I have recently become fascinated by the history of electricity. I have researched and come up with the following observations:

  • Static electricity was discovered in early times, by phenomena such as rubbing amber and watching dust attract/ rubbing turning glass also attracting light objects.
  • It was found that some materials attracted and repelled when charged.
  • It was found the some materials conduct the electricity, and electric charge could be transferred from one object to another, known as electric current.
  • A kite experiment found that a metal key became electrically charged when struck by lightning, and where able to transfer lightning strikes away from buildings through a rod and wire
  • Leyden Jar was clever and it was found to store electric charge, and discharge it by connecting the outside and inside via a conductor, a process we now now occurs due to electric field pushing electrons from the outside metal
  • Someone differentiated magnetic force from electrical forces, the reason I am not sure of, I think its because objects appeared to be magnetic by nature and assert a particular type of force.
  • Volta was intrigued by an experiment involving frogs and eventually discovered the voltaic pile, allowing for a constant flow of electric charge known as first battery.
  • He developed a better battery, and then people realised that the magnetic force on the compass interacted with a circuit.
  • This eventually led to Ampere's Laws, which eventually led to Faraday's law, allowing for mechanical generation of electricity.
  • Fast forward a bit and someone discovered the electron, and eventually calculated its mass using previously established laws associated with electric fields.

I was wondering if there is a more detailed recount of events, that is not too long, that I can read about to enrich my understanding of the fundamentals. My knowledge about early magnetism is sketchy, and my recounts are very shallow and not very detailed. I am moreso interested in the practical side of thing, and talking about what people where calling what back in the time, rather than talking about complex stuff that is around is today, because that kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise in my opinion.

Any help is appreciated; thank you so much.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ ‘Concise’ and ‘detailed’ seem contradictory. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 23, 2023 at 3:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While it is not concise, look at the playlist "The Electricity Tamers" on the YouTube channel "Kathy Loves Physics": youtube.com/@Weirdly_wonderful/playlists. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Dec 23, 2023 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ FWIW I take "concise but detailed" to mean direct and to-the-point language which covers the history with minimal digression, maybe at the cost of comprehensiveness $\endgroup$ Jan 10 at 19:05

4 Answers 4


As mentioned in the comments, "concise" and "detailed" are contradicting requirements. A detailed history is

Edmund Whittaker, A history of the theories of Aether and Electricity, 2 volumes, Harper & brothers, NY 1951.


Two books come to mind here: Kathy Joseph's The Lightning Tamers is one I haven't read yet, but it has been very well received and Kathy definitely does her research (see also her YouTube series) so I would imagine it is a solid book. As well, I'd recommend Keithley's The Story of Electrical and Magnetic Measurements. Keithley includes the main beats from the history of electricity, including good detail, without the thorough detail and scholarship of some other histories (Park Benjamin, Edmund Whittaker, J. L. Heilbron).

For the early history of electricity, I might also plug my own channel, where I reproduce experiments from the earliest experimenters and look at how their experiments informed their understanding. You can find my channel here.

To better understand how people viewed electricity in this period, consider looking at Priestley's The History and Present State of Electricity (1767) written at a time when the study of electrostatics was in full swing, but mathematical physics was not yet applied, and currents and electromagnetism were still distant. This work has been very impactful in forming the narrative of the "history of electricity." It's not too difficult to read, particularly if the typesetting is modern, although the writing style in the 18th century is obviously a bit different from today.


As mentioned above, 'concise' and 'detailed' are contradictory requirements...

On the 'concise' side, allow me to suggest –for those who read French– the book 'Histoire de L'Électricité', by Gérard Borvon. ISBN 978-2-7117-2492-5


Concise & detailed to me usually means an entry from an encyclopedia. So you can try this entry from Wikipedia on precisely this subject. It also has a bibliography which you can use to pursue the subject further.


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