A Ridiculously Brief History of Electricity

Michael Faraday

Electromagnetism went from a fascinating curiosity to a practical engineering concern, largely due to the experimental breakthroughs of Michael Faraday in the 1830's. Faraday was able to create electrically generated magnets and magnetically generated electricity.  The modern age of electricity began in his laboratory.  The principle of induction, which he was able to harness, makes possible the practical use of large-scale electrical systems.

Faraday demonstrated that applying mechanical energy to move a coil of wire in a magnetic field produces an electric current on the coil of wire.  Inversely, electricity applied to coils of wire will produce interacting magnetic fields.  Interacting magnetic fields can produce mechanical force.   Faraday had uncovered the first electric generator and the first electric motor.


Nearly five decades later, in 1879, a former telegraph operator named Thomas Edison introduced his defining product (which he did not invent but only perfected), the light bulb. This inexpensive, clean and safe source of light stirred the imagination of American consumers.  Consumer demand for this product, in turn, created a demand for an electrical distribution infrastructure, which Edison was more than willing to provide.  In 1881 he opened the Pearl Street Direct Current Generating Station in New York City.  It was the world’s first commercial power plant. Soon Edison’s power plants began springing up all over the country.  Edison’s fortunes in the electrical distribution business seemed assured.  However, the uncontested monopoly he sought was not to be.

In these early years of electrical distribution, DC power could be transmitted only at low voltages and required many small, decentralized generating plants.  Other electrical inventors of the day saw the shortcomings of direct current power distribution and proposed alternating current systems as a more pragmatic option.

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