Top Ten ‘Electricians’ in History – Part 2
Part 2 of A Brief History of Electricity Today
Please note – this is part two of a two part series on the founding fathers of electricity. Part one was posted last week and may be found here. A list of the top ten contributors in history, today’s post covers numbers five through one.
A Top Ten of Electricians Through History (From Five to One)
If we start at the very beginning, our initial exploration of electricity was more like scientific experiments with things like magnetism and static fields. Our first ‘electricians’ were more like crazy scientists than engineers – designing and experimenting with unknown objects in search of uncertain results. And yet at the end of the day – or century, or era – what we wound up with was electricity: a controlled flow of electrical charge. But how did we get there? What baby steps did we take to make it happen? Who is responsible for this magical system of voltage, current, resistance, watts, and amps that is our understanding of electricity?
Engineers or electricians – perhaps a little bit of both – history is full of stories that may or may not sound familiar about people who discovered tiny fractions of the entire picture and understanding we have now about electricity, electrical theory, and electrical magnetism.
5. Georg Ohm
Electrical engineers will recognize Ohm as a measurement; but the title was in respect to the man – a physicist and mathematician – who made a huge impact on our understanding of electricity, and in science. Like great men throughout history, he struggled with recognition or comprehension of the work he did – yet his work brought understanding of the flow of electrical current. Using Volta’s batteries and math he discovered that a circuit’s ‘electromotive force’ is a product of the circuit’s current and the resistance built into the circuit. The famous Ohm’s law is the foundation of electrical engineering math, circuit design, and wiring systems today – but it was received with disbelief in his lifetime. It wasn’t until the end of his life that his contributions to science and math were recognized and awarded by his peers and the Royal Society of London.
4. Michael Faraday
Considered one of the greatest contributors to the world of electricity, Faraday’s simple mathematics became a building block for electromagnetics, electrolysis, and connected magnetism to light rays. Albert Einstein kept a picture of him on the wall, and his work later became part of the fundamentals of electrical math and theory. Most importantly of all, his work with electromagnetism and induction led to the first electric motor designs and later on to generators as well. He also discovered that the use of two opposing electrical fields on the an object with an interior and exterior surface can cancel each other out – hence, the Faraday cage. He is most remarkable, however, for his desire to bring science to the public at large by offering lectures and talks open to all and established a series of Christmas lectures that still are conducted to this day. His peers and society respected him for declining a knighthood and endless offers of leadership and wealth – instead, devoting himself to serving the greater good and performing public service.
3. Joseph Swan
Despite what popular culture tells you, Joseph Swan is the actual inventor of the incandescent light bulb. Working in England, Swan patented a light bulb format – which Edison later worked on ‘improving’ to be more efficient, only to later claim Edison designed it – and he even ceded Edison the rights to sell his bulbs in America, even though the design and process was his intellectual property. A physicist and a chemist, he later joined forces with Edison to create the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company, which eventually led to becoming a division of the General Electric Company. Swan’s lesser known contributions include the creation of bromide photo paper and several improvements of black and white photograph paper, and the inadvertent discovery of the process of squeezing cellulose through holes to form conducting fibers.
2. James Maxwell
If you don’t know this gentleman’s name, that is not unusual. I guarantee you that his contributions, however, are the reason we understand that electricity, magnetism, and light are all the product of the same thing. According to wikipedia,
Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics” after the first one realised by Isaac Newton. … His discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics. Many physicists regard Maxwell as the 19th-century scientist having the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions to the science are considered by many to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein. On the centenary of Maxwell’s birthday, Einstein described Maxwell’s work as the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton”.
His most famous work, the four equations for the basic laws of electricity and magnetism, led to other discoveries as well including color photography. He also had a penchant for poetry – reading, writing, and reciting it. A memorial stone for him reads, ‘he established a sure foundation for modern physics, electrical engineering, and astronomy and prepared the way for radio communication and television.’
1. Nikola Tesla
I think I’ve made it pretty clear how I feel about Nikola Tesla, one of the most underappreciated contributors to modern electricity. If you don’t know exactly how amazing this father of AC power generation, modern radio, wifi technology, and induction lighting is then I suggest you do some reading up on it.
Suffice to say the man has not gotten credit for his contributions until the end of last century, when interest in his work surged. Because there was a limited amount of documentation on his processes and due to his eccentric nature, we may never know the truth of exactly how much he has contributed to the modern world. He is considered the father of our alternating current power system, filed the first basic radio patent, experimented with x-rays, and built the first remote control vehicle (a boat). Personal bias aside, his mixture of inventing, physics, and mechanical and electrical engineering made him an intellectual force to be reckoned with, even living amongst peers like Albert Einstein.
Granted, none of these figures were electricians in the sense that they ran wires, installed ceiling fans, or hooked up air conditioning units. They were electricians who, to quote the 1751 dictionary, were “scientists concerned with electricity” and to quote the 1869 dictionary “concerned with electrical systems”. They were SO concerned with electricity that we have it today – on demand, at our fingertips, in our walls, beneath our feet, running in lines over our head – powering everything from our children’s simplest toys to the international space station. To you, great pioneers of science and energy, wanderers of magnetism and light, diviners of power and its generation, that we may not have to go out into darkness, into a cold void, nor be productive only when and where the sun’s face shines upon our planet – we who are about to go do work in your field with the knowledge you gave us, salute you.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy this infographic from Ohio University. You can find it at: http://onlinemasters.ohio.edu/kite-and-key-electrical-engineering-infographic/
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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