Electricity is the presence and flow of electric charge. Its best-known form is the flow of electrons through conductors such as copper wires.

Electricity is a form of energy that comes in positive and negative forms, that occur naturally (as in lightning), or is produced (as in a generator). It is a form of energy which we use to power machines and electrical devices. When the charges are not moving, electricity is called static electricity. When the charges are moving they are an electric current, sometimes called 'dynamic electricity'. Lightning is the most known - and dangerous - kind of electricity in nature, but sometimes static electricity causes things to stick together. Electricity can be dangerous, especially around water.

Static electricity occurs when there are fewer or more electrons for the atoms. If the electrons stay where they are, the atom that has too many or too few electrons will attract or sometimes repel other atoms. If the electrons move from where there are too many, to where there are too few, an electric current will flow.

Since the nineteenth century, electricity has been used in every part of our lives. Until then, it was just a curiosity seen in a thunderstorm.

We can make electricity if we pass a magnet close to a metal wire. This is a generator, which is the main way. The biggest generators are in power stations. We can put the right chemicals in a jar with two different kinds of metal rods. This is a battery, often used for portable machines. We can also make static electricity by rubbing two things - for instance a wool cap and a plastic ruler, together. This may make a spark. Some of our electricity comes from photovoltaic cells.

Electricity arrives at homes through wires from the places where it is made. It is used by electric lamps, electric heaters, etc. Many appliances such as washing machines and electric cookers use electricity. In factories, electricity powers machines. People who deal with electricity and electrical devices in our homes and factories are called "electricians".


Thales, the earliest known researcher into electricity

Long before any knowledge of electricity existed, people were aware of shocks from electric fish. Ancient Egyptian texts dating from 2750 BCE referred to these fish as the "Thunderer of the Nile", and described them as the "protectors" of all other fish. Electric fish were again reported millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic naturalists and physicians. Several ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Scribonius Largus, attested to the numbing effect of electric shocks delivered by catfish and electric rays, and knew that such shocks could travel along conducting objects. Patients suffering from ailments such as gout or headache were directed to touch electric fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them. Possibly the earliest and nearest approach to the discovery of the identity of lightning, and electricity from any other source, is to be attributed to the Arabs, who before the 15th century had the Arabic word for lightning ra‘ad (رعد) applied to the electric ray.

Ancient cultures around the Mediterranean knew that certain objects, such as rods of amber, could be rubbed with cat's fur to attract light objects like feathers. Thales of Miletus made a series of observations on static electricity around 600 BCE, from which he believed that friction rendered amber magnetic, in contrast to minerals such as magnetite, which needed no rubbing. Thales was incorrect in believing the attraction was due to a magnetic effect, but later science would prove a link between magnetism and electricity. According to a controversial theory, the Parthians may have had knowledge of electroplating, based on the 1936 discovery of the Baghdad Battery, which resembles a galvanic cell, though it is uncertain whether the artifact was electrical in nature.

Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research on electricity in the 18th century, as documented by Joseph Priestley (1767) History and Present Status of Electricity, with whom Franklin carried on extended correspondence.

Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber. He coined the New Latin word electricus ("of amber" or "like amber", from ἤλεκτρον, elektron, the Greek word for "amber") to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed. This association gave rise to the English words "electric" and "electricity", which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica of 1646.

Further work was conducted by Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray and C. F. du Fay. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research in electricity, selling his possessions to fund his work. In June 1752 he is reputed to have attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flown the kite in a storm-threatened sky. A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of his hand showed that lightning was indeed electrical in nature. He also explained the apparently paradoxical behavior of the Leyden jar as a device for storing large amounts of electrical charge in terms of electricity consisting of both positive and negative charges.

M Faraday Th Phillips oil 1842
Michael Faraday's discoveries formed the foundation of electric motor technology

In 1791, Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectromagnetics, demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which neurons passed signals to the muscles. Alessandro Volta's battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, provided scientists with a more reliable source of electrical energy than the electrostatic machines previously used. The recognition of electromagnetism, the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena, is due to Hans Christian Ørsted and André-Marie Ampère in 1819–1820. Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821, and Georg Ohm mathematically analysed the electrical circuit in 1827. Electricity and magnetism (and light) were definitively linked by James Clerk Maxwell, in particular in his "On Physical Lines of Force" in 1861 and 1862.

While the early 19th century had seen rapid progress in electrical science, the late 19th century would see the greatest progress in electrical engineering. Through such people as Alexander Graham Bell, Ottó Bláthy, Thomas Edison, Galileo Ferraris, Oliver Heaviside, Ányos Jedlik, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, Charles Algernon Parsons, Werner von Siemens, Joseph Swan, Reginald Fessenden, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, electricity turned from a scientific curiosity into an essential tool for modern life, becoming a driving force of the Second Industrial Revolution.

In 1887, Heinrich Hertz discovered that electrodes illuminated with ultraviolet light create electric sparks more easily. In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper that explained experimental data from the photoelectric effect as being the result of light energy being carried in discrete quantized packets, energising electrons. This discovery led to the quantum revolution. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for "his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect". The photoelectric effect is also employed in photocells such as can be found in solar panels and this is frequently used to make electricity commercially.

The first solid-state device was the "cat's-whisker detector" first used in the 1900s in radio receivers. A whisker-like wire is placed lightly in contact with a solid crystal (such as a germanium crystal) in order to detect a radio signal by the contact junction effect. In a solid-state component, the current is confined to solid elements and compounds engineered specifically to switch and amplify it. Current flow can be understood in two forms: as negatively charged electrons, and as positively charged electron deficiencies called holes. These charges and holes are understood in terms of quantum physics. The building material is most often a crystalline semiconductor.

The solid-state device came into its own with the invention of the transistor in 1947. Common solid-state devices include transistors, microprocessor chips, and RAM. A specialized type of RAM called flash RAM is used in USB flash drives and more recently, solid-state drives to replace mechanically rotating magnetic disc hard disk drives. Solid state devices became prevalent in the 1950s and the 1960s, during the transition from vacuum tubes to semiconductor diodes, transistors, integrated circuit (IC) and the light-emitting diode (LED).

Electricity in physics

Electricity works because electric charges push and pull on each other. There are two types of electric charges: positive charges and negative charges. Similar charges repel each other. This means that if you put two positive charges close together and let them go, they would move apart. Two negative charges also repel. But different charges attract each other. This means that if you put a positive charge and a negative charge close together, they would smack together. A short way to remember this is the phrase opposites attract, likes repel.

Electric charges push or pull on each other if they are not touching. This is possible because each charge makes an electric field around itself. An electric field is an area that surrounds a charge. At each point near a charge, the electric field points in a certain direction. If a positive charge is put at that point, it will be pushed in that direction. If a negative charge is put at that point, it will be pushed in the exact opposite direction.

All the matter in the world is made of tiny positive and negative charges. The positive charges are called protons, and the negative charges are called electrons. Protons are much bigger and heavier than electrons, but they both have the same amount of electric charge, except that protons are positive and electrons are negative. Because "opposites attract," protons and electrons stick together. A few protons and electrons can form bigger particles called atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules are still very tiny. It is impossible to see them without a very powerful microscope. Any big object, like your body, has more atoms and molecules in it than anyone could count.

Because negative electrons and positive protons stick together to make big objects, all big objects that we can see and feel are electrically neutral. Electrically is a word meaning "describing electricity", and neutral is a word meaning "balanced." That is why we do not feel objects pushing and pulling on us from a distance, like they would if everything was electrically charged. All big objects are electrically neutral because there is exactly the same amount of positive and negative charge in the world. We could say that the world is exactly balanced, or neutral. This seems very surprising and lucky. Scientists still do not know why this is so, even though they have been studying electricity for a long time.

Electric current

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A drawing of an electrical circuit: the current (I) flows from + round the circuit back to -
Electric wiring near Helsinki
Electricity is sent on wires.

In some materials, electrons are stuck tightly in place, while in other materials, electrons can move all around the material. Protons never move around a solid object because they are so heavy, at least compared to the electrons. A material that lets electrons move around is called a conductor. A material that keeps each electron tightly in place is called an insulator. Examples of conductors are copper, aluminum, silver, and gold. Examples of insulators are rubber, plastic, and wood. Copper is used very often as a conductor because it is a very good conductor and there is so much of it in the world. Copper is found in electrical wires. But sometimes, other materials are used.

Inside a conductor, electrons bounce around, but they do not keep going in one direction for long. If an electric field is set up inside the conductor, the electrons will all start to move in the direction opposite to the direction the field is pointing (because electrons are negatively charged). A battery can make an electric field inside a conductor. If both ends of a piece of wire are connected to the two ends of a battery (called the electrodes), the loop that was made is called an electrical circuit. Electrons will flow around and around the circuit as long as the battery is making an electric field inside the wire. This flow of electrons around the circuit is called electric current.

A conducting wire used to carry electric current is often wrapped in an insulator such as rubber. This is because wires that carry current are very dangerous. If a person or an animal touched a bare wire carrying current, they could get hurt or even die depending on how strong the current was. You should be careful around electrical sockets and bare wires that might be carrying current.

It is possible to connect an electrical device to a circuit so that electrical current will flow through a device. This current will make the device do something that we want it to do. Electrical devices can be very simple. For example, in a light bulb, current flows through a special wire called a filament, which makes it glow. Electrical devices can also be very complicated. Electricity can be used to drive an electric motor inside a tool like a drill or a pencil sharpener. Electricity is also used to power modern electronic devices, including telephones, computers, and televisions.

Some terms related to electricity

  • Electric voltage is the "push" behind the current. It is the amount of work per electric charge that an electric source can do. When 1 coulomb of electricity has 1 joule of energy, it will have 1 volt of electric potential.
  • Electrical resistance is the ability of a substance to resist the flowing of the current, i.e. to reduce the amount of current that flows through the substance. If an electric voltage of 1 volt maintains a current of 1 ampere through a wire, the resistance of the wire is 1 ohm. When the flow of current is opposed (resisted) energy gets used or gets converted to other forms (e.g. heat, etc.).
  • Electric energy is the ability to do work by means of electric devices. Electric energy is a "conserved" property, meaning that it behaves like a substance and can be moved from place to place. Electric energy is measured in joules or kilowatt-hours (kW h).
  • Electric power is the rate at which electric energy is being used, stored, or transferred. Flows of electrical energy along power lines are measured in watts. If the electric energy is being converted to another form of energy, it is measured in watts. If it is stored (as in electric or magnetic fields), it is measured in volt-amperes reactive. If some of it is converted and some of it is stored, it is measured in volt-amperes.

Generating electricity

Nuclear Power Plant Cattenom
Electricity is made in power stations.

Electricity is mostly generated in places called power stations. Most power stations use heat to boil water into steam which turns a steam engine. The steam engine's turbine turns a machine called a 'generator'. Generators have wires inside which spin inside a magnetic field. Electromagnetic induction causes electricity to flow through the wires. Michael Faraday discovered how to do this.

There are many sources of heat which can be used to generate electricity. Heat sources can be classified into two types: renewable energy resources in which the supply of heat energy never runs out and non-renewable energy resources in which the supply will be eventually used up.

Sometimes a natural flow, such as wind power or water power, can be used directly to turn a generator so no heat is needed.


Electricity for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.