It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that the lifeblood of the modern world is electricity. Its discovery was one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human race, opening the door to the industrial revolution of the 19th century, the dizzying progress of the 20th century, and the digital revolution of the modern age. Electricity is at the heart of everyday life and we don’t even really stop to think about it.
The world without electricity was undoubtedly darker – get it! – place and one very different from our own. Electricity and all that it has brought – the internet, refrigeration, television and entertainment – has transformed the world and created unprecedented prosperity in so many different ways and fields. It would be very difficult to overplay the role that electricity has played in shaping the world around us and our everyday life.
And yet who of the pioneers of the technology can you actually name? You might be able to pluck a couple of names out of the air, but you might not know much about them beyond them. These are people who are arguably the parents of the world we enjoy today, and yet they are unsung heroes and geniuses forgotten by the general population. Some were recorded forever in the fabric of the industry with their own unit of measurement, like James Watt, and others have been left out of the public consciousness. We owe them a great deal, and we barely know who they are.
There are a large number of great pioneers of electricity, so here are three whose legacy is most important, or most relevant today, and who have the most interesting stories. If you enjoy reading about these historical giants of science then you should read up on some more of those who experimented with and helped develop our grasp of, electricity.
Arguably one of the most important contributors to electrical engineering, and the grid that keeps the power flowing across the world, Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-born inventor who created the far more efficient and effective alternating current system for transmitting electricity. Before his creation, the grid relied on the direct current system which wasted a lot of energy through friction, and, thus, his invention revolutionised the power grid.
There is a famous story that US founding father Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm storm to establish whether lightning was electric. The veracity of this claim is unclear, but we do know that Franklin conducted a lot of experiments with electricity – risking his life in the process – that led to him inventing the lightning rod which conducts lightning strikes safely in the ground to protect buildings and their inhabitants, significantly furthering our understanding of electricity, how it works and it’s dangers in the process
Granville Woods was the first African-American electrical engineer after the American civil war and the abolition of slavery. He was such a prolific and influential inventor that he held 50 separate patents, including for an improved steam boiler and the first ever electric railway line powered from above the tracks – an invention that is now widespread in the modern world.