2000 year old batteries, Who discovered electricity? & my 7 year old.

My son asked me who the first person was to discover electricity. Having researched this subject a little I discovered such amazing things that I felt the urge to share it.

Apparently it is very hard to say who the father of electricity really is. Although it is most commonly thought to be Benjamin Franklin, I have discovered that it is far more complicated than that, and in fact the question ‘Who discovered electricity?’ is too general a question to really have a clear answer. Interestingly, civilizations previous to ours including the Ancient Greeks (static electricity) and Romans (primitive battery lights) discovered electricity, inherited it from peoples before them and in some cases utilized it for specific purposes including simple lighting and electroplating of precious metals onto small objects.

The ceramic pots found in Baghdad (2500 BCE) and others dated to between (‘248 BCE and 226 CE’) are incredible as they may have been filled with grape juice or wine and used as batteries to create electric currents. The seemingly modern idea of using a battery to create a current to electroplate an object or produce light could be far more ancient.  Archeologists it seem are debating weather these batteries were perhaps even used in Ancient Egyptian civilizations to silver/gold plate statues as there is evidence on certain statues that this process had taken place.

To read more about the Baghdad clay batteries click here.

(Please note: This is not my photo or diagram, and I do not claim it as my own)

To read about why this may all be a myth, click here.

The above link should appeal to the potters among you and the scientifically minded may find the diagram useful too. It seems that firstly, there were several scientists working on the question of electricity around the same time as Franklin but much of their research was concerning the theory that lightening could be an electrical current. The discovery of electricity seems to have evolved from small scale, and perhaps simplistic explorations like those of Thales of Miletus (6BC) to larger and more complex systems with huge technological potential such as those developed by Otto von Guericke (1660), Alessandro Volta (1800) and Nikola Tesla(1831). However the most amazing revelations for me is the fact that perhaps electricity and the battery may have existed and been used as far back as Ancient Egypt and the ancient civilizations of  Iraq and that the vessel used to hold the electrolyte solution was ceramics.

Having totally side tracked myself from the question in hand I realized that most of this information would be rather dull for my eight year old so I simplified it.

Here’s what I said (only read if you’ve been asked a similar question by your child and you don’t know where to begin).

  • No particular person can take all the credit for discovering electricity.
  • The man many people think discovered electricity was Benjamin Franklin, but actually he proved that lightening was electricity, but he didn’t discover electricity. And now I’ll tell you the story of how he did it.
  • I then told the story of Franklin, his 21 year old son, his ‘slap-dash’ kite and a lightening bolt. Find the story here.
  • After the story I explained that the ancient Greeks actually discovered a type of electricity called static electricity. I then proceeded to blow up a balloon and dramatically rub it on my son’s hair, pointing out that the reason why his hair was standing up on end every time I brought the balloon near it was that we’d created static electricity ourselves.
  • I then showed him the clay pots above and explained that archeologists thought that these could be ancient batteries, but that they weren’t 100% sure yet. We looked at the dates of these pots, and the dates of the Ancient Greeks and I reminded him of his historical time line to make sure he remembered just when BC and AD was and where each civilization came in history.

That was enough for one evening, but I may then introduce him to Michael Faraday and show him this. This video would also be a good way to provide more information about electricity.

Amazing Lightning Bolt Video (Very dramatic footage of a lightening bolt nearly missing a camera man)

There are quite a few easy experiments about electricity that you can do with children. We got a piece of wood, some wire(2 pieces), a tiny light bulb, some blue tac, and an A A battery and made our own circuit. The assistants at Maplin (UK) were very helpful in advising me on the right size bulb and wire and for a measly £3.50 or so my boys made their own circuit. We even bought a little light bulb stand that we screwed onto the piece of wood, and we used the blue tac to hold the battery still. Here’s a nice link that gives more detail on how to make a simple circuit.

Here are some other very simple but effective practical experiments for children.

Creativity and electricity

If you want to explore creativity and electricity then check out the amazing art work of Bert Hickman. Or look at bioluminescence here, showing beautiful luminescent sea creatures with relaxing music. And lastly a BBC learning clip of a gathering of artists and engineers who make strange artworks with electricity.

I’m sure there’s a lot more out there but this is just to help anyone with curious children to get started on such a huge topic and save yourself a few hours of research.

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