Electricity, the energy behind the industrial revolution

The electricity fairy

Is the expression familiar? It is the name of a work of art by Raoul Dufy, now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and commissioned for display in the Electricity Pavilion at the 1937 Universal Exhibition in Paris. The painting was long considered the largest in the world. It represents the history of electricity from antiquity to the present day, 110 scientists and thinkers from Archimedes to James Watt are represented in the lower part.

The phenomenon of electricity was observed very early. Around 600 BCE, Thales described the effects of static electricity and magnetism. During the seventeenth century, the properties of electricity were discovered. And in 1799, Alessandro Volta developed the electric battery. He gave his name to the unit of measurement for electromotive force and potential difference - the Volt (symbol: V). The nineteenth century saw research accelerate. In 1831, Michael Faraday discovered that if an electric current is able to produce a magnetic field, the reverse is also possible: thus by moving a magnetic field, an electric current can be created. Following these discoveries, the dynamo was invented by the Belgian Zénobe Gramme in 1868. Eleven years later, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb brought a new way of producing light. In the same year, the first hydroelectric power station went into operation in Switzerland.

Then arose the question of electricity transmission, and the first power line in 1883. And from 1889, a 14 km wire connected the Jarrauds falls to the town of Bourganeuf in the Creuse (France). The first high voltage line was built in 1891 between Lauffen and Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The controversy surrounding the transmission of electricity by alternating current or direct current was finally resolved: with only a 4% loss this new high-voltage alternating current line was to decide the future of electricity transmission. At the end of the 19th century, the industrial production of electricity became possible and the first technical applications came into being: electric lighting, telegraph and telephone. The second industrial revolution had begun!

Electricity moved into many areas such as industry, railway transport, street lighting before it went into homes. In the 1920s, the rapid expansion of electricity made it possible for electricity networks to be established in industrial countries.

Green electricity: renewable energy

Electricity now represents a large proportion of the energy consumed worldwide. Since the 1990s its production and research on the greenhouse effect have become important topics for society. Countries’ energy independence and respect for the environment are now matters of public debate. The signing of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 1997 strengthened the environmental aspects of the world’s energy policy and in particular Europe’s energy policy.

Electricity can be produced using number of different sources, the most frequent being a generator which transforms mechanical energy into electrical energy. This mechanical energy is often obtained from a heat source, itself often derived from a primary energy source (fossil, nuclear or renewable energies). Electricity can also be derived not from mechanical sources, but from hydraulic energy, wind power, chemical reactions as in batteries or radiation as in solar panels. The need to generate electricity while reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energies is now a central concern.

Guarantees of origin certify that the electricity has been produced from a renewable source, such as solar, wind, hydroelectric or biomass.

Electricity production is a major issue, as is reducing energy consumption. Limiting the environmental impacts of electricity consumption can also take place downstream of production, either by reducing energy consumption by means of day to day ecological gestures (not leaving unused appliances plugged in, turning off lights, lowering heating, etc.), but also, thanks to energy labels, by choosing appliances that use less electricity.


Last updated on 21/03/17