When human beings discovered fire, they became the masters of the land. With fire, they were able to cook food and protect themselves from the dangers of nature. Fire also helped to brighten up the nights. The invention of electricity in the 19th century signaled the beginning of the industrial age. With electricity, human beings had the means to light their homes and streets, heat their homes, power their machines, and mass produce goods in a factory.
Human lives were delicately intertwined with that of the benefits that came with electricity. Every day, humans used electricity for countless different reasons without even realizing that they were using possibly the most important discovery ever made. Turning on a fan or a TV or a GE microwave, getting into an elevator or just starting the car, it all required electricity. If there’s no electricity, the way humans lived would be completely different. Could you imagine a day or a week without electricity? Computers, radios, refrigerators, lights, air conditioners, dishwasher parts - all electrical items would be idle.
History of Electricity
Electricity was a chance discovery for human beings long before they actually harnessed it and started to use it meaningfully. For the longest time, lightning in the sky had terrorized and fascinated humans. When people started to understand its power, they developed a reverent fascination for it. Lightning strikes caused wild fires which brought about unimaginable destruction. At the same time, it also created the spark which would lead to the discovery of electricity.
Egyptians of the ancient world were fascinated by the electric eel, which they called the “Thunderer of the Nile”. They wrote about the fish and reported that it possessed magical properties to cure certain disease. Modern experiments and research on electricity started with William Gilbert who was in the service of Queen Elizabeth I of England. He published a book in Latin which contained a lot of information about electricity and magnetism, as well as the relation between the two.
Later on, several renowned scientists were inspired by the works of William Gilbert and they started to experiment with electricity. Otto von Guericke of Germany invented the very first electrostatic generator. Stephen Gray, another British scientist, was the first person to experiment with electrical conduction. Charles Francois du Fay was a French scientist who discovered that there were two types of electricity, namely, “resinous” and “Vitreous”. Later, these terms were known as positive and negative charges.
One of the Founding Fathers of the US, Benjamin Franklin discovered that electricity and lightning was essentially the same thing. He made several important experiments to establish the fact that lightning was a form of static electricity. This, he illustrated in the famous “Kite Experiment”. The idea was to fly a kite under overcast conditions until it was struck by lightning. He attached a key to the string of the kite to ensure that the key got charged. Ben Franklin’s experimentations with electricity and the establishing of the static electricity concept, together with his theories about positive and negative charges helped pave the way for further experiments and inventions. One of these scientists was Michael Faraday, the English physicist and chemist who invented the first generator and transformer. He introduced such terms like anode, cathode, electrode, and ion.
With more than 1,000 US patents, Thomas Alva Edison was one of the finest and most prolific inventors of the modern era. Through his inventions, he exerted a most profound influence on how the modern world was to be shaped. Though he invented the first phonograph, the invention which brought Edison the most fame was the incandescent light bulb. Some people wrongly credit Edison as the first man who invented the light bulb. In fact, he improved on the foundations laid by other inventors and created an effective light bulb which could last more than 1,200 hours. In those days, light bulbs were not a viable option for the ordinary home owner. Edison sought to correct this and create a light bulb that was safe, durable and, most importantly, affordable to the ordinary household. After countless attempts which lasted for more than a year, he succeeded. Edison’s experiments and considerable success were the driving force behind the modern electric industry. He established the first electric utility company in the United States when his Pearl Street electricity generating station came into operation in the year 1882. The electricity generating station had broken many boundaries at that time. It was an efficient distribution system which generated safe electricity at a very cheap rate. This was a significant achievement and it kick started the age of electricity.
How Electricity Works
Take a magnet and place it on a table. Now take a small paper clip and set it about 6 inches from the magnet. Release the paper clip. Do you see what just happened? The magnet pulled the paper clip towards it.
But how does that happen? Every object is composed of atoms. Atoms are the founding blocks of all matter. If you look deeper, you will see that the center of an atom contains a nucleus and there are tiny particles floating in orbit around it.
These tiny particles are electrons. They have a negative charge. In some objects such as ceramics (think maytag parts like an oven igniter or kitchen aid parts like washer tubs) and electrical insulators, these electrons are so tightly bound to the nucleus that they cannot move. On the other hand, some objects like metals have neutrons which are free to move around so they can easily carry a charge. These metals are electrical conductors. Electricity is produced when these negatively charged electrons move in a direction due to any external effect, thus creating a flow of electrons or electricity.
A Simple Circuit
Any electrical device will work only when there is a completed circuit. Say you are trying to light an electrical bulb with the help of a household battery. It’s very simple. All you have to do is build a simple circuit.
Connect a wire from the positive terminal of the battery. Then, connect to the light bulb. Take another wire and connect the negative terminal of the battery to the bulb. This connection is a complete circuit. You will see circuits on any appliance such as the control board of a dishwasher.
How do you get the light bulb working? The filament inside the bulb has to be of a material which offers more resistance than the wire to allow the flow of electricity. This resistance enables the atoms to give off energy. When the released energy heats up the filament, it grows hot and starts to give off light. It’s simple, isn’t it?
To create electricity, we need some form of stored up energy. Usually these sources are coal and gas. When coal is burned, it heats and moves a turbine. This generates electricity which is then distributed across a region through wires.
Nowadays, a number of renewable forms of energy are available for use. You may have heard of hydropower, wind power, and solar power. However, these sources are not ready to be used in normal households. Right now, coal and gas are still the primary sources for the generation of electricity. Since the supply of coal and natural gas is limited, we run a risk of using up all that is stored within the earth.
What happens when the resources are totally exhausted? There will be no more electricity and humans will have to live very differently. For this reason, it is important that we take every option that is available to save energy. Simple things like ensuring that we turn off the lights and fans when we are not using them and using power saving mode on electronic items would help us save a lot of energy collectively.
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