We encounter static electricity all the time and it's not shocking (sorry) because we know what's going on, but what on earth did people think was happening before we understood electricity?

Olivia Thompson Olivia Thompson Jul 19, 2021 · 2 mins read
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Static electricity is a common occurrence that everyone encounters in their daily lives, from rubbing a balloon on your head to touching a metal doorknob. We know that this shock is caused by the build-up of electric charge on the surface of objects, but have you ever wondered what people thought was happening before we had a basic understanding of electricity?

For centuries, people had no scientific understanding of static electricity, and therefore various theories and beliefs were formed to try and explain the phenomenon. Many of these theories were incorrect, but still interesting to look back on.

One of the earliest theories about static electricity was developed by the ancient Greeks, who believed that rubbing certain materials together could produce a form of magic or supernatural force. The Greeks thought that rubbing amber (in Greek, “elektron”) with fur generated an energy force that could attract light objects such as feathers.

In medieval times, static electricity was referred to as “electrical fire.” Some believed that the shock was caused by little fireflies that would jump from one object to another. They also believed that the sparks produced from static electricity were the result of witches casting spells.

During the 18th century, a British scientist named William Gilbert began to study the effects of magnetism and developed the term “electricus” to describe the amber’s ability to attract objects. This term was derived from the Greek term elektron, which was used to describe amber.

It was not until later in the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin conducted several experiments with static electricity to begin developing a better understanding of the phenomenon. His experiments showed that there was a fundamental connection between lightning, electricity, and static electricity.

Franklin then coined the term “battery” to describe a collection of capacitors that he arranged to resemble a battery of guns. This allowed him to store static electricity and strengthen his electrical charges.

In conclusion, it’s fascinating to see how people before us tried to explain the occurrence of static electricity without any basic understanding of electricity itself. We have come a long way since then and we now understand that static electricity is caused by the build-up of electric charge on the surface of objects. Our understanding of electricity has revolutionized our way of living and given us an important tool to understand the world around us.

Olivia Thompson
Written by Olivia Thompson
Making a difference, one step at a time.