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A Brief History of Electricity: Basics You Should Know

by Chris Lee | November 3rd, 2016
Who invented electricity? Why do we use AC instead of DC in most applications? How long have people been exploring electrical applications? If you don't know the answers to these questions, you're not alone. Electricity has a rich history full of interesting facts, funny misconceptions and brilliant inventors that most people have no idea existed. Here's some information to whet your curiosity on the history of electricity.

A Brief History of Electricity: Basics You Should Know

600 BCE: Thales of Greece discovers that when elektron or amber is rubbed with silk, it creates a static electric charge. 1600 CE: William Gilbert, an Englishman, coins the term electricity while researching electric force, electric attraction and magnetic poles. 1675: Englishman Stephan Gray discovers electrical conductive and insulative materials. 1745: German Georg Von Kleist and Pieter van Musschenbroek both independently invent the first capacitors. 1752: American Benjamin Franklin's kite experiment proves that lightning is a form of natural electricity. 1800: Italian Alessandro Volta invents the first battery and is the source of the term volt. 1808: The first electric arc lamp is produced by Sir Humphrey Davy of England as he causes a piece of carbon to glow when attached to a battery. 1821: Michael Faraday of England discovers electro-magnetic rotation which eventually lead to the electric motor and generator. 1826: German Georg Ohm develops Ohm's Law, dealing with relationships between voltage, power, current and resistance. 1835: American Joseph Henry invents the electrical relay, allowing long-distance transmission of electricity. 1837: Thomas Davenport, an American, invents the first electric motor. 1839: Sir Robert William Grove of Scotland invents the first fuel cell using hydrogen and oxygen. 1844: American Samuel Morse invents the electric telegraph to transmit messages over long distances. 1860s: Scotland's J.C. Maxwell unifies electrodynamics: light, magnetism and electricity. His discoveries lead to electric power, radio and television. 1876: American Charles Brush invents the open coil dynamo that can generate a steady current. 1878: Englishman Joseph Swan invents the first incandescent lightbulb, but it quickly burns out. American Thomas Edison develops a long-lasting incandescent light the next year. 1879: The first electric street lamps are installed in Cleveland, Ohio and the first electric company is founded in San Francisco. 1881: The electric streetcar is invented by E.W. v. Siemens. 1882: Edison opens New York City's Pearl Street Power Station, capable of powering 5,0000 of Edison's 1,200 hour light bulbs. Unlike today's power systems, it provided DC power instead of AC. Wisconsin pioneers renewable energy with the world's first hydroelectric plant. 1883: Nikola Tesla, an Austrian immigrant to America, invents the Tesla coil, making it possible to transform electricity from low voltage to high voltage for transmission over distance. 1884: Tesla's electric alternator provides the first alternating current. England's Sir Charles Algernon Parsons invents the steam turbine generator for massive electrical production. 1888: Tesla invents the first polyphase AC system, with the rights purchased by the Westinghouse Electric Company. 1893: Westinghouse uses AC  to light the World's Fair in Chicago. 1897: The electron is discovered by England's Joseph Thomson. 1903: Chicago opens the world's first all-turbine power station. At the same time, the world's largest generator, providing 5,000 watts, was started in Shawinigan. 1911: American W. Carrier invents electrical air conditioning. 1913: American Thomas Murray invents the cinder catcher, the first air pollution control device, while A. Goss invents the electric refrigerator. 1922: The Connecticut Valley Power Exchange pioneers interconnection between utilities. 1933: As a Depression-Era work project, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created as the first federal electrical power authority. 1935: U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt pushes New Deal legislation to promote public utility regulation and rural electrification. 1936: The Hoover Dam was completed, transmitting electricity through a 287 kilovolt power line across an astounding 266 miles to Los Angeles. The Rural Electricification Act is passed, raising the number of farms with power across the country from 11% in 1932 to nearly 50% in 1942. 1947: Bell Telephone Laboratories invents the first transistor. 1950: Canadian John Hopps learns that the human heart can be restarted using electrical stimulation, leading to the invention of the first pacemaker. 1953: IBM invents the world's first general-purpose computer. 1954: The world's first nuclear power plant is opened in Russia while Bell Labs in America goes the green route to invent the first solar cell. 1961: Commercially available integrated circuits are produced by the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporations, replacing individual transistors. Vacuum tube technology is used for the first desktop calculators. 1962: Spacewar!, the first computer game, was developed by America's Steve Russell. 1973: The first PC is designed by Americans Nate Wasdsworth and Bob Findley, with 1K available programmable memory and up to 15K additional memory available. How much is on your phone's memory card? 1979: The nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant makes Americans re-think this electric power source. The next year, the country's first wind farm is founded. 1984: The Annapolis Naval Station in Maryland opens North America's first tidal power plant. 1986: The Number Four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine melts down, causing 31 direct deaths and countless injuries. 2003: The 2003 Northeast Blackout, caused by voltage instability leading to a cascade failure, cuts power in eight U.S. states and Ontario, leaving 55 million people without power. Electricity has a rich history that you may not have known, with many events that have lead to today's standards. But what will happen tomorrow to change how electrical contractors do their job? From changes to 5V USB power and induction charging to new renewable energy sources and ultra-conductive materials, it's impossible to know. But there is one direction the industry is definitely moving in, which is the move to digitization and business solutions that work well across the board to reduce manual tasks in the office. Esticom's electrical estimation solutions gives you tomorrow's capabilities today. Why not take a few minutes to sign up for an account and try it out?
Chris Lee
Chris Lee has an extensive background in preconstruction management as a former specialty contractor and business owner. As the Chief Estimator at Esticom, he’s helped thousands of specialty contractors digitize their preconstruction process to increase revenue and profitability while decreasing unnecessary overhead.

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