The eccentric engineer

The history of electricity is wrought with pitfalls.

The mastery of electricity is perhaps what marks out modern society most from everything that has gone before it, but we're not really sure who discovered it. If you'd asked Edison he would have said that he did, but he said that about most things. In fact, the story begins 2,500 years earlier in Miletus, Greece.

Thales of Miletus is remembered for two things - believing that everything was made of water and falling into ditches. The former idea, though wrong, is said to be the first step in the history of science, the first time someone tried to explain the world around them without invoking God. The latter, which occurred a lot as Thales liked to look up at the sky while walking, also (according to Plato) had the added benefit of attracting young women, who would help him out of ditches and tease him about his absent-mindedness.

This only encouraged Thales to fall into more ditches. But he also discovered a third thing - that by rubbing amber on fur, the hairs on the fur could be made to stand on end. Indeed, if rubbed hard enough a spark could be seen jumping between the two.

Progress after this was slow. It was 1600AD before anyone gave a name to this phenomenon - electricity - ironically enough choosing the Greek work 'elektron' which means 'amber' and which Thales already knew.

That man was William Gilbert, who was also the first person to realise that compasses point north because the Earth is a giant magnet - not because there is a large floating magnetic island near the North Pole (as was previously thought). Sadly, just after realising this he died of bubonic plague, further slowing the history of electricity.

Otto von Guericke was the next bright spark. He invented the first electrostatic generator in 1660, but he wasn't really sure what to do with it and decided instead to invent the scourge of every school science lesson, 'Magdeburg hemispheres'.

Having created electricity it was another 85 years before any-one worked out how to store it - in 'Leyden Jars', invented by Pieter van Musschenbroek at Leyden University. What he was saving it for, however, he wasn't quite sure. It wasn't until two years later that William Watson realised it discharged an electrical current.

At exactly the same time, and on the opposite side of the Atlantic, another scientist, freedom fighter and part-time politician Benjamin Franklin, was also experimenting with electrical discharges but on a larger scale. He realised that lightning was electricity and proved it by performing one of the most dangerous experiments in the history of science - flying kites in thunderstorms. Fortunately for Franklin, he understood about insulation and hence never waited for his kite to be struck by lightning.

The Russian scientist Georg von Richmann was not so lucky. In attempting to copy Franklin's experiment, and perhaps due to an unfortunate flaw in the translation, he attached himself directly to his kite and waited for lightning to strike. It did, and he was spectacularly killed by ball lightning hitting his forehead. In the process, he became the first human version of another great Franklin invention - the lightning conductor.

Franklin's work was now inspiring a whole generation (if you'll pardon the pun) of electrical experimenters. In Italy, Luigi Galvani, spurred by Richmann's explosive exit from the world, realised that by applying electricity to the nerves of dead frogs he could re-animate them, making them twitch. From this he deduced that electricity was the 'stuff of life'. It laid the scientific background for Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein'.

But while all this twitching was great fun, no-one yet knew what electricity was useful for. That is, until Michael Faraday came along. In 1821 he made the great leap forward of finding something to do with electricity when he built the world's first electrical motor. This made him famous and made his old friend William Hyde Wollaston furious - he claimed it was his idea. What Faraday did work out on his own, however, was that by cranking his electrical motor by hand it worked in reverse, producing an electrical current - the generator was born.

All he needed now was somewhere to store all that electricity and fortunately, in Italy, a friend of Galvani - Count Allessandro Volta - had conveniently just invented the battery, or 'Voltaic pile' as he called it, the successor to the Leyden Jar.

At the same time, a French mathematician, who had made his name by proving that habitual gamblers always lose in the end (something which no-one seemed to have realised before), developed the mathematics behind this strange electrical-magnetic force and, in gratitude, had the unit of current - the Ampere - named after him.

Now electricity could be generated and stored, it opened the floodgates to new electrical inventions. Only one query remained: how to get this wonderful new power to the masses. This would involve a man who invented a death ray, a horrific form of execution and an elephant called Topsy - but that is another story.

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