Electrical Generator (Dynamo)


Michael Faraday
Joseph Henry

No one person “discovered” electricity. The story about Ben Franklin flying a kite with a key in a thunderstorm and discovering electricity when the kite was struck by lightning is especially ridiculous. A Russian apparently tried the same experiment soon after reading about it and was electrocuted.

Alessandro Volta, who invented the Voltaic battery that made modern electrical experiments practical, is probably the most important early discoverer of electricity. Not long after the world saw everything from electrolysis to the telegram.

However, if any single person should be credited with creating electricity as we know it today that person would be Michael Faraday. We’ve written about Faraday in relation t the electrical transformer, which he also created. However, it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of his work in the modern world. While he never commercialized anything, his foundational work is vital.

Among other things, Englishman Faraday and American Joseph Henry invented the electrical dynamo.

Dynamos use magnetism to spin and generate electricity. By essentially flipping his electric motor around, Faraday demonstrated it could also generate electricity. Significantly, his early generator served as a starting point for more efficient generators in the future. To this day, generators power homes and businesses throughout the world.

Joseph Henry was doing similar work in the US. Henry had invented the electrical magnet, which arguably deserves an Innowiki entry of its own though we try to avoid purely scientific innovations. In 1830, Princeton University funded a trip allowing Henry to meet and collaborate with Faraday. The two worked together to create the dynamo.

Eventually, Edison built on the principle of Faraday’s transformer to create much larger dynamos that generated electricity for a central power station. Westinghouse and Tesla built AC versions of the same and took the market.

Insull paired the Westinghouse generators with Parson’s steam turbines to create the modern (pre-natural gas) electricity plant. Renewables are beginning to take hold but there is a fine chance that the electricity you’re using to read this article came from the evolution of this same technology.

Electrical Transformer


Michael Faraday

Faraday’s transformer acted as a knowledge bridge to future innovators that electricity could be transformed. It wasn’t especially useful on its own except to signal to future scientists what is possible. His transformer was vital to the creation of the modern electricity grid and electrical innovations.

The device itself is hand-built by winding strings and metal. Scientists estimate it likely took at least ten days of tedious labor to complete.

When Faraday passed an electrical coil through one coil he detected one in another coil, proving the link between magnetism and electricity. Faraday’s Law of Induction is a cornerstone of electrical engineering.

Specifically, Faraday’s Law states: “The electromotive force around a closed path is equal to the negative of the time rate of change of the magnetic flux enclosed by the path.”

While Faraday’s original transformer was a hand-built one-off ring, today transformers are everywhere. They are a vital component of modern infrastructure. Enormous transformer stations power factories and blocks of residential houses. Tiny transformers are found in everyday electronics. Assuming you’re reading this article on a device, it is powered by some type of transformer that derives directly from Faraday’s.

Faraday was born into a life of poverty. His father was a blacksmith and his mother a servant. He attended a local school until age 13 when he left to take a job as a bookbinder. Rather than just bind the books he bought them home and read them. Eventually, he went to open science lectures paying one shilling per lecture, given to him by his older brother.

He eventually earned a job at the Royal Institution as a scribe to Sir Humphrey Davy, who went on to mentor him. Faraday remained at the Royal Institution for 54 years.

Historians regard Faraday as one of the greatest innovators in history; he all but invented how to generate, harness, and use post-Voltaic-pile electricity. Einstein kept a photo of him on his wall.

Faraday declined a knighthood and refused burial in Westminster Abbey. He died wealthy from grants and University positions but did not commercialize his work (Edison, Tesla, and the rest would do that).

Faraday’s original transformer remains in the Faraday Museum in London, part of the Royal Institution.

Electric Motor

More inspirational to future innovators than practical, the Faraday motor shows that electricity can do the same function as a steam engine, but without the smoke. Faraday’s DC motors, like modern DC motors, had limited functionality. But his innovation served as the first step towards electrification.

Faraday has three major innovations, the electrical motor, generator (dynamo), and transformer. Presently, each remains a vital component of a modern electrical system and each stands on their own as a major innovation.

Faraday, son of a Blacksmith, is a key early electrical innovator, bridging the gap from pure academia into usable things. Markedly, Faraday’s back-story serves as an inspiration to countless generations of future innovators. Einstein famously kept a photo of Faraday on the wall of his office.