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Whoever wishes to get a true appreciation of the greatness of our age should study the history of electrical development. There he will find a story more wonderful than any tale from Arabian Nights.
It begins long before the Christian era when Thales, Theophrastus and Pliny tell of the magic properties of electron - the precious substance we call amber - that came from the pure tears of the Hellades, sisters of Phaeton, the unfortunate youth who attempted to run the blazing chariot of Phoebus and nearly burned up the earth.
It was but natural for the vivid imagination of the Greeks to ascribe the mysterious manifestations to a hyper-physical cause, to endow the amber with life and with a soul. Whether this was actual belief or merely poetic interpretation is still a question. Even at this very day many of the most enlightened people think that the pearl is alive, that it grows more lustrous and beautiful in the warm contact of the human body.
So too, it is the opinion of men of science that a crystal is a living being and this view is being extended to embrace the entire physical universe since Prof. Jagadis Chunder Bose has demonstrated, in a series of remarkable experiments, that inanimate matter responds to the stimuli in exactly the same manner as plant fiber and animal tissue.
The superstitious belief of the ancients, if it existed at all, can therefore not be taken as a reliable proof of their ignorance, but just how much they knew about electricity can only be conjectured.
A curious fact is that the ray or torpedo fish, was used by them in electro-therapy. Some old coins show twin stars, or sparks, such as might be produced by a galvanic battery. The records, though scanty, are of a nature to fill us with conviction that a few initiated, at least, had a deeper knowledge of amber - phenomena.
To mention one, Moses was undoubtedly a practical and skillful electrician far in advance of his time. The Bible describes precisely and minutely arrangements constituting a machine in which electricity was generated by friction of air against silk curtains and stored in a box constructed like a condenser.
It is very plausible to assume that the sons of Aaron were killed by a high tension discharge and that the vestal fires of the Romans were electrical. The belt drive must have been known to engineers of that epoch and it is difficult to see how the abundant evolution of static electricity could have escaped their notice. Under favorable atmospheric conditions a belt producing many striking actions. I have lighted incandescent lamps, operated motors and performed numerous other equally interesting experiments with electricity drawn from belts and stored in tin cans.
That many facts in regard to the subtle force were known to the philosophers of old can be safely concluded, the wonder is, why two thousand years elapsed before Gilbert in 1600 published his famous work, the first scientific treatise on electricity and magnetism.
To an extent this long period of unproductiveness can by explained. Learning was the privilege of a few and all information was jealously guarded. Communication was difficult and slow and a mutual understanding between widely separated investigators hard to reach.
Then again, men of those times had no thought of the practical, they lived and fought for abstract principles, creeds, traditions and ideals. Humanity did not change much in Gilbert's time but his clear teachings had a telling effect on the minds of the learned.
Friction machines were produced in rapid succession and experiments and observations multiplied. Gradually fear and superstition gave way to scientific in-sight and in 1745 the world was thrilled with the news that Kleist and Leyden had succeeded in imprisoning the uncanny agent in a vial from which it escaped with an angry snap and destructive force. This was the birth of the condenser, perhaps the most marvelous electrical device ever invented.
Two tremendous leaps were made in the succeeding forty years. One was when Franklin demonstrated the identity between the gentle soul of amber and the awe-inspiring belt of Jupiter the other when Galvany and Volta brought out the contact and chemical battery, from which the magic fluid could be drawn in unlimited quantities.
The succeeding forty years bore still greater fruit. Oersted made a significant advance in deflecting a magnetic needle by an electric current, Arago produced the electro-magnet, Seebeck the thermo-pile and in 1831, as the crowning achievement of all, Faraday announced that he had obtained electricity from a magnet, thus discovering the principle of that wonderful engine - the dynamo, and inaugurating a new era both in scientific research and practical application.
From that time on inventions of inestimable value have followed one another at a bewildering rate. The telegraph, telephone, phonograph and incandescant lamp, the induction motor, oscillatory transformer, Roentgen ray, Radium, wireless and numerous other revolutionary advances have been made and all conditions of existence eighty-four years which have since elapsed.
The subtle agents dwelling in the living amber and loadstone have been transformed into cyclopean forces turning the wheels of human progress with ever increasing speed.
This, in brief, is the fairy tale of electricity from Thales to the present day. The impossible has happened, the wildest dreams have been surpassed and the astounded world is asking: What is coming next?