The electrific Thomas Alva Edison, and you

11 February is, amusingly, known as Be Electrific Day. It’s the celebration of the birth of Thomas Alva Edison (11 Feb 1847 – Oct 1931), so today is obviously all about electricity. But electricity wasn’t the only domain Edison dabbled it – in fact he held the world patenting record, being granted a mindblowing 1093 patents in his lifetime. So today is also about being terrific, standing out, being the best you can be. This is the day to be ‘electrific’, a term first coined by inspirational speaker Carolyn Finch in 1998 – she defined being electrific is “an abbreviation for an electrification project – which means to put light where light has not been before.”

Be Electrific Day - the perfect time to allow all facets of your unique brilliance to shine brightly. (© All Rights Reserved)
Be Electrific Day – the perfect time to allow all facets of your unique brilliance to shine brightly.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Talking about Edison – among his dazzling array of patents are the first commercially practical incandescent lightbulb; an electric vote-recording machine, a phonograph, storage batteries, a dictaphone and a mimeograph.

1879 was, literally, Edison’s light bulb year – he built his first high-resistance, incandescent bulb in his laboratory in January 1879, and from that success worked tirelessly on thousands of filament substances before settling on the carbon filament presented for public demonstration on 31 December of the same year.

Beyond that, however, I suppose at a symbolic level Edison’s whole life can be considered a light bulb life. With the light bulb often being associated with creativity and invention, I guess it’s fair to sat that Thomas Edison had more light bulb moments than most.

I cannot help but wonder what it is in the wiring of some people’s brains that result in such seemingly unlimited inventiveness. Are they smarter than everyone else, or is it just a specific way of looking at the world?

But let me not get started on the topics of creativity and innovation, otherwise this post may never end. So for now, let’s just take Edison as a role model for the day, and strive to ‘electrificate’ as best we can!

Creating sparks on Static Electricity Day

Today we celebrate Static Electricity Day – a day for some serious electricity fun.

Work up some static electricity (a balloon rubbed against cloth is a great source) and use it to get your hair to stand on end. Rub your feet on a carpet and generate some sparks between you and the person next to you. Cut small pieces of paper, rub a plastic ruler on your hair, and see the paper pieces magically fly into the air as it gets attracted to the electrically charged ruler.

Making paper pieces fly - the magic of static electricity.(© All Rights Reserved)
Making paper pieces fly – the magic of static electricity.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So how does it work? As two surfaces rub against each other, electrons are exchanged, moving from one surface to the other. The resultant mismatch of electrons means that the one object will have a negative charge, while the other will be positively charged. Doing this repeatedly (e.g. rapidly rubbing feet on a carpet, or a balloon on a cloth) can result in the build-up of a fairly large charge. If you have a significant positive or negative charge in your body, and you touch a metal object, the static electricity is rapidly discharged, creating a tingle, or even a small spark.

Of course static electricity is not all about fun and games. In industry, positive and negative charges are useful in applications such as spray painting and dust removal. Printers also use static electrical charges to attract ink or toner to paper.

Some of the most impressive, and dangerous, examples of static electricity in everyday life occur during an electrical storm, when huge electrical charges lead to the development of lightning – instant discharges of many thousands of volts – definitely not something to play with.

Here’s hoping you’ll have a great, positively charged Static Electricity Day – go on, create some sparks!

James Prescott Joule and the conservation of energy

Today we celebrate the birthday of James Prescott Joule (24 Dec 1818 – 11 Oct 1889), the English physicist famous for his discovery that the different forms of energy – mechanical, electrical, and heat – are essentially the same thing, and as such are interchangeable.

In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule's important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.(© All Rights Reserved)
In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule’s important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

This discovery lead to his formulation of the First Law of Thermodynamics – the Law of Conservation of Energy. The law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only be changed from one form to another.

Some of his other important contributions to physics include the definition of the relationship between electrical current, resistance and heat, and also, some 10 years later, the kinetic theory of gases.

His important contributions to the understanding of energy was acknowledged when his name was given to the SI unit for energy – the joule (J).

James Clerk Maxwell – the man who changed everything

Today, we commemorate the life and work of James Clerk Maxwell, the Scottish mathematical physicist who died on this day in 1879.

James Clerk Maxwell, 13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879
(wikimedia commons)

While most people will have heard of arguably the two most prominent physicists of all time – Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein – far less are likely to recognise the name of the third person on the list: James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell, who formulated classical electromagnetic theory, has been hailed as the 19th century scientist whose work had the greatest influence on 20th century physics, and Einstein described it as the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”

What makes Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory so important is that it is one of the great unifying theories in physics, combining the fields of electricity, magnetism and optics into a single, consistent theory. He showed that electric fields and magnetic fields both travel as waves, and they travel at the speed of light. This led him to postulate that light, electricity and magnetism behave the same, and can be described through the same equations and theories. In his own words, “We can scarcely avoid the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena,” and “The agreement of the results seems to show that light and magnetism are affections of the same substance, and that light is an electromagnetic disturbance propagated through the field according to electromagnetic laws.”

Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory has been reduced down to four fundamental differential equations, known as ‘Maxwell’s Equations’, first presented in his book “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” (1873).

Another contribution by the great man, possibly less grand than his electromagnetic theory, but fundamentally important in its own way, came in the field of colour and optics. His theory of colour vision made a key contribution to colour photography.

Thanks to Maxwell we now understand that a colour image can be split into red, green and blue channels, and that the full colour image can be recreated by combining these channels.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Maxwell was the first to show that a colour image can be created by photographing the same subject through red, green and blue filters, and then projecting the three resultant images through the same colour filters onto a screen. This showed that the additive primary colours are red, green and blue and not red, yellow and blue, as was previously assumed. It introduced the principle of additive colour synthesis used to this day in colour displays.

So here’s to Scotsman extraordinaire James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest minds of modern times and, to paraphrase his biography, ‘the man who changed everything’.