Electricity is a general term applied to phenomena involving a fundamental property of matter called an electric charge. This article will introduce and explain some of the basic principles of electricity. In casual usage, the term electricity is applied to several related concepts that are better identified by more precise terms. Some of these concepts are the subjects of other articles:
- Electric charge: the basic concept involved in electricity, introduced in this article, but discussed more extensively in a separate article.
- Electric current: a movement or flow of electrically charged particles, introduced in this article, but discussed more extensively in a separate article.
- Electrical energy: a form of energy related to the position of an electric charge in an electric field.
- Electric power: electrical energy as it is delivered to individual, commercial and industrial customers for use in operating equipment, and providing heat and illumination.
- Electric potential or voltage: a measure of the force available to cause electric current to flow.
- Bioelectricity: electrical phenomena within living organisms.
- Piezoelectricity: the ability of certain crystals to generate a voltage in response to applied mechanical stress.
- Triboelectricity: electric charge taken on by contact or friction between two different materials.
Electric charge is a property of certain subatomic particles (e.g., electrons and protons) which interacts with electromagnetic fields and causes attractive and repulsive forces between them. Electric charge gives rise to one of the four fundamental forces of nature, and is a conserved property of matter that can be quantified. In this sense, the phrase "quantity of electricity" is used interchangeably with the phrases "charge of electricity" and "quantity of charge." There are two types of charge: we call one kind of charge positive and the other negative. Through experimentation, we find that like-charged objects repel and opposite-charged objects attract one another. The magnitude of the force of attraction or repulsion is given by Coulomb's law. Some electrical effects are discussed under electrical phenomenon and electromagnetism.
The SI unit of charge is the coulomb, which has the abbreviation "C". The symbol Q is used in equations to represent the quantity of electricity or charge. For example, "Q = 0.5 C" means "the quantity of electric charge is 0.5 coulomb."
According to Thales of Miletus, writing circa 600 BCE, a form of electricity was known to the Ancient Greeks, who found that rubbing fur on various substances, such as amber, would cause a particular attraction between the two. The Greeks noted that the amber buttons could attract light objects such as hair, and that if they rubbed the amber for long enough, they could even get a spark to jump. This is the origin of the word "electricity", from the Greek ēlektron = "amber", which came from an old root ēlek- = "shine".
An object found in Iraq in 1938, dated to about 250 BCE and called the Baghdad Battery, resembles a galvanic cell and is believed by some to have been used for electroplating. The conjecture that this or other ancient artifacts had an electrical function remains unproven, and such proposed ancient knowledge bears no known continuous relationship to the development of modern electrical technology.
In 1600 the English scientist William Gilbert returned to the subject in De Magnete, and coined the modern Latin word electricus from ηλεκτρον (elektron), the Greek word for "amber", which soon gave rise to the English words electric and electricity. He was followed in 1660 by Otto von Guericke, who is regarded as having invented an early electrostatic generator. Other European pioneers were Robert Boyle, who in 1675 stated that electric attraction and repulsion can act across a vacuum; Stephen Gray, who in 1729 classified materials as conductors and insulators; and C. F. Du Fay, who first identified the two types of electricity that would later be called positive and negative. The Leyden jar, a type of capacitor for electrical energy in large quantities, was invented at Leiden University by Pieter van Musschenbroek in 1745. William Watson, experimenting with the Leyden jar, discovered in 1747 that a discharge of static electricity was equivalent to an electric current.
In June, 1752, Benjamin Franklin promoted his investigations of electricity and theories through the famous, though extremely dangerous, experiment of flying a kite during a thunderstorm. Following these experiments he invented a lightning rod and established the link between lightning and electricity. If Franklin did fly a kite in a storm, he did not do it the way it is often described (as it would have been dramatic but fatal). It was either Franklin (more frequently) or Ebenezer Kinnersley of Philadelphia (less frequently) who created the convention of positive and negative electricity.
Franklin's observations aided later scientists such as Michael Faraday, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, André-Marie Ampère, and Georg Simon Ohm whose work provided the basis for modern electrical technology. The work of Faraday, Volta, Ampere, and Ohm is honored by society, in that fundamental units of electrical measurement are named after them.
Volta worked with chemicals and discovered that chemical reactions could be used to create positively charged anodes and negatively charged cathodes. When a conductor was attached between these, the difference in the electrical potential (also known as voltage) drives a current between them through the conductor. The potential difference between two points is measured in units of volts in recognition of Volta's work.
The invention of the telegraph showed that commercial and practical use could be made of electrical phenomena. By the end of the 19th century electrical engineering became a distinct profession, separate from the physicist or inventor. The late 19th and early 20th century produced such giants of electrical engineering as Nikola Tesla, inventor of the polyphase induction motor; Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph; Antonio Meucci, an inventor of the telephone; Thomas Edison inventor of the phonograph and a practical incandescent light bulb; George Westinghouse, inventor of the electric locomotive; Charles Steinmetz, theoretician of alternating current; Alexander Graham Bell, another inventor of the telephone and founder of a sucessful telephone business.
The rapid advance of electrical technology in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries lead to commercial rivalry such as the so-called War of the Currents), between Edison's direct-current system or Westinghouse's alternating-current method. Often concurrent research in widely scattered locations lead to multiple claims to the invention of a device or system.
The electric charge which occurs naturally within conductors can be forced to flow, while the charges within insulators are locked in place and cannot be moved. Devices that use charge flow principles in materials are called electronic devices. A flow of electric charge is called an electric current. A direct current (DC) is a unidirectional flow; alternating current (AC) is a flow whose time average is zero, but whose energy capability (RMS level) is not zero. With AC the electric current repeatedly changes direction.
Ohm's Law is an important relationship describing the behaviour of electric currents:
is the applied voltage, measured in volts
is the current, measured in amperes
is the resistance, measured in ohms
(Therefore it is "Voltage equals Ampere multiplied by Ohms.")
For historical reasons, electric current is said to flow from the most positive part of a circuit to the most negative part. The electric current thus defined is called conventional current. It is now known that, depending on the type of conductor, an electric current can consist of a flow of charged particles in either direction, or even in both directions at once. The positive-to-negative convention is widely used to simplify this situation. If another definition is used - for example, "electron current" - it should be explicitly stated.
SI electricity units
- Electrical phenomenon
- Electric charge
- Electric power (for energy transfer using electricity)
- Electric shock
- High-voltage hazards
- Lock and tag procedure for hazardous energy safety in the United States
Electrical phenomena in nature
- Bioelectricity — Many animals are sensitive to electric fields, some (e.g., sharks) more than others (e.g., people). Most also generate their own electric fields.
- Gymnotiformes, such as the electric eel, deliberately generate strong fields to detect or stun their prey.
- Neurons in the nervous system transmit information by electrical impulses known as action potentials.
- Matter — since atoms and molecules are held together by electric forces.
- The Earth's magnetic field — created by electric currents circulating in the planet's core.
- Sometimes due to solar flares, a phenomenon known as a power surge can be created, which can be very damaging to sensitive electrical equipment such as computers. However, such damage can be prevented by using a surge protector.
- What is electricity?
- Merriam-Webster: Electricity
- Tyndall: Faraday as Discovery: Identity of Electricities
- US Energy Department Statistics
- How to save on your electricity bills
- Electricity around the world
- A Comprehensive Collection of Franklin’s Electrical Works: The Electrical Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Created and Collected by Robert A. Morse (2004)
- Understanding Electricity and some Electronics in 10 minutes(Steve Rose, Maui)
- Electricity Misconceptions
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