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Innovations in Electricity: Objects

An introduction to the history of electricity

About This Guide

This guide helps students research the history of electricity and the people responsible for its practical use. The Science History Museum is a valuable resource for collecting information for National History Day as well as science and history projects for high school students. This guide is meant to give students a jump start on researching the innovators and innovations behind electricity. 

*Please use the tabs above to explore the people and objects that were significant to the history of electricity


Batteries are in just about every electronic we use and have become so commonplace we may forget how much they innovate our personal and professional lives. Watches, cell phones, and laptops are electronics we use almost daily, and all run on batteries. Over the past ten years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the potential for battery use and application. Some of these were once labeled science fiction but have now become a reality. Within the past ten years, we now have commercially viable and fully electric cars as well as the ability to store natural energy such as wind and solar. As batteries become smaller and their capacity for stored energy increases, who knows what new frontier of science we will find ourselves in the next ten to twenty years. 

In the early 1700s, Francis Hauksbee invented the electrostatic machine using a glass globe and crank. There was no way to store this energy until around 1745 when Jurgen von Kleist and Pieter van Musschenbroek created the Leyden jar. The Leyden jar was used for both science experiments and entertainment. In fact, Ben Franklin used one for his famous kite experiment to demonstrate that lighting is ordinary electricity. Examples of these jars are linked below. 




The first electric battery was invented by Alessandro Volta in 1800. A reproduction, as well as diagrams, of the "voltaic pile", can be viewed in our digital catalog. 



Examples of more modern batteries are also found in the digital collection. Advertisements can also be used as primary sources and represent how scientific experimentation impacts our everyday lives. These modern objects can also be used to demonstrate how advancements in technology can result in smaller and more powerful energy-storing devices. 

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All images link to the Digital Archive

Educational Toys

Early childhood is a great time to start teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It encourages creative and critical thinking and develops motor skills and coordination. STEM educational toys have grown in popularity over the years but it is not a new concept. A.C. Gilbert Company was once one of the largest toy companies in the world and began selling chemistry sets as early as 1922. They are most recognized for developing the Erector Set, a surprisingly complex construction toy that encouraged children to create and build just about any object they could imagine. The Gilbert Company also introduced kits that encouraged experimentation with electricity. Below are two examples of these kits which are great examples of how children from past generations were encouraged to explore scientific ideas.  




The following objects are instruments used to detect and study electricity. These are the tools used and developed by scientists to further our understanding of the world around us. Without these developments, we would not have the resources to power the everyday objects we commonly take for granted such as lighting, heating, cooling, electronics, and machinery. 

Galvanometers are used to detect and measure small amounts of electrical current through the use of a magnetic needle or a coil in a magnetic field. Examples from the digital collection are below and demonstrate how this tool became more portable over time. 



A capacitor is a device used to store electrical energy. This is incredibly important for distributing power and reducing energy loss. Modern capacitors can handle both high and low voltages and are essential to keep our homes and electronics powered. Below is an early version of a  variable capacitor with an adjustable knob for configuration. 


The electrostatic machine was used by spinning a glass plate to create an electric charge. These could be used with an attached Leyden jar to store and study electrical energy. Below are diagrams and reproductions of various types of electrostatic generators. 




Key Terms

Alternating current (AC): Electric current that reverses directions at regular intervals.

Amps: Measurement of current flow through a conductor.

Atom: The smallest unit of matter.  Everything in the world is made of different combinations of atoms.

Battery: A single or group of connected electric cells that produce a direct electric current (DC).

Blackout: Total loss of electric power from the power distributor.

Brownout: A temporary reduction of voltage supplied by the electric power distributor.

Capacitance: The ability of a component to store an electrical charge.

Charge: Electricity produced by a surplus or a shortage of electrons in an object.

Circuit: The path followed by a flow of electric current.

Conductor: A substance or material that allows electrons, or electrical current, to flow through it.

Current: The movement or flow of electricity through a conductor.

Direct Current (DC): Electric current flowing in only one direction

Distribution Lines: Overhead or underground power lines that carry electricity through cities and neighborhoods to your home or business.

Electricity: The flow of electrons.

Electron: A negatively charged particle that orbits the nucleus of an atom. The flow of electrons produces electricity.

Energy: The ability to do work. Energy = Power x Time

FuseAn electrical safety device consisting of a wire or strip of fusible metal that melts and interrupts the circuit when the current exceeds a preset amperage.

GeneratorA machine that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy. 

GroundAn electrical connection to the earth.

GridA power system's layout of its substations and power lines.

InsulatorAny material that will not allow electricity to flow through easily.

Kilowatt (kW)A unit for measuring electrical energy. (demand)

Kilowatt Hour (kWh)One kilowatt of electrical energy produced or used in one hour. (energy)

LoadAn electrical device or devices that use(s) electric power.

OhmsThe unit of measurement of the electrical resistance of a material.

Static ElectricityAn electrical charge built up due to friction between two dissimilar materials.

SurgeA short duration of increased voltage.

SwitchAn electrical component used for connecting, breaking, or changing the connections in an electrical circuit.

VoltThe unit of measurement of force used to produce an electric current.

WattA unit for measuring electric power.