This page relates to the interactive electricity timeline (a Flash movie). Click here to explore the timeline for yourself. The text from the timeline – showing the main events in the development of electricity – are shown below.
600BC: Static electricity
Thales, a Greek, found that when amber was rubbed with silk it attracted feathers and other light objects. He had discovered static electricity. The Greek word for amber is ëelectron’, from which we get ëelectricity’ and ëelectronics’.
1600: William Gilbert invented the term electricity
William Gilbert, scientist and physician to Queen Elizabeth I, invented the term electricity (from the Greek word for amber, elecktra). He was the first person to describe the earth’s magnetic field and to realise that there is a relationship between magnetism and electricity.
1705: Francis Hauksbee invented Neon Light
Francis Hauksbee created electrical effects by putting some mercury into a glass globe, pumping out the air and then spinning it. When he did this in the dark, and then rubbed the globe with his bare hand, it glowed. (He didn’t realise it, but he had invented the neon light!)
1752: Franklin proved that lightning is a form of electricity
Benjamin Franklin, famous U.S. politician, flew a kite with a metal tip into a thunderstorm to prove that lightning is a form of electricity. He was very lucky he wasn’t killed. Don’t try this at home!
1700s: The Wimshurst machine was invented
The Wimshurst machine was invented. It is used to produce static electricity easily and reliably. Two parallel plates are rotated in opposite directions, which produces a charge around the edges of the plates. The charge is collected by a system of combs.†Voltages as high as 50,000 volts can be produced, depending on humidity and other conditions, as well as sparks up to four inches long.
1780: Luigi Galvani’s dead frog’s legs
An Italian called Luigi Galvani discovered that when he touched a dead frog’s leg with a knife, it twitched violently. Alessandro Volta later showed that this was because electricity is created when moisture (from the frog) comes between two different types of metal (the steel knife and a tin plate).
1800: Volta’s Pile
Volta created the first simple battery. He used pure silver and zinc discs, sandwiched between muslin damped in a salt solution, developed from Galvani’s earlier experiments with a frog’s leg.
1800: Sir Humphry Davy discovered Electrolysis
Sir Humphry Davy discovered that when he passed an electric current through some substances they decomposed. This process later became known as electrolysis. Davy’s experiments with electrolysis led to the discovery of a number of elements, including magnesium, calcium, strontium and barium.
1820: Hans Christian Oersted discovered magnetic fields caused by electricity
Hans Christian Oersted of Denmark found that when electricity flows through a wire, it produces a magnetic field that affects the needle of a nearby compass.
1821: Michael Faraday’s discovery that led to the invention of electric motors
Michael Faraday discovered that when a magnet is moved inside a coil of copper wire, a tiny electric current flows through the wire. This discovery later led to the invention of electric motors.
1821: Thomas Johann Seebeck discovered Thermo-electricity
Thomas Johann Seebeck found that when the junction of certain metals is heated, electricity flows ñ thermo-electricity.
1826: André Ampère explained the electro-dynamic theory
André Ampère published his theories about electricity and magnetism. He was the first person to explain the electro-dynamic theory. The unit of electric current was named after Ampère.
1827: Georg Ohm published his complete mathematical theory of electricity
German college teacher Georg Ohm published his complete mathematical theory of electricity. The unit of electrical resistance was later named after him.
1829: Joseph Henry’s discovery into electromagnetism
Joseph Henry showed that a wire wrapped in coils produces a greater electromagnetism than a straight one.
1830: Joseph Henry discovered the principles of the dynamo
Joseph Henry discovered the principles of the dynamo.
1831: Michael Faraday demonstrated electromagnetic induction
Michael Faraday demonstrated electromagnetic induction by passing a magnet through a coil of wire.
1831: The First Telegraph Machine
Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke created the first telegraph machine.
1834: Charles Wheatstone measured the velocity of electricity
Charles Wheatstone used a revolving mirror and four miles of wire to measure the velocity of electricity.
1838: Samuel Morse invented Morse Code
At an exhibition in New York, Samuel Morse demonstrated sending 10 words a minute by his new telegraph machine. He used a system of dots and dashes, which later became standard throughout the world, known as Morse code.
1870s: Thomas Edison built a DC electric generator
Thomas Edison built a DC (direct current) electric generator in America. He later provided all of New York’s electricity.
1876: Alexander Graham Bell invented of the telephone
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, used electricity to transmit speech for the first time.
1878: Joseph Swan demonstrated the first Electric Light
Joseph Swan, a British scientist, demonstrated the first electric light with a carbon filament lamp. A few months later, Thomas Edison made the same discovery in America.
1880s: Nikola Tesla developed an AC motor
Nikola Tesla developed an AC (alternating current) motor and a system of AC power generation. Edison saw Tesla’s system as a threat to his DC supply and spread stories that it wasn’t not safe. But, after Tesla’s system was used to power 100,000 electric lights at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, AC became the established power supply in the USA.
1880s: Nikola Tesla invented the Telsa Coil
Nikola Tesla used the ëTesla coil’ to step up ordinary household current to produce extremely high frequency current. Tesla used this high frequency current to develop some of the first neon and fluorescent lights.
1881: The first public electricity supply
The first public electricity supply was generated in Godalming, Surrey using a waterwheel at a nearby mill.
1883: Magnus Volks built the first electric railway
The first electric railway opened on Brighton seafront, built by electrical engineer Magnus Volks. The Volks Railway, built just for pleasure rides, is one mile long and still runs during the summer season.
1884: Charles Parsons built his first turbine
Charles Parsons built his first turbine. This is a type of engine which is operated by jets of high pressure gases. This type of engine was later developed to drive the propellers of boats, including the Titanic.
1886: Heinrich Hertz produced and detected electric waves
Heinrich Hertz produced and detected electric waves in the atmosphere.
1890: Turbine driven generators
Turbine driven generators were introduced to produce electricity.
1892: Hendrik Lorentz published his electron theory.
Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz published his electron theory.
1895: The first electric hand drill
The first electric hand drill became available, invented by Wilhelm Fein.
1895: Discovery of X-rays
The German phsyicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered invisible rays that made a distant screen glow and passed through objects. These were X-rays.
1896: Nikola Tesla’s hydroelectric power generators
Nikola Tesla’s hydroelectric power generators at Niagara Falls came into operation. Within a few years, Tesla’s generators at Niagara Falls were supplying electricity to New York City for the elevated railways, the subways and even the lights on Broadway.
1897: Marconi sends radio message
Guglielmo Marconi sends a radio message from The Isle of Wight to Poole (20 miles away). Later he sends a message across the Atlantic.
1905: Albert Einstein and photovoltaic cells
Albert Einstein demonstrated that light energy could be used to produce electricity ñ the idea behind photovoltaic cells was born.
1918-19: Washing machines and refrigerators
Electric washing machines and refrigerators first became available.
1926: First National Grid was introduced
Electricity Supply Act ñ the first National Grid was introduced.
1930-40s: Hydro-electric power stations
Hydro-electric power stations were built in Scotland and Wales, but the majority of electricity generation was from burning coal.
1930-40s: Electrical household appliances introduced
Mains powered radios, vacuum cleaners, irons and fridges were becoming part of every household.
1936: John Logie Baird pioneered the television.
1956: First large-scale nuclear power station
The world’s first large-scale nuclear power station opened at Calder Hall in Cumbria. The reactors were a prototype of the Magnox gas cooled reactor.
1960s: Advanced gas cooled reactors
The UK decided to develop advanced gas cooled reactors to succeed the earlier Magnox stations. Around the same time, France and the USA decided to adopt water cooled reactor technology.
1994: The UK’s first pressurised water reactor
The UK’s first pressurised water reactor (PWR) was opened at Sizewell B in Suffolk. It had taken 7 years to build, after the largest ever public enquiry in the UK. No further nuclear reactors have been built in the UK since then.
2000: The world’s first commercial wave power station
The world’s first commercial wave power station on the Scottish island of Islay began to generate electricity. Devices are placed on the shoreline or out at sea that use wave motion to compress air to drive a turbine or hydraulic pumps. The station is called LIMPET (Land-Installed Marine-Powered Energy Transformer) and can provide enough electricity for about 400 homes.
Electricity: Crash Course History of Science #27
The study of electricity goes all the way back to antiquity. But, by the time electricity started to become more well known, a few familiar names started to appear. Edison, Galvani, and a few others really changed the way the world worked.
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