electric circuit, unbroken path along which an electric current exists or is intended or able to flow. A simple circuit might consist of an electric cell (the power source), two conducting wires (one end of each being attached to each terminal of the cell), and a small lamp (the load) to which the free ends of the wires leading from the cell are attached. When the connections are made properly, current flows, the circuit is said to be "closed," and the lamp will light. The current flows from the cell along one wire to the lamp, through the lamp, and along the other wire back to the cell. When the wires are disconnected, the circuit is said to be "open" or "broken." In practice, circuits are opened by such devices as switches, fuses, and circuit breakers (see fuse, electric; circuit breaker; short circuit). Two general circuit classifications are series and parallel. The elements of a series circuit are connected end to end; the same current flows through its parts one after another. The elements of a parallel circuit are connected so that each component has the same voltage across its terminals; the current flow is divided among its parts. When two circuit elements are connected in series, their effective resistance (impedance if the circuit is being fed alternating current) is equal to the sum of the separate resistances; the current is the same in each component throughout the circuit. When circuit elements are connected in parallel, the total resistance is less than that of the element having the least resistance, and the total current is equal to the sum of the currents in the individual branches. A battery-powered circuit is an example of a direct-current circuit; the voltages and currents are constant in magnitude and do not vary with time. In alternating-current circuits, the voltage and current periodically reverse direction with time. A standard electrical outlet supplies alternating current. Lighting circuits and electrical machinery use alternating current circuits. Many other devices, including computers, stereo systems, and television sets, must first convert the alternating current to direct current. That is done by a special internal circuit usually called a power supply. A digital circuit is a special kind of electronic circuit used in computers and many other devices. Magnetic circuits are analogous to electric circuits, where magnetic materials are regarded as conductors of magnetic flux. Magnetic circuits can be part of an electric circuit; a transformer is an example. Equivalent circuits are used in circuit analysis as a modeling tool; a simple circuit made up of a resistor, and an inductor might be used to electrically represent a loudspeaker. Electrical circuits can also be used in other fields of studies. In the study of heat flow, for example, a resistor is used to represent thermal insulation. Operating electric circuits can be used for general problem solving (as in an analog computer).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.