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Timeline of Electricity and Magnetism

The fields of electricity and magnetism are intimately intertwined. However, humankind’s knowledge of magnetism and static electricity began more than 2,000 years before they were first recognized to be separate (though interrelated) phenomena. Once that intellectual threshold was crossed – in 1551 – scientists took more bold steps forward (and more than a few steps back) toward better understanding and harnessing these forces. The next 400 years would see a succession of discoveries that advanced our knowledge of magnetism, electricity and the interplay between them, leading to ever more powerful insights and revolutionary inventions.

This timeline highlights important events and developments in these fields from prehistory to the beginning of the 21st century. It also includes related developments in other disciplines (such as the evolution of computers).

600 BC - 1599 – Humans discover the magnetic lodestone as well as the attracting properties of amber. Advanced societies, in particular the Chinese and the Europeans, exploit the properties of magnets in compasses, a tool that makes possible exploration of the seas, “new worlds” and the nature of Earth’s magnetic poles.

1600 - 1699 – The Scientific Revolution takes hold, facilitating the groundbreaking work of luminaries such as William Gilbert, who took the first truly scientific approach to the study of magnetism and electricity and wrote extensively of his findings.

1700 - 1749 – Aided by tools such as static electricity machines and Leyden jars, scientists continue their experiments into the fundamentals of magnetism and electricity.

1750 - 1774 – With his famous kite experiment and other forays into science, Benjamin Franklin advances knowledge of electricity, inspiring his English friend Joseph Priestley to do the same.

1775 - 1799 – Scientists take important steps toward a fuller understanding of electricity, as well as some fruitful missteps, including an elaborate but incorrect theory on animal magnetism that sets the stage for a groundbreaking invention.

1800 - 1819 – Alessandro Volta invents the first primitive battery, discovering that electricity can be generated through chemical processes; scientists quickly seize on the new tool to invent electric lighting. Meanwhile, a profound insight into the relationship between electricity and magnetism goes largely unnoticed.

1820 - 1829 – Hans Christian Ørsted’s accidental discovery that an electrical current moves a compass needle rocks the scientific world; a spate of experiments follows, immediately leading to the first electromagnet and electric motor.

1830 - 1839 – The first telegraphs are constructed and Michael Faraday produces much of his brilliant and enduring research into electricity and magnetism, inventing the first primitive transformer and generator.

1840 - 1849 – The legendary Faraday forges on with his prolific research and the telegraph reaches a milestone when a message is sent between Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD.

1850 - 1869 – The Industrial Revolution is in full force, Gramme invents his dynamo and James Clerk Maxwell formulates his series of equations on electrodynamics.

1870 - 1879 – The telephone and first practical incandescent light bulb are invented while the word “electron” enters the scientific lexicon.

1880 - 1889 – Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison duke it out over the best way to transmit electricity and Heinrich Hertz is the first person (unbeknownst to him) to broadcast and receive radio waves.

1890 - 1899 – Scientists discover and probe x-rays and radioactivity, while inventors compete to build the first radio.

1900 - 1909 – Albert Einstein publishes his special theory of relativity and his theory on the quantum nature of light, which he identified as both a particle and a wave. With ever new appliances, electricity begins to transform everyday life.

1910 - 1929 – Scientists’ understanding of the structure of the atom and of its component particles grows, the phone and radio become common, and the modern television is born.

1930 - 1939 – New tools such as special microscopes and the cyclotron take research to higher levels, while average citizens enjoy novel amenities such as the FM radio.

1940 - 1959 – Defense-related research leads to the computer, the world enters the atomic age and TV conquers America.

1960 - 1979 – Computers evolve into PCs, researchers discover one new subatomic particle after another and the space age gives our psyches and science a new context.

1980 - 2003 – Scientists explore new energy sources, the World Wide Web spins a vast network and nanotechnology is born.

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