Multimedia Engineering
  The History of Electricity and Magnetism

Way Back When Arks were Arks and Arcs were Arcs and Sparks did Fly

The earliest philosophers recorded in their writings little information on the existence of magnetism and electricity. It is apparent, now, that even from the beginning of civilization there were several manifestations of electrical existence recognized by man. Regardless of one's belief of how existence began, it would be difficult to imagine that turbulent period without the presence of lightning. Undoubtedly, lightning has been around since before meteorologists. The early Tuscans, perhaps as early as the 8th century B.C.E., believed there were as many as nine Gods who possessed the ability to deliver lightning bolts. The Greek mythology, first written about in the Iliad by Homer in the 10th century B.C.E., lends images of Cronus (Saturn) and his son Zeus (Jupiter) standing in the clouds, sceptre in one hand and lightning bolts in the other.

Another phenomenon of natural electricity would include corona discharge. Observed by the earliest mariners as a glow atop a ship's mast or other elevated point, Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century in his Natural History that when two of these lights were seen, sailors attributed them to Gods and named them Castor and Pollux. Later these lights would be named St. Elmo's Fire, a corruption of St. Ermo, a bishop of the third century who later became the patron saint of mariners.

Third on the list of natural electrical occurrences would have to be the genera of ray with electric organs on each side of the head. Found in most, if not all, of the seas of the world these fish could discharge a shock sufficient to maim or kill their prey. A shocking experience, no doubt, to the early surfers and beach bums of ancient times.

Friction, or static electricity, makes the cut as an original, albeit mostly man made form of electricity. Amber is a fossil resin which when rubbed attracts small bits of matter. Since amber can be found in much of the world, many early "electricians" (the early students of electricity) experimented with it.

It is difficult to omit the story of magnetism, since it's relationship to electricity is total. Some historians indicate the knowledge of magnetite goes back 10 centuries B.C.E. The ability of magnesian stone to attract iron was noted by Aristotle and Plato. The Chinese are often credited with the invention of the mariner's compass. Chinese writings refer to magnetite in the second century, however the earliest record of the Chinese mariner's compass was much later, towards the end of the 13th century. The earliest theory of magnetism is often credited to Empedocles, a Sicilian poet, philosopher and physicist of the 5th century. He believed in the invisible emanation of effluvia from iron and some other materials.

Not to diminish any of the great contributors to science and engineering, but late in the sixteenth century was probably the next watermark in the story. Theories of magnetism abounded. The list of noteworthy names begins to expand beyond the scope of this humble overview. Some of the names are household, some are not. William Gilbert was the first to publish an important work in the physical sciences in England, About the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and About the Great Magnet, The Earth in 1600. Sir Thomas Browne was the first person to use the word "electricity." The 17th century brought us Rene` Descartes, Jean Picard, Sir Isaac Newton and the founding of The Royal Society of London in 1660. The 18th century is an even busier period. Benjamin Franklin, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Henry Cavendish, Johann Gauss, Hans Oerstad, Georg Ohm, Michael Faraday, Charles de Coulomb and Samuel Morse are all contributors from that time. Many of our modern electrical quantities are named after these early experimenters and theorists.

The 19th century brought more changes at an even faster pace than any before it. The invention of the battery by Volta prodded the communications industry out of the infancy of a few short range telegraph experiments into a giant continent wide commercial enterprise. The principles of electric rotation brought motors and DC and AC generators. Transformers ushered in the age of high voltage power transmission. Arc lights and the incandescent bulb and the entire area of instrumentation all had their beginnings during this period. Charles Wheatstone, Ernst Von Siemens, James Joule, A.M. Ampere, James Maxwell, Joseph Henry, Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison, John Ambrose Fleming, Nikola Tesla, Heinrich Hertz, Gustav Kirchoff, Paul Nipkow, Reginald Fessenden, Lee De Forest, John Baird and Guglielmo Marconi are just a few of the great scientific investigators and innovators from that century that pioneered much of what we take for granted today in our mechanized, electrified world.

The advances of the 20th century are somewhat familiar to the living person. Radio and television and the information superhighway are the result of research and development that has taken place over centuries. It is difficult to speculate what the future holds for science and technology.