Why didn't ancient civilizations harness the power of electricity?

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

I think the greek knew about magnets and magnetic stones. They also knew about statistic electricity the Egyptian knew about a fish which would shock you . My
question is why did it take so long for someone to wrap a magnet around a coil. What is the earliest in human history
that humans could have had electric power? I think electricity could have been used the 1600s surely because people like Francis Bacon
wrote about creating lab to test new scientific theories.
 

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  • #2
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For one thing a length of wire is nontrivial to produce unless you have a good reason to do so.
What would a metalsmith of 1600 have said about a soda can....or the foil on a pack of gum?
We take this hard won technology as normal. It is decidedly not and we may soon realize the magnitude of effort we are carelessly throwing into the dustbin.
 
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  • #3
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I think the greek knew about magnets and magnetic stones. They also knew about statistic electricity the Egyptian knew about a fish which would shock you . My
question is why did it take so long for someone to wrap a magnet around a coil. What is the earliest in human history
that humans could have had electric power? I think electricity could have been used the 1600s surely because people like Francis Bacon
wrote about creating lab to test new scientific theories.
  • What is electricity?
  • Lightnings result in fire, which was used, not electricity.
  • Knowledge wasn't available to everyone.
  • Only a few could even read.
  • What is a coil?
  • How do you harness electricity from an eel?
  • What is power without a horse?
  • Who would be interested in?
  • Can it improve warfare?
  • Copper is too soft to be useful, therefore bronze.
  • Bronze is a bad conductor.
  • And where should the electricity had come from to conduct it?
  • People where too busy surviving.
  • Static electricity is a prank at best.
  • Even after the age of enlightenment it took years to connect magnetism to electricity.
  • Early experiments were pure entertainment which requires a certain amount of luxury.
  • ...
 
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  • #4
Klystron
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Without offering a reference, I have read that certain chemical 'electroplating' techniques used by Bronze Age and later metal workers relied on mild electrical currents to color and finish metal products. IIRC thin metal plate were bathed in acidic liquids followed by a "quench" in a basic solution. The metal plates were then engraved and welded or bolted to shields and later, armor; among many other uses.

Metal workers were probably aware something was flowing through solution to the metal plates but useful theory of electrons required unhampered information exchange and freedom to discuss ideas free from superstition. With hindsight we can speculate that the cultures that built the Egyptian pyramids possessed the rudiments of a chemical electrical battery, but that hardly implies -- even if true -- civic lighting projects along the Nile River.

Focusing on simple problems sometimes sheds light on complex issues. Until the 20th century, electrical transmission required fine metal wires. Telegraph and early telephones required large spools of conducting wire as did civil electrification projects. Ancient Rome and Feudal Japan as examples had advanced steel weapons but I am not aware of plentiful metal wire conductors produced until well into the Industrial Age.

[Edit: I just read @hutchphd's post after I posted. Interesting how much of 21st C. electronics technology has become free of a wire 'tether'.]
 
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So I guess the main problem for the people in the ancient world and Renaissance was finding the right metal to serve as a conductor for electricity the flow of electrons. They had bronze but they did not know to use Coppertone another issue is they could not mass produce metals yet. Another issue is people did not know about the link between magnetic and electricity.
@Klystron
Yes I read the Egyptian may have had an electric battery and used in the library of Alexandria.
 
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PeroK
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So I guess the main problem for the people in the ancient world and Renaissance was finding the right metal to serve as a conductor for electricity the flow of electrons. They had bronze but they did not know to use Coppertone another issue is they could not mass produce metals yet. Another issue is people did not know about the link between magnetic and electricity.
@Klystron
Yes I read the Egyptian may have had an electric battery and used in the library of Alexandria.
I'm always disappointed with the Romans that they didn't invent the bicycle. They built good enough roads.
 
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  • #7
Vanadium 50
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They had bronze but they did not know to use Coppertone
Coppertone?
1594576612116.png


I think Hutchphd and fresh_42 explain well that you need a hierarchy of technologies. Wire, in the sizes we are used to, is a very modern technology. Wire nails are only about 150 years old.
 
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  • #8
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I recall visiting Pompeii for the first time and thinking that, were I a wealthy person of those times, perhaps the social structure would not be so foreign. I do think the lack of electricity, although perhaps somewhat supplanted by labors of "lesser" humans (Thomas Jefferson style), would be the most particular difference.
And of course the bicycle would need some good fat pneumatic tires.
 
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  • #9
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They built good enough roads.
But not for wooden tyres.
And of course the bicycle would need some good fat pneumatic tires.
And it took Goodyear years and almost ruined him, and definitely his health, to figure out how!

And the South American civilizations have not been behind the European ones, and they haven't had even a wheel. Demand is the number one motivation to develop something, and luxury the money you need to buy time for it.
 
  • #10
PeroK
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But not for wooden tyres.
They had chariots. The bicycle would have been a good option for those who couldn't afford a horse.
 
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I simply don't know the answer here but for the terrain and climate of the Central American civilizations the wheel may not have been a good technology.....(?)
 
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They had chariots. The bicycle would have been a good option for those who couldn't afford a horse.
I assume the chain would have been a problem.
 
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And the chariot seems the direct progenitor of the Segway......perhaps you do need the horse.
 
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  • #14
kith
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As others have remarked, the most important thing for making electricity usable is the conductor.

The second most important thing is a stable current source. Finding induction before the Voltaic pile would have been incredible hard because one wouldn't have been able to get noteable hands-on experience with electric currents.
 
  • #15
DaveE
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Check out this guy, who decided to build a toaster from scratch. This isn't about knowing how a toaster works, it's about the incredible complexity of the materials in our society that we take for granted.

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=toaster+project

Then contemplate the enormous complexity in the computer you are using right now. I worked at a "state of the art" laser company that used "state of the art" materials to make products for "state of the art" scientific labs and product manufacturers, like microprocessors and jet engines, for example. None of us could have done anything useful without our suppliers of other "state of the art" products. In fact, we needed the semiconductors in our lasers that were made by our customers/suppliers with our lasers...
 
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  • #17
jtbell
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[The Romans] had chariots. The bicycle would have been a good option for those who couldn't afford a horse.
I assume the chain would have been a problem.
Early bicycles didn't have chains. For example the velocipedes of the early and mid 1800s and the penny-farthings (high-wheelers) of the late 1800s.

But can you imagine riding a penny-farthing while wearing a toga? :wideeyed:
 
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  • #18
Delta2
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I think in ancient times, electricity and magnetism effects and phenomena though they were known, they were viewed as toy-like and ancient civilization just didnt put any research on these phenomena. They just couldn't imagine that one could make an electromagnetic engine e.g an electric motor that can deliver thousands or hundred of thousands of horse power i.e certainly not a toy.
 
  • #19
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What is the earliest in human history that humans could have had electric power?
Difficult to say. I think there was two main turning point what enabled the whole 'electricity' business to be invented: one is sufficient measurement/math: the other is a continuous (electric) source (Voltaic pile). Without having both, there was hardly any way to connect (static) electricity, current and magnetism together.
 
  • #20
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Another 'turning point' is the change from thinking about the natural world to asking the world questions. The concept of "experimentation" vs. pure thought.

I'm no historian but the thinking of the ancients that I have read about was more along the lines of, there can be no good without evil; there can be no light without dark. That kind of stuff may be interesting but it does not engender technology.

Building electric generators and motors (and wires and switches) requires centuries of tinkering as opposed to concentrated thought.
 
  • #21
gleem
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Making wire was known to the Egyptians and other ancient civilizations at least for making jewelry (filigree) out of gold and silver both excellent conductors.
 
  • #22
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Yes, but their techniques couldn't make wire more than a few feet long.
 
  • #23
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Yes, but their techniques couldn't make wire more than a few feet long.
... and they had still nothing to conduct. Chances they connected jewelry with a potato or a lemon were probably low.
 
  • #24
TeethWhitener
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... and they had still nothing to conduct. Chances they connected jewelry with a potato or a lemon were probably low.
Does it even matter if they did? That still seems like a really long way from the concept that an electric current can be used to supply power to a properly constructed device.
 
  • #25
Drakkith
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I think the greek knew about magnets and magnetic stones. They also knew about statistic electricity the Egyptian knew about a fish which would shock you . My
question is why did it take so long for someone to wrap a magnet around a coil.
Let's get some perspective here. The magnetic compass was only developed around the 11th-12th century, well over a thousand years after the ancient greeks. Making the connection between a magnet and an electric current requires many different ideas, concepts, and technologies. Even if some ancient pre-scientist somehow made a wire coil and put a magnet through it, there is still an enormous gap that needs to be bridged

A few things you'd need to have to understand and make useful electrical circuits:
  • Good quality magnets
  • Conductors
  • voltage sources
  • mathematics more advanced than that available to the ancient greeks
  • capacitors, inductors, resistors, and all of the understanding and technology to make and use them
  • the invention of chemistry (how else can you make batteries and many other electrical components?)
  • major advances in metallurgy
The list could really go on and on. And this is just what's required for basic circuits, like those in the early-to-mid 19th century.
 
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