Center For Integrating Research and Learning

Arrow1850 - 1869


As the industrial revolution fueled demand for better sources of power and light during the mid 19th century, inventors and entrepreneurs labored to provide them. In 1853, the Alliance Company was founded in Paris and began manufacturing machines for generating electric current that evolved over the years. In 1858, the glow of the first electrified lighthouse shone over the cliffs of Dover in England, thanks to a steam-powered "magneto-electric machine" and improved arc lights.

Duchenne Machine

The biggest breakthrough in applied electricity during this period came from Zénobe-Théophile Gramme. The Belgian electrical engineer invented a machine now known as Gramme's dynamo. His design was a practical, continuous-current electrical generator with, as it turned out, an unexpected twist: When the machine's wires were incorrectly connected during an exhibition, the generator began to run "backwards" - like an electric motor, converting mechanical energy into electric currents and reconverting them into mechanical power. Though Gramme's wasn't the first electrical motor ever built, it was the first of commercial significance, helping move Europe and America farther away from horses and steam engines and closer to widespread use of electrical power.

Playing an important role in the development of the telegraph cable was a gifted scientist by the name of William Thomson. He had already made a name for himself by developing an absolute temperature scale, and beginning in the mid 1850s applied himself to the study of telegraph cables, becoming director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. He was instrumental in the success of the transatlantic cable, earning the title of Lord Kelvin for his efforts. Thompson made other critical contributions to the technology, including ground-laying work for the theory of electric oscillations, which constituted the basis of wireless telegraphy.

Transatlantic Cable

Three years after the first transatlantic cable, the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed in America, establishing service from Omaha, Nebraska, to Carson City, Nevada. The technology, which grew in tandem with the railroad, played an important role in the Civil War, changed the face of journalism, encouraged the settling of the west and rendered the Pony Express obsolete.

The defining scientific mind of these years was Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell, regarded by many as the greatest physicist of the 19th century. During these years his prodigious intellect produced its most important work. Applying his gift for mathematics to Faraday's findings on electricity and magnetism, Maxwell formulated some 20 equations on electrodynamics. Condensed to four after Maxwell's death by physicist Oliver Heaviside, "Maxwell's Equations" are heralded as one of the century's greatest scientific achievements. Though it took Maxwell's peers many years to recognize the genius of the equations, they lay the groundwork for Albert Einstein's theory of relativity four decades later.

Through his work on the equations Maxwell realized that electromagnetic waves travel at about the same speed as light; therefore light itself must be made up of electromagnetic waves. He also demonstrated through them that electric and magnetic forces are two complementary aspects of electromagnetism.

1850 - 1869


Irish-Scottish scientist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) introduces the concepts of magnetic susceptibility and permeability.


French physician Guillaume Benjamin Armand Duchenne publishes information on his long-running study on facial muscles and their expression of emotion, discoveries made from applying electrical stimulus directly to or through the skin.


William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) publishes his general theory of thermoelectricity.


Edward Sabine, an English astronomer, discovers a correlation between the sunspot cycle and magnetic activity on Earth.


William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) derives the formula for magnetic energy and develops a theory of the RLC circuit.


German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz's work with electricity and muscle tissue leads him to publish "Some laws concerning the distribution of electric currents in conductors with applications to experiments on animal electricity." This work includes a mathematical demonstration of what is now known as Thévenin's theorem of electric circuits.


The Alliance Company is founded in Paris as a manufacturer of machines for generating electric current, which are originally intended for use by researchers carrying out work in electrochemistry.


Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell writes his first essay related to electricity, On Faraday's Lines of Force, in which he relates Faraday's conception of lines of force to the flow of a liquid and uses analytical mathematics to derive equations for electric and magnetic phenomena.


German physicists Wilhelm Weber and Rudolf Kohlrausch measure the ratio of electrostatic to electromagnetic units and find that the quantity is analogous to the value of the speed of light accepted at that time.


Physicist Gustav Kirchhoff expands on the work of compatriots Weber and Kohlrausch, demonstrating that electromagnetic signals can be transmitted on a highly conductive wire at the speed of light.


Julius Plücker, a German physicist and mathematician, discovers that magnetic forces can cause the bending of cathode rays.


A transatlantic electric telegraph cable is successfully laid across the ocean floor, despite an earlier failed attempt. After just six weeks, the newly installed line stops working.


The first practical arc lighting system is installed in a lighthouse in England.


French physicist Gaston Planté builds the first rechargeable battery from two lead sheets rolled into a cylinder, submerged in a diluted sulfuric acid solution, and then charged.


James Clerk Maxwell publishes his paper On Physical Lines of Force, in which he discusses the lines of force in mechanical terms.


The first transcontinental telegraph line is completed in America.


German physics professor Johann Philipp Reis describes in a lecture an electric device he constructed that he dubbed the telephone. However, Reis' invention is unable to sufficiently reproduce most sounds, including human speech, and is never patented or further developed by him.


The Committee on Electrical Standards of the British Association for the Advancement of Science completes a report defining units of electromotive force and resistance based on millimeters, grams and seconds (mgs system). Less than 10 years later the Association would recommend switching to a centimeter, gram and second (cgs) system.


The entire set of James Clerk Maxwell's electromagnetism equations appears in his paper On a Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field.


French engineer Georges Leclanché invents the dry cell battery that bears his name and continues to be widely used, albeit in a somewhat modified form, today.


Danish physicist Ludwig Lorenz independently develops an electromagnetic theory of light and shows that Maxwell's equations can be derived from his scalar and vector potentials, though he disagrees with Maxwell's belief that ether was a necessary medium for the transmission of light.


Zénobe-Théophile Gramme, an electrical engineer born in Belgium, invents a practical continuous-current electrical generator known as the Gramme dynamo, which a few years later is discovered by accident to be reversible so that it can also be utilized as an electric motor.

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