In a strictly technical sense, electricity is simply the energy that is produced by the movement of electrons from one point to another. All matter is comprised of atoms, which include protons (which are positively charged), electrons (which are negatively charged) and neutrons (which have no charge). Protons and neutrons are bound tightly together at the nucleus of the atom, while the electrons orbit around them. Some materials are comprised of atoms with electrons that remain close to their nuclei; such materials, where electrons do not travel easily between atoms, are known as insulators. Other materials, like copper, are known as conductors—electrons can be induced by a magnetic force to move freely through the material. The energy that is produced by this movement of electrons through a conductor is electricity. Electric currents can be either direct (in which the electrons flow in one direction) or alternating (in which the electrons periodically and rapidly reverse their direction).
This definition, however, fails to capture the sheer wonder that electricity inspired in people for hundreds of years. Electricity manifests in nature in forms that range from awe-inspiring (lightning storms) to mundane (static electricity shocks) to bizarre (electric eels). Electricity has a mystical quality that
attracted a sense of reverence among those who first studied it and caused it to be associated with divine power. The quest to unlock its power attracted the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison. The discovery of how to generate, transmit and store electrical power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revolutionized human communication, transportation, industrial production and domestic life.
On a somewhat smaller scale, the history of electricity in Alberta reflects many of the themes that are most relevant in the province’s modern history. The rapid growth of electricity in Alberta was a product of the enormous economic and settlement boom of the years leading up to the First World War. The subsequent expansion of hydroelectric power created enormous tension between advocates of modern economic development and supporters of wilderness conservation, as the province’s hydro projects encroached on land that was originally set aside for national parks. Controversy over public versus private ownership of utilities brought to the surface debates about the respective roles of private enterprise and government in the delivery of essential services to the people, a debate that remains relevant to this day.