From the writings of Thales of Miletus it appears that Westerners knew as long ago as 600 B.C. that amber becomes charged by rubbing. There was little real progress until the English scientist William Gilbert in 1600 described the electrification of many substances and coined the term electricity from the Greek word for amber. As a result, Gilbert is called the father of modern electricity. In 1660 Otto von Guericke invented a crude machine for producing static electricity. It was a ball of sulfur, rotated by a crank with one hand and rubbed with the other. Successors, such as Francis Hauksbee, made improvements that provided experimenters with a ready source of static electricity. Today's highly developed descendant of these early machines is the Van de Graaf generator, which is sometimes used as a particle accelerator. Robert Boyle realized that attraction and repulsion were mutual and that electric force was transmitted through a vacuum (c.1675). Stephen Gray distinguished between conductors and nonconductors (1729). C. F. Du Fay recognized two kinds of electricity, which Benjamin Franklin and Ebenezer Kinnersley of Philadelphia later named positive and negative.The Leyden Jar and the Quantitative Era
Progress quickened after the Leyden jar was invented in 1745 by Pieter van Musschenbroek. The Leyden jar stored static electricity, which could be discharged all at once. In 1747 William Watson discharged a Leyden jar through a circuit, and comprehension of the current and circuit started a new field of experimentation. Henry Cavendish, by measuring the conductivity of materials (he compared the simultaneous shocks he received by discharging Leyden jars through the materials), and Charles A. Coulomb, by expressing mathematically the attraction of electrified bodies, began the quantitative study of electricity.
A new interest in current began with the invention of the battery. Luigi Galvani had noticed (1786) that a discharge of static electricity made a frog's leg jerk. Consequent experimentation produced what was a simple electron cell using the fluids of the leg as an electrolyte and the muscle as a circuit and indicator. Galvani thought the leg supplied electricity, but Alessandro Volta thought otherwise, and he built the voltaic pile, an early type of battery, as proof. Continuous current from batteries smoothed the way for the discovery of G. S. Ohm's law (pub. 1827), relating current, voltage (electromotive force), and resistance (see Ohm's law), and of J. P. Joule's law of electrical heating (pub. 1841). Ohm's law and the rules discovered later by G. R. Kirchhoff regarding the sum of the currents and the sum of the voltages in a circuit (see Kirchhoff's laws) are the basic means of making circuit calculations.
In 1819 Hans Christian Oersted discovered that a magnetic field surrounds a current-carrying wire. Within two years André Marie Ampère had put several electromagnetic laws into mathematical form, D. F. Arago had invented the electromagnet, and Michael Faraday had devised a crude form of electric motor. Practical application of a motor had to wait 10 years, however, until Faraday (and earlier, independently, Joseph Henry) invented the electric generator with which to power the motor. A year after Faraday's laboratory approximation of the generator, Hippolyte Pixii constructed a hand-driven model. From then on engineers took over from the scientists, and a slow development followed; the first power stations were built 50 years later (see power, electric).
In 1873 James Clerk Maxwell had started a different path of development with equations that described the electromagnetic field, and he predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves traveling with the speed of light. Heinrich R. Hertz confirmed this prediction experimentally, and Marconi first made use of these waves in developing radio (1895). John Ambrose Fleming invented (1904) the diode rectifier vacuum tube as a detector for the Marconi radio. Three years later Lee De Forest made the diode into an amplifier by adding a third electrode, and electronics had begun. Theoretical understanding became more complete in 1897 with the discovery of the electron by J. J. Thomson. In 1910–11 Ernest R. Rutherford and his assistants learned the distribution of charge within the atom. Robert Millikan measured the charge on a single electron by 1913.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.