Even before we became aware of the first law of thermodynamics, our species knew that to get something done you had to put work into it. We could spend an entire day plowing a field or carrying stones to the top of a hill, or we could
manipulate our environment to ease our task. We began using natural sources of energy and our expanding technology to replace our physical labors.
We used the strength of animals to plow or carry. Some communities even used the wind and current of water to turn a mill. Eventually, some of our ancestors found a resource that could combust when ignited, releasing gaseous chemicals to inevitably rise. The energy stored in the chemical bonds could be released to push a turbine or piston. We’ve known all along that energy merely changes between forms; some of those forms are more useful to us than others.
In the early 1800’s, we learned about the connection between electricity and magnetism and found that spinning a magnet within a coiled wire will create a flow of electrons through the wire, otherwise called electricity. We adapted this design and added a storage for the electricity on the end: a battery. Since we had already found combustion to be very effective at spinning a magnet, we kept on burning to start the energy conversion. At the time, we didn’t know the side effects of adding so much carbon to our atmosphere.
We could now generate our own electricity, store it for later use, and even transport it to other locations along metal wires. With more access to electricity and the technology to utilize it, production in factories sped up and began to replace human workers. Just like the Agricultural Revolution, a progress boost gives the population more free time.
More time, coupled with the availability of a new form of energy, meant industries diversified and new technologies became commonplace in industrial societies. New technology could aid in the creation of a newer technology in a positive feedback loop leading to the most advanced civilization yet, and we’re still accelerating.
Today, you can look around and find tons of items around you that exist because of electricity. Inventions that our ancestors couldn’t conceive, even ones that our parents couldn’t conceive, are able to become reality. Most of those inventions use electricity. The trend is apparent: electricity is not going away, it’s growing.
The first businesses that provided electricity generation, storage, and transportation could quickly grow with increased usage of electricity by the public. Many of the energy companies today are as rich as they are because they got into the industry very early. The ones who got in early and haven’t messed up too badly to die out will inevitably grow in power and influence. It’s important to understand the history of our species because, more often than not, it explains our current world.
You are surrounded by electricity and our world has changed significantly since we’ve gained access to what electricity can do for us. We can illuminate our homes and streets after dark, we can adjust our buildings to specific temperatures, we can have instant entertainment with the tap of a finger. We’ve become habituated to these things which is both good and bad.
It’s good because we don’t freak out after seeing a minivan door open by itself. It’s bad because we are removed from a time without electricity. We whip out our cell phone flashlights whenever we’re in darkness, we want to go back inside once we walk out into the cold or hot outdoors, we complain that we’re bored 10 seconds after we turn off the TV.
Through science, we have discovered and conquered the electron to aid us in work, communication, and entertainment, among others things. It’s important to look back and appreciate our ancestors for all they’ve done to build this world. It’s equally important to look back farther than our mastery of electricity to remember that life exists beyond it. Although it seems ubiquitous and you cannot imagine life without it, remembering the world before electricity can give you a sense of pride in your species. Every time you use electricity, remember that you are manipulating fundamental particles of your universe! That’s pretty amazing.