Though humans would not fully understand the nature of electricity until the nineteenth century, the properties of electricity were detected much sooner. One of the earliest written sources to comment on electricity comes from Thales of Miletus, a Greek mathematician and philosopher. Around 600 BCE, Thales recognized that amber, when rubbed with cloth, would attract very small, light objects like feathers. Thales had discovered how to charge amber with static electricity; indeed, the word “electron” is derived from the Greek word for “amber” [electron].
Thales’s discovery was the most significant advance in the understanding of electricity for many hundreds of years. People from around the world made note of naturally occurring electrical phenomena—lightning storms and electric eels, for example—but few made significant contributions to better understanding electricity. The scientific effort to understand electricity resumed in the early seventeenth century with the personal doctor of Queen Elizabeth I of England, William Gilbert, who experimented with a wide range of materials to determine which of them
would generate an electrical charge when rubbed. He also made many observations regarding the impact of fluids and climate on the capacity of certain materials to generate charges. This knowledge helped pave the way for the development of electrostatic machines—hand-cranked devices that used friction to generate short bursts of electricity. Such devices attracted a great deal of attention and curiosity, and were used on more than one occasion by wealthy pranksters to deliver small shocks to unsuspecting guests.
In 1746, Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek invented the Leyden Jar—a water-filled glass container, wrapped inside and out with wires, and connected to an electrostatic machine. The Leyden Jar represented a major advance forward in the science of electricity because it was capable of retaining an electric charge for several days. Though a relatively primitive device, the Leyden Jar was a major advance forward in attempting to solve one of the most fundamental challenges involved in harnessing electricity for useful applications—storage.