How Electricity Was Discovered with a Cool Static Electricity Demo

What does Electricity have to do with jewelry?  I’ll tell you and along the way I will also talk about:

  • Gods,
  • sheep,
  • death by thunderbolt,
  • women who turn into trees,
  • bleeding people for their own good,
  • how compasses work,
  • giant diamonds
  • and creative insults.  Ready?  Let’s Go…

The story of electricity begins with jewelry.  Not just any jewelry but jewelry made of amber.  Turns out that if you rub amber with fur on a dry day it can pick up little pieces of fluff or small feathers like this.  Cool eh?  We would call this Static Electricity or even magic but 1600 years ago this amber effect inspired a Greek philosopher named Thales of Miletus to say, “all things are full of gods.”

Now how did Thales know about Amber?  We don’t know.  No books of his have survived, we mostly know about him through Aristotle and many of Aristotle’s books have also disappeared.  We can only make an educated guess.  Sometimes people imagine Thales as this intrepid experimental scientist.  One video I saw even had a cartoon Thales wandering through the countryside rubbing sheep!  (What!).  But, Thales was not a scientist; he was a philosopher who interpreted the known world. 

So, in Thales honor, lets do a thought experiment:  Imagine a jewelry salesman who stores his amber in fur to protect it and notices that it creates static cling.  This smart individual decided to fold this property into an existing Greek myth.  This is where Amber comes from according to Ovid:  The sun had many children including a son named Phaethon.  One day Phaeton stole his father’s chariot for a joy ride and Jupiter (the god, not the planet) hit him with a thunderbolt for reckless driving and he fell off the chariot and drowned in a river.  His sisters stood at the riverbank crying for so long that the gods got sick of all the negativity and turned them into trees and their tears into amber.  Although this story does not end well for Phaeton or his sisters, it does end well for the salesman, who could then increase the price of amber, as it was not just jewelry but also a small piece of the gods!

Irrespective of how it was discovered, nothing much happens with electricity for a further 2,000 years!  That brings us to a doctor named William Gilbert practicing in Elizabethan England.  In 1600, Gilbert wrote a book on Magnets that was quite popular at the time.  Gilbert’s popularity and success is a bit of a mystery as from his paintings we can tell he wasn’t very good looking and from his book we can tell that he was cranky and not very charming.  For example, he said that most of his contemporaries were, “lettered clowns, grammtatists, sophists, spouters, and wrong-headed rabble, to be denounced, torn to tatters and heaped with scorn.”  His fame initially came from being an excellent doctor, which is hard to imagine as doctors at the time cured people by either bleeding them or giving them mild poisons!  He must have been good at that as he practiced with “great applause” and was even made Queen Elizabeth’s personal doctor (although she was smart enough to not let him or any doctor touch her).

Anyway, like all Renaissance men, Gilbert had a hobby, and his hobby was studying magnets.  See, many years before the Chinese had discovered that if a small magnet is placed on a pivot it will always face North (which is what a compass is).  Gilbert was the first to think that compasses work because the Earth is a giant  magnet and spent 18 years doing experiments. 

In the middle of his studies of magnets, Gilbert turned to “the Amber affect” to see if it was a type of magnet because it seems kind of magnet like.  After careful study, Gilbert determined that Static Electricity is different than Magnetic.  Yes, they both attract from a distance but 1) Magnets are permanent and “Electrics” need to be rubbed 2) Magnets only attract certain metals and Amber attracts everything and 3) Amber doesn’t work well on humid days and doesn’t work at all under water and Magnets are unaffected.

Gilbert then scoured the Earth for every substance available (from waxes to giant diamonds) and found that a whole bunch would attract light objects if rubbed.  He knew that the Greek name for Amber was, wait for it, “elektron”.  He therefore named it the “Amber-like” force or the “electrius” force or in English “Electric force”.

For all of his careful study, William Gilbert made one major mistake.  He noticed that magnets can attract or repel (you put a North and South together they attract, a North and North and they repel) but he didn’t realize electrics could repel too.  It would actually take over 70 years and a really, well, stupid theory about a stinky ball on a stick to discover that “electrics” have this feature too, it is just a little harder to see.  And that story is next time on “The Secret History of Electricity”   

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