Center For Integrating Research and Learning

Arrow1870 - 1879


This decade marked the invention of a device that would revolutionize human communication even more than the telegraph. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Although Bell reaped most of the glory and financial rewards of the accomplishment, others contributed to it, including his assistant Thomas Watson, his rival Elisha Gray and inventors of earlier primitive models, including Germany’s Johann Phillip Reis.

Arc Lamp

Questions remain as to how much credit Bell deserves. But in the end his incredible drive, business acumen and knowledge of acoustics led to his prominence in the history books. By the end of the 1870s, the first phone exchange had been established, allowing people to call each other locally with an operator as an intermediary.

Another race was underway this decade to invent an important new technology: a practical incandescent light bulb. By this time, arc lamps were in use as streetlights, in lighthouses and for some interior lighting. Russian engineer Paul Jablochkov developed an improved model in 1876. But the world was demanding something more affordable, brighter and longer-lasting. Although incandescent lights had already been invented, no practical version existed.

At the forefront of this contest were Thomas Edison of the U.S. and England’s Joseph Swan. Swan had begun tackling the problem in 1850. In 1879, he finally created a practical incandescent bulb using a carbon fiber filament made from cotton. Edison accomplished the same feat on the other side of the Atlantic that same year. Edison’s first bulb lasted less than 14 hours, but within a year he had extended its life almost 100 fold by using carbonized bamboo filament. Edison went on to successfully commercialize his invention in the US, and partnered with former rival Swan to do the same in Britain. An astute businessman, Edison took his invention, supported it with an electrical system and brought it to the marketplace. His first big show was installing lighting on the steamship Columbia in 1880.

Bell Phone

While inventors forged ahead with practical applications for electricity, theorists and experimenters were hard at work trying to understand exactly what it was. In 1874 Irish physicist George Stoney tried to determine what the smallest unit of electricity was, estimating the charge on the particle of electricity that he would later name the “electron.”

Working with vacuum tubes, scientists had observed that a charge sent through it from a negative electrode (cathode) to a positive one (anode) resulted in a glow. Dubbed cathode rays, this phenomenon had yet to be recognized as a stream of free electrons. Working with a tube of his own design (the Crookes tube), English physicist Sir William Crookes determined that the rays traveled in straight lines and could be stopped by a thin piece of metal. He also demonstrated that current flowed from negative to positive – setting straight a misconception dating back to Benjamin Franklin.

Crookes didn’t get the whole story right. He believed the rays consisted of negatively charged particles – which turned out to be true – but falsely believed he had discovered a fourth state of matter, rather than a sub-atomic particle. Still, his work paved the way for J.J. Thomson to make that revolutionary intellectual leap at the end of the century.

1870 - 1879


Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell provides a detailed discussion of his theory of electromagnetism in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.


English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovers photoconductivity when he observes that selenium conducts electricity better when exposed to light.


Irish physicist George Stoney estimates the charge on the particle of electricity which he would later call the electron.


Physicist John Kerr of Scotland discovers that birefringence can be induced in a transparent material by applying a strong electric field so that it is transverse to the light beam, a phenomenon now referred to as the Kerr electro-optic effect.


American physicist Henry Rowland experimentally proves that a moving electric charge is magnetically equivalent to an electric current.


Inventor Alexander Graham Bell receives a U.S. patent for his version of the telephone, which unlike the rudimentary design of Reis was capable of successfully transmitting human speech and other sounds.


Russian electrical engineer and inventor Paul Jablochkov develops an improved arc lamp with a simple design known as the Jablochkov candle, which becomes the preferred form of electric street lighting for several years.


English physicist Joseph Swan, who had invented a primitive electric light in 1860, demonstrates a practical incandescent light bulb in his country; inventor Thomas Edison makes a similar demonstration of the electric light he independently invented in America.


At the suggestion of Henry Rowland, American physicist Edwin Hall carries out an experiment while working on his doctoral thesis that results in his discovery of the Hall effect, which refers to the voltage difference produced by a magnetic field applied perpendicularly to a solid carrying an electric current.

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