By just how dependent as a society we have become on electricity. Our cell phone’s, TV’s, Radio’s, Computers of all types, Internet infrastructure, Video games, Refrigerator’s, Air conditioning; the list goes on; but not to be outdone by the beloved coffee pot.
Long before any knowledge of electricity existed, people were aware of shocks from electric fish. Ancient Egyptian texts dating from 2,750 BC referred to these fish as the “Thunderer of the Nile,” and described them as the “protectors” of all other fish. Electric fish were again reported millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic naturalists and physicians. Several ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Scribonius Largus, attested to the numbing effect of electric shocks delivered by electric catfish and electric rays, and knew that such shocks could travel along conducting objects. Patients suffering from ailments such as gout or headache were often directed to touch electric fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them.
In 1850, William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable. Faraday answered, “One day sir, you may tax it.”
In the 19th and early 20th century, electricity was not part of the everyday life of many people, even in the industrialized Western world. The popular culture of the time accordingly often depicted it as a mysterious, quasi-magical force that can slay the living, revive the dead or otherwise bend the laws of nature. This attitude began with the 1771 experiments of Luigi Galvani in which the legs of dead frogs were shown to twitch on application of animal electricity. Revitalization or resuscitation of apparently dead or drowned persons was reported in the medical literature shortly after Galvani’s work. These results were known to Mary Shelley when she authored Frankenstein in 1819, although she does not name the method of revitalization of the monster. The revitalization of monsters with electricity later became a stock theme in horror films.
As the public familiarity with electricity as the lifeblood of the Second Industrial Revolution grew, its wielders were more often cast in a positive light, such as the workers who finger death at their gloves’ end as they piece and re-piece the living wires in Rudyard Kipling’s 1907 poem Sons of Martha. Electrically powered vehicles of every sort featured large in adventure stories such as those of Jules Verne and the Tom Swift books. The masters of electricity, whether fictional or real, including scientists such as Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz or Nikola Tesla were popularly conceived of as having wizard-like powers.
With electricity ceasing to be a novelty and becoming a necessity of everyday life in the later half of the 20th century, it required particular attention by popular culture only when it stops flowing, an event that usually signals disaster. The people who keep it flowing, such as the nameless hero of Jimmy Webb’s song “Wichita Lineman,” 1968, are still often cast as heroic, wizard-like figures.
In the 6th century BC, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus experimented with amber rods. These experiments were the first studies into the production of electrical energy. While this method, now known as the triboelectric effect, can lift light objects and generate sparks, it is extremely inefficient. It was not until the invention of the voltaic pile in the eighteenth century that a viable source of electricity became available. The voltaic pile, and its modern descendant, the electrical battery, store energy chemically and make it available on demand in the form of electrical energy. The battery is a versatile and very common power source which is ideally suited to many applications, but its energy storage is finite, and once discharged it must be disposed of or recharged. For large electrical demands electrical energy must be generated and transmitted continuously over conductive transmission lines.
Electrical power is usually generated by electro-mechanical generators driven by steam produced from fossil fuel combustion, or the heat released from nuclear reactions; or from other sources such as kinetic energy extracted from wind or flowing water. The modern steam turbine invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884, today generates about 80 percent of the electric power in the world using a variety of heat sources. Such generators bear no resemblance to Faraday’s homo-polar disc generator of 1831, but they still rely on his electromagnetic principle that a conductor linking a changing magnetic field induces a potential difference across its ends. The invention in the late nineteenth century of the transformer meant that electrical power could be transmitted more efficiently at a higher voltage but lower current. Efficient electrical transmission meant in turn that electricity could be generated at centralized power stations, where it benefited from economies of scale, and then be dispatched relatively long distances to where it was needed.
Since electrical energy cannot easily be stored in quantities large enough to meet demands on a national scale, at all times exactly as much must be produced as is required. This requires electricity utilities to make careful predictions of their electrical loads, and maintain constant co-ordination with their power stations. A certain amount of generation must always be held in reserve to cushion an electrical grid against inevitable disturbances and losses.
Demand for electricity grows with great rapidity as a nation modernizes and its economy develops. The United States showed a 12% increase in demand during each year of the first three decades of the twentieth century, a rate of growth that is now being experienced by emerging economies such as those of India or China. Historically, the growth rate for electricity demand has outpaced that for other forms of energy.