History of Elecrtricity

Subject: Technology
Type: Exploratory Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1962
Topics: Innovation

Thesis Statement

Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with the discovery of electricity, and his work is well documented. Franklin’s work in making the connecting the similarities between lightning and electricity using the flying kite in a thunderstorm was laudable and impressive. This paper argues that it was Joseph Henry contribution that made the most significant strides in the field of electricity and its application. Evidence will show that Henry’s work with electromagnets and finally the introduction of electromagnetic induction is what shaped electricity and its application the way we know them today


Many people are of the opinion that it was Benjamin Franklin that discovered electricity by using the kite-flying experiment in 1752. Franklin had tied a key to the string of a kite in a thunderstorm, an experiment that proved that lightning and electricity were the same. However, this was just a small part of the story of electricity. The process of discovery of electricity was gradual as opposed to a sudden event. Initially, electricity was allied to light. People had been looking for ways to light their homes in a safe and clean method, and scientists thought that electricity was the best solution. Ironically people today just light their home without truly appreciating the hard work that so many scientists put to achieve this fete.

Although Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with the discovery of electricity, it is the work of Joseph Henry that would revolutionize the way electricity was produced, transmitted and utilized as we know it today. By applying electromagnetism, Henry was able to advance the principle of electromagnet induction a key concept in power generation and is also extensively used in power transformation in transformers to facilitate transmission. Electrical motors a vital component of today’s industries also uses the principle of electromagnetic induction. Henry’s work also gave birth to the telegraph a revolutionary mode of communication of the time.

Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

As early as the 1740s, people knew about electricity, but not in the way they perceive it today. People utilized electricity to perform magic deceits by creating shocks and sparks. Although scientist performed experiments using electricity, the scientific intellect remains stagnated for many years. Nobody considered electricity to be of any use. However, Benjamin Franklin was fascinated by electricity, and thus it drew a lot of interest from him. As an inventive and curious thinker, Franklin wanted to explore more on electricity apart from just performing popular tricks. Due to Franklin’s constant thinking about the subject of electricity, it made him come up with very significant ideas. One such idea was the relationship between lightning and electricity. Franklin observed numerous parallels between the two: both lightning and electricity created light, they exploded with a loud crash, were both attracted to metal and had a specific smell. Using these observations, Benjamin concluded that lightning and electricity was one and the same thing. Although a few people concurred with Franklin, no one tried to test that assertion. 

Franklin documented his opinions on electricity in numerous letters a colleague scientist named Collinson stationed in London. After careful consideration, this scientist together with others in London were of the opinion that Franklin’s letters contained important information and in 1751 the letters were printed in a little book called ‘ Experiments and Observation on Electricity. In one of the letters, Franklin outlined a proposal on how to show that lightning and electricity were the same. Franklin’s plan involved the use of a high building or a hill, at the time none of these two could be found in Philadelphia. While Franklin waited for the high building to come up, Benjamin thought of another plan that involved a kite and a key.

Franklin required something that could get as close as possible to the clouds to draw the lightning. Franklin could not get anywhere near the clouds since there were no high buildings or hills in Philadelphia. However, Franklin had some string, a silk handkerchief and a couple of sticks. Franklin, therefore, flew a kite near the clouds instead of going near the clouds personally, and the experiment worked. Franklin, together with a few other European scientists who performed a similar experiment of their own proved that electricity and lightning are the same.

Franklin was not satisfied with the success of that experiment because he believed without this knowledge being useful for the practical purpose it was of no use. Since many people only knew the bad effects of lightning few were skeptical about what Franklin could do with it. However, Franklin believed that he could help. Since the lightning often hit the highest point in a building and the resulting current usually caused fires, Franklin developed the lightning rod. Lightning rods are made from metals that are good conductors of electricity and are fixed at the highest point on the building. The lightning, therefore, encounters the rod first, as opposed to the house, and the resultant electrical current is grounded leaving the house intact. Up until that point, Franklin considered the lightning rod his most significant invention.

The typical account of Franklin kite experiment has been questioned by Tom tucker a science historian. Tucker argues that Franklin did not conduct the experiment and that the kite could not perform what is alleged in its normal form. Investigators in the television sequence Myth Busters also cast further doubts on the standard account. By using a simulator, the team proved that if lightning had indeed hit the kite, a fatal electric current would have passed through Franklin’s heart. However, the investigators confirmed that some features of the experiment were possible such as the capability for a kite with adequately moist string to receive and send to ground lightning strike electrical energy. Franklin account, however, is still the official account and those who doubt it has to demonstrate without a doubt that it was wrong since they cannot recreate the exact circumstance that was there then.

Joseph Henry Contribution on the Work on Electricity

Joseph Henry (1797-1878) was an American engineer and scientist. During Henry’s work building electromagnets, he discovered the self-inductance phenomenon of electromagnets. Independently of Michael Faraday, Henry discovered mutual inductance, although Faraday was quicker in publishing the results. Wheatstone and Morse applied Henry’s work on electromagnetic relay as the foundation of the electrical telegraph. The SI unit of inductance is named after Henry.

Henry’s Initial Work in the Field of Electromagnetism

Joseph Henry was so good in school that it is rumored that he would usually assist the teachers to teach science. Henry was made a professor of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics at the Albany Academy in Albany, New York. In Henry’s new position he was able to conduct his most significant research. Joseph’s interest in earthly magnetism encouraged him to research on magnetism in overall. Henry in the one who pioneered the creation of strong electromagnets as a result of tightly coiling insulated wire around a ferrous core, which was an improvement on William Sturgeon’s electromagnet that employed slackly coiled un-insulated cables. By this method, Henry constructed the strongest electromagnet of its time for the University of Yale. Joseph also demonstrated that when constructing an electromagnet using two probes connected to a battery, winding numerous coils of wire in parallel will give the best results, as opposed to when several batteries are used in which case a long single coil is employed. The latter version of electromagnet was the genesis of the telegraph.

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The Birth of the Electrical Industry

During the months of June and July of 1831, Henry constructed an electromagnet for Penfield and Taft ironworks in Ironville, New York. Henry pursued only pure iron for use in his experiments; this was partly due to his familiarity with the area mines. The ore separation device that Joseph developed was the pioneer commercial application of electricity.

Henry’s Electric Motor

Joseph Henry took his innovation further and in 1831, constructed one of the initial machines to utilize electromagnetism for movement, creating the pioneer of today’s DC motor. Henry’s device did not make the rotating motion which characterize the modern motors. He made a rocking movement that was occasioned by one of the two leads on the two ends of the magnet rocker touching one of the two battery cells, triggering a change in polarity and therefore rocking in the reverse direction awaiting the other pair of leads to touch the other battery. Thomas Davenport utilized Henry work on motors to develop the first actual electric motor in 1834, which he used to drive a small train and model car. From these concepts, the Electric car and Frank Sprague developed street cars.

Henry and the Telegraph

Approximately one year after Henry’s rocking beam motor and the transmission of power to ring a bell for one mile, Samuel F. B. Morse advanced the idea further and developed the notion of a telegraph. Leonard Gale, Morse, and Alfred Vail utilized Henry’s batteries in 1836 to conduct crucial experiments that involved sending power over long wires. After a lot of enhancements, the telegraph developed as the first extensive commercial application of electricity. During the 1850s telegraph technology generated sufficient profits for investors. Henry was essentially an academic man, and although he was an important investor, he did not profit from the venture in the way Morse and others did. Henry, however, gained a lot of respect and was hailed as the most significant scientist at the time in North America and welded considerable position and power in Washington.  Rice and Thomson recognized the significant role Joseph Henry played in the electrical industry in 1932. Thompson indicated that he derived his early motivation to pursue engineering in electricity after recreating some of Henry’s works.

The Principle of Electromagnetic Induction

In July of 1832, Henry published the outcome of his work with self-inductance in the Silliman’s American Journal of Science. Henry had performed experiments using his sparks and electromagnets and by the use of galvanometer took measurements.  Henry formed a vital basis in physics knowledge and created a first understanding of the principle that governs the operation of generators and transformers.

Henry Safeguards his Future as a Leader

Henry had fortified his position as a significant figure in the circles of scientific and engineering community in the United States. Joseph became Smithsonian first secretary after being voted in on December 3, 1846. Henry reorganized the new organization and created objective and financial/organizational framework for the Smithsonian; he worked with the Smithsonian for thirty-two years. In Henry’s many years as a leader of numerous scientific societies, he advised young people to take up sciences. Joseph would later become the National Academy of Science (NAS) second president. Henry pressed for international collaboration in engineering and science and always emphasized the importance of Smithsonian to share information with institutions in Europe. Throughout the American Civil War, Henry was Lincoln’s advisor on science matters.  Henry was mandated with the effort of devising ways of resources conservation for the war struggle.

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Benjamin Franklin made an important discovery when he was able to establish the similarities between electricity and lightning. Franklin work on how to reduce damage to buildings caused by lightning by fixing a metallic rod at the highest point on a building is a concept that is still used today in the form of lightning arrestors. The impact that this concept had on people’s lives made Franklin consider the discovery of the lightning rod to be one of his most significant inventions. Joseph Henry, on the other hand, is the one who introduced the concept of electromagnetism, forever revolutionizing the way electricity is produced, transmitted and used. Today industries would have been impossible to run without the input of electric motors a consequence of Joseph Henry’s work.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Cavicchi, Elizabeth. “Nineteenth-century developments in coiled instruments and experiences with electromagnetic induction.” Annals of Science 63, no. 3 (2006): 319-361.
  2. Cavicchi, Elizabeth. “Series and Parallel Experimenting with Electromagnets.” Volta and the Histroy of Electricity 1999 (2002): 387-407.
  3. Krider, E. Philip. “Benjamin Franklin and lightning rods.” Physics Today 59, no. 1 (2006): 42-48.
  4. Schiffer, Michael Brian. Draw the lightning down: Benjamin Franklin and electrical technology in the age of enlightenment. Univ of California Press, 2003.
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