What We Don’t Learn in School About Electricity

The Story of Electricity

BBC (2018)

Film Review

My initial reaction on watching this fascinating documentary was sadness (and anger) that there is no effort to teach the history of science in high school. Some of this history revolves around genius and creativity. However much of it revolves around capitalist greed (eg Marconi, who wasn’t a physicist, received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1905 for patenting someone else’s discovery).

Instead of learning the simple steps early scientists and inventors followed to harness electrical energy, we’re led to believe electrical science is far too complex for ordinary people to understand. In this way most of us are compelled to rely on the scientists and technicians employed by corporate monopolies to get our basic needs met.

This 3-hour documentary consists of three 1-hour episodes:

Hour 1 is devoted to the the discovery of static electricity (by the ancient Greeks) and the widespread use of static electricity generators in the 18th century by magicians and street vendors. It covers Ben Franklyn’s mythical experiments with lightening (which were actually carried out by his French admirers), the development of the world’s first batteries (used in a sensational experiment to make a corpse sit up), and the the influence of similar popular spectacles on Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein’s Monster in 1818.

Hour 2 covers Oestad’s and Faraday’s experiments to pass electrical current through a wire, their near simultaneous discovery of their link between electrical current and magnetism, and Faraday’s use of this knowledge to create the first primitive electric motor in 1821. It also covers the international battle to create the first incandescent electric light bulb and the battle between Edison and Tesla (backed by industrialist George Westinghouse) to win monopoly control of New York’s first electrical grid. Edison’s DC (direct current) grid could only carry transmit current a mile from the power station, whereas Tesla’s AC (alternating current) grid could transmit current for hundreds of miles. Finally it covers Oliver Lodge’s invention (employing silicon crystals) to transmit and receive electromagnetic waves (aka radio waves), which Marconi coopted to use in his wireless telegraph.

Hour 3 examines how silicon crystals were abandoned in favor of vacuum tubes (aka “valves”) in the early radio, TV, and computer technology and how after World War II; Bell Labs and subsequently Silicon Valley revisited the “semiconducting”* properties of crystals in the development of ever faster, cheaper and smaller radios computers and cellphones.

*This is totally untrue. I still recall my father teaching me how to make a crystal radio receiver from the quartz crystal I got as a prize from a cereal box.

**By definition, a semiconductor can only transmit electrical current one way. When a light photon strikes a semiconductor, it releases an electron (the basic principle enabling solar photovoltaic panels to create electricity.