1775 - 1799

Scientists take important steps toward a fuller understanding of electricity, as well as some fruitful missteps, including an elaborate but incorrect theory on animal magnetism that sets the stage for a groundbreaking invention.


Capacitance and resistance

English chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish develops the concepts of capacitance and resistance, though most of his work with electricity is not published until the late nineteenth century.

Making static electricity

VoltaItalian physicist Alessandro Volta invents a machine for generating static electricity, which he calls an electrophorus. The term also comes to be applied to the similar device created by Johannes Wilcke a decade earlier.

Lichtenberg figures

German professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg discovers that unusual patterns, which later come to be known as Lichtenberg figures, can be produced by electrifying fern spores or other fine powders and dusting them upon a surface that carries the opposite charge.

Animal magnetism

Anton Mesmer, a German physician, establishes a magnetic healing practice based on his theories of animal magnetism in Paris after being accused of fraudulent activity in Vienna.

State changes

Renowned chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier of France demonstrates that the conversion of liquids or solids into gases results in electrification.

Torsion balance

Torsion BalanceFrench physicist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb builds a torsion balance and offers quantitative proof of the inverse square laws of electric and magnetic forces theorized by Joseph Priestley 20 years earlier.

Powerful electrostatic generator

Martin Van Marum of Holland constructs a much more powerful electrostatic machine than had ever been built before and carries out a variety of experiments with electricity.

Detecting and amplifying charge

ElectroscopeReverend Abraham Bennet discusses two important devices in Philosophical Transactions, one for detecting electricity (the gold leaf electroscope) and the other for amplifying a charge via induction (the electric doubler).

Animal electricity proposed

GalvaniUniversity of Bologna anatomy professor Luigi Galvani reports his observations made over the course of 11 years on the effect of metal probes on the leg muscles of dissected frogs in the essay Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion. He mistakenly attributes the muscular contractions he witnesses to an innate force he dubs animal electricity.

Animal electricity debunked

When carrying out experiments with metals placed in his mouth similar to those of Johann Sulzer, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta first believes he is experiencing the effects of animal electricity, but then finds that he can produce a current in the absence of animal tissue by utilizing a piece of cardboard moistened with brine instead of his tongue. Accordingly, he infers that the effect is incited by touching dissimilar metals to a moist object.
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