ODWS icon

The Open Door Web Site


The Agricultural Revolution Index

Introduction to the Agricultural Revolution

The Industrial Revolution Index

Introduction to the First Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution Index

William Murdock and the Gas Industry
Thomas Edison
Sir Joseph Wilson Swan
The Development of Communications
Samuel Breese Morse
Guglielmo Marconi
Urbanisation and Public Transport
The Motor Industry
The Development of Flight
The Industrial Revolution and Warfare

History Chapters Main Index


Electricity and Electric Power

The search for alternative power sources started almost as soon as the Industrial Revolution began. However, it was a very long process and it was not until the middle of the 19th century that these alternatives began to be put into use. In some cases they started life as just interesting experiments, with seemingly no practical application. Only after a long period of time did they emerge as useful power.

In 1831, Faraday made the fundamental discovery that an electric current was induced in a coil of wire when a magnet, placed near the coil, was moved. By this discovery, he underlined the close relation between the sciences of electricity and magnetism. This relationship had first been demonstrated by Øersted eleven years earlier, when he had shown that an electric current produced a magnetic field. Faraday went on to show that the induced current could be produced in various different ways; for example, the coil could be moved while the magnet remained stationary, or a current could even be produced without any movement if an electro-magnet, which could be switched on and off, was used.

By 1832, the idea had been developed into a practical electrical generator, which was demonstrated in Paris in the same year. By the middle of the century, industrial uses were being found for electricity and, by the 1880's, electrical energy was being generated on a large scale. The two main areas being investigated at this time for the use of electricity were in lighting and as a driving force.

Experiments had shown that electricity could be turned into bright light by the use of the carbon arc lamp. Although this was put into use in lighthouses by the 1860's, it could not be used for domestic lighting. By the end of the 1870's, the carbon filament lamp had been developed. This lamp, invented by Sir Joseph Swan and, also, independently by Thomas Edison, was similar to the light bulb that we use today. They two inventors formed a joint company, Swan and Edison, which produced the world's first electric light bulbs.

At first, electric lighting was very dim by comparison with gas or oil lighting, which meant that it took some time to establish it as an alternative. It was, in fact, the convenience and cleanliness of electric lighting, together with the added security which it gave to towns and cities at night, that eventually led to it becoming popular by the end of the century.

The production of usable power from electricity also took some time to establish. While the principle of the electric motor had been suggested by Faraday in 1821, it was not until the 1870's that a practical electric motor was constructed. In 1879, an electric railway was demonstrated at the Berlin Exhibition. This showed that the electric motor had developed to a stage where it had become an acceptable driving force in transport and industry.

Despite the early lead given by British inventors, electricity made relatively little impact on British industry. This was partly because many streets, public buildings and houses were already lit by coal gas, so the demand for electric light was not so immediate. Similarly, in a country where coal was abundant and relatively cheap, there was no great demand for electricity as a fuel. As a consequence, many manufacturers saw no reason to convert existing steam powered machines to run on electricity. It is for these reasons that the initial impetus for the development of electricity passed from Britain to Germany and the USA.

One of the major problems with establishing electricity was the need for standardization of both generation and the level and method of supply. At this time there was much confusion, with either alternating or direct currents being generated at a wide variety of voltages. This made the introduction of electric power more difficult and, as time went by, manufacturers tried to establish standards. This was not a complete success, however, and even today electricity generation standards vary between countries, for example, some American states use 110 volts, whereas in Europe 220 volts is the norm.





Custom Search

The Second Industrial Revolution

Electricity and Electric Power


Sir Humphry Davy (1774-1829)


Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy painted by Henry Howard in 1803


Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall. In 1795 he became an apprentice apothecary. After three years, Davy decided to launch into a serious scientific career. He applied for, and was accepted to, a job as a chemical superintendent of the Pneumatic Institution. This institution had been set up to study the potential usefulness of a wide variety of gases.

In order to find out the effects some of these gases had on the human body, Davy inhaled some of them himself. He even convinced some of his friends to try out nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. This extremely dangerous method of scientific investigation nearly cost Davy his life when he breathed in water gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases.

In 1800, Davy published his findings in his book, "Researches, Chemical and Philosophical". This book made him very well known in scientific circles and he moved to London in 1801, to work with Sir Henry Cavendish (see Page 12). They experimented with voltaic cells, which were early forms of the batteries which we use today. Davy became interested in this work and went on to study electrolysis in detail. This led him to extract native sodium and potassium from their compounds. He also made pure chlorine gas from another electrolysis experiment.

In 1802, Davy obtained a professorship and, in 1807, he was awarded the Napoleon Prize by the Institut de France. This was a remarkable honour considering that England and France were at war at that time!

It is often said, rather unfairly, that Davy's greatest achievement was in interviewing, and subsequently employing, Michael Faraday in 1813.


Micheal Faraday (1791-1867)


Micheal Faraday


Micheal Faraday was the son of a blacksmith. His father had originally lived in the north of England, but had come south to find work. He settled in Newington, Surrey. There were four children and, with his father often ill and unable to work, Micheal Faraday had to earn his living from an early age. This meant little or no schooling. However, the family belonged to a religious group called the Sandemanians, and Faraday learnt to read and write at Sunday School.

When he was only fourteen, Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder. He used to read the books he was given to bind and he became fascinated by the scientific books, particularly the ones about electricity. His interest soon took a practical path and he began conducting his own experiments. These were very basic because Faraday had to make all of his equipment himself. However, he was very thorough and kept a precise written record of all his findings.

One day he was given a entrance ticket to the Royal Institute chemistry lecture, given by Humphry Davy. Faraday was enthralled and became determined to work for this great scientist. He sent Davy a job application and included his laboratory reports on the experiments he had carried out. Davy must have been impressed by Faraday's work and determination because, in 1813, he offered Faraday a job as one of his laboratory assistants. Faraday learnt quickly and soon built up a reputation of his own as a very able analytical chemist.

In 1821, Faraday got married and settled in London, where he went to work at the Royal Institute. In 1855, Queen Victoria offered him a retirement house at Hampton Court, which he accepted, and a knighthood, which he did not accept. Unfortunately, from this time onwards Faraday's mind started to fail and he was quite senile when he died in 1867.

Micheal Faraday was, perhaps, the greatest practical scientist of the 19th century. His studies and discoveries touched upon many different scientific fields. As a chemist, he discovered the benzene, which is now the focal point of a major area of chemical study. He also demonstrated the relationship between electricity and chemical bonding. As a physicist, he invented the dynamo, which was the precursor of the electric motor. He also discovered the effect of magnetism on light rays and was the first to demonstrate induced current.




The Open Door Web Site is non-profit making. Your donations help towards the cost of maintaining this free service on-line.

Donate to the Open Door Web Site using PayPal







The Open Door Team 2018
Any questions or problems regarding this site should be addressed to the webmaster

© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2018

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.

Hosted By
Web Hosting by HostCentric