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Project Outline

How did scientists respond to the discovery of electricity?

What was the initial public response to the discovery and development of Electricity.?

How did it change social attitudes and perceptions?

What major changes did it bring about in the life of the society?

Research Information


  • In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb a major step in the human use of storable energy leading eventually to large-scale electrification. Electricity is similar to a liquid fuel in that it can be transported easily from one place to another. One of Edison's goals was to make electricity affordable for all homes. Edison began with the distribution of electricity through a direct current (DC).
  • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the steam turbine, using coal as a fuel, was developed as a cheap power source that generated electricity. In 1882, the first functional steam turbine was designed by Charles Parsons, an English engineer. He used the high pressure of steam to hit the blades of a rotor. The principle of the turbine was a major step toward today's production of electricity.
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Scientific Contribution to the Mankind

  • Electric power arrived barely a hundred years ago, but it has radically transformed and expanded our energy use. To a large extent, electricity defines modern technological civilization.
  • The scientists’ achievements during the past years have contributed tremendously to man’s progress towards civilization. In the field of electricity, Michael Faraday gave the world the first dynamo which generates electricity. Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor who gave light to the world. All these inventions of scientists and the benefits they have brought to mankind cannot be denied. They have improved the lives of all the people around the world and have given them a life of comfort.
  • Science has made great strides in this century and needless to say it is greatly due to electricity. Transport, communication, medical science and so many other branches of inventions and discoveries are made possible due to the availability of electric power.
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Larger Social and Political Context

  • The major way in which the discovery of electricity and the subsequent technological applications impacted the western world was by highlighting a new relationship between science and technology—a relationship in which the state played a major role. Traditionally, craftsmen and tradesmen were the source of technological advancement, altering the methods or tools used for their particular craft.
  • The theory followed the application. D.S.L Cardwell reinforces this point when he writes:
“If we agree that thermodynamics was a gift from the power technologies to science and philosophy, the contemporaneous development of electromagnetic field theory was to prove no less important a gift, but in the opposite direction.”
  • In terms of distribution, T.K. Derry writes, “the 1880’s saw the beginning of general recognition of the economic advantages of central power-stations generating electricity at highvoltages and serving large areas: acceptance of this principle brought with it new problems of distribution, both practical and economic.”.
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People Response for Discovery of Electricity

  • In 1740, electricity was a novel and fashionable subject. Most people thought that electricity was as mysterious as heaven. When Franklin gave the idea of lightning being a source of electricity, people were exited, and he was supported all around the world.
  • If Ben hadn't discovered lightning was electricity, we would not have anything that could run on it. Although many people have researched electricity and found how it worked, fewer research and experiments would have happened. Electricity has gone far from Benjamin Franklin's basic idea. We now have computers, lamps, speakers, T.V., and many more things that run on electricity.
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  • Many people think Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity with his famous Kite flying experiments in 1752.Electricity was not “discovered “ all at once. People wanted a cheap and safe way to light their homes, and scientist thought electricity could do it.
  • Electricity didn’t have easy beginning. While many people were thrilled with all the new inventions,some people were afraid of electricity and wary of bringing it into their homes.They were afraid to let their children near this strange new power source.
  • Many social critics of the day saw electricity as an end to the simpler, less hectic way of life. Poets commented that electric lights were less romantic than gaslights.Perhaps they were right, but the new electric age could not be dimmed.
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  • The construction of a dam can have a serious environmental impact on the surrounding areas. The amount and the quality of water downstream can be affected, which affects plant life both aquatic, and land-based. Because a river valley is being flooded, the local habitat of many species are destroyed, while people living nearby may have to relocate their homes.
  • Wind towers can be beneficial for people living permanently, or temporarily, in remote areas. It may be difficult to transport electricity through wires from a power plant to a far-away location and thus, wind towers can be set up at the remote setting.
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Impact of Electricity on Society

  • Electric power developed slowly, however. Humphrey Davy built a battery-powered arc lamp in 1808 and Michael Faraday an induction dynamo in 1831, but it was another half-century before Thomas Edison's primitive cotton-thread filament burned long enough to prove that a workable electric light could be made.
  • Edison opened the first electricity generating plant (in London) less than 3 years later, in January 1882, and followed with the first American plant (in New York) in September. Within a month, electric current from New York's Pearl Street station was feeding 1,300 lightbulbs, and within a year, 11,000--each a hundred times brighter than a candle. Edison's reported goal was to "make electric light so cheap that only the rich will be able to burn candles."
  • High costs and the Great Depression, which dried up most investment capital, delayed electric service to rural Americans until President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935.
  • The primary regulation of the generation, distribution, and transmission of electric power occurs at the state level through various state public utility commissions. Because the production of electric energy is connected with a public interest, states have a vested interest in overseeing it and working to guarantee that electricity will be produced in a safe, efficient, and expedient manner.
Electric Utility Retail Sales by Sector

Electric Utility Retail Sales by Sector

  • From 1949 to 2000, while the population of the United States expanded 89 percent, the amount of electricity use grew 1,315 percent. Per-capita average consumption of electricity in 2000 was more than seven times as high as in 1949. Electricity's broad usage in the economy can be seen in the sector totals, which were led in 2000 by the residential sector, followed closely by the industrial sector, and then the commercial sector.
  • Just as electricity's applications and sources change over time, so is the structure of the electric power sector itself evolving. The sector is now moving away from the traditional, highly regulated organizations known for decades as electric utilities and toward an environment marked by lighter regulation and greater competition from and among nonutility power producers.
  • In addition to the conversion losses, line losses occur during the transmission and distribution of electricity as it is transferred via connecting wires from the generating plant to substations (transmission), where its voltage is lowered, and from the substations to end users (distribution), such as homes, hospitals, stores, schools, and businesses. The generating plant itself uses some of the electricity. In the end, for every three units of energy that are converted to create electricity, only about one unit actually reaches the end user.

Electric Power Sector Net Summer Capability

Electric Power Sector Net Summer Capability

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  • Electricity, especially at high voltages or high currents, is a dangerous commodity. Faulty wiring, power lines that are close to trees and buildings, and inadequate warning signs and fences around transformer stations and over buried electrical cables can subject an individual to electric shock or even electrocution. Because of the ultrahazardous nature of providing electric power, states have many statutes and regulations in place to protect the public from electric shock.
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Scientist Response for Discovery of Electricity

  • "I have accomplished all I promised." (Thomas Edison, to New York Sun reporter, 1882)
  • Metallic glass makes possible the construction of highly efficient electrical transformers, Dr.Nelson said. Alternating-current transformers containing ordinary metal waste a lot of energy through heat because of the hysteresis effect. Metallic glass would also silence the humming you hear in AC transformers, which is also caused by magnetic hysteresis.
  • During a lightning storm a small spark struck his finger showing that lightning is electricity. This experiment was proved false on an episode of mythbusters on the episode entitled "Franklin's Kite" where it was shown that the electricity carried down the string would have been enough to kill him. It sparked the interest of later scientists whose work provided the basis for modern electrical technology.
  • The late 19th and early 20th century produced such giants of electrical engineering as Nikola Tesla, Antonio Meucci, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Werner von Siemens, Charles Steinmetz, Alexander Graham Bell and William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin.
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  • In 1904 Lorentz published the correct transformations and derived a number of results from them, such as the variation of mass with velocity, and the inability of electrical experiments to detect motion of the reference frame.
  • “History of the theories of ether and electricity“ from 1953, E. T. Whittaker claimed that relativity is the creation of Lorentz and Poincaré and attributed to Einstein's papers only little importance.
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  • Edison had also never wanted to hear about Tesla's AC polyphase designs, believing that DC electricity was the future. Tesla focused intently on his AC polyphase system.
  • Tesla was critical of Einstein's relativity work, calling it:”a magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king..., its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists.
  • Also in the late 1880s, Tesla and Edison became adversaries in part due to Edison's promotion of direct current (DC) for electric power distribution over the more efficient alternating current advocated by Tesla and Westinghouse. Until Tesla invented the induction motor, AC's advantages for long distance high voltage transmission were counterbalanced by the inability to operate motors on AC. As a result of the "War of Currents," Edison and Westinghouse went nearly bankrupt, so in 1897, Tesla released Westinghouse from contract, providing Westinghouse a break from Tesla's patent royalties. Also in 1897, Tesla researched radiation which led to setting up the basic formulation of cosmic rays.
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  • Thomas Edison developed improvements leading to modern electric lighting; George Westinghouse, a competitor of Edison, developed innovations that made electricity safer and more efficient to use.
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Impact of Electricity on Scientist

  • "Fooling around with alternating current in just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever." -Thomas Edison, 1889
  • In 1832, after the publication of Faraday's experiments, Hippolyte Pixii, an electrical instrument maker in Paris, constructed a device in which a rotating permanent magnet induced an alternating current in the field coils of a stationary horseshoe electromagnet. This was the first practical device for producing an electric current by mechanical means. Pixii called it a "magnetoelectric" machine.
  • Arc lights had been experimentally demonstrated using a set of carbons and primary batteries,The production of oxygen and hydrogen was expensive, so in 1850 Professor M. Nollet of Brussels began making a high–current magnet electric machine for decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen. The gases were to be sold for lime lights. In 1853, interrupted by Nollet's death, F. H. Holmes of England picked up the work. Producing a device admirably suited for the production of light between two carbon points.
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  • A British clergyman and chemist known primarily for his work with gases, independently discovered the inverse-square law at about the same time. Another Englishman, Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), also made important contributions to electrostatics, though he's better known for isolating the element hydrogen and measuring the strength of gravity with great precision.
  • The next breakthrough came, as sometimes happens in science, by sheer accident. In 1786, the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani (1737-98) touched the leg of a dissected frog with an electrical charge and observed a violent contraction. He thought the effect originated in the animal's organic tissue, but it was actually the salt within the tissue, in concert with Galvani's metal electrodes, that was responsible. His discovery led to the invention of the electrochemical battery.
  • Another Italian, the physicist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), took the next step. In 1800, he produced the "voltaic pile" -- a stack of alternating layers of silver, zinc, and cardboard which, when placed in an electrical circuit, produced a continuous stream of electricity. The quantitative study of electric current had begun.
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  • "The Sorcerer of Menlo Park appears not to be acquainted with the subtleties of the electrical sciences. Mr. Edison takes us backwards. One must have lost all recollection of American hoaxes to accept such claims." -Professor Du Moncel
  • An assorted collection of amateurs, philosophers and other scientists to carry on the exploration of electricity.Otto von Guericke, burgomaster of Magdeburg, Germany, opened a new chapter in experimental science when he built the first electrical machine in 1660.
  • Gray was thus led to make the fundamental distinction between insulators and conductors: silk filaments did not permit the electricity to leak away, while equally fine copper wires did. He may have been the first to use wires as conductors.
  • In Paris, Charles Du Fay repeated and continued Gray's work. He showed that all bodies could be electrified; in the case of conductors, it was necessary that they be insulated. The most important of Du Fay's contributions was his classification of electricity into two kinds: vitreous and resinous. These electricities, Du Fay said, repel similar charges and attract opposite kinds.
  • Ever since Oersted's announcement, a prime goal of investigators was the reciprocal condition—the generation of electricity by a magnetic source. In England, Michael Faraday, Davy's assistant, sought the elusive goal. For ten years he worked, with no success. Then, the breakthrough: The opening and closing of a battery circuit connected to a coil caused a deflection in a galvanometer.
  • In 1893, Westinghouse demonstrated a "universal system" of generation and distribution at a Chicago exposition. The universal system meant that power or energy could be used in a variety of ways at many different voltages. Westinghouse, using Tesla's invention of the transformer and the electric motor, as well as steam turbines, transformed Niagara Falls into one of the first hydroelectric plants in the world.
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  • Hans Christian Oersted discovered that the connection between electricity and magnetism. An electric current could produce magnetic effects. In another ten years the converse was shown, and magnets were being used to generate electric currents. With the development of powerful currents produced by magnetic generators, the stage was set for the use of electric power for light, for communication, and for production of motion.

Development of Electricity

  • Thomas Edison (1847-1931) is best known for his inventions --particularly the incandescent lamp but his contributions toward the development of the US electric power grid are often underappreciated. Edison and his team designed the entire electrical system down to the wall outlet and in 1881 established the first power company. Edison's system was in the Wall Street section of New York City. Even today, vestiges of it supply DC power to about 2000 customers.
  • The current US electricity grid remains a mystery to most people. Its ubiquity and high reliability over the past 50 or more years has rendered it nearly invisible, more a backdrop for the workings of modern society than its central nervous system --at least until the lights go out. The blackout of 14 August 2003 brought the operation of the grid momentarily into prominence and raised questions about how it works and why it fails. How could a small local problem bring the lives of 50 million people to a standstill in a matter of minutes?
  • AC circuits predominate in the US transmission system because they are compatible with transformers devices that can step up voltage before electricity is transported or step it down before electricity is distributed to consumers. Transmission voltages in the US are typically 115, 138, 230, 345, or 500 kV, although there are a few extra-high voltage lines at 765 kV. The 230-kV system represents the backbone of the US electricity grid.
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Energy Consumption

  • Sectoral energy source have changed dramatically over time. In the residential and commercial sectors . Electricity, only an incidental source in 1949, expanded in almost every year since then, as did the energy losses associated with producing and distributing the electricity.
  • The expansion of electricity use reflects the increased electrification of U.S. households, which typically rely on a wide variety of electrical appliances and systems. In 1997, 99 percent of U.S. households had a color television and 47 percent had central air conditioning. Eighty-five percent of all households had one refrigerator; the remaining 15 percent had two or more. In 1978 only 8 percent of U.S. households had a microwave oven, but by 1997 microwaves could be found in 83 percent.
Energy Consumption

Energy Consumption due to generating and distribution of Electricity

  • The Energy Information Administration (EIA) first collected household survey data on personal computers in 1990, when 16 percent of households owned one or more. By 1997 that share had more than doubled to 35 percent. U.S. home heating also underwent a big change. Over a third of all U.S. housing units were warmed by coal in 1950, but by 1999 that share was only 0.2 percent. Electricity gained as home-heating sources: electricity's share shot up from only 0.6 percent in 1950 to 30 percent in 1999. In recent times, electricity and natural gas have been the most common sources of energy used by commercial buildings as well. Electricity and its associated losses grew steadily.
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Change in Perceptions and Attitudes of Electricity


  • The most trenchant critics has been economist, Professor Robin Court. He has argued that among other things overestimates of electricity demand have resulted because of the natural empire-building instincts of engineers who have sought increased responsibility and prestige from the building of further power stations.
  • Estimates of demand made in the early 1970's were consistently greater than the actual electricity consumption later in the decade, leading to a over- expenditure on power stations construction and extensive over capacity in the electricity supply system.
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  • Fascination with the effects of electricity and spark discharges on biological systems started with the work of L. Galvani in 1780 with frog legs and the discovery of "animal electricity." And an everlasting impression was left in the public's imagination by Mary W. Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), in which Eramus Darwin gained a place for his advocacy of therapies based on electric discharges.
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  • These overestimates of demand, which so concerned Professor Court, would provide the justification for bringing Maui gas ashore. Availability of this gas, no longer needed to generate electricity, would make possible the state sponsored gas-based enterprises which formed the nucleus of "Think Big" in the 1980s.
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  • "Edison's claims are "so manifestly absurd as to indicate a positive want of knowledge of the electric circuit and the principles governing the construction and operation of electrical machines."-Edwin Weston, specialist in arc lighting.
  • Luckily, the disinterest and derision of Edison's scientific peers did not prevent sharp speculators, like J. P. Morgan and William Vanderbilt from investing funds and helping Edison's inventions become universally adopted.
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Change in the life of people Due to Discovery and Development of Electricity

  • "Electricity is a modern necessity of life."

(Franklin Roosevelt, at Rural Electrification Administration celebration, 1938)

  • In succeeding years, the construction of an interconnected system of large, central generating stations, high-voltage AC transmission lines, and lower voltage AC and DC distribution lines in cities and towns across the country resulted in the creation of a national grid. This was an integrated energy system that could make electricity and deliver it hundreds of miles to wherever it was wanted.
  • The electric lamp gave people complete control over lighting inside their homes and work places at the click of a switch. By the eve of World War II this was largely true, with the help of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), even in rural areas.
  • The consequence was to interrupt the normal, biological rhythms of life and to alter our schedules for work and leisure. Industrial plants could operate in shifts around-the-clock, for example, and the concept of "the city that never sleeps" became a reality.
  • Use of the new technology effected building architecture as daylight became only a supplemental source of light. Electricity for lights, elevators, and pumps allowed architects to design "skyscrapers" of unprecedented height. The "windowless building" was also an architectural design option by the 1930s.
  • The economic effect of electric lighting went far beyond increasing the workday. Profits generated by the electric lamp, in effect, paid for a network of generators and wires. This infrastructure then became available for a whole new class of inventions: appliances and equipment that by the 1930s had transformed the home and the workplace.
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Appliances Introduced for the Life of People

  • Manufacturers developed a wide range of electric appliances for the home. Electric irons and washing machines made laundry day less labor intensive, while electric vacuums made cleaning carpets and furniture easier. Time spent doing domestic tasks didn't seem to decline, however, as standards of cleanliness rose and fewer families employed domestic servants.
  • Electric refrigerators presaged an end to ice boxes and home ice deliveries. Bread toasters, tea kettles, waffle irons, and marshmallow toasters (above) were only a few of the electric appliances introduced to kitchens. Many of these smaller devices sported elaborate and artistic designs, and were meant to be used at the dinning room table.

Marshmallow toaster

Marshmallow toaster

  • Electric climate control began with fans and radiant heaters that used special light bulbs. Personal care items like electric hair dryers, heating pads, and shaving mugs appeared. Electricity for telephones and radios brought users instantaneous personal communications and news and entertainment.
  • Small electric motors freed factories from the need to arrange equipment based on power shafts and belts. Electrified tools boosted industrial productivity, and many were eventually made available to domestic "do-it-yourselfers."
  • Electric power for transportation made subways practical and streetcars more efficient. These in turn provided central stations with daytime consumers of electricity.
  • Modern life has become so attached to electricity that life would seem drudgery without it. What is a world without this great wonder of the 20th century? The coming of electricity has removed darkness and gloom enwrapping the world and the world has been transformed into a well-illuminated paradise. In cold we are heated by the electric heaters, in summer we are provided with air conditioners and electric fans to cool us. We have thousands of things using electricity. All these things are available today and life has been made easier due to the discovery of electricity.
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Major Governance issue with Electricity

  • Scientists discovered electromagnetic field theory long before the first electric motor began to hum in 1821. Up to that time, craftsmen and tradesmen were the originators of most technological advances as they altered their working methods, and only later did they refer the advances to scientists for an explanation why an improvement worked as it did. The exploitation of electricity is also one of the first examples of state (and other) support for technical research into a theory before there was a clear practical outcome in mind.
  • Over the next 75 years, the chief use of the technology was for electric lighting, but gradually the telegraph, telephone, radio and a myriad of electric machines and gadgets appeared that revolutionized domestic life as well as work.
  • Initially the new technology was not competitive with steam, but it had a number of advantages, especially when adapted to move long distances over a network of wires that distributed electric power widely and made it instantly available. Government support was needed to build this network around the turn of the 20th Century, to overcome the cost disadvantage associated with the short peak period for electric lighting.
  • Once the power grid was in place, the transformation began. For example, the layout and location of factories was decentralized. No longer was it necessary for machines in a factory to be clustered around a central drive shaft powered by steam or water - they could be laid out according to the work flow, each with its own electric motor. Nor was it necessary for the factories themselves to be clustered around the source of power - they could be located close to markets, raw materials or other scarce resources.
  • Access to cheap power was a ticket to the creation of wealth, so the location of generating facilities and the infrastructure to distribute power made winners and losers of individuals, cities, whole regions and countries. This was a major governance issue with electricity as it had been with the railways.
  • The exploitation of the full potential of electricity required substantial alterations in the entire facilitating structure. One of the most important was a drastic change in the layout of factories.With waterpower and steam,the power source drove a central drive shaft whose power was distributed throughout the factory via a set of pulleys and belts. Because of heavy friction loss in the belt transmission, machines that used the most power were placed closest to the drive shaft, and factories.
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