Saturday, September 18, 2021
Sept. 18, 2021

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Energy Adviser: Electricity has long, powerful history

The Columbian

No one can invent a natural phenomenon, yet many folks mistakenly believe Ben Franklin invented electricity. Flying the kite in a 1752 rainstorm, he only discovered that lightning and electricity are the same. For his effort, he suffered a shock that could have killed him or prematurely thwarted his considerable contributions to the start of our country. Fortunately, he survived, but Franklin’s test taught us this lesson: It’s dangerous to play around with electricity or even touch electrical outlets or downed wires! Electricity is invisible, and deadly.

Still, Franklin wasn’t the first to experiment with electricity. About 1,250 years ago, someone in the Middle East made batteries out of a small clay jar, a copper tube with an iron interior and surrounded both with some acidic liquid, possibly sour grapes. Replicas built and connected produced just under a volt of direct current. Archaeologists speculate about their uses, which range from medicinal needs to electroplating small objects.

Thirty years before Franklin avoided electrocution, scientists were trying to figure out what electricity was and how to make it. Then later, Michael Faraday, a British scientist, ran experiments to make electricity, finding the general principle of electromagnetism around 1831. Today using the same techniques of Faraday’s experiments, we produce electricity — only on a massive scale.

Through his experiments, Faraday found that moving a coil of copper wire at a right angle through a north-south magnetic field created an electrical current. Current is how we describe electrons moving through a conductor (such as copper wire).

Faraday used mechanical energy to rotate the coil, forcing current flow through a wire. Today science students recreate his experiment. They wind insulated copper wire tightly around a toilet paper tube and move a bar magnet in and out of the tube. Then they read the results on an ammeter, which measures amperes, a unit of electrical flow.

Today, Faraday’s principles are used to create the tens of thousands of amperes of electricity that flow into our homes to light, warm, cool, power our TVs and recharge our tablets or smartphones.

Muscle power cranking a coil worked for Faraday’s experiment and proved his concept. However, as the thousands of fourth- and fifth-graders who tour Clark Public Utilities’ Operations Center on the student tour field trip each year can testify, peddling a stationary bike to light a bulb takes a great deal of muscle power. Keeping the light lit through pedal power is even harder. Muscle power falls way short of what’s needed to light, cool and heat Clark County homes. Because so much more effort is needed, the utility harnesses the forces of nature: water, wind and sun. And because some of these sources aren’t steady, reliable sources such as natural gas are also used to make energy.

Utility-scale power generators convert these resources into mechanical power that rotates a turbine. The turbine, powered by flowing water, heat from steam created by a natural gas engine or by gusts of wind, spins a generator coil through a huge magnetic field. The process generates electricity.

Transmission lines leaving the power plants send out electricity at dangerous levels — thousands of volts. Along the way, they pass through a series of substations and transformers, lowering the power to the 120 volts arriving at the wall sockets of your home.

Lower voltage electricity doesn’t mean it’s safe though so it’s important to remember the lessons learned hundreds of years ago – that this invisible, powerful force of nature is very dangerous and should always be treated carefully and safely. For more safety tips, visit

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.