What Is "Electricity"?(c)1996 William J. Beaty
What is electricity? This question is impossible to answer because the
word "Electricity" has several contradictory meanings. These
different meanings are incompatible, and the contradictions confuse
everyone. If you don't understand electricity, you're not alone. Even
teachers, engineers, and scientists have a hard time
grasping the concept.
Obviously "electricity" cannot be several different things at the same
time. Unfortunately we have defined the word Electricity in a
crazy way. Because the word "electricity" lacks one distinct meaning, we
can never pin down the nature of electricity. In the end we are forced to
declare that there's no such stuff as "electricity" at all! Here's a
quick example to illustrate the problem.
Do generators make electricity? To answer this question, consider the household light bulb. Inside a lamp cord the charges (the electrons) sit in one place and wiggle back and forth. That's AC or alternating current. At the same time, the waves of electromagnetic field move rapidly forward. This wave-energy does not wiggle, instead it races along the wires as it flows from the distant generators and into the light bulb. OK, now ask yourself this: when "electricity" is flowing, is it called an Electric Current? Yes? If so, then electricity is charge, since an electric current is a flow of charge. And therefore we must say that the "electricity" sits inside the wires and vibrates back and forth. Generators do not create it, and it does not flow forward. Next, ask yourself if electricity is a form of energy. If it's energy, then instead, electricity is made of electromagnetic fields, and it doesn't wiggle back and forth within the AC cables. Generators do create it, and it races along the wires at high speed. But electricity cannot do both! Which one is really "the electricity?" Is it the wiggling electrons, or is it the high-speed EM field energy? The experts unfortunately cannot agree on a single definition. The reference books give conflicting answers, so there *is* no answer.If someone asks whether generators make electricity, it exposes a great flaw in the way we talk about "electricity". If we can repair this flaw, perhaps our explanations will finally make sense.
Below are the five most common meanings of the word Electricity.
Which one do you think is right? Think about this carefully, because if
these meanings is correct, all the others must be wrong! After all, no
"science term" must ever possess several conflicting definitions.
Unfortunately our dictionaries and encyclopedias contain all of these
contradictions. (Click the links to find out more about each.)
If we wish to agree on a single correct definition of "electricity," which
definition should we choose? The Scientific version, number one above?
But that would mean that all of our books are wrong, since books insist
that electricity is the energy, or that electricity is the current.
Except for the CRC Handbook and the NIST SI
the textbooks which use the scientific definition are all seventy years
old, or older.
Well, maybe we don't need to choose just one definition. Could we mix them? Suppose we ignore all these contradictions and instead pretend that all of the above definitions are true. Below is the "clear" and "simple" description of electricity which results:
Electricity is a mysterious incomprehensible entity which is invisible and visible, both at the same time. Also, electricity is both matter and energy. Both. Electricity is a type of low-frequency radio wave which is made of protons. It's a mysterious force which cannot be seen, and yet it looks like blue-white fire. It moves forward at the speed of light... yet it sits and vibrates in the AC cord without flowing forwards at all. It's totally weightless, yet it has a small weight. When electricity flows through a light bulb's filament, it gets changed entirely into light. Yet not one bit of electricity is ever used up by the light bulb, and every last bit flows out of the filament and back down the other wire. College textbooks are full of electricity, yet they have no electric charge! Electricity is a class of phenomena which can be stored in batteries! If you want to measure a quantity of electricity, what units should you use? Why Volts of electricity, of course. And also Coulombs of electricity. And Amperes, Watts, and Joules, all at the same time. Yet "electricity" is a class of phenomena; electricity a type of event. Since we can't have an amount of an event, we can't really measure the quantity of electricity at all... right?Does my description above sound stupid and impossible? You're right. It is. The word "electricity" has contradictory meanings, and I'm trying to show what happens when we accept more than one meaning. Electricity is not both slow and fast at the same time. It is not both visible and invisible.
Instead, approximately ten separate things have the name
"electricity." There is no single stuff called "electricity."
electricity does not exist. Franklin, Edison, Thompson, and
science teachers should've had a long talk with Mrs. McCave before they
decided to give a variety of independent science concepts just one single
Mrs. McCave was invented by Dr. Seuss. She had twenty three sons.
She named them all "Dave."
Whenever we ask "What Is Electricity," that's just like asking Mrs. McCave
"who is dave?" How can she describe her son? There can be no answer
since the question itself is wrong. It's wrong to ask "who is Dave?"
because we are assuming that there is only one Dave, when actually there
are many different people. They all just happen to be named Dave. Who
is Dave? Mrs. McCave cannot answer us until she first corrects our
For the same reason, we will never find a simple answer to the question
"what is electricity?" because the question itself is wrong. First we
must realize that "electricity" does not exist. There is no single
thing named "electricity." We must learn that, while several different
things do exist inside wires, people wrongly call all of them by a
So never ask "what is electricity". Instead, discard the word
"electricity" and begin using the correct names for all the separate
phenomena. Here are a few of them:
The above questions all have sensible answers. But if you ask
what is electricity?, then all of the answers you'll find will just confuse you,
and you'll never stop asking that question.
"I am reminded of the professor, who when asked the question 'What is electricity?' replied 'It all depends what you mean by 'is.'" - A. Gilchrist, ASLIB 1972
MORE ABOUT "ELECTRICITY" 30 misconceptions that screwed *me* up.
(Note the many contradictory definitions found on other sites.
They all give answers, but they don't agree among themselves!)
This is part of Bill B's SCIENCE HOBBYIST website.