If it weren't for electricity, we'd all be watching television by candlelight.

GEORGE GOBAL (1919-91)


Flowing Electricity

Nobody really knows what electricity is. The word has at least ten different meanings which all contradict each other. Electron is from electrum, Greek for ‘amber’: the Greeks discovered that rubbing it produces an electric charge. Electrons have a radius of zero: they are dimensionless points. Nowadays they are called not called electrons but ‘probability density charges’. Volts measure electric potential (think of the water pressure in a pipe). Amps measure electric current (the rate flow of water in the pipe). Watts measure electric power (the amount of work the electricity can do).
Direct Current (DC) is a unidirectional flow such as that produced by batteries and solar cells, whereas Alternating Current (AC) reverses direction repeatedly and is used for mains supply. Edison's early systems supplied DC, which radiates heat, which meant it lost power about a mile from the power station; AC is low-current, high voltage so it didn’t. 

10% of US electricity is made from dismantled Soviet atomic bombs.

Electric Chair

Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia (1844-1913) was once showing the city of Addis Ababa to foreign visitors while some criminals were being hanged from a tree. The visitors were horrified by the inhumanity of Ethiopian capital punishment and told Menelik of the newly invented electric chair. He duly ordered two of them only to realise as soon as they arrived that they were useless. Ethiopia had no electricity supply. So he used one as a throne. Partly as a result of this, electricity was introduced to Ethiopia in 1896.
The fact that a dentist invented the electric chair is a well-trodden piece of web folklore – however, unlike most internet factoids, it has more than an element of truth. In 1881, on a visit to the new power plant in Buffalo, New York, a dentist called Dr Alfred P. Southwick witnessed the death of a drunk who had accidentally touched an exposed electric terminal. Southwick thought it a quick and seemingly painless way to die and, working with the governor of New York, he successfully promoted the first electric chair laws.

The man who actually invented the electric chair was Harold Brown, a colleague of Edison, who was developing DC current. They used an AC current in the device as an attempt to scare the public into thinking that that this rival form of form of electricity (championed by Westinghouse and Tesla) was more dangerous. The first electric execution was of a murderer named William Kemmler.

La Paz, Bolivia, was the first South American city to get an electricity supply. It was powered by llama dung.

AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1914)

Electricity is the power that causes all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else.

AC vs DC

The 'War of the Currents' was a publicity spat between Edison, who was promoting his direct current (DC) electricity supply and Westinghouse who used Tesla's alternating current (AC). The DC system was safe but could only be used in a very small area as it couldn't be carried over long distances. AC could be distributed much more easily but required a high voltage which would be dangerous if anything living came into contact with it.
In an attempt to discredit Westinghouse, Edison presided over a number of public electrocutions of stray cats and dogs until in 1903 Topsy, a circus elephant who had killed three people, was ordered to be put down and Edison offered to electrocute her. The execution on Coney Island was witnessed by 1,500 people. 460 grams of potassium cyanide was hidden in carrots and fed to her. Wooden sandals lined with copper were then attached to her feet and a current of 6,600 volts was sent through her body. She died 'without a trumpet or a groan'.

Edison filmed the event and tried to persuade people to refer to electrocution as being ‘Westinghoused’ but eventually AC became the accepted norm when Westinghouse and Tesla were commissioned to build the Niagara Falls AC hydroelectric plant in 1893.

A Brazilian prison allows inmates to pedal stationary bicycles – providing electricity in a nearby city– in exchange for reduced sentences.

A single zinc mine in Namibia uses a fifth of the country’s electricity supply.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. He spoke 12 languages, demonstrated wireless communication before Marconi, created alternating current, pioneered remote control, robotics, nuclear physics, X-rays, fluorescent lighting and radar, and has the unit of magnetic force named after him. 2006 was the UNESCO Year of Tesla and Belgrade airport is named after him. He was extremely eccentric, with a compulsion about performing actions in multiples of three (he lived exclusively in hotels, staying only in rooms with numbers divisible by three), he hated round objects and couldn’t bear to touch any human hair other than his own. In later life he claimed among other things that he had received radio signals from Mars and Venus. His contract with Westinghouse (see AC vs DC) might have made him the World's first billionaire, but he tore it up because he believed power should be free and he was afraid it might put Westinghouse out of business.
Tesla’s great dream was to develop a method for wireless transmission of electricity. He believed he had succeeded in transmitting Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves to the Indian Ocean, and that they could be tapped using a device like a radio tuner. He tried to build a pair of towers which would beam energy and radio signals to and fro across the Atlantic, and allow aeroplanes to fly fuel-lessly, powered by radio power transmitters on the ground - but only one tower was built before his funding ran out.
In 1934 Tesla announced to the press that he was working on a Directed Energy Weapon that would be able to destroy an army 200 miles away. The press called it a ‘peace-ray' or a ‘death beam’. The super-weapon was never built, and we still don't know how it was supposed to work; after his death the FBI seized all Tesla’s possessions and declared his papers ‘Top Secret’. 


Benjamin Franklin tried to kill a Christmas turkey using electricity in 1750 - he electrocuted himself.

La Paz’s electricity supply used to be powered by llama dung.

SPIKE MILLIGAN (1918-2002)

And God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.

All the batteries on Earth store just ten minutes of the world’s electricity needs.

A typical microwave oven uses more electricity keeping its digital clock on standby than it does heating food.

Electrons move along an electricity cable about as fast as honey flows.