Electrodynamics is the study of charges in motion. A flow of electric charge constitutes an electric current. Historically, the direction of current was described in terms of the motion of imaginary positive charges; this convention is still used by many scientists, although it is directly opposite to the direction of electron flow, which is now known to be the basis of electric current in solids. Current considered to be composed of imaginary positive charges is often called conventional current. In order for a current to exist in a conductor, there must be an electromotive force (emf), or potential difference, between the conductor's ends. An electric cell, a battery of cells, and a generator are all sources of electromotive force; any such source with an external conductor connected from one of the source's two terminals to the other constitutes an electric circuit. If the source is a battery, the current is in one direction only and is called direct current (DC). If the source is a generator without a commutator, the current direction reverses twice during each rotation of the armature, passing first in one direction and then in the other; such current is called alternating current (AC). The number of times alternating current makes a double reversal of direction each second is called the frequency of the current; the frequency of ordinary household current in the U.S. is 60 cycles per sec (60 Hz), and electric devices must be designed to operate at this frequency.
In a solid the current consists not of a few electrons moving rapidly but of many electrons moving slowly; although this drift of electrons is slow, the impulse that causes it when the circuit is completed moves through the circuit at nearly the speed of light. The movement of electrons in a current is not steady; each electron moves in a series of stops and starts. In a direct current, the electrons are spread evenly through the conductor; in an alternating current, the electrons tend to congregate along the surface of the conductor. In liquids and gases, the current carriers are not only electrons but also positive and negative ions.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.