Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever

The modern world runs on electricity and has changed it beyond all recognition. Without it, life for millions of people worldwide would be very different.
Christopher McFadden
  • The discovery and harnessing of electricity were some of the most important developments in human history.
  • Electrification and the explosion in electrical appliances have changed life in many countries beyond all recognition. 
  • But, they also opened up an entirely new area of potential invention that many were too happy to explore.

Electrical inventions have not just brightened our nights and energized our days but have revolutionized how we perceive and interact with the world. From the initial spark of harnessing electricity to the dazzling array of technological marvels that define our digital age, we owe our modern civilization to the genius of electrical innovation.

But which electrical inventions have been the most significant for our species? Let's find out.

Who invented electricity, and in which year?

Electricity, being a natural phenomenon, was discovered rather than invented by the work of many great minds throughout history. Philosophers like Pliny the Elder conducted Early work on electric fish in ancient Greece and Rome. 

But it wouldn't be until the 1600s and 1700s that it was studied scientifically. The first person to coin the term "electricity" was a British scientist, William Gilbert, who studied the effects of electricity and magnetism on amber. 

The word electricity is derived from Gilbert's new Latin, electricus, meaning "of amber" or "like amber." But some of the most important work was conducted by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th Century. 

Further work by Volta, Faraday, Ohm, and many more great scientists furthered our understanding of the phenomena and enabled us to harness and use it today.

Who discovered DC?

Direct current, or DC for short, was produced artificially by Alessandro Volta in the early 1800s. But it would take further study by André-Marie Ampère and Hippolyte Pixii to postulate that electrical current moved in one direction between poles. 

It would later be harnessed and generated in power stations in the late 1870s, with significant contributions and developments made by Thomas Edison

Who invented the light bulb?

The basic principle behind the incandescent light bulb can be traced to the work of Sir Humphrey Davy over two hundred years ago. He discovered that passing an electrical current through a thin wire would heat up and give off light.

But he noted that cheap materials that could last a long time must be found for practical use. Warren de La Rue developed one of the first practical bulbs in the 1830s, but his choice of platinum for the filament was not commercially viable. 

Later in 1878, another British chemist, Joseph Swan, created and published a light bulb based on carbon filaments. But his filaments burned out relatively quickly and were not commercially viable. 

Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever
Swan's carbon filament lamps.

But in 1879, through trial and error, Thomas Edison hit on a combination of thin carbon filament design with better vacuums that were just right. This made him the first person to solve light bulb design's scientific and commercial challenges.

What are some of the most important electrical inventions?

Here are 9 of the most important and exciting electrical inventions ever. This list is clearly in no particular order and is far from exhaustive.

1. The humble lightbulb was revolutionary

Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever
The light bulb is probably one of the most important.

The invention of the lightbulb was one of the most significant developments in human history. Almost overnight, it enabled societies worldwide to extend the length of a working day and practically "banished the night." 

Before its development, artificial light was provided through the combustion of various substances, including candles, gas lights, and oil lamps. These were very inefficient and required high levels of maintenance relative to lightbulbs.

Its development also helped usher in the electronic age and made streets worldwide much safer at night. 

2. The Internet has changed the world forever

Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever
The internet is another one.

The Internet is hands down, one of the most important electrical inventions of all time. It has changed the world and how we live beyond all recognition before its development.

The way we work, access information, shop, and communicate have all been completely changed thanks to the net. But it is not a "new" invention, per se.

The origins of the internet date back to the 1960s. Over the following decades, slow but essential advancements were made, culminating in the groundbreaking work of Tim Berners-Lee in the late 1980s. 

Today it has grown to be practically all-encompassing, creating new industries and allowing people to connect and work anywhere in the world with an internet connection. It might well be the most important invention in data dissemination since the Gutenberg printing press

3. The alternating current changed everything

Alternating current, or AC, was another of the most important electrical inventions ever. Discovered by Nikola Tesla, AC was to prove revolutionary for generating and using electricity. 

AC proved to be safer and more efficient (over a long distance) than direct current. Alternating current enabled the mass electrification of many nations worldwide and can be seen as the most important prerequisite to other inventions mentioned on this list. 

It also enabled things like electrical motors and transformers to become a reality. Today AC is used by millions of people around the world daily.

4. MP3 players changed how we all listen to music

Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever
MPMan. Source: Michele M. F./Wikimedia Commons

MP3 players changed how millions of people would listen to music and other audio forever. Their development would, practically overnight, spell the end of older media forms like cassette tapes and CDs.

Tracing their development to the late 1970s, MP3 players would become commercially viable in the late 1990s. One of the prototypes for MP3 technology was developed by the South Korean company Saehan Information Systems. 

Their 1997 "MPMan" was a flash-based player that could hold between six and 12 songs. Other companies would soon realize the potential, with Apple releasing its ground-breaking iPod in 2001. 

5. Transistors are vital for modern life

Transistors are another of the most important electrical inventions of all time. Some would argue that they might just be one of the most important discoveries in engineering in general too.

Transistors are electronic switches that turn current on and off on demand. They are a crucial component of many modern electronics today.

"Transistors changed the face of technology across the planet – without them, we’d have no computers, no smartphones, and only very basic communications (just to name a few). We certainly wouldn’t have any power distribution systems!" explains

6. Global Positioning Systems were revolutionary

Starting as a top-secret military project in the 1960s, GPS has changed how we navigate the planet forever

By 1995, the system became fully operational thanks primarily to three men behind the project: Roger L. Easton, Ivan A. Getting, and Bradford Parkinson.

Today GPS is a common feature of modern car dashboards and smartphones, so much so that many people worldwide have long since ditched their trusted paper maps of yesteryear. 

7. Digital cameras are another important invention

Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever
Digital cameras changed everything.

The concept of "filmless cameras" is nothing new, with early developments being made in the 1960s. But by 1975, one of the first electronic "digital" cameras was developed by Eastman Kodak’s Steven Sasson.

Initially intended for scientific and later military purposes, it wasn’t until the mid to late 90s that digital cameras became common among consumers.

Today most new cameras are digital, and almost every smartphone has at least one as standard. 

8. Electric Cars were groundbreaking

Here are 9 of the most important electrical inventions ever
Early EV cars, circa 1912.

You might be surprised to hear that electric cars have a reasonably long history. Some of the earliest models were developed in the late 1880s, but the development of internal combustion-engined alternatives soon foreshadowed them. 

There was a brief revival of interest in them in the 1970s and 1980s, but the last decade or so has become the de facto age of the electric car. Advances in battery technology and energy management systems make EVs ever more efficient and appealing to the mass market. 

9. The electric motor changed many industries forever

Inextricably linked to the previous entry, electrical motors are another of the most important electronic inventions ever. By converting electrical energy into mechanical energy, electric motors have changed the face of many industries forever.

The electric motor proved so effective that it almost single-handedly replaced steam engines from factories and other major industries.

And that is your lot for today.

The invention of electricity opened up an entirely new expanse of invention, which many entrepreneurs and inventors were only too happy to explore. Thanks to these great men and women, our modern world would seem alien to people only a few hundred years ago.

Long may it continue.

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