Galvani to Edison: A journey to get the light 

Abstract

Electricity is the lifeline of our civilization today. The entire information and transaction network of our society is alive and active by virtue of electric energy. It took long 100 years and an uncounted number of scientists to find it, capture it and finally pass it to our drawing-room to illuminate the darkness. In this article, we will recall ten prominent scientists and their contribution to the field of electricity.

Lighting the Lives

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”. The phrase comes from the third verse of the Book of Genesis.

February had just passed through a couple of days back, reminding us of the birthday of a genius of human civilization, who had invented and obtained more than 1029 patent in his name. Incandescent lamp is one of them, patented on April 22, 1879, under patent no.214,636.

The great inventor Thomas Alva Edison not only invented a long-lasting incandescent lamp but also took all the steps to distribute the benefit of electricity across the people.

Edison might have also wished to “let there be light” and working on it. Spread the electricity supply across the houses of common people, “and there was light” in the city.

The Search by Many Geniuses

However, the history of discovering electricity either mass lighting or to drive the next generation industrial revolution for modernization had taken many years of dedicated work of many scientists. 

Today when we cannot think of living without electricity even for a moment, we shouldn’t forget to remember their contributions to light up our lives. 

Electric energy is being used in our daily life in many forms starting from the start to the end of the day. We are highly dependent on it practically for every movement.

Ten great human beings, who had envisaged the enormous power of electric energy and raised the curtain from its various applications were:

  1. Luigi Galvani,
  2. Alessandro Volta,
  3. Hans Christian Orsted,
  4. Andre Ampere,
  5. Michael Faraday,
  6. James Clerk Maxwell,
  7. Charles Brush,
  8. Henry Woodward,
  9. Mathew Evans and
  10. Tomas Alva Edison.

Beginning of the Era of Electricity

The story of the Steam Powered Industrial Revolution started in the eighteenth century and spanned over the nineteenth century. The twentieth century was the era of electricity to consolidate that industrial revolution.

Italy was the place where the process of the discovery of electric energy began in 1780. 

On a stormy day, in his back yard, physician Luigi Galvani was experimenting on the effect of naturally occurring electricity (lightning) on a frog corpse. 

He observed that whenever lightning flashed, energy flowed down the lightning rod (which was connected to the legs of the dead frog) and the frog’s leg twitched.

Galvani's experiment with natural electricity
Copyright-free image from https://archive.org/details/AloysiiGalvaniD00Galv/page/n63/mode/2up?view=theater)

He was excited as for long he was a firm believer that muscles and nerves of living organisms bear an intrinsic electrical force and even dead tissues are sensitive to an external electric energy stimulus. 

He had already demonstrated that in his laboratory with static electricity. Now, this experiment strengthened his theory.

World’s First Storage Battery

Almost after twenty years, in 1800, Alessandro Volta, a fellow scientist of Galvani invented the world’s first electricity storage device, the ‘Electric Battery’.

He made it by arranging brine soaked cardboard pieces between layers of different metals. It was named ‘Voltic Pile’ and could produce a constant flow of electricity for some time.

Discovery of Electromagnetism

Again, almost after twenty years, around 1820, Danish scientist Hans Christian Orsted put the next step forward discovering the relationship between electricity and magnetic field, i.e. Electromagnetism.

Around the same time, French physician Andre-Marie-Ampere was carrying out the famous experiment of two parallel charged wires. 

Wires were attracting each other when the flow of electricity was in opposite direction and was repelling under the influence of electricity flow in the same direction.

Physical Motion from Electricity

One year after Orsted, in 1821 and then after in 1831, Michael Faraday built two devices to produce ‘Electromagnetic Rotation’. 

The first one was the birth of the electric motor, now known as a homopolar motor. He used liquid mercury, a magnet and wires to build it. Electricity was supplied from a chemical battery.

The second device was the first version of an electric dynamo. He rotated a copper disc between the legs of a horseshoe magnet and noted the flow of electricity across the system.

Faraday's experiment with electricity
Copyright-free public domain images from en.wikepedia.org

All these Faraday’s experiments were needed theoretical backups to expand and to refine further. Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell had done that by publishing two papers. First during 1861-62 (On physical line of force– in four parts) and then in 1865 (A dynamical theory of electromagnetism).

Electricity in Public Life

By then, because of these advancements, scientists had secured some grip over electricity and tried to use it for the well being of society.

In 1840, in England, electricity was used for commercial lighting. Flash of light was created by jumping current through two carbon electrodes.

The light produced using the carbon electrodes was not good for practical purposes. It was buzzing and flickering while electrons were jumping from one electrode to another.

Additionally, it was also creating excessive heat and had the potential for a fire hazard.

Around 1878, an American engineer, Charles Brush devised a method to addressed the issues of carbon electrode lamps by the way of putting many lamps in series with a common source of electricity, a dynamo. 

It was a little better situation but not completely deployable because of many limitations. Moreover, was not possible to use indoor.

The entry of Incandescent Lamp

The need for a safe, robust, affordable, practical bright light for indoor use was first fulfilled by Edison in October 1879.

Edison invested fourteen months of research work and a huge amount of money ($40,000) to develop a suitable filament for an incandescent lamp, that can last long and can emit bright light without hazard.

At the same time, two Canadian electricians Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans were also working to develop incandescent lamp and had already patented their design.

Edison bought their patent and designed a lamp based on that. The first success was a ‘carbonized cotton filament’ lamp that lasted for forty hours. 

Then after Edison improved the design further with ‘carbonized bamboo filaments’, which could last for more than 1,200 hours.

So, Edison was ready with a usable incandescent lamp and further developed the complete eco-system for the generation and distribution of electricity across the home of people.

Lamp, sockets, switches, fittings, meters, dynamo and wirings, he developed everything that was needed to make electricity usable for the home lighting purpose.

His company started distributing electricity on a turnkey basis to the people of America “And there was light”.

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Reference:

Sinha, S.(2020). Fossil Free. Harper Business.