(What Is Electricity?)

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SCIENTIFIC DEFINITION: Quantity of electricity is measured in Coulombs.
Electric charges are the "electricity." Electricity is not the flow of electrons, instead it's the electrons and protons themselves. When electricity flows, it is called Electric Current. Dictionaries often define electricity as "a fundamental entity of nature consisting of negative and positive kinds." This is a scientist's definition of the word, where "quantity of electricity" means the same as "quantity of charge." In other words, electric charge is a charge of electricity. Each proton carries a small bit of electricity, as does each electron. Franklin, Faraday, Maxwell, Millikan, Thompson, Einstein, and many other historical scientists used the word "electricity" in this way. The SI units and the CRC Handbook use this langage. For them, an electric current was not electricity, instead it was a flowing motion of electricity. And whenever we talk about all wires being pre-filled with vast quantities of electricity, or talk about electrons being the particles of electricity, we're using the scientists' definition. But if we say that electricity is the flow of the electrons, and not the electrons themselves then we're not scientific.


Unfortunately, like all the other definitions on this page, this one contradicts the others. If this one is right, then all of the others are wrong. If we decide to follow the lead of the scientific community and declare that "quantity of electricity" means "amount of charge", we create some serious problems. First...
If "Electricity" is charge, then Electricity is not a form of energy, and any books which say differently are spreading a misconception. Charge and energy are two completely different things. For example, the charges in an AC cord wiggle back and forth without flowing forwards, yet the electrical energy does flow forwards rapidly. Analogy: if electricity was like water, then electrical energy would be like sound waves. If on the other hand we say that "electricity" is both energy and charges, that's as bad as saying that water molecules are made out of sound. (No wonder the textbook explanations are so confusing!)

So, according to the scientist's definition of "electricity," any book is wrong if it says that electricity is a form of energy. Charge is not energy! Since electric charge is permanently attached to certain particles of matter, we're forced to say that that electricity is a basic component of everyday matter. We could think of electricity like this: objects are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of tiny particles called protons and electrons... and the electrons/protons are made of positive electricity and negative electricity.

Under the scientists' definition, how fast does "electricity" flow? This is the most controversial aspect of this particular definition. The drift velocity of electrons in metal wires is slow; it varies in proportion to current, but it rarely goes faster than a few centimeters per minute. So scientists must say that electricity in wires flows very slowly. The speed of electricity depends on the size of the wire and the value of the electric current. A high current is simply a fast flow of "electricity." On the other hand, the "electricity" in AC cords doesn't really flow at all. Instead it sits in one place and wiggles back and forth over a very short distance. Scientists would say that all wires are always full of "electricity:" it's the movable sea of electrons found in all metals. When a circuit is broken, the "electricity" stops where it is, and it remains in the wires. But that's where it started out in the first place. All metals are partly composed of movable negative electricity.

According to Definition #1, the "quantity of Electricity" is measured in units called coulombs, or in units of ampere-seconds, which means the same as coulombs. Electricity is not measured in kilowatt hours (since, according to definition #1, electricity is charge, not energy.)

Under definition #1 there are only two types of electricity: positive electricity and negative. When electricity flows, we call the flow by the name "electric current." The basic quantum of "electricity" is the charge of the proton or the negative charge of the electron.

According to the scientist's definition, there is no such thing as "current" electricity. ("current" electricity is silly; like saying "current" water or "current" air.) We can still speak correctly about an electric current, of course. Whenever negative electricity flows through positive electricity, that's an electric current inside a metal. By definition #1, electric current isn't a "kind" of electricity, any more than flowing water is a different "kind" of water. Instead electric current is a flow of electricity. (Notice that this goes completely against the Grade School definition #3 below, which says that the electricity is the flowing motion of charge, rather than electricity being the charge itself.

According to the scientists' definition of "electricity," there is no such thing as "static electricity." (Is "Static Water" a special kind of water?!) What we call "static" is really just electricity itself, pure and simple. In everyday life we rarely encounter "electricity" itself, because normally matter is neutral, and the effects of the positive and negative electricity within matter will exactly cancel out. "Static" really isn't unmoving electricity. Instead it is uncancelled electricity or separated electricity. Pull some negatives away from some positives and this allows us to us observe the behavior of pure "electricity." However, even though "static electricity" doesn't exist, there still can be a field of science called Electrostatics. Just as Hydrostatics is the study of water forces and pressure, Electrostatics is the study of electrical forces and the "pressure" called Voltage. And just as there's no such energy called "static water," there's no such energy called "static electricity."

Under the scientists' definition of "electricity", the electric company does not sell you any electricity, instead it sells a pumping service. The electricity just vibrates slightly back and forth inside the wires. Generators don't "generate" this electricity, instead they only pump it. Metal wires act like pipes which are already full of water; where the water is the "electricity." Electrons are supplied by the wires, not by the electric generators, so we should not say that generators "generate" any electricity. Instead, generators act as electricity pumps, and all of the "electricity" in the national power grid is supplied by the metal of the wires. An AC generator forces the electricity of the wires to wiggle back and forth. A DC generator (or a battery) forces the electricity to flow continously in a circle, sort of like a drive belt.

Even though electricity flows quite slowly, wires can deliver energy almost instantly. (After all, if a drive belt should all move at once, then the main drive-pulley can instantly move all the distant driven pullies.) No charges are gained or lost during energy transfer in a circuit, so if "electricity" is defined as charge, then "electricity" is not consumed or used up by any electric appliance. Neither is it created. Instead, the "electricity" behaves like a mechanical drive-belt: it fills the whole circuit, and it moves along slowly, yet it can deliver energy almost instantly to all parts of the circuit or "belt."

What then is "electricity?" Under the scientists' definition there is a simple answer to this question: Matter is mainly composed of particles of electricity (of electrons and protons,) so if we should say that electricity is a type of matter, we wouldn't be too wrong. Electricity is not matter in the everyday sense, instead electricity is one step down from matter. It's one of the main components of matter. Electricity has mass, although for electrons the mass per cubic volume is very small (the electrons of a wire are thousands of times lighter than the copper atoms, yet the number of electrons rivals the number of atoms.

Under this definition, electricity is not invisible. Instead, electricity is easily seen: objects are visible because light is reflected by the atoms' electrons. When we look at a bunch of atoms, we see only the atoms' outer shell, we see only the electrons... we see only the "electricity". Electricity scatters light, but it also causes colors by vibrating resonantly in response to light waves. Conductors look silvery because their internal electricity "shorts out" the electric part of the light waves, causing mirror-like reflection. The sea of electrons inside a wire looks like a reflective metallic fluid. So, rather than being invisible, "electricity" is about the only thing that IS visible.

Note again that this definition conflicts with the other eight definitions below.

Some references:

Common uses of the word:


Contradictory Definition 2.

THE POPULAR DEFINTION: Quantities of electricity are measured in Joules or KWH
Electrical energy is "The Electricity." This definition is used by electric companies, and used by people who discuss home energy use and home appliances. It contradicts all the other definitions on this page. It is unscientific (since according to the scientists' definition above, charge is not energy, so electricity is not a form of energy.)

Here are the consequences of defining "electricity" to mean "energy."

In an electric circuit, the electrical energy is not carried by individual electrons. Instead electricity is composed of electrostatic fields and magnetic fields which exist in the region surrounding the wires. The energy within these fields is called Electromagnetic energy or "EM." Therefore, under this definition of the word, the "electricity" is not made of electrons, instead it is made of invisible Electromagnetic fields. In other words, energy-electricity is the same stuff as radio waves and light. (Do we really want to say that electricity is a kind of low-frequency radio wave? That's what we're doing here! There is no escape from this problem, since electrical energy in a circuit *is* a radio wave. It's just lower in frequency, 60Hz rather than 600KHz.)

If Electricity is a form of energy, then in AC power lines, we're forced to say that electricity is made of 60Hz electromagnetic fields. In DC circuits the electricity is still made of EM fields, but their frequency is close to zero.

By this definition, the smallest quantity of "electricity" is the basic particle of energy in electromagnetism: the Photon. (Yes, electricity is Photons, and not Electrons. Electrical energy is made of photons. Therefore if "electricity" is supposed to be a form of energy, then we'd say that electricity is made of photons. But this is true only if we stick to using Definition Two.) If electricity is a form of energy, then we're forced to say that "electricity" appears on the same frequency-spectrum as radio waves and light, but is very much lower in frequency. Go find a diagram of the Electromagnetic Spectrum or the radio spectrum. Look at 60Hz, and there you will find the quantities of "electricity" sold by utility companies.

If electricity means electric energy, then electricity does not flow inside the wires. In electrical circuits, the electric energy travels as invisible fields found in the space outside the wires and not within. If "electricity" is energy, then whenever you wave your hand near a power cable, you are putting your hands into the "electricity." If you stand near a major cross-country power line, your body is in the enormous flow of "electricity" being sent to distant cities. You can even wave a fluorescent light under the power line, and it will light up even though it's not connected to wires. It lights up because it is touching the electric energy that flows outside the cables overhead.

The electric and magnetic fields of electric energy cannot be seen. If "electricity" is energy, then electricity really is invisible. (Yet high-frequency electricity is the exact same thing as light! Perhaps "electricity" is the only visible thing anywhere...)

This "electricity" is sold by electric companies and moves at nearly the speed of light on its way to the customers. It travels as invisible pulses in the region outside of the wires, while at the same time the electric charges vibrate inside the wires. Household appliances consume electricity and convert it to other forms of energy. This "electricity" can be created and consumed, much the same way that light waves and radio waves are emitted and absorbed.

According to our definition 2, if electrons are like air molecules, then "electricity" is like sound waves which move through the air. The electrons sit in once place and wiggle back and forth as the "electricity" flows through them. The energy in electric circuits is wave-energy, so if "electricity" means energy, then electricity is a type of wave.

At higher frequencies, "electricity" or EM energy pours out of all radio transmitter antennas. (If electricity is a form of energy, radio waves and electricity are the same sort of thing. Only their frequency is different.) Yet the frequency really isn't so important: if we had a radio antenna 200 miles long, we could plug it into a wall outlet, and the 60Hz "electricity" produced by Electric Companies would be broadcast into space. Such a thing happens naturally with long transmission lines, and a certain tiny amount of "electricity" leaks away into space.

Note that "Electricity is energy" conflicts with the other eight definitions on this page.

Common uses of the word:


Contradictory Definition 3.

GRADE SCHOOL DEFINITION: Quantities of electricity are measured in Amperes
During an electric current, the flowing motion of the charges is The Electricity. When the charges stop moving, the electricity disappears. "Electricity" means the same thing as "electric current." This definition is used in textbooks at the K-6 grade level. Note that it contradicts all of the other definitions on this page. It is also unscientific (see definition #1 above.)

Consequences of definition 3:

If "electricity" is the current, then "electricity" appears whenever the electrons of a metal wire are forced to flow along (that is, the electrons are forced to move relative to the protons of the copper atoms in that wire.) And when the flow is halted, the "electricity" vanishes, even though the electrons are still there inside the wires.

Be careful not to say that electric current is a flow of electricity, for this would be mixing definition No. 1 into this present definition. And what the heck is a flow of Current??? If an electrical current is a flow, then how can "flow" be flowing? What flows in rivers, current?

If "electricity" means current, then electricity never flows. Electrons flow, but according to this Grade-school definition, electrons are not the electricity, the flowing motion of electrons is the electricity (and so it would be very twisted to say that a flow of electricity IS the electricity which flows, because the motion of a stuff... is not the stuff that performs the motion?! Makes your brain hurt!) By this present definition, electricity cannot flow, it can only appear and vanish. If the current IS the electricity, then whenever the electrons stop moving, the "electricity" blinks out of existence. When the electrons start moving, "electricity" mysteriously appears all throughout the wires. This electricity is not a stuff, and it is not a form of energy. Instead it is a motion; a rate of charge flow. This type electricity cannot flow, but it can have a direction. (Why? Well, remember that water can flow through pipes, but water-current cannot flow, yet water-current has a direction. The same applies to flows of charge.) Does this make your head hurt? The crazy science in Grade-school textbooks certainly makes my head hurt.

Under this definition, electricity is not a form of energy. Amperes are not Watts. Electricity (Electric current) does not transport any energy, and if you measure the current, you will know nothing about the electrical energy. If you measure the current in a wire, you cannot even tell which way the electrical energy is flowing. After all, electrical energy can flow against the electric current or with it (and electric current is a very slow flow of charges, while electrical energy is a fast flow of EM fields.) Things get worse in AC wires, since the electrical energy moves continuously forward, while the electricity direction changes back and forth. Under the Grade-school definition, electricity is certainly not a form of energy.

Under this definition there are only two kinds of electricity: AC electricity and DC electricity; the two kinds of electric current.

Is electricity invisible? Although crowds of electrons are plainly visible within wires (they look silvery,) their flowing motions cannot be seen. Electrons' flow is invisible, so if electricity is the current, then "electricity" is invisible. Electric current produces magnetic fields, therefore this "electricity" is closely associated with the magnetic force.

Grade school textbooks insist that "electricity" is the motion of electrons rather than the electrons themselves. This is very bad for standardized meanings of words, since the textbook authors have stopped using the scientific definition of "electricity." Instead they've gone and made up their own. This hurts students because the kids now have to imagine a special kind of flow... that itself can flow along! (What is a flow of a flow?) Kids aren't supposed to imagine electrons flowing, they're supposed to imagine ELECTRON FLOW that's flowing. This is almost impossible. Electrons can flow, but "flow" cannot flow. This definition is responsible for an entire collection of student misconceptions involving current.

Note that this definition conflicts with the other eight definitions on this page.

Common uses of the word:



Contradictory Definition 4.

Quantity of Electricity is the net-charge of matter. "Electricity" is the amount of imbalance between nearly-equal quantities of electrons and protons of a substance. This is an old definition of "Electricity"; Ben Franklin would recognize it.

Consequences of definition 4:

Neutral matter contains equal numbers of positive and negative charged particles. If the numbers are equal, then we say that no "electricity" exists. Whenever these opposite charges are sorted out and separated from each other, we say that "electricity" appears. If the same electrons and protons are allowed to approach each other and combine again, we say that the "electricity" has cancelled out and vanished. According to this definition, the electrons and protons aren't the electricity, nor do they carry any electricity. Instead, their separation or imbalance is the electricity.

Whenever we have more electrons than protons in a single location, or more protons than electrons, then "electricity" is present. Fur and rubber have no electricity, but when rubbed together, "electricity" is generated. This type of electricity need not be static. It can flow along: if one electrified object is touched to a long wire, the imbalance of charge immediately flows to all parts of the wire. Note that this is not an electric current, instead it is an "electrostatic wave" where one region of excess net charge causes a neighboring region to become unbalanced as well. Electric currents include the flows of the cancelled charges inside a neutral conductor. Propagation of net charge is something different.

These imbalances of charge cannot be directly seen. A charged balloon looks the same as an uncharged balloon. The imbalance is tiny when compared to the charge already there within the object, and its effect upon light is tiny. By this definition, we must say that "electricity" is invisible. Charge-imbalance creates electric fields, so we must say that "electricity" is closely associated with the electric force. Note that this definition conflicts with the other eight definitions.

Common uses of the word:


Contradictory Definition 5.

A class of phenomenon involving electric charges is "The Electricity." This definition is commonly used by the general public. By this definition, anything that's electrical becomes a kind of electricity.

Consequences of definition 5:

By this definition there are many kinds of electricity: bioelectricity, piezoelectricity, triboelectricity, frictional electricity, contact electricity, thermoelectricity, myoelectricity, atmospheric electricity, geoelectricity, etc. By this definition, any electrical happening is a kind of electricity. Lightning is electricity, but so are batteries, wires, and lightbulbs. Electronics is a kind of electricity (since electronics is a subset of the greater class of phenomenon.)

We use the word "weather" in a similar way: wind, sunlight, and precipitation are "weather" in the same way that charge, currents, wires, and sparks are "electricity." But a river of rainwater is not a flow of "weather" and an electric current is not a flow of "electricity." You cannot carry a bucket of "weather" and you cannot collect this type of "electricity."

Note that this definition conflicts with the other eight definitions. On the other hand, all the other definitions on this page describe a variety of specific electrical phenomena. Therefore, Definition Five can suck up all the other definitions into itself, forming a huge tangled glob of contradictory concepts that nobody, not even the greatest genius, has the slightest hope of understanding. :)

Here are some less common definitions.

A. "Electricity" is a field of science. By this definition, the word can be used interchangeably with the term Electrical Science or with the section of physics called Electromagnetism. This "electricity" is similar in to "optics" or "geology." It would be silly to think that Geology is a substance or energy, therefore this type of Electricity is neither energy nor matter. Instead it is a chapter heading, it's an area of study. This form of electricity can be found inside universities, and inside libraries. (These are the same places we'd go looking for some biology or some physics!)

B. "Electricity" is a flowing motion of electric energy, it is electric power. Quantities of electricity are measured in Joules per second or Watts. This definition is used by some electric companies, probably in a misguided attempt to combine definition 2 with definition 3. By this definition, whenever electrical energy is transferred from place to place, the rate of transfer is the amount of "electricity." Note well: the electrical energy isn't the "electricity", instead they say that "electricity" is the flow rate. So when electrical energy stops flowing, the power is zero and we must say that the "electricity" has vanished, even though we still could have lots of (non-flowing) electrical energy present.

If "electricity" is power, then electricity can never flow (a flow just appears or vanishes, a flow does not itself flow along.) If "electricity" is power, then a bright light bulb exhibits a higher level of electricity than a dim one. Watts of electricity

C. "Electricity" is the electric field. By this definition, radio waves and light waves are said to be composed half of magnetism, half of "electricity." When a high value of electric field is developed on a mountain peak, the air in the environment is said to be full of "electricity." Electric fields are invisible, so we can say that "electricity" is invisible. This kind of "electricity" is approximately the same thing as Voltage. Volts of electricity

D. "Electricity" is a force of Nature; it's the electric force. By this definition, electrical attraction and repulsion *are* the electricity. Electricity is an invisible force. In physics, one of the four forces is Electricity.

E. "Electricity" is not "electronics." Electronics involves transistors, ICs, tubes, CRTs, signals, computers, etc. "Electricity" is much simpler; electricity is batteries, motors, switches, light bulbs, and perhaps buzzers and relays. We would never say that "electronics" flows in wires, so we should avoid saying the same about electricity. Learn electricity before learning electronics.

F. "Electricity" is nitrogen/oxygen plasma created by an electric field. By this definition, whenever a spark jumps, we can say that "electricity" jumped too. By this definition, lightning, auroras, and St. Elmo's fire are examples of "electricity." This kind of "Electricity" is a bit like fire. It is colored blue-white. By this definition, "electricity" is very visible. Turn on a big Tesla Coil, and "electricity" shoots out. Sparks of electricity.

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