Electric charge and current - a short history
Teaching Guidance for 14-16
Electrical phenomena result from a fundamental property of matter: electric charge. The atoms that constitute most matter we encounter contain charged particles. Protons and electrons each have one unit charge, but of opposite sign. Atoms are generally neutral because the number of electrons and protons are the same.
Electric charges at rest have been known much longer than electric currents.
The amber effect
The property now called
static electricity was known to the philosophers of ancient Greece. In fact the word electricity comes from ‘elektron’, the Greek name for amber. Amber is a resinous mineral used to make jewellery. It is probable that small fibres of clothing clung to amber jewels and were quite difficult to remove. Trying to rub the fibres off made the situation worse, causing early philosophers to wonder why.
William Gilbert mentioned the
amber effect in his ground-breaking book On Magnetism, published in 1600. He noticed that the attraction between
electrics was much weaker than magnetism and wrongly said that electrics never repelled.
A giant leap of understanding was required to explain observations like these in terms of positive and negative electrical charge. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin in America tried experiments with charges. It was Franklin who named the two kinds of electricity ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. He even collected electric charges from thunderstorm clouds through wet string from a kite.
Franklin was an advocate of a ‘single fluid’ model of electric charge. An object with an excess of fluid would have one charge; an object with a deficit of fluid would have the opposite charge. Other scientists had advocated a ‘two fluid’ theory, with separate positive and negative fluids moving around. It took over a century for the debate to come down on Franklin’s side.
It is interesting to note that Franklin coined several electrical terms which we still use today: battery, charge, conductor, plus, minus, positively, negatively, condenser (= capacitor), among others.
Electric currents were not fully investigated until batteries were invented in about 1800. Passing currents through salt solutions provides evidence that there are two kinds of charge carriers, positive and negative. The charge carriers that boil out of white hot metals are negative electrons, and movements of electrons produce current in a cool, metal wire.
For a time electric currents seemed so different from electric charges at rest that the two were studied separately. It seemed as if there were four kinds of electricity: positive and negative electrostatic charges, and positive and negative moving charges in currents. Now scientists know better. There are just two kinds, positive and negative, exerting the same kind of forces whether they were ‘electrostatic charges from friction’ or ‘moving charges from power supplies’.
A modern view
Electric forces are what hold together atoms and molecules, solids and liquids. In collisions between objects, electric forces push things apart.
Today we understand that electrons may be transferred when two different materials contact each other and then separate. You can list materials in order, from those “most likely to lose electrons” (gaining positive charge) to "those most likely to gain electrons” (gaining negative charge). This is called the