The short answer to the question “What is electricity?” is the transfer of energy through the motion of charge-carrying electrons. Lightning is an example of electricity and of electrons — lots and lots of them — in motion.
Electricians are generally concerned with a much more controlled situation where electricity flows through a given path in a safe, predictable manner, but the electricity we use in shows is no different than that in a lightning strike, a static discharge, or a flashlight battery.
Each is an example of the transfer of energy through the motion of electrons. But from where do these electrons come? The answer can be found in one of the most basic building blocks of the universe, the atom.
For thousands of years, the nature of electricity puzzled and mystified some of the most brilliant minds. It wasn’t until scientists such as Benjamin Franklin, André-Marie Ampère, Alessandro Volta, and Michael Faraday contributed to our understanding of electricity that we began to unlock its secrets.
Step by step, bit by bit, we built a plausible model of electricity that fits a mathematical model and provides a real-world explanation of this phenomenon. Even after we had a basic understanding of the key relationships and the fundamentals of electricity, early pioneers such as Joseph Swan, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse still struggled to harness its power for daily use in a safe and efficient manner.
During that time — the late 1800s and early 1900s — one of the first practical uses of electricity was to illuminate common areas such as city streets and town squares. New York City quickly became entangled — quite literally — in electrical wires and electricity. Horrified bystanders witnessed the accidental electrocution of several workers in the naked light of day, and electricity gained a reputation for being both mysterious and dangerous.
Thomas Edison used the public’s fear to protect his economic interests by promoting DC power distribution over AC power distribution, while George Westinghouse grew his business on the strength of AC and its inherent advantages over DC.
The ensuing controversy did nothing to ease the public’s apprehension about electricity, nor did it help to clarify its nature or promote its understanding. To this day, many people have little understanding of the nature of electricity.
Some of us still have difficulty answering the question, “What is electricity?” After all, we can’t see it, hear it, or smell it. And we certainly don’t want to taste it or feel it.
An electrician might understand how to hook up a power distribution system but may not fully understand exactly how electricity behaves.