Franklin flew his kite on a Philadelphia night;
He saw that lightning was electricity.
Coulomb could tell that like charges repel
By the inverse square of their distance.
Yes, I really wrote those words.
The electrical units, equations, and concepts that we use today are named after the men who either discovered them or made significant contributions to their discovery. In 1999, Joseph F. Keithley, founder of Keithley Instruments, wrote a book about the people for whom we owe our careers: The Story of Electrical and Magnetic Measurements: From 500 BC to the 1940s.
Keithley devotes chapters to such giants as Franklin, Volta, Ampere, Faraday, Fourier, Gauss, Ohm, Maxwell, Hertz, Kelvin, and Marconi. Because he limits his book to those involved with electrical and magnetic measurements, Keithley excludes the likes of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, great inventors in their own right. Tesla is also absent.
What's so impressive about these pioneers is how they figured things out with equipment that's extremely crude compared to what we have today. We take so much for granted because of them.
Some of the discoveries occurred quite by accident, though most took place in university labs. For example, Oersted just happened to notice that an electric current flowing through a wire made a compass pointer move.
Alessandro Volta, for whom the Volt is named, was the first to refer to "electromotive force" (EMF), which he created using electrolytes and dissimilar metals. Volta had to build his own electrometer, a device later improved by Lord Kelvin and others, to measure this force, which had no units at the time. Volta found that connecting cups of electrolytes in series increased the overall EMF, making it large enough to measure with his electrometer.
You learn from this book that many of these electrical experimenters were involved in many other experiments. For example, Charles Wheatstone, best known for his Wheatstone Bridge circuit, also studied sound, vibration, and optics. He also is credited with measuring the speed at which electricity travels through wire using a rotating mirror as a timebase, as well as with developing a galvanometer that was used as a communications receiver. Furthermore, he verified Ohm's Law.
I found Keithley's chapter on Michael Faraday most intriguing. Faraday investigated the relationship between electricity and magnetism that Oersted had accidentally discovered. He devised a clever experiment using wire wrapped around a hollow glass core and placed in water. Next, he placed a magnetized needle into the water, floating it on a cork. The needle found its way to the solenoid until it reached equilibrium. Faraday deduced that it was because of magnetic forces.
While you could argue that any of the men that Keithley honors is a genius, he bestows that honor on only one: James Clerk Maxwell. While we all know about his famous equations, you may not know that Maxwell spent years working on light and optics. Maxwell used the math he had learned from optics and applied it to Faraday's lines of force, from which he developed his equations. 2014 is the 150th anniversary of Maxwell's equations.
James Clerk Maxwell: His famous equations are 150 years old.
Engineers at the 2014 IEEE EMC Symposium honored him earlier this month.
I encourage you to read what you can online about these great scientists and engineers. Then, let's talk about them. Who of the famous scientists, whether or not covered in Keithley's book, do you credit most for the job you have today?
—Martin Rowe, Senior Technical Editor