Chances are your blender, coffee maker, toaster and refrigerator all run off of electricity, but what does that even mean? Few people take the time to research the way that the laws of physics have been manipulated to create inventions now integral to how our culture functions, but that doesn’t mean you should stop asking questions. If you’ve ever stopped for a second and wondered, “How the heck does my oven even work?”, this article will provide you with the first step to understanding this.
Let’s assume you know as little about as electricity as the ancient peoples of yesteryear (which isn’t far off for most). Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus was one of the first humans to ever study electricity, a pursuit he took up in 600 B.C.
Thales studied the very limited aspects of electricity could be replicated in those times, namely electrostatics. Electrostatics refers to the study of stationary electric charges or static electricity. The word “electricity” comes from the ancient Greek word for amber, elektron, because Thales created static electricity by rubbing amber with fur, attracting dust, feathers, and other lightweight objects.
This was the extent of electricity until the 17th century, when an Englishman named William Gilbert began to study the interplay of magnetism and static electricity. He was pretty off in his understanding of the phenomenon, but he got the ball rolling again in terms of electricity-related discoveries. Eventually people began to realize that electricity could only travel through certain kinds of substances, that it had a positive and negative charge, that it created magnetic fields, and that like charges repel and opposite charges attract with a force proportional to the product of the charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Here’s what they figured out in the 19th century: Matter is composed of atoms, which are in turn composed of a nucleus and one or more electrons that orbit them. The nucleus contains protons, which have a positive charge that make the nucleus have a net positive charge. The electrons have a negative charge, and in an atom these negative and positive forces even out.
Substances called insulators (i.e. they do not conduct electric charge) are composed in such a way that the electrons of their atoms are tightly bound to their nuclei.
Substances called electrical conductors and are composed in such a way that the electrons of their atoms easily detach and zip around. Once detached, electrons are called free electrons. This allows for electricity to be easily conducted because moving electrons transmit electrical energy from one point to another.
In order to move electrons around and in so-doing generate electrical energy, you can use something called a generator. Generators use certain aspects of magnetism in order to move atomic components around based on their respective charges. If you move a magnet within range of a paper clip, you’ll force the electrons in the clip to move around accordingly. Similarly, if you force electrons through a metal wire, a magnetic field will form around the wire.