What Is Electricity? - Definition & Concept

Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

Learn the history of electricity, from Ben Franklin's kite experiment to laptop batteries. Explore the many different ways electricity is measured, generated, and stored.

Ben Franklin & the Lightning Experiment

Probably the most famous experiment involving electricity, at least in the minds of American school children, is when Benjamin Franklin tied a key to the end of a kite string and sent it into the air during a lightning storm. The lightning struck the kite, traveled down the string to the key, proving that lightning is a form of electricity. Franklin also proved that objects made of metal, like the key, are good at conducting, or easily passing along electricity.

The story doesn't stop there, though. Franklin wasn't just outside in a storm with a kite and a key for no reason - he was looking for a way to reduce the number of fires caused by lightning. After proving that metal is a good conductor of electricity, he developed the lightning rod and placed these structures at the top of buildings to keep them safe from fire (which was probably good for the fire departments Franklin is also credited with developing).

A lightning rod attracts the electric charge from lightning and conducts it by wire down the side of the house to a ground rod.
Diagram of a lightning rod on a house

What is Electricity?

Imagine you and some of your friends standing in a circle. Each one of you represents a single atom - the building block of all things, from apples to jet planes. Every atom has a nucleus at its center and is surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Now, imagine each of you and your friends in the circle holding a single ping-pong ball representing an electron. If you were to pass the ping-pong balls/electrons around the circle, you would be replicating the flow of electricity.

Electricity is when electrons move from one atom to another, in much the same way the ping-pong balls were passed from one person in the circle to another. The flow of electricity is called a current, which we measure in amperes (I), also known as amps. Conductors, like Franklin's metal lightning rods, easily carry electric currents, while insulators, like rubber, wood, or cloth, stop the flow of electricity.

Besides measuring electricity's current, we also measure its voltage, watts, and resistance. The volt (V) is the power available to push electricity around a circuit. Think of it like the water pressure in a pipe: the more voltage you have, the more quickly electricity flows through a circuit. Resistance, to take the analogy further, would be pipe size and is measured in ohms (r). We measure electrical power in watts, which is obtained by multiplying amps by volts.

What 18th Century Experiments Taught Us About Electricity

In the 1700s, scientists got super into studying electricity. This was before light bulbs, televisions, and all the other useful applications of electricity we have now. Scientists just really wanted to understand what they could about electricity, like Franklin with his lightning experiment in 1752.

Around 1710, for instance, English scientist Francis Hauksbee invented the first electrostatic generator. This created large amounts of electricity that could be used for study. (Electrostatic generators also create huge sparks, which were later used in films like Frankenstein to great effect.) Other scientists created instruments that could detect electricity, like the electroscope. During this time, scientists learned that electric charges could attract and repel one another, noticing positive and negative charges at work before they were identified and named.

This electrostatic generator, made in 1745, was owned (but not made) by Benjamin Franklin.
Photo of an electrostatic generator

Making Electricity Useful

In order to make electricity useful, we had to find a way to not only generate large amounts of electricity, but to somehow store it. The battery is an early source of electricity we still use today, while large amounts of power are produced by power stations.

Batteries and Circuits

What we think of as batteries, like the ones we use in flashlights and remote controls, are actually cells. A battery is a collection of cells, like the batteries in cars and laptops. A battery is an electrochemical source of electricity, meaning we get the electricity from a chemical reaction taking place inside the battery.

The first cells consisted of two metal plates - one copper and one zinc - in a jar with liquid, usually a strong chemical that supplied the necessary 'ingredient' for a chemical reaction to occur. The two plates were connected through a circuit, an unbroken wire that allowed electric current, created by the chemical reaction, to flow from one metal plate, through the wire, through the second plate, and then finally through the liquid (also a good conductor) and back to the first plate. Even now, in order to successfully use electricity, we must have a complete circuit that allows electricity to flow in an unbroken circle.

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