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Pioneers of Electricity


Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)

Benjamin FranklinDespite the popular story, Benjamin Franklin probably did not tie a key to a kite and fly it in a lightning storm. Franklin did, however, perform many experiments to learn more about electricity. One year Ben Franklin wanted to use electricity to kill a turkey for Christmas dinner. While checking his equipment, he touched two parts at the same time and got a big shock. His whole body vibrated, and his arms were numb until the next morning. He was lucky he wasn’t burned or electrocuted! Franklin believed that lightning was a flow of electricity taking place in nature. He knew the dangers and probably did not want to risk electrical shock by flying a kite in a storm. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin’s electricity experiments led him to invent the lightning rod, which when placed at the top of a barn, church steeple, or other structure, conducts lightning bolts harmlessly into the ground.

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Michael Faraday (1791–1867)

Michael FaradayMichael Faraday invented the generator in 1831. Before then, all useful electricity was supplied by batteries. Faraday’s generator provided a source of current that did not depend on batteries.

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Lady Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815–1852)

Lady AugustaAda Lovelace is considered the world’s first computer programmer. Daughter of the English poet, Lord Byron, Lovelace worked for a mathematician and inventor named Charles Babbage. Together they developed what they called "the Analytical Engine"—a mechanical computer that used gears and ratchets and could be programmed using punched cards. Lovelace, who was an accomplished mathematician, created the programming code that ran this machine, based on a binary system in which all numbers are represented as a series of zeroes and ones. The computer world honored her in the 1970s when a programming language adopted by the United States Defense Department was named Ada.

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Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922)

Alexander Graham BellAlexander Graham Bell invented a way to transmit speech electrically: the telephone. Bell wanted to improve upon the telegraph, which allowed people to transmit a code of dots and dashes through an electrical wire. He and his assistant, Thomas Watson, found a way to convert the tones of the human voice into varying electronic currents in a wire and to reproduce them as audible speech through a receiver. In 1876, Bell spoke the first sentence transmitted over this new device: "Watson, come here, I want you." The telephone was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931)

Thomas Alva EdisonThomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and more than 1,000 other things. Edison is best known for inventing the incandescent light bulb in 1879. Prior to the incandescent bulb, the world relied on oil lamps and natural gas to light the night. Edison’s bulb consisted of carbonized cotton filament housed in a vacuum inside a glass bulb. The current flowing through the filament would cause it to radiate a steady glow. The vacuum was needed to keep the filament from burning up.

While still working on the light bulb, Edison began thinking about an electric system that would provide electricity from a central power station and deliver it to homes and businesses. He designed the country’s first central electric power system, which began operating in 1882 and delivered direct current electricity to 85 customers in a 1-mile-square area in lower Manhattan. By 1902, only 20 years after Edison’s system began operations, there were 3,500 different electric systems in the United States alone.

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Lewis Howard Latimer (1848–1928)

Lewis Howard LatimerLewis Howard Latimer was a pioneer in the development of the electric light bulb. He was the son of a former slave, and was the only African American member of Thomas Edison’s research team of noted scientists. While Edison invented the incandescent bulb, it was Latimer who developed and patented the process for manufacturing the carbon filaments within the bulb.

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Granville Woods (1856–1910)

Granville WoodsGranville Woods had prolific inventive skills and made ingenious contributions to mass transit. Woods patented a telephone transmitter in 1885, which was bought by Bell Telephone. He then founded the Woods Electric Company in New York City, which manufactured and sold telephone, telegraph, and electrical instruments. His most important invention was the induction telegraph system in 1887, a method of informing an engineer of trains immediately in front of and behind him, thus ensuring safer rail travel. Of the more than 60 patents that Woods registered, the majority were concerned with railroad telegraphs, electrical brakes, and electrical railway systems.

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