Electricity Demystified

Say you were an all-powerful, all-seeing being that was ticked-off at something composed of matter—a parking ticket, burnt coffee, Dad—and decided to smash it into its smallest chemical components. Afterwards you’d be left with a pile of ridiculously tiny things called “atoms.” However, your all-seeing eyes might notice that atoms are composed of even tinier things: “electrons,” “protons,” and “neutrons.”

Electrons have a negative charge, protons have a positive charge, and neutrons are, you guessed it, neutral. Each atom strives to be neutral, so it requires an equal number of negative electrons to cancel out the positive protons. Neutrons and protons make happy partners and bundle together forming the “nucleus” at the center of an atom. Electrons, on the other hand, are more of the loner type; they orbit the nucleus at a distance like teenagers embarrassed to be seen with their parents in public. Also similar to parents and their teens, some nuclei are strict and keep their electrons nearby; others take a more relaxed approach and permit a few outer electrons to move between atoms at random. Elements that allow movement are dubbed “conductors,” and their loosely-held “free electrons” make electricity possible.

Sources of power like batteries or generators produce “electromotive force” or EMF. EMF gets the free electrons flowing in one direction, creating an electrical current. If the whole system were to be compared to a game of musical chairs, the EMF would be that spacey kindergarten teacher with the apple and school bus jewelry turning the music on, the free electrons would be the kids, and the atoms would be the chairs. Conductive atoms never really lose electrons in the same way a chair will never be empty when the music stops. A stream of electrons passes atom-to-atom in the circuit because of EMF, but without it the positive charge of an atom stripped of an electron immediately attracts a replacement.

This stream of electrons, or electricity, has breathed life into humanity’s most famous inventions. Current passed through a tungsten filament surrounded by inert gas created the heat and glow of the light bulb. A charge sent through a doohickey called a “commutator” and into a coiled wire between two magnets created the motion and torque of the electric motor. Electricity piped into a Casio keyboard created what historians call “The Eighties.”

So, now you know how electricity works. Bet that feels good.