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A brief history of electricity

Electricity is such a fundamental part of modern existence that it’s difficult to imagine life without it.  

But in the grand scheme of things, electricity as we know it today is very much still in its infancy. While humans have had some concept of electricity for at least a couple of thousand years, it’s only in the last century or so that we’ve been able to harness electricity as a source of energy and use it to power our homes and businesses.  

Ready for a quick history lesson? In this blog post, we’re going to take a quick trip back in time to explore the evolution of electricity. 

Where it all started

  • Ages ago: Long before we understood the concept of electricity, people were aware that certain types of fish could produce an electric shock. Ancient Egyptian texts dated to 2750 B.C. described the electric catfish as the “Thunderer of the Nile”.
  • 500 B.C.: Thousands of years later, the Greek mathematician Thales of Miletus discovered static electricity by rubbing fur on amber, which would then attract light objects such as feathers. 
  • 500 B.C - 1600: For a while, our understanding of electricity reached a temporary dead-end, although it remained an intellectual curiosity for thinkers of the time.
  • 1752: Efforts to understand and tame electricity ramped up in the 18th century, culminating in one of history’s most famous scientific discoveries. Benjamin Franklin, a prominent scientist and one of America’s founding fathers, set out to prove that electricity and lightning were the same thing by tying a key to a kite string and flying the kite during a storm. The kite reportedly picked up ambient electrical charge from the storm, resulting in sparks jumping from the key to his hand and proving his theory that lightning was electrical. 
  • 1800: Italian physicist Alessandro Volta - namesake of the word “volt” - invented the first electric battery.
  • 1821: English scientist Michael Faraday invented the electric motor.
  • 1882: Thomas Edison created the world’s first coal-fired public power station in London, followed by the Pearl Street Station power plant later that year in New York. 

Meanwhile, in New Zealand...

  • 1888: The Reefton Power Station was constructed to supply electricity to the prosperous West Coast gold mining town of Reefton. It was the first power station to supply municipal electricity in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • 1912 - 1920: Dozens of local power stations were commissioned throughout New Zealand. By 1920, there were 55 public power stations with a collective generating capacity of 45 megawatts. (For context, New Zealand currently has a generating capacity of well over 9,000 megawatts).
  • 1921: The growing supply of electricity led to New Zealand’s first radio broadcast, which came from Dunedin in November 1921.
  • 1965: The Cook Strait cable was completed. The cable, which measured more than 600 kilometres, transmitted electricity from power stations in the South Island to the North Island. At the time, it was the longest cable of its kind in the world. 
  • 1987: With the aim of deregulating the electricity market, the government corporatised the Electricity Department into the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand, a state-owned enterprise responsible for generating power and selling it to retail organisations.
  • 1998: The four cables supplying Auckland central city all failed, leaving the CBD without power for more than a month. 
  • 2000 - present: New Zealand continues to move toward renewable energy sources. More than 82% of our electricity is generated from renewables such as hydro, geothermal, gas and wind. This number is expected to rise to 95% by 2050.  

Check out this blog post to learn more about how New Zealand generates and distributes electricity

Looking to the future

There was no singular moment that led to the discovery of electricity. Our understanding of electricity is the result of 300 years of research, development and the restless curiosity of some of the world’s greatest thinkers. It’s fascinating to look back at how electricity has evolved over the years, and it’s even more exciting to think about what the future might have in store for the electricity industry. 

With competitive prices and a fantastic local customer support team, Pulse Energy is the number one choice of energy provider in New Zealand. To find out how much you could save on your power bill, give us a call today on 0800 785 733.

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