WHAT IS VOLTAGE?
1998 William J. Beaty
Of several electricity concepts, the idea of "voltage" or
"electrical potential" is probably the hardest to understand.
It's also really tough to explain. It's a headache for both the student and the teacher. <GRIN!> To understand voltage, it helps if you first understand a little about its nearest relative, magnetism.
Most of us are familiar with magnetic fields. Small magnets are
surrounded with an invisible "field" which pulls upon iron, and which can
attract or repel other magnets. The magnetic field can twist any oblong
magnetic objects (such as iron rods, or bits of iron powder,) so they align
to follow particular directions. Put a bar magnet under a piece of paper,
sprinkle on some iron filings, and the filings all line up and show the
general shape of the invisible field. Obtain a small compass, and you'll see
the little compass pointer twists and aligns with the magnetic field of the
earth. That's magnetism.
There is another type of invisible field besides magnetism. It is called the
"electric field" or "electrostatic field" or "e-field." This second type of
field is much like magnetism. It's invisible, it has lines of flux, and it
can attract and repel objects. However, it is not magnetism, it is something
separate. It is voltage.
Most people know about magnetic fields but not about e-fields or "voltage
fields." In part, this is because magnetism is explained in school, but for
some reason the voltage fields are hidden away under the name "static
electricity." E-fields are never mentioned in beginner's science textbooks.
This is odd, since voltage and "static electricity" go together. Whenever a
negative charge attracts a positive charge, invisible fields of voltage
must exist between the charges. Voltage causes the attraction between
opposite charges; the voltage fields reach across space.
In reality, "static" electricity has nothing to do with motion (or with
being static.) Instead static electricity involves high voltage. Scuff
across a rug, and you charge your body to several thousand volts. When
you remove a wool sock from your clothes dryer, and all the fibers stand
outwards, the fibers are following the invisible lines of voltage in the air.
Fabric fibers are the "iron filings" that make the voltage patterns visible.
And whenever the charges within a conductor are forced to flow, they only
move because they're being driven along by a voltage-field which runs through
the length of the wire. E-fields cause charges to accelerate: Voltage causes
current. Voltage causes dryer-cling, but it also causes electric currents in
Another way to say it: currents in electric circuits are caused by
"static electricity," and "static electricity" is not necessarily static.
The connection between voltage and "static" electricity is poorly explained
in the books, and that's one main reason why voltage seems so complicated and
The Simple Math Behind "Voltage"To be a bit more specific, Voltage is a way of using numbers to describe an electric field. Electric fields or "E-fields" are measured in volts over a distance; volts per centimeter for example. A stronger e-field has more volts per centimeter than a weaker one. Voltage and e-fields are basically the same thing: if e-fields are like the slope of a mountainside, then the volts are like the various heights of each different spot on the mountain. The slope of a mountainside can make a boulder start rolling. So can the differing heights of the different points on the mountain, it's just another way to describe the same thing. The e-field can be seen in terms of stacked layers of Equipotential Surfaces, or it can be seen as collections of flux lines. "Voltage" and "field-lines" are two ways to describe the same basic concept.
When you have e-fields, you have voltage. E-fields can exist in the air, and
so can voltage. Whenever you have a high voltage across a short distance,
then you have strong e-fields. Whenever an e-field is attracting or
repelling an object, instead we could say that the object is being driven by
the voltage in the space around the object.
How High is my Voltage?Can an object have a certain voltage? No. Why not?
Well, please tell what my distance is. What is my distance? That's a
ridiculous question, because I didn't tell you my distance from
what. Voltage is a bit like altitude; it is a measurement made
between two things. My altitude is 300ft above sea level, but
simultaneously my altitude is also 1cm from the floor (since I'm not
barefoot,) and it's also 93 million miles from the sun. My voltage might
be -250 Volts in relation to the earth, but it also might be billions of
volts when compared to the moon. Volts are always measured along the flux
lines of electric field, therefore voltage is always measured between two
charged objects. If I start at the negative end of my flashlight battery,
I can call that end "zero volts", and so the other end must be positive
1.5 volts. However, if I start at the positive end instead, then
instead the positive battery terminal is zero volts, and the other
terminal is negative 1.5 volts. Or, if I start half way between the
battery terminals, then one terminal is -.75 volts, and the other terminal
is +.75 volts. OK, what is the real voltage of the positive
battery terminal? Is it actually zero, or actually +1.5, or is it +.75
volts? Nobody can say. The positive battery terminal can have several
voltages at the same time. But this is no big deal, because neither
can anyone tell you the battery's altitude! We can easily imagine the
distance between two points, and we can also imagine the voltage between
two points. But single objects don't "have altitude," and single objects
also don't "have voltage."
Un-twisting the TerminologyYou've probably heard of electromagnetic fields and electromagnetism. In the word "Electromagnetism," the term "electro" does not refer to electricity. Instead it refers... to voltage! Electromagnetism is the study of e-fields and magnetic fields: electro/magnetism. The charge-flow (electric current) is intimately associated with magnetism, while the separated opposite charges are intimately associated with voltage. A flow of electromagnetic energy along a cable is composed half of electric current, and half of voltage. It is "voltagecurrent," it is electrostatic/magnetostatic, it's electro-magnetism. Electromagnetism is a two-sided coin, so what is voltage? It's one side of EM (the other side being magnetism.)
Besides not being found in elementary school science books, Voltage is also missing from our everyday language. If we have no common words to describe something, we tend to never talk about it. We have trouble even thinking about it, or believing it exists. For example, we have the word "magnetism", and most people have heard of magnetic fields. Electric fields exist too, but unfortunately "electri-cism" is not an English word. Everyone can discuss magnetism, but nobody ever talks about "electricism." Without the word "electricism," we have a tough time talking about electric fields, or about electric attraction/repulsion forces, and we tend not to realize that they are important in electric circuits. Yet there's a word we could use instead of "Electricizm." We don't have to coin some weird new term.
Pick up some nails with a magnet, and that's an example of magnetism, then pick up some bits of paper with a fur-rubbed balloon, and that's an example of voltage. What are the three kinds of invisible field? Gravity, magnetism... and voltage!
Perhaps we should change the word "Electromagnetism" into "Voltagemagnetism?"
Electromagnetic DualityVoltage and magnetism form a pair of twins; they are two halves of a duality. Physicists and engineers even use the word "dual" to describe them: voltage is the "dual" of magnetism, and magnetism is the "dual" of voltage. This duality raises its head in many places in the physical sciences. One small analogy: A spinning flywheel can store energy. So can a compressed spring; the two together form a duality. In electrical physics, a superconducting ring can store energy in the form of magnetism, and a capacitor can store energy in the form of voltage. A coil of wire is the "dual" of a capacitor and vice versa, since one involves magnetism, and the other is based on voltage.
Voltage EnergyVoltage is intimately connected with electrical energy. So is magnetism. We can even say that electrical energy is the fundamental object of our study, while voltage and magnetism are the two faces it displays to the outside world. Another analogy: in mechanical physics, both the Kinetic energy (KE) and the Potential energy (PE) are part of matter: relative motion of an object store Kinetic Energy, while Potential Energy is stored in stretched or compressed objects (e.g. springs or rubber bands.) In a similar way, electrical kinetic energy appears whenever positive charges flow through negative charges. We call this "electric current," and it causes magnetism. On the other hand, electrical potential energy appears whenever positive charges are yanked away to a distance from their corresponding negative charges. We call this "net electrostatic charge," and it causes voltage. Electrical KE is associated with current, and electrical PE is associated with voltage. If electrical energy is the same as Electromagnetism, then maybe we should be more sensible and change the name of EM to instead be "VoltageCurrent-ism."
Potential Energy vs. "Potential"Voltage is also called "electrical potential."
So... is voltage a type of potential energy? Nope. Close, but not
totally accurate. Confusion between voltage and potential energy is a
common mistake. To cut through the fog, keep yourself aware that voltage
can exist in space all by itself, with no charges or "volts per coulomb"
involved. Think of it like this. If you roll a big boulder to the top of
a hill, you have stored some potential energy. But after the boulder has
rolled back down, the hill is still there The hill is like voltage:
the height of the hill has "Gravitational Potential." But the hill is not
*made* of Potential Energy, since we need both the hill *and* the boulder
before we can create potential energy. The situation with voltage is
similar. Before we can store any electrical potential energy, we
need some charges, but we also need some space-filling voltage-fields
through which we push our charges. The charges are like the boulder,
while the voltage is like the hill (volts are like height in feet. Well,
sort of...) But we wouldn't say that the Potential Energy is the boulder,
or we wouldn't say the hill is the PE. In the same way, we should not say
that electric charges are Potential Energy, neither should we say that
voltage is Potential Energy. However, there is a close connection between
the two. Voltage is "electric potential" in approximately the same way
that the height of a hill is connected with "gravitational potential."
You can push an electron up a voltage-hill, and if you let it go it will
race back down again. Take away that electron, and the voltage-hill is
Currents don't have VoltageVoltage is not a characteristic of electric current. It's a common mistake to believe that a current "has a voltage" (and this mistake is probably associated with the 'current electricity' misconception, where people believe that 'current' is a kind of substance that flows). Voltage and current are two independent things. It is easy to create a current which lacks a voltage: just short out an electromagnet coil, or superconductor coil if you prefer. It is also easy to create a voltage without a current: flashlight batteries and charged capacitors maintain their voltage even when they are sitting on a shelf; no current involved. Water analogy: Think of pressurized water without a flow. That's like voltage alone. Now think of water that's coasting along; a water flow without a pressure. That's like electric current alone.
"Kinds" of Electricity?Grade-school textbooks wrongly teach that electricity comes in two types: static electricity and current electricity. These textbooks would be much closer to the truth if they instead said this:
The two halves of Electricity are "voltage electricity" and "current
Still a bit misleading, since the meaning of the word "electricity" is not
clearly defined. It would be better if they said that electrical energy has
two main characteristics: voltage and current. But the above statement is not
nearly as bad as the stuff they usually teach us about "static versus
For one thing, the static stillness of the charges is not important.
For example, if we view a frozen "snapshot" of a dynamic electrical
phenomenon, we'd be seeing an electrostatic situation. Current that is
static? Yep, and it's because "Static" electricity is NOT electricity which
is static. The screwy terminology fouls things up. Instead, "static charge"
really means "separated opposite charges". We should not be surprised to
learn that "static electricity" is able to flow from place to place without
losing any of its characteristics. Maybe it's not "static" anymore, but it's
still, ahem, Static Electricity. Meaning charge-separation. The lack of
motion doesn't matter, since a separation of charge can move along. It's the
imbalance between opposite charges that's important, and their
"static-ness" is not.
NOTE: Do you see how K-6 textbook authors could be playing a game of
'telephone?' In this "game," words are progressively distorted by errors in
communication. In K-6 textbooks the science concepts become more and more
distorted over the years. Authors are taught from earlier textbooks, and
often they get their information directly from modern textbooks. Then they
write new ones. If authors make mistakes, what will happen? Start out by
saying "electromagnetism has two complimentary halves, voltage and current".
Decades later we end up with books which are teaching kids something like
this: "the two forms of electricity are static electricity and current
electricity." Wrong. Yet we can see where the crazy stuff originally came
Seeing the Invisible VoltageMagnetic fields are invisible, and so is voltage. Both can be made visible. Iron filings let us see magnetic fields. To see voltage, suspend some metal or plastic fibers in oil, or sprinkle grass seeds on a pool of glycerine. If we then expose the oil to the strong voltage-field surrounding a charged object, the fibers or grass seeds will line up and show the shape of the field. Rub a balloon on your head, hold it near the suspended fibers, and you'll "see" the three-dimensional pattern; the lines of e-field flux.
Measuring VoltageTo measure current, we allow the magnetism around a coil of wire to deflect a compass needle. To measure voltage, we allow the "electricism" between a pair of delicately suspended metal plates to deflect one of those plates. The simplest voltmeter is called a "foil-leaf electroscope." Electroscopes are simple versions of zero-current voltmeters. find such things in books about "static electricity", when they really should be in all electronics books. A more complicated version of the foil-leaf electroscope is called a "quadrant electrometer." These two devices can measure voltage directly, without creating any electric current at all. Besides the moving capacitor plates, there are a few other ways to measure voltage too.
The Voltage of LightHere's a strange idea: Flowing Electromagnetic energy always involves voltage. For example, if you touch the antenna of a powerful radio transmitter, you can receive an electric shock because of the high voltage at the antenna. Radio waves are electromagnetism, and the intense waves surrounding a radio transmitter's antenna will have a high voltage-field. So, radio waves can be measured in terms of voltage. Even the brightness of the light from the sun can be measured in terms of volts per meter. So can the energy which comes from the utility company's generators and flows along wires to your 120v table lamp. All of these involve electric fields (and voltage), and magnetic fields (and current.) Power lines deal with voltage, but in the same way, so do light beams and optical fibers.
Expose All Students to High Voltage! :)"High voltage." Might you already know what that is? It's not just the dangerous devices behind the electric company fence. High voltage is also balloons rubbed upon your hair, and "static electric generators" and their very long sparks. You might be interested to know that ALL voltage creates the same effects as "High Voltage." The effects are just weaker when voltage isn't high. Understand "high voltage," and you'll understand voltage itself. High voltage devices are not just toys, they're educational: they let us experience voltage directly. If you want to understand magnetism, then play with strong electromagnet coils and strong magnets. If you want to understand voltage, then get yourself a VandeGraaff generator.
Voltage has wrongly been hidden within "static electricity" and declared to
be an obsolete and useless science, important only for historical reasons.
But in a certain sense, "static electricity" *IS* voltage. Static electricity
is a high-voltage phenomena. If we stop teaching about "static electricity,"
and regard it as ancient and useless "Ben-Franklinish" stuff, then we also
stop teaching about voltage. Can you see why voltage has become such a
mystery? We've nearly eliminated "static electricity" from high school
science classes, and so we've also throw away our basic voltage
MISC. NOTESImagine a waterwheel being turned by a stream of water pouring from above. If the water is like the flowing electric charge, and the waterwheel is like an electric motor, then what is voltage? Voltage is like the height of the stream at the top of the wheel, or like its slope from the top of the wheel to the pool below. Without a height difference, there can be no water current and no work done by the waterwheel. Without a voltage difference across an electric motor, there can be no electric current and no work done by the motor.
What if a situation is changing slowly and isn't really static, yet it
doesn't involve electrodynamics? No EM waves or magnetism? Ah, that's
called "Pseudostatic." If it's changing, yet it's still basically
electrostatic, then it's a pseudostatic situation.
Voltage is like an electrical pressure or push, it can cause electric charges
to flow. Or, if flowing charge is suddenly blocked, this can cause a
momentary voltage to appear. But current can exist without voltage, and
voltage can exist without current.
Voltage exists in space, not just on surfaces. Rub an inflated balloon on
your arm-hairs, then wave the balloon around so it makes the hairs stand
You are seeing and feeling voltage in the space between the balloon and your
arm. Think about a 9v battery. The 9 volts aren't on the surface of the
battery terminal, they are in the space between the terminals, like the
magnetic field between a north and a south pole. A 9v battery is like an
"electret", the electric version of a bar magnet.
An inductor (an electromagnet coil) is an electric current device. A
capacitor is an electric voltage device. If energy is stored in a shorted
coil, the energy is in the surrounding magnetic field, and there must be an
electric current circulating in the coil. If energy is stored in a
non-shorted capacitor, the energy is all found in the voltage field between
the plates. If the shorting bar is suddenly removed from the inductor, there
is a loud bang, and a huge voltage briefly appears. If a short is suddenly
connected to a capacitor, there is a loud bang and a huge current briefly
appears. Both components can produce a violent discharge, yet the process
for one is the reverse of the process for the other. Capacitor, coil.
Electro, magnetism. "EM" energy.
Voltage is the stuff that connects the protons and electrons of atoms to each
other, and it connects atoms together to form objects. Pull on your finger,
and you are feeling the microscopic voltage between and within the atoms.
Without voltage, there would be no solids or liquids in the universe, just
gas. When you break a solid object, you are defeating the attractive
microscopic voltages which were binding its atoms together.
The bonds between atoms are often associated with a constant voltage. If one
atom is positive and the other negative, then there is a voltage between
them. If billions of atoms could be line up in parallel, the voltage of the
atoms could be easily measured. What would happen if we could align billions
of atoms in parallel? We've just re-invented the battery. A battery is a
couple of metal plates immersed in liquid. At the surface of the liquid
where it touches each plate, all the atoms line up in parallel, and a voltage
appears between the liquid and the metal. That's what causes the voltage of
any battery: the micro-thin layer of atoms (ions) at the surface of the metal
plates inside the battery. Everything else in the battery is just there to
provide the electrical connections and the chemical fuel supply. Ideally, a
flashlight battery could be three atoms thick (a thin film of liquid
sandwiched between two thin metal films,) and it would still put out 1.5
Everyday electric motors operate by magnetic forces surrounding a coil, with
electric current in the windings of the coil. Let's call this sort of device
by the name "current motor". Electric motors in everyday life are invariably
"current motors", but "voltage motors" exist
too. They operate because of voltage-forces between charged objects.
The microscopic motors used in cutting-edge nanotechnology are voltage
motors. The linear chemical-motors inside your muscles are voltage motors.
The spinning cilia on the tail ends of bacteria are little voltage motors.
The mechanical enzymes which assemble ATP molecules (the 'energy molecules'
of the cell) are voltage motors. The tiny microscopic parts inside a living
cell are like little robots. They all rely on voltage motors, none use coils
or magnetic motors.
Potential energy involves stretching, squeezing, pressure and forces. Voltage
is associated with electric charge which has been "stretched" or
"pressurized." Spin a flywheel, that's an analogy for electric current and
magnetism. Stretch a rubber band, that's an analogy for voltage and charge
Is magnetism like a warping of space? Then so is voltage. Voltage and
magnetism can be combined to become a traveling wave of warped
electromagnetism. We call these waves "light," or "radio," or "electrical
energy." When the Electric Utility Companies sell you some "electricity",
they're really selling you pulses of "EM field-warp," waves which are guided
to you by a pair of copper wires. (After all, the electrons inside the wires
are just wiggling back and forth.) They didn't sell you any electrons,
instead they're selling you a combination of voltage and current. When
voltage and current are there, electromagnetic energy is flowing down the
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 The magnet/charges GIF diagram kindly supplied by David Lewis