We could’ve harnessed electricity much earlier in human history. What does the history of this power source say about the potential all around us?
Innovation is sometimes in seeing what’s right in front of you.
“Why is electricity valuable?” asked William Gladstone, British Prime Minister from 1868 to 1874. Renowned physicist Michael Faraday replied, “One day, sir, you may tax it.” He understood electricity’s vast potential and how to get Gladstone’s attention.
Today, without electricity, most economies would falter. It powers nearly all technologies. With several landmark anniversaries for electricity in 2020, the story of electricity has a lot to tell us about potential.
Electricity was never invented
Electricity occurs in nature. Civilizations gradually worked out how to use it. Ancient Egyptians thought electric fish protected other fish. In the Roman Empire, people touched these fish, thinking the powerful jolt could cure gout and headache.
The ancient Greeks thought amber had magnetic, magical properties after seeing that rubbing amber with cats’ fur attracted feathers – the triboelectric effect, or static electricity.
In 1600, English philosopher and physicist William Gilbert compared rubbing amber with naturally magnetic stones known as lodestones. He called this property electricus, ‘of amber’ in New Latin, or electricity in English.
200 years ago, in 1820, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted noticed his compass needle deflected from magnetic north when he switched his battery on and off. His research showed electric currents produce a magnetic field. The race to illuminate the world was on.
Mavericks on dangerous, high-voltage quests
The Baroque era was the unlikely birthplace of electronic music. The Golden Dionysus, created in 1748 by Czech theologian Václav Prokop Diviš, used electrically-charged magnets to excite keyboard strings, creating sounds that mimicked other instruments, like the harpsichord, lute and flute. It also performed a practical joke on its player: Giving them an electric shock.
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite with a metal key attached during a lightning storm. This, and similar experiments by others, led to the lightning rod’s invention and understanding of positive and negative charges.
The 1870s brought the race to commercialize electricity and the war of the currents. Nikola Tesla demonstrated his invention, alternating current (AC,) by dazzling audiences with an illuminated lightbulb held in his hands – a neat trick using his body as a conductor. Thomas Edison, who developed direct current (DC,) played dirty. He dubbed AC a menace to public safety and made sure the electric chair used AC, so people would associate it with danger. Later, the rival technologies merged as AC/DC, bringing electricity safely into workplaces and homes.
19th-century engineers like Bell, Kelvin and von Siemens turned electricity from a curiosity to an everyday essential. The incandescent lightbulb let factories operate around the clock, and the electric motor accelerated the industrial revolution.
Welcome to the mass communication age
The electric telegraph launched the mass communication age – initially delivered via telegraph poles before underwater cables were laid transatlantic. Communication no longer relied on newspapers or snail mail.
Radio’s invention began mass broadcasting. In 1900, priest Roberto Landell de Moura transmitted his voice five miles across São Paulo, Brazil.
In November 1920, the first commercial radio station broadcast the results of the US presidential election from KDKA in Pittsburgh. A hundred years later, the same story will go out on digital platforms, including HD radio and web streaming.
Music to manifest the future
Radio technology also allowed the commercialization of electronic music. Around 1920, Moscow scientist Leon Theremin was researching how to measure the density of gas using audio proximity sensors. Also a cello player, Theremin realized his work could bring about a new way to make music.
The theremin seemed to symbolize the enigmatic futurism of electricity. Blessed by Soviet leader Lenin, it wooed (literally, the theremin has an ethereal, warbling sound) concert audiences throughout the world as a manifestation of Lenin’s ‘Soviet power through electrification.’
Some of those in the amazed audiences thought it was magic. Despite its shortcomings – a strange appearance and difficulty playing traditional western melodies without keys or strings – many players worldwide still try to tame this enchanting instrument, I among them.
The theremin’s technologies later brought the synthesizer and drum machine. Without it, we may never have heard electronic music – from Kraftwerk to Hip Hop.
In 1927, Leon Theremin used similar technologies to invent the first wireless television, but much of his pioneering inventions were shrouded in secrecy behind the iron curtain.
From 1947 until today, and into the future
The next evolution in electricity came faster. Mainstream computing started small, with the invention of the transistor in 1947. Integrated circuits now have several billion tiny transistors squeezed onto a small board. By 1959, Bell Labs found they could produce more compact transistors with silicon, starting the silicon or digital age.
Electricity’s slow move into our homes and workplaces makes me wonder, what if we’d harnessed it sooner? Could society have advanced faster? Maybe not. Nikola Tesla and Leon Theremin found some fame but little fortune in their lifetimes. They were in the right place at the wrong time.
And so was Hero of Alexandria. In 10CE, he made the first steam engine and automated devices such as a coin-operated vending machine, inventing both steam power and cybernetics. But empire leaders didn’t see the potential, perhaps because Ancient Greece was already powered by a cheap and plentiful source of free labor.
Electrical growing pains
Growing electricity consumption signals a growing economy. Between 1900 and 1930, US demand grew 12 percent each year. There’s now similar growth in China and India.
The electricity industry is in existential crisis: How can it help us prosper while negating the effects of climate change? In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic slowed industry, the UK went two months without burning coal for the first time in 230 years. Global industry is targeting zero emissions from coal. Investment in renewable energies – like wind, solar and tidal – must accelerate to ween us off polluting coal, oil and risky nuclear power. There’s some way to go: Renewables are just 28 percent of global electricity generation.
Fortunately, there are many tech start-ups committed to ingenious solutions to meet the challenges of finding new sources of power. New Zealand’s Vortex Power Systems generates low-carbon electricity from waste heat from thermal processes. A controllable vortex, similar to a waterspout, is created from differences between temperate and water vapour. This circulates to produce wind, like a controlled tornado, which connects to a wind turbine to produce electricity.
Digital technologies use a lot of energy
Digital transformation has shifted interactions from the real world to the cloud, but the internet isn’t ‘green’ – Swedish Royal Institute of Technology KTH estimates the internet made up 10 percent of global electricity use in 2019. Data centers alone use as much electricity as some mid-size developing nations.
When there’s cryptomining and other malicious digital activities on unprotected devices, they consume energy, which means carbon emissions.
Sergey Lurye, Technology Positioning Lead, Kaspersky
Businesses can take practical steps to reduce their carbon footprint, like optimizing website pages and choosing cloud providers with better environmental credentials. Smarter workplace design can also reduce electricity use.
Protecting critical infrastructure
Electricity helps industry thrive and communities grow. It means better economic, health and education performance. Like gas, water, and, many now say, the internet, it must operate around the clock. But it’s not a right for all: 13 percent of the world’s population don’t have access to electricity. It’s no surprise who’s missing out: The worst-off communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.
When electricity fails, business and society quickly falter. It’s not just developing countries hit. In 1974, the UK responded to an oil crisis with a ‘three-day week.’ Commercial electricity was strictly limited, with early curfews on TV broadcasts and pub openings. A political flashpoint triggered as coal miners went on strike. People speculated that to keep the lights on, the army may have to be called in to transport coal.
Today, cybercrime groups linked to nation states sabotage critical infrastructure. In 2016, an attack on a Ukraine power company left 225,000 citizens in the dark. Cyber safety is as vital as physical safety for the energy industry.
Electricity as a human right
The evolution of electricity shows mavericks spearheaded innovation, just in time to accelerate the industrial revolution and take us into the digital age. Electricity must become a right for everyone. Nations should enshrine access for all citizens and work with energy companies to protect supply. Lives depend on it.
As electricity consumers, in work and life, we must think about the products and services we buy, and how we use our devices, to protect this precious resource.