The Sands of Time: Part III

The full article was originally published by HelloIOTA. Read the full article here.

Part III in our Sands of Time series focuses on the history of electricity. HelloIOTA’s Into the Future piece told the fascinating story of Michael Faraday and Hans Christian Ørsted discovering different sides of what would lead to generation of modern electricity – spinning a magnet inside a coil of wires. It’s a simple concept that took humans until 1821 A.D. to recognize.

To get a more holistic history of electricity, however, we must venture back much further than 1831.

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by electricity. According to Google:

Electricity – a form of energy resulting from the existence of charged particles (such as electrons or protons), either statically as an accumulation of charge or dynamically as a current.

The word electricity derives from the Phoenecian term elēkrŏn (“shining light”), which was passed to Greek as ἤλεκτρον (“amber”), into classical Latin as electrum (“amber”), new Latin as electricus (“of amber”), and finally into English. Rather than literally referring to amber the substance, the more recently evolved terms refer more to the properties of amber (specifically their attractive properties). A prominent scientific tome from the 1600’s titled De Magnete espoused the properties of amber, which seems to advance modern usage of the term prior to its introduction into the English language.

As a deserved aside on DeMagnete: The author was an English physician and scientist who simply decided to record some of his many experiments. An important literary work was born. Among the interesting tidbits in his book was the Terrella. He used a small magnetized metal ball to serve as a model of Earth. It was called terrella, and had such staying power that it was further developed three centuries later as a tool to study the aurora, and remained actively in use as a model of Earth’s magnetosphere all the way up until computer programs became a superior solution. The author rejected the widely accepted Aristotelian philosophy of his time and instead proposed that magnetic and gravitational forces were the same thing, and that it was this force which was responsible for holding the moon in place.

For perspective on just how influential De Magnete proved to be, Johannes Kepler accepted its core theory explaining that the moon was suspended by some magnetic-type of force, and would go on to use it as a basis for his famous laws of planetary motion. Students of astronomy today will know Kepler’s laws well.

It wasn’t until the father of the scientific method, Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), described materials attracting each other that electric was introduced into the English language. Sir Thomas Brown’s 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica subsequently introduced the word electricity into English.

Deep History

It seems like electricity should be a particularly difficult phenomenon to recognize, classify, and repeatedly observe for ancient humans. The first and only natural source of electricity that comes to my mind is lightening, and I’m confident that I wouldn’t know what I was seeing if lightening struck nearby and I was living 1,000 years ago.

But, it turns out that ancient Egyptians observed shocks from electric fish all the way back in the 28th century B.C. They called electric fish “Thunderers of the Nile” … the Zeus of fish, if you will.

Michael Bennett gave a 2009 symposium in Alexandria, Egypt at Frontiers in Neuroscience that looked at “who discovered the first electric fish”. Here are a few gems from his abstract:

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The full article was originally published by HelloIOTA, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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