Applied Science - Physics (4A)
Post Lab 

  • Investigating the historical development of electricity.
  • Exploring early investigators of electricity.


  • electricity
  • magnetism

Students learn about the history of electricity and connection to magnetism.


It was difficult for early people to distinguish between electricity and magnetism.  People experienced magnetism and static electricity since civilization began.  Both phenomena "attract" other substances.  Cloth when rubbed on certain substances could attract small items like a feather.  Lodestone could attract small pieces of metal.  

Today, without electricity, our society would be a very different one. Humans have learned to control the electron to create wild and wonderful displays. Students can hardly  imagine life without electricity.  There would be no elevators, toasters, or video games. Computers, light bulbs, television, and radio would only be in the minds of dreamers. We are a world dependant on the electrons.

Rumor has it that Hoang-Ti, the founder of the Chinese empire around 2635 BC, used a magnetic compass to guide his chariot to guide him in fog. 

It is well documents that in 600 B.C., Thales of Miletus, a Greek scientist and philosopher, discovered the attractive properties of amber when the amber was rubbed with cloth. This was the beginning of investigating a "charged" object. 

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered that the declination of the compass needle varies for different parts of the world. In 1600, William Gilbert published De Magnete, six volumes describing the Earth as having the properties of a huge magnet. He coined the term "electricity" from the word "electron," the Greek word for amber.  Amber was also noted to create sparks.  Even back then, people somehow noticed that electricity and magnetism were closely related.

In the mid 1700's there was a furry of excitement over understanding the difference between magnetism and electricity.  Electricity started to develop into its own field of study.  In 1729, Stephen Gray, an English experimenter, discovered conductors and nonconductors and formulated the use of insulation. In 1733, Charles Francois de Cisternay Du Fay of Paris, discovered two kinds of electricity - vitreous (positive) and resinous (negative). He also discovered that like charges repel and unlike charges attract. In 1747, Benjamin Franklin advanced the understanding of electricity and invented the lightning rod. In 1771, Luigi Galvani, an Italian physiologist, discovered that electricity is part of the living body. He discovered that dead frog legs "jumped" when electricity was put on nerve ends.

In the late 1700's to early 1800's several people discovered a new  understanding of electricity that took our society into the technological age. These inventors and scientist built their understanding from various experiments that lead to major breakthroughs to the electronic age of today.

In 1785, Charles Angustin de Coulomb advanced the theory that electrical charges can be mathematically calculated. In 1800, Allesandro Volta (Italian), discovered the first practical method of generating electricity. In 1819, Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish physicist, discovered a magnetic field is caused by electric current. In 1820, Andre Marie Ampere (French), established and proved the relationship between electricity and magnetism. In 1821, Michael Faraday (English physicist), developed an understanding of how electricity and magnetism may create what is later called a motor.

There was then a rapid increase of knowledge from people such as George Simon Ohm (German), Joseph Henry (American), Karl Friedrich Gauss (German), Heinrich Emil Lenz (Russian), Samuel Morse (American), James Maxwell (Scottish), Alexander Graham Bell (American), Thomas Alva Edison (American), Heinrich Hertz (German), Nicola Tesla (American) and Guglielmo Marconi (Italian). The names continued and expanded, and the electronic revolution took place.

Note there are few prominent women in these fields. This was because they were usually not allowed to take part in such subjects. The Chinese, Arabs, Africans, Australians and other parts of the world were not part of this revolution because of lack of communication from the center of discoveries (Europe) and the rest of the world. In addition, politics and wars may have disrupted the  "inventiveness" of people in different parts of the world.


  1. Read Electrons and the Hairy Monster to students.  They may be familiar with it from a 3rd grade lab.  This is help review the connection between electricity and magnetism.
  2. Use the History of Electricity SlideShow  to go over some of the history described in the "Background" information above.
  3. You may want to give students a research project on learning about an historical point in electricity. Note that electricity and magnetism's history are intertwined. Use the Internet or books in the library for students to search more on the evolution of electricity.

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