The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


electricity, class of phenomena arising from the existence of charge. The basic unit of charge is that on the proton or electron—the proton's charge is designated as positive while the electron's is negative. There are three basic systems of units used to measure electrical quantities, the most common being the one in which the ampere is the unit of current, the coulomb is the unit of charge, the volt is the unit of electromotive force, and the ohm is the unit of resistance, reactance, or impedance (see electric and magnetic units).

Properties of Electric Charges

According to modern theory, most elementary particles of matter possess charge, either positive or negative. Two particles with like charges, both positive or both negative, repel each other, while two particles with unlike charges are attracted (see Coulomb's law). The electric force between two charged particles is much greater than the gravitational force between the particles. The negatively charged electrons in an atom are held near the nucleus because of their attraction for the positively charged protons in the nucleus.

If the numbers of electrons and protons are equal, the atom is electrically neutral; if there is an excess of electrons, it is a negative ion; and if there is a deficiency of electrons, it is a positive ion. Under various circumstances, the number of electrons associated with a given atom may change; chemical bonding results from such changes, with electrons being shared by more than one atom in covalent bonds or being transferred from one atom to another in ionic bonds (see chemical bond). Thus many of the bulk properties of matter ultimately are due to the electric forces among the particles of which the substance is composed. Materials differ in their ability to allow charge to flow through them (see conduction; insulation); materials that allow charge to pass easily are called conductors, while those that do not are called insulators, or dielectrics. A third class of materials, called semiconductors, conduct charge under some conditions but not under others.

Properties of Charges at Rest

Electrostatics is the study of charges, or charged bodies, at rest. When positive or negative charge builds up in fixed positions on objects, certain phenomena can be observed that are collectively referred to as static electricity. The charge can be built up by rubbing certain objects together, such as silk and glass or rubber and fur; the friction between the objects causes electrons to be transferred from one to the other—from a glass rod to a silk cloth or from fur to a rubber rod—with the result that the object that has lost the electrons has a positive charge and the object that has gained them has an equal negative charge. An electrically neutral object can be charged by bringing it in contact with a charged object: if the charged object is positive, the neutral object gains a positive charge when some of its electrons are attracted onto the positive object; if the charged object is negative, the neutral object gains a negative charge when some electrons are attracted onto it from the negative object.

A neutral conductor may be charged by induction using the following procedure. A charged object is placed near but not in contact with the conductor. If the object is positively charged, electrons in the conductor are drawn to the side of the conductor near the object. If the object is negatively charged, electrons are drawn to the side of the conductor away from the object. If the conductor is then connected to a reservoir of electrons, such as the ground, electrons will flow onto or off of the conductor with the result that it acquires a charge opposite to that of the charged object brought near it.

See also pole, in electricity and magnetism.

Properties of Charges in Motion

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.

History of Electricity

From the writings of Thales of Miletus it appears that Westerners knew as long ago as 600 BC that amber becomes charged by rubbing. There was little real progress until the English scientist William Gilbert in 1600 described the electrification of many substances and coined the term electricity from the Greek word for amber. As a result, Gilbert is called the father of modern electricity. In 1660 Otto von Guericke invented a crude machine for producing static electricity. It was a ball of sulfur, rotated by a crank with one hand and rubbed with the other. Successors, such as Francis Hauksbee, made improvements that provided experimenters with a ready source of static electricity. Today's highly developed descendant of these early machines is the Van de Graaf generator, which is sometimes used as a particle accelerator. Robert Boyle realized that attraction and repulsion were mutual and that electric force was transmitted through a vacuum (c.1675). Stephen Gray distinguished between conductors and nonconductors (1729). C. F. Du Fay recognized two kinds of electricity, which Benjamin Franklin and Ebenezer Kinnersley of Philadelphia later named positive and negative.

The Leyden Jar and the Quantitative Era

Progress quickened after the Leyden jar was invented in 1745 by Pieter van Musschenbroek. The Leyden jar stored static electricity, which could be discharged all at once. In 1747 William Watson discharged a Leyden jar through a circuit, and comprehension of the current and circuit started a new field of experimentation. Henry Cavendish, by measuring the conductivity of materials (he compared the simultaneous shocks he received by discharging Leyden jars through the materials), and Charles A. Coulomb, by expressing mathematically the attraction of electrified bodies, began the quantitative study of electricity.

A new interest in current began with the invention of the battery. Luigi Galvani had noticed (1786) that a discharge of static electricity made a frog's leg jerk. Consequent experimentation produced what was a simple electron cell using the fluids of the leg as an electrolyte and the muscle as a circuit and indicator. Galvani thought the leg supplied electricity, but Alessandro Volta thought otherwise, and he built the voltaic pile, an early type of battery, as proof. Continuous current from batteries smoothed the way for the discovery of G. S. Ohm's law (pub. 1827), relating current, voltage (electromotive force), and resistance (see Ohm's law), and of J. P. Joule's law of electrical heating (pub. 1841). Ohm's law and the rules discovered later by G. R. Kirchhoff regarding the sum of the currents and the sum of the voltages in a circuit (see Kirchhoff's laws) are the basic means of making circuit calculations.

Era of Electromagnetism

In 1819 Hans Christian Oersted discovered that a magnetic field surrounds a current-carrying wire. Within two years André Marie Ampère had put several electromagnetic laws into mathematical form, D. F. Arago had invented the electromagnet, and Michael Faraday had devised a crude form of electric motor. Practical application of a motor had to wait 10 years, however, until Faraday (and earlier, independently, Joseph Henry) invented the electric generator with which to power the motor. A year after Faraday's laboratory approximation of the generator, Hippolyte Pixii constructed a hand-driven model. From then on engineers took over from the scientists, and a slow development followed; the first power stations were built 50 years later (see power, electric).

In 1873 James Clerk Maxwell had started a different path of development with equations that described the electromagnetic field, and he predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves traveling with the speed of light. Heinrich R. Hertz confirmed this prediction experimentally, and Marconi first made use of these waves in developing radio (1895). John Ambrose Fleming invented (1904) the diode rectifier vacuum tube as a detector for the Marconi radio. Three years later Lee De Forest made the diode into an amplifier by adding a third electrode, and electronics had begun. Theoretical understanding became more complete in 1897 with the discovery of the electron by J. J. Thomson. In 1910–11 Ernest R. Rutherford and his assistants learned the distribution of charge within the atom. Robert Millikan measured the charge on a single electron by 1913.


See D. L. Anderson, Discovery of the Electron: The Development of the Atomic Concept of Electricity (1964); W. T. Scott, The Physics of Electricity and Magnetism (2d ed. 1966); M. Kaufman and J. A. Wilson, Basic Electricity (1973); E. T. Whittaker, History of Theories of Aether and Electricity (1954, repr. 1987).

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