Pioneers in the History of Electricity

Pioneers in the History of Electricity

Here is a brief list of the founding father’s of electricity. No single person can be credited with “inventing” electricity. No single defining moment exists in the history of electricity. The problem with trying to identify the main contributors to the history of electricity is that invariably the list will be wrong. It will include people whose electrical contributions were minimal relative to others, or worse, it will exclude obvious important contributors to the history of electricity.

The way we understand and use electricity is the culmination of nearly 300 years of research and development.  Going back a bit further, we can date the first awareness of static electricity to around 600 BC when writings by Thales of Miletus discussed charging amber. Fast forward over 2,000 years to 1660 and Otto Von Guericke creates a machine to produce static electricity. But it wasn’t until the early 18th century that the conduction and control of electricity was discovered, which gave scientists new ideas about this phenomenon.

Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC)

Thales of Miletus Contributions to ElectricityAround 585 BC, Thales discovered that if he rubbed amber (ilektron = Greek for amber) with a piece of fur, that amber could attract lightweight objects (like feathers) to itself. Thales had discovered the principle of static electricity.

Because he lacked the tools to investigate further – as did subsequent thinkers and experimenters for more than 2,000 additional years – no one really followed-up on Thales’ ideas until the late-17th and early-18th centuries.


William Gilbert (1544 -1603)

William Gilbert Electricity DiscoveryWilliam Gilbert was an English physician, physicist and natural philosopher. He is remembered today largely for his book De Magnete (1600), and is credited as one of the originators of the term “electricity”. He is regarded by some as the father of electrical engineering or electricity and magnetism. Prior to him, all that was known of electricity and magnetism was what the ancients knew, that the lodestone possessed magnetic properties and that amber and jet, when rubbed, would attract bits of paper or other substances of small specific gravity. Gilbert wrote about the electrification of many substances in his “De magnete, magneticisique corporibus”. He was also the first person to use the terms electric force, magnetic pole, and electric attraction. William Gilbert was a pioneer of the experimental method and the first to explain the magnetic compass.


Otto von Guericke (1602-1686)

Otto von Guericke Contributions to ElectricityOtto von Guericke was a German scientist, inventor, and politician. His major scientific achievements were the establishment of the physics of vacuums, the discovery of an experimental method for clearly demonstrating electrostatic repulsion. Otto von Guericke can be fairly credited with inventing a primitive form of frictional electrical machine before 1663. He used a sulphur globe that could be rubbed by hand.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Ben Franklin Contributions to ElectricityHis kite experiment demonstrated that lightning is electricity. He was the first to use the terms positive and negative charge. His famous stormy kite flight in June of 1752 led him to develop many of the terms that we still use today when we talk about electricity: battery, conductor, condenser, charge, discharge, uncharged, negative, minus, plus, electric shock, and electrician.

James Watt (1736-1819)

James Watt Contributions to ElectricityJames Watt was born in Scotland. Although he conducted no electrical experiments, he must not be overlooked. He was an instrument maker by trade and set up a repair shop in Glasgow in 1757. Watt thought that the steam engine would replace animal power, where the number of horses replaced seemed an obvious way to measure the charge for performance. Interestingly, Watt measured the rate of work exerted by a horse drawing rubbish up an old mine shaft and found it amounted to about 22,000 ft-lbs per minute. He added a margin of 50% arriving at 33,000 ft-lbs.

Alessandro Volta (1745-1827)

Alessandro  Volta Contributions to ElectricityAlessandro  Volta was an Italian physicist known for the invention of the battery in the 1800s. The battery made by Volta is credited as the first electrochemical cell. It consists of two electrodes: one made of zinc, the other of copper. The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water or a form of saltwater brine.

Thomas Seebeck (1770-1831)

Thomas Seebeck Contributions to ElectricityThomas Seebeck a German physicist was the discoverer of the “Seebeck effect”. He twisted two wires made of different metals and heated a junction where the two wires met. He produced a small current. The current is the result of a flow of heat from the hot to the cold junction. This is called thermoelectricity. Thermo is a Greek word meaning heat.

Andre Marie Ampere (1775-1836)

Andre Marie Ampere History of ElectricityAndre Marie Ampere was a French mathematician who devoted himself to the study of electricity and magnetism, was the first to explain the electro-dynamic theory. He is regarded as one of the main founders of the science of classical electromagnetism, which he referred to as “electrodynamics”. A permanent memorial to Ampere is the use of his name for the unit of electric current. An amp is a unit of electric current equal to a flow of one coulomb (equal to the charge of approximately 6.241×1018 electrons) per second.

Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854)

Georg Simon Ohm Electricity PioneerGeorge Simon Ohm was a German physicist and mathematician. As a school teacher, Ohm began his research with the new electrochemical cell, invented by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta. Using equipment of his own creation, Ohm found that there is a direct proportionality between the potential difference (voltage) applied across a conductor and the resultant electric current. This relationship is known as Ohm’s law.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

Michael Faraday Electrical Historyan Englishman, made one of the most significant discoveries in the history of electricity: Electromagnetic induction. His pioneering work dealt with how electric currents work. Many inventions would come from his experiments, but they would come fifty to one hundred years later.Failures never discouraged Faraday. He would say; “the failures are just as important as the successes.” He felt failures also teach. The farad, the unit of capacitance is named in the honor of Michael Faraday.

James Maxwell (1831-1879)

James Maxwell Pioneer in ElectricityMaxwell was a Scottish mathematician translated Faraday’s theories into mathematical expressions. Maxwell was one of the finest mathematicians in history. A maxwell is the electromagnetic unit of magnetic flux, named in his honor. Today he is widely regarded as secondary only to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in the world of science.

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931)

Thomas Edison Electricity Pioneer Thomas Edison was one of the most well known inventors of all time with 1093 patents. Self-educated, Edison was interested in chemistry and electronics.During the whole of his life, Edison received only three months of formal schooling, and was dismissed from school as being retarded, though in fact a childhood attack of scarlet fever had left him partially deaf.

Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)

Nikola Tesla History of ElectricityNikola Tesla was born of Serbian parents July 10, 1856 and died a broke and lonely man in New York City January 7, 1943. He envisioned a world without poles and power lines. Referred to as the greatest inventive genius of all time. Tesla’s system triumphed to make possible the first large-scale harnessing of Niagara Falls with the first hydroelectric plant in the United States in 1886.

George Westinghouse (1846-1914)

George Westinghouse Pioneer of ElectricityGeorge Westinghouse was awarded the contract to build the first generators at Niagara Falls. He used his money to buy up patents in the electric field. One of the inventions he bought was the transformer from William Stanley. Westinghouse invented the air brake system to stop trains, the first of more than one hundred patents he would receive in this area alone. He soon founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in 1869.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Alexander Graham Bell and ElectricityAlexander Graham Bell was born in Scotland and raised in a family that was interested and involved in the science of sound. Bell’s father and grandfather both taught speech to the deaf. A unit of sound level is called a bel in his honor. Sound levels are measured in tenths of a bel, or decibels. The abbreviation for decibel is dB.

Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894)

Heinrich Hertz History of ElectricityHeinrich Hertz was a German physicist who laid the ground work for the vacuum tube. He laid the foundation for the future development of radio, telephone, telegraph, and even television. He was one of the first people to demonstrate the existence of electric waves. Hertz was convinced that there were electromagnetic waves in space.

Otto Hahn (1879-1968)

Otto Hahn History of Electricity Otto Hahn was a German chemist and physicist who made the vital discovery which led to the first nuclear reactor. He uncovered the process of nuclear fission by which nuclei of atoms of heavy elements can break into smaller nuclei, in the process releasing large quantities of energy. Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1944.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Albert Einstein History of ElectricityEinstein’s formula proved that one gram of mass can be converted into a torrential amount of energy. To do this, the activity of the atoms has to occur in the nucleus. E = energy, M = mass, and C = the speed of light which is 186,000 miles per second. When you square 186,000 you can see it would only take a small amount of mass to produce a huge amount of energy.

In the making of this list, I’ve left off at least five other important contributors to the history of electricity. Please use the comments field to help fill out this list.

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