism, as well as alternating current (AC), AC motors, and polyphase distribution. Tesla also had a competing patent with Marconi for the invention of radio.

Harnessing electricity and manipulating it to specialised functionality was a huge milestone for the human race. Without the revolutionary minds of those mentioned above, plus many more, our world would be a completely different one to the one we know today. Electricity literally sparks our daily lives, providing us light, warmth, food, entertainment and much more! Despite it not technically being an invention, we’ve still made so much from it in a relatively short space of time, and that’s something to light up our moods in darker times.