It was discovered centuries ago that certain types of materials would mysteriously attract one another after being rubbed together. For example: after rubbing a piece of silk against a piece of glass, the silk and glass would tend to stick together. Indeed, there was an attractive force that could be demonstrated even when the two materials were separated:
Glass and silk aren't the only materials known to behave like this. Anyone who has ever brushed up against a latex balloon only to find that it tries to stick to them has experienced this same phenomenon. Paraffin wax and wool cloth are another pair of materials early experimenters recognized as manifesting attractive forces after being rubbed together:
This phenomenon became even more interesting when it was discovered that identical materials, after having been rubbed with their respective cloths, always repelled each other:
It was also noted that when a piece of glass rubbed with silk was exposed to a piece of wax rubbed with wool, the two materials would attract one another:
Furthermore, it was found that any material demonstrating properties of attraction or repulsion after being rubbed could be classed into one of two distinct categories: attracted to glass and repelled by wax, or repelled by glass and attracted to wax. It was either one or the other: there were no materials found that would be attracted to or repelled by both glass and wax, or that reacted to one without reacting to the other.
More attention was directed toward the pieces of cloth used to do the rubbing. It was discovered that after rubbing two pieces of glass with two pieces of silk cloth, not only did the glass pieces repel each other, but so did the cloths. The same phenomenon held for the pieces of wool used to rub the wax:
Now, this was really strange to witness. After all, none of these objects were visibly altered by the rubbing, yet they definitely behaved differently than before they were rubbed. Whatever change took place to make these materials attract or repel one another was invisible.
Some experimenters speculated that invisible "fluids" were being transferred from one object to another during the process of rubbing, and that these "fluids" were able to effect a physical force over a distance. Charles Dufay was one of the early experimenters who demonstrated that there were definitely two different types of changes wrought by rubbing certain pairs of objects together. The fact that there was more than one type of change manifested in these materials was evident by the fact that there were two types of forces produced: attraction and repulsion. The hypothetical fluid transfer became known as a charge.
One pioneering researcher, Benjamin Franklin, came to the conclusion that there was only one fluid exchanged between rubbed objects, and that the two different "charges" were nothing more than either an excess or a deficiency of that one fluid. After experimenting with wax and wool, Franklin suggested that the coarse wool removed some of this invisible fluid from the smooth wax, causing an excess of fluid on the wool and a deficiency of fluid on the wax. The resulting disparity in fluid content between the wool and wax would then cause an attractive force, as the fluid tried to regain its former balance between the two materials.
Postulating the existence of a single "fluid" that was either gained or lost through rubbing accounted best for the observed behavior: that all these materials fell neatly into one of two categories when rubbed, and most importantly, that the two active materials rubbed against each other always fell into opposing categories as evidenced by their invariable attraction to one another. In other words, there was never a time where two materials rubbed against each other both became either positive or negative.
Following Franklin's speculation of the wool rubbing something off of the wax, the type of charge that was associated with rubbed wax became known as "negative" (because it was supposed to have a deficiency of fluid) while the type of charge associated with the rubbing wool became known as "positive" (because it was supposed to have an excess of fluid). Little did he know that his innocent conjecture would cause much confusion for students of electricity in the future!
Precise measurements of electrical charge were carried out by the French physicist Charles Coulomb in the 1780's using a device called a torsional balance measuring the force generated between two electrically charged objects. The results of Coulomb's work led to the development of a unit of electrical charge named in his honor, the coulomb. If two "point" objects (hypothetical objects having no appreciable surface area) were equally charged to a measure of 1 coulomb, and placed 1 meter (approximately 1 yard) apart, they would generate a force of about 9 billion newtons (approximately 2 billion pounds), either attracting or repelling depending on the types of charges involved. The operational definition of a coulomb as the unit of electrical charge (in terms of force generated between point charges) was found to be equal to an excess or deficiency of about 6,250,000,000,000,000,000 electrons. Or, stated in reverse terms, one electron has a charge of about 0.00000000000000000016 coulombs. Being that one electron is the smallest known carrier of electric charge, this last figure of charge for the electron is defined as the elementary charge.
It was discovered much later that this "fluid" was actually composed of extremely small bits of matter called electrons, so named in honor of the ancient Greek word for amber: another material exhibiting charged properties when rubbed with cloth. Experimentation has since revealed that all objects are composed of extremely small "building-blocks" known as atoms, and that these atoms are in turn composed of smaller components known as particles. The three fundamental particles comprising most atoms are called protons, neutrons and electrons. Whilst the majority of atoms have a combination of protons, neutrons, and electrons, not all atoms have neutrons; an example is the protium isotope (1H1) of hydrogen (Hydrogen-1) which is the lightest and most common form of hydrogen which only has one proton and one electron. Atoms are far too small to be seen, but if we could look at one, it might appear something like this:
Even though each atom in a piece of material tends to hold together as a unit, there's actually a lot of empty space between the electrons and the cluster of protons and neutrons residing in the middle.
This crude model is that of the element carbon, with six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons. In any atom, the protons and neutrons are very tightly bound together, which is an important quality. The tightly-bound clump of protons and neutrons in the center of the atom is called the nucleus, and the number of protons in an atom's nucleus determines its elemental identity: change the number of protons in an atom's nucleus, and you change the type of atom that it is. In fact, if you could remove three protons from the nucleus of an atom of lead, you will have achieved the old alchemists' dream of producing an atom of gold! The tight binding of protons in the nucleus is responsible for the stable identity of chemical elements, and the failure of alchemists to achieve their dream.
Neutrons are much less influential on the chemical character and identity of an atom than protons, although they are just as hard to add to or remove from the nucleus, being so tightly bound. If neutrons are added or gained, the atom will still retain the same chemical identity, but its mass will change slightly and it may acquire strange nuclear properties such as radioactivity.
However, electrons have significantly more freedom to move around in an atom than either protons or neutrons. In fact, they can be knocked out of their respective positions (even leaving the atom entirely!) by far less energy than what it takes to dislodge particles in the nucleus. If this happens, the atom still retains its chemical identity, but an important imbalance occurs. Electrons and protons are unique in the fact that they are attracted to one another over a distance. It is this attraction over distance which causes the attraction between rubbed objects, where electrons are moved away from their original atoms to reside around atoms of another object.
Electrons tend to repel other electrons over a distance, as do protons with other protons. The only reason protons bind together in the nucleus of an atom is because of a much stronger force called the strong nuclear force which has effect only under very short distances. Because of this attraction/repulsion behavior between individual particles, electrons and protons are said to have opposite electric charges. That is, each electron has a negative charge, and each proton a positive charge. In equal numbers within an atom, they counteract each other's presence so that the net charge within the atom is zero. This is why the picture of a carbon atom had six electrons: to balance out the electric charge of the six protons in the nucleus. If electrons leave or extra electrons arrive, the atom's net electric charge will be imbalanced, leaving the atom "charged" as a whole, causing it to interact with charged particles and other charged atoms nearby. Neutrons are neither attracted to or repelled by electrons, protons, or even other neutrons, and are consequently categorized as having no charge at all.
The process of electrons arriving or leaving is exactly what happens when certain combinations of materials are rubbed together: electrons from the atoms of one material are forced by the rubbing to leave their respective atoms and transfer over to the atoms of the other material. In other words, electrons comprise the "fluid" hypothesized by Benjamin Franklin.
The result of an imbalance of this "fluid" (electrons) between objects is called static electricity. It is called "static" because the displaced electrons tend to remain stationary after being moved from one insulating material to another. In the case of wax and wool, it was determined through further experimentation that electrons in the wool actually transferred to the atoms in the wax, which is exactly opposite of Franklin's conjecture! In honor of Franklin's designation of the wax's charge being "negative" and the wool's charge being "positive," electrons are said to have a "negative" charging influence. Thus, an object whose atoms have received a surplus of electrons is said to be negatively charged, while an object whose atoms are lacking electrons is said to be positively charged, as confusing as these designations may seem. By the time the true nature of electric "fluid" was discovered, Franklin's nomenclature of electric charge was too well established to be easily changed, and so it remains to this day.
Michael Faraday proved (1832) that static electricity was the same as that produced by a battery or a generator. Static electricity is, for the most part, a nuisance. Black powder and smokeless powder have graphite added to prevent ignition due to static electricity. It causes damage to sensitive semiconductor circuitry. While it is possible to produce motors powered by high voltage and low current characteristic of static electricity, this is not economic. The few practical applications of static electricity include xerographic printing, the electrostatic air filter, and the high voltage Van de Graaff generator.
The electrons of different types of atoms have different degrees of freedom to move around. With some types of materials, such as metals, the outermost electrons in the atoms are so loosely bound that they chaotically move in the space between the atoms of that material by nothing more than the influence of room-temperature heat energy. Because these virtually unbound electrons are free to leave their respective atoms and float around in the space between adjacent atoms, they are often called free electrons.
In other types of materials such as glass, the atoms' electrons have very little freedom to move around. While external forces such as physical rubbing can force some of these electrons to leave their respective atoms and transfer to the atoms of another material, they do not move between atoms within that material very easily.
This relative mobility of electrons within a material is known as electric conductivity. Conductivity is determined by the types of atoms in a material (the number of protons in each atom's nucleus, determining its chemical identity) and how the atoms are linked together with one another. Materials with high electron mobility (many free electrons) are called conductors, while materials with low electron mobility (few or no free electrons) are called insulators.
Here are a few common examples of conductors and insulators:
It must be understood that not all conductive materials have the same level of conductivity, and not all insulators are equally resistant to electron motion. Electrical conductivity is analogous to the transparency of certain materials to light: materials that easily "conduct" light are called "transparent," while those that don't are called "opaque." However, not all transparent materials are equally conductive to light. Window glass is better than most plastics, and certainly better than "clear" fiberglass. So it is with electrical conductors, some being better than others.
For instance, silver is the best conductor in the "conductors" list, offering easier passage for electrons than any other material cited. Dirty water and concrete are also listed as conductors, but these materials are substantially less conductive than any metal.
It should also be understood that some materials experience changes in their electrical properties under different conditions. Glass, for instance, is a very good insulator at room temperature, but becomes a conductor when heated to a very high temperature. Gases such as air, normally insulating materials, also become conductive if heated to very high temperatures. Most metals become poorer conductors when heated, and better conductors when cooled. Many conductive materials become perfectly conductive (this is called superconductivity) at extremely low temperatures.
While the normal motion of "free" electrons in a conductor is random, with no particular direction or speed, electrons can be influenced to move in a coordinated fashion through a conductive material. This uniform motion of electrons is what we call electricity, or electric current. To be more precise, it could be called dynamic electricity in contrast to static electricity, which is an unmoving accumulation of electric charge. Just like water flowing through the emptiness of a pipe, electrons are able to move within the empty space within and between the atoms of a conductor. The conductor may appear to be solid to our eyes, but any material composed of atoms is mostly empty space! The liquid-flow analogy is so fitting that the motion of electrons through a conductor is often referred to as a "flow."
A noteworthy observation may be made here. As each electron moves uniformly through a conductor, it pushes on the one ahead of it, such that all the electrons move together as a group. The starting and stopping of electron flow through the length of a conductive path is virtually instantaneous from one end of a conductor to the other, even though the motion of each electron may be very slow. An approximate analogy is that of a tube filled end-to-end with marbles:
The tube is full of marbles, just as a conductor is full of free electrons ready to be moved by an outside influence. If a single marble is suddenly inserted into this full tube on the left-hand side, another marble will immediately try to exit the tube on the right. Even though each marble only traveled a short distance, the transfer of motion through the tube is virtually instantaneous from the left end to the right end, no matter how long the tube is. With electricity, the overall effect from one end of a conductor to the other happens at the speed of light: a swift 186,000 miles per second!!! Each individual electron, though, travels through the conductor at a much slower pace.
If we want electrons to flow in a certain direction to a certain place, we must provide the proper path for them to move, just as a plumber must install piping to get water to flow where he or she wants it to flow. To facilitate this, wires are made of highly conductive metals such as copper or aluminum in a wide variety of sizes.
Remember that electrons can flow only when they have the opportunity to move in the space between the atoms of a material. This means that there can be electric current only where there exists a continuous path of conductive material providing a conduit for electrons to travel through. In the marble analogy, marbles can flow into the left-hand side of the tube (and, consequently, through the tube) if and only if the tube is open on the right-hand side for marbles to flow out. If the tube is blocked on the right-hand side, the marbles will just "pile up" inside the tube, and marble "flow" will not occur. The same holds true for electric current: the continuous flow of electrons requires there be an unbroken path to permit that flow. Let's look at a diagram to illustrate how this works:
A thin, solid line (as shown above) is the conventional symbol for a continuous piece of wire. Since the wire is made of a conductive material, such as copper, its constituent atoms have many free electrons which can easily move through the wire. However, there will never be a continuous or uniform flow of electrons within this wire unless they have a place to come from and a place to go. Let's add a hypothetical electron "Source" and "Destination:"
Now, with the Electron Source pushing new electrons into the wire on the left-hand side, electron flow through the wire can occur (as indicated by the arrows pointing from left to right). However, the flow will be interrupted if the conductive path formed by the wire is broken:
Since air is an insulating material, and an air gap separates the two pieces of wire, the once-continuous path has now been broken, and electrons cannot flow from Source to Destination. This is like cutting a water pipe in two and capping off the broken ends of the pipe: water can't flow if there's no exit out of the pipe. In electrical terms, we had a condition of electrical continuity when the wire was in one piece, and now that continuity is broken with the wire cut and separated.
If we were to take another piece of wire leading to the Destination and simply make physical contact with the wire leading to the Source, we would once again have a continuous path for electrons to flow. The two dots in the diagram indicate physical (metal-to-metal) contact between the wire pieces:
Now, we have continuity from the Source, to the newly-made connection, down, to the right, and up to the Destination. This is analogous to putting a "tee" fitting in one of the capped-off pipes and directing water through a new segment of pipe to its destination. Please take note that the broken segment of wire on the right hand side has no electrons flowing through it, because it is no longer part of a complete path from Source to Destination.
It is interesting to note that no "wear" occurs within wires due to this electric current, unlike water-carrying pipes which are eventually corroded and worn by prolonged flows. Electrons do encounter some degree of friction as they move, however, and this friction can generate heat in a conductor. This is a topic we'll explore in much greater detail later.
You might have been wondering how electrons can continuously flow in a uniform direction through wires without the benefit of these hypothetical electron Sources and Destinations. In order for the Source-and-Destination scheme to work, both would have to have an infinite capacity for electrons in order to sustain a continuous flow! Using the marble-and-tube analogy, the marble source and marble destination buckets would have to be infinitely large to contain enough marble capacity for a "flow" of marbles to be sustained.
The answer to this paradox is found in the concept of a circuit: a never-ending looped pathway for electrons. If we take a wire, or many wires joined end-to-end, and loop it around so that it forms a continuous pathway, we have the means to support a uniform flow of electrons without having to resort to infinite Sources and Destinations:
Each electron advancing clockwise in this circuit pushes on the one in front of it, which pushes on the one in front of it, and so on, and so on, just like a hula-hoop filled with marbles. Now, we have the capability of supporting a continuous flow of electrons indefinitely without the need for infinite electron supplies and dumps. All we need to maintain this flow is a continuous means of motivation for those electrons, which we'll address in the next section of this chapter.
It must be realized that continuity is just as important in a circuit as it is in a straight piece of wire. Just as in the example with the straight piece of wire between the electron Source and Destination, any break in this circuit will prevent electrons from flowing through it:
An important principle to realize here is that it doesn't matter where the break occurs. Any discontinuity in the circuit will prevent electron flow throughout the entire circuit. Unless there is a continuous, unbroken loop of conductive material for electrons to flow through, a sustained flow simply cannot be maintained.
As was previously mentioned, we need more than just a continuous path (circuit) before a continuous flow of electrons will occur: we also need some means to push these electrons around the circuit. Just like marbles in a tube or water in a pipe, it takes some kind of influencing force to initiate flow. With electrons, this force is the same force at work in static electricity: the force produced by an imbalance of electric charge.
If we take the examples of wax and wool which have been rubbed together, we find that the surplus of electrons in the wax (negative charge) and the deficit of electrons in the wool (positive charge) creates an imbalance of charge between them. This imbalance manifests itself as an attractive force between the two objects:
If a conductive wire is placed between the charged wax and wool, electrons will flow through it, as some of the excess electrons in the wax rush through the wire to get back to the wool, filling the deficiency of electrons there:
The imbalance of electrons between the atoms in the wax and the atoms in the wool creates a force between the two materials. With no path for electrons to flow from the wax to the wool, all this force can do is attract the two objects together. Now that a conductor bridges the insulating gap, however, the force will provoke electrons to flow in a uniform direction through the wire, if only momentarily, until the charge in that area neutralizes and the force between the wax and wool diminishes.
The electric charge formed between these two materials by rubbing them together serves to store a certain amount of energy. This energy is not unlike the energy stored in a high reservoir of water that has been pumped from a lower-level pond:
The influence of gravity on the water in the reservoir creates a force that attempts to move the water down to the lower level again. If a suitable pipe is run from the reservoir back to the pond, water will flow under the influence of gravity down from the reservoir, through the pipe:
It takes energy to pump that water from the low-level pond to the high-level reservoir, and the movement of water through the piping back down to its original level constitutes a releasing of energy stored from previous pumping.
If the water is pumped to an even higher level, it will take even more energy to do so, thus more energy will be stored, and more energy released if the water is allowed to flow through a pipe back down again:
Electrons are not much different. If we rub wax and wool together, we "pump" electrons away from their normal "levels," creating a condition where a force exists between the wax and wool, as the electrons seek to re-establish their former positions (and balance within their respective atoms). The force attracting electrons back to their original positions around the positive nuclei of their atoms is analogous to the force gravity exerts on water in the reservoir, trying to draw it down to its former level.
Just as the pumping of water to a higher level results in energy being stored, "pumping" electrons to create an electric charge imbalance results in a certain amount of energy being stored in that imbalance. And, just as providing a way for water to flow back down from the heights of the reservoir results in a release of that stored energy, providing a way for electrons to flow back to their original "levels" results in a release of stored energy.
When the electrons are poised in that static condition (just like water sitting still, high in a reservoir), the energy stored there is called potential energy, because it has the possibility (potential) of release that has not been fully realized yet. When you scuff your rubber-soled shoes against a fabric carpet on a dry day, you create an imbalance of electric charge between yourself and the carpet. The action of scuffing your feet stores energy in the form of an imbalance of electrons forced from their original locations. This charge (static electricity) is stationary, and you won't realize that energy is being stored at all. However, once you place your hand against a metal doorknob (with lots of electron mobility to neutralize your electric charge), that stored energy will be released in the form of a sudden flow of electrons through your hand, and you will perceive it as an electric shock!
This potential energy, stored in the form of an electric charge imbalance and capable of provoking electrons to flow through a conductor, can be expressed as a term called voltage, which technically is a measure of potential energy per unit charge of electrons, or something a physicist would call specific potential energy. Defined in the context of static electricity, voltage is the measure of work required to move a unit charge from one location to another, against the force which tries to keep electric charges balanced. In the context of electrical power sources, voltage is the amount of potential energy available (work to be done) per unit charge, to move electrons through a conductor.
Because voltage is an expression of potential energy, representing the possibility or potential for energy release as the electrons move from one "level" to another, it is always referenced between two points. Consider the water reservoir analogy:
Because of the difference in the height of the drop, there's potential for much more energy to be released from the reservoir through the piping to location 2 than to location 1. The principle can be intuitively understood in dropping a rock: which results in a more violent impact, a rock dropped from a height of one foot, or the same rock dropped from a height of one mile? Obviously, the drop of greater height results in greater energy released (a more violent impact). We cannot assess the amount of stored energy in a water reservoir simply by measuring the volume of water any more than we can predict the severity of a falling rock's impact simply from knowing the weight of the rock: in both cases we must also consider how far these masses will drop from their initial height. The amount of energy released by allowing a mass to drop is relative to the distance between its starting and ending points. Likewise, the potential energy available for moving electrons from one point to another is relative to those two points. Therefore, voltage is always expressed as a quantity between two points. Interestingly enough, the analogy of a mass potentially "dropping" from one height to another is such an apt model that voltage between two points is sometimes called a voltage drop.
Voltage can be generated by means other than rubbing certain types of materials against each other. Chemical reactions, radiant energy, and the influence of magnetism on conductors are a few ways in which voltage may be produced. Respective examples of these three sources of voltage are batteries, solar cells, and generators (such as the "alternator" unit under the hood of your automobile). For now, we won't go into detail as to how each of these voltage sources works -- more important is that we understand how voltage sources can be applied to create electron flow in a circuit.
Let's take the symbol for a chemical battery and build a circuit step by step:
Any source of voltage, including batteries, have two points for electrical contact. In this case, we have point 1 and point 2 in the above diagram. The horizontal lines of varying length indicate that this is a battery, and they further indicate the direction which this battery's voltage will try to push electrons through a circuit. The fact that the horizontal lines in the battery symbol appear separated (and thus unable to serve as a path for electrons to move) is no cause for concern: in real life, those horizontal lines represent metallic plates immersed in a liquid or semi-solid material that not only conducts electrons, but also generates the voltage to push them along by interacting with the plates.
Notice the little "+" and "-" signs to the immediate left of the battery symbol. The negative (-) end of the battery is always the end with the shortest dash, and the positive (+) end of the battery is always the end with the longest dash. Since we have decided to call electrons "negatively" charged (thanks, Ben!), the negative end of a battery is that end which tries to push electrons out of it. Likewise, the positive end is that end which tries to attract electrons.
With the "+" and "-" ends of the battery not connected to anything, there will be voltage between those two points, but there will be no flow of electrons through the battery, because there is no continuous path for the electrons to move.
The same principle holds true for the water reservoir and pump analogy: without a return pipe back to the pond, stored energy in the reservoir cannot be released in the form of water flow. Once the reservoir is completely filled up, no flow can occur, no matter how much pressure the pump may generate. There needs to be a complete path (circuit) for water to flow from the pond, to the reservoir, and back to the pond in order for continuous flow to occur.
We can provide such a path for the battery by connecting a piece of wire from one end of the battery to the other. Forming a circuit with a loop of wire, we will initiate a continuous flow of electrons in a clockwise direction:
So long as the battery continues to produce voltage and the continuity of the electrical path isn't broken, electrons will continue to flow in the circuit. Following the metaphor of water moving through a pipe, this continuous, uniform flow of electrons through the circuit is called a current. So long as the voltage source keeps "pushing" in the same direction, the electron flow will continue to move in the same direction in the circuit. This single-direction flow of electrons is called a Direct Current, or DC. In the second volume of this book series, electric circuits are explored where the direction of current switches back and forth: Alternating Current, or AC. But for now, we'll just concern ourselves with DC circuits.
Because electric current is composed of individual electrons flowing in unison through a conductor by moving along and pushing on the electrons ahead, just like marbles through a tube or water through a pipe, the amount of flow throughout a single circuit will be the same at any point. If we were to monitor a cross-section of the wire in a single circuit, counting the electrons flowing by, we would notice the exact same quantity per unit of time as in any other part of the circuit, regardless of conductor length or conductor diameter.
If we break the circuit's continuity at any point, the electric current will cease in the entire loop, and the full voltage produced by the battery will be manifested across the break, between the wire ends that used to be connected:
Notice the "+" and "-" signs drawn at the ends of the break in the circuit, and how they correspond to the "+" and "-" signs next to the battery's terminals. These markers indicate the direction that the voltage attempts to push electron flow, that potential direction commonly referred to as polarity. Remember that voltage is always relative between two points. Because of this fact, the polarity of a voltage drop is also relative between two points: whether a point in a circuit gets labeled with a "+" or a "-" depends on the other point to which it is referenced. Take a look at the following circuit, where each corner of the loop is marked with a number for reference:
With the circuit's continuity broken between points 2 and 3, the polarity of the voltage dropped between points 2 and 3 is "-" for point 2 and "+" for point 3. The battery's polarity (1 "-" and 4 "+") is trying to push electrons through the loop clockwise from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 and back to 1 again.
Now let's see what happens if we connect points 2 and 3 back together again, but place a break in the circuit between points 3 and 4:
With the break between 3 and 4, the polarity of the voltage drop between those two points is "+" for 4 and "-" for 3. Take special note of the fact that point 3's "sign" is opposite of that in the first example, where the break was between points 2 and 3 (where point 3 was labeled "+"). It is impossible for us to say that point 3 in this circuit will always be either "+" or "-", because polarity, like voltage itself, is not specific to a single point, but is always relative between two points!
The circuit in the previous section is not a very practical one. In fact, it can be quite dangerous to build (directly connecting the poles of a voltage source together with a single piece of wire). The reason it is dangerous is because the magnitude of electric current may be very large in such a short circuit, and the release of energy very dramatic (usually in the form of heat). Usually, electric circuits are constructed in such a way as to make practical use of that released energy, in as safe a manner as possible.
One practical and popular use of electric current is for the operation of electric lighting. The simplest form of electric lamp is a tiny metal "filament" inside of a clear glass bulb, which glows white-hot ("incandesces") with heat energy when sufficient electric current passes through it. Like the battery, it has two conductive connection points, one for electrons to enter and the other for electrons to exit.
Connected to a source of voltage, an electric lamp circuit looks something like this:
As the electrons work their way through the thin metal filament of the lamp, they encounter more opposition to motion than they typically would in a thick piece of wire. This opposition to electric current depends on the type of material, its cross-sectional area, and its temperature. It is technically known as resistance. (It can be said that conductors have low resistance and insulators have very high resistance.) This resistance serves to limit the amount of current through the circuit with a given amount of voltage supplied by the battery, as compared with the "short circuit" where we had nothing but a wire joining one end of the voltage source (battery) to the other.
When electrons move against the opposition of resistance, "friction" is generated. Just like mechanical friction, the friction produced by electrons flowing against a resistance manifests itself in the form of heat. The concentrated resistance of a lamp's filament results in a relatively large amount of heat energy dissipated at that filament. This heat energy is enough to cause the filament to glow white-hot, producing light, whereas the wires connecting the lamp to the battery (which have much lower resistance) hardly even get warm while conducting the same amount of current.
As in the case of the short circuit, if the continuity of the circuit is broken at any point, electron flow stops throughout the entire circuit. With a lamp in place, this means that it will stop glowing:
As before, with no flow of electrons, the entire potential (voltage) of the battery is available across the break, waiting for the opportunity of a connection to bridge across that break and permit electron flow again. This condition is known as an open circuit, where a break in the continuity of the circuit prevents current throughout. All it takes is a single break in continuity to "open" a circuit. Once any breaks have been connected once again and the continuity of the circuit re-established, it is known as a closed circuit.
What we see here is the basis for switching lamps on and off by remote switches. Because any break in a circuit's continuity results in current stopping throughout the entire circuit, we can use a device designed to intentionally break that continuity (called a switch), mounted at any convenient location that we can run wires to, to control the flow of electrons in the circuit:
This is how a switch mounted on the wall of a house can control a lamp that is mounted down a long hallway, or even in another room, far away from the switch. The switch itself is constructed of a pair of conductive contacts (usually made of some kind of metal) forced together by a mechanical lever actuator or pushbutton. When the contacts touch each other, electrons are able to flow from one to the other and the circuit's continuity is established; when the contacts are separated, electron flow from one to the other is prevented by the insulation of the air between, and the circuit's continuity is broken.
Perhaps the best kind of switch to show for illustration of the basic principle is the "knife" switch:
A knife switch is nothing more than a conductive lever, free to pivot on a hinge, coming into physical contact with one or more stationary contact points which are also conductive. The switch shown in the above illustration is constructed on a porcelain base (an excellent insulating material), using copper (an excellent conductor) for the "blade" and contact points. The handle is plastic to insulate the operator's hand from the conductive blade of the switch when opening or closing it.
Here is another type of knife switch, with two stationary contacts instead of one:
The particular knife switch shown here has one "blade" but two stationary contacts, meaning that it can make or break more than one circuit. For now this is not terribly important to be aware of, just the basic concept of what a switch is and how it works.
Knife switches are great for illustrating the basic principle of how a switch works, but they present distinct safety problems when used in high-power electric circuits. The exposed conductors in a knife switch make accidental contact with the circuit a distinct possibility, and any sparking that may occur between the moving blade and the stationary contact is free to ignite any nearby flammable materials. Most modern switch designs have their moving conductors and contact points sealed inside an insulating case in order to mitigate these hazards. A photograph of a few modern switch types show how the switching mechanisms are much more concealed than with the knife design:
In keeping with the "open" and "closed" terminology of circuits, a switch that is making contact from one connection terminal to the other (example: a knife switch with the blade fully touching the stationary contact point) provides continuity for electrons to flow through, and is called a closed switch. Conversely, a switch that is breaking continuity (example: a knife switch with the blade not touching the stationary contact point) won't allow electrons to pass through and is called an open switch. This terminology is often confusing to the new student of electronics, because the words "open" and "closed" are commonly understood in the context of a door, where "open" is equated with free passage and "closed" with blockage. With electrical switches, these terms have opposite meaning: "open" means no flow while "closed" means free passage of electrons.
Because it takes energy to force electrons to flow against the opposition of a resistance, there will be voltage manifested (or "dropped") between any points in a circuit with resistance between them. It is important to note that although the amount of current (the quantity of electrons moving past a given point every second) is uniform in a simple circuit, the amount of voltage (potential energy per unit charge) between different sets of points in a single circuit may vary considerably:
Take this circuit as an example. If we label four points in this circuit with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4, we will find that the amount of current conducted through the wire between points 1 and 2 is exactly the same as the amount of current conducted through the lamp (between points 2 and 3). This same quantity of current passes through the wire between points 3 and 4, and through the battery (between points 1 and 4).
However, we will find the voltage appearing between any two of these points to be directly proportional to the resistance within the conductive path between those two points, given that the amount of current along any part of the circuit's path is the same (which, for this simple circuit, it is). In a normal lamp circuit, the resistance of a lamp will be much greater than the resistance of the connecting wires, so we should expect to see a substantial amount of voltage between points 2 and 3, with very little between points 1 and 2, or between 3 and 4. The voltage between points 1 and 4, of course, will be the full amount of "force" offered by the battery, which will be only slightly greater than the voltage across the lamp (between points 2 and 3).
This, again, is analogous to the water reservoir system:
Between points 2 and 3, where the falling water is releasing energy at the water-wheel, there is a difference of pressure between the two points, reflecting the opposition to the flow of water through the water-wheel. From point 1 to point 2, or from point 3 to point 4, where water is flowing freely through reservoirs with little opposition, there is little or no difference of pressure (no potential energy). However, the rate of water flow in this continuous system is the same everywhere (assuming the water levels in both pond and reservoir are unchanging): through the pump, through the water-wheel, and through all the pipes. So it is with simple electric circuits: the rate of electron flow is the same at every point in the circuit, although voltages may differ between different sets of points.
"The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from."
Andrew S. Tanenbaum, computer science professor
When Benjamin Franklin made his conjecture regarding the direction of charge flow (from the smooth wax to the rough wool), he set a precedent for electrical notation that exists to this day, despite the fact that we know electrons are the constituent units of charge, and that they are displaced from the wool to the wax -- not from the wax to the wool -- when those two substances are rubbed together. This is why electrons are said to have a negative charge: because Franklin assumed electric charge moved in the opposite direction that it actually does, and so objects he called "negative" (representing a deficiency of charge) actually have a surplus of electrons.
By the time the true direction of electron flow was discovered, the nomenclature of "positive" and "negative" had already been so well established in the scientific community that no effort was made to change it, although calling electrons "positive" would make more sense in referring to "excess" charge. You see, the terms "positive" and "negative" are human inventions, and as such have no absolute meaning beyond our own conventions of language and scientific description. Franklin could have just as easily referred to a surplus of charge as "black" and a deficiency as "white," in which case scientists would speak of electrons having a "white" charge (assuming the same incorrect conjecture of charge position between wax and wool).
However, because we tend to associate the word "positive" with "surplus" and "negative" with "deficiency," the standard label for electron charge does seem backward. Because of this, many engineers decided to retain the old concept of electricity with "positive" referring to a surplus of charge, and label charge flow (current) accordingly. This became known as conventional flow notation:
Others chose to designate charge flow according to the actual motion of electrons in a circuit. This form of symbology became known as electron flow notation:
In conventional flow notation, we show the motion of charge according to the (technically incorrect) labels of + and -. This way the labels make sense, but the direction of charge flow is incorrect. In electron flow notation, we follow the actual motion of electrons in the circuit, but the + and - labels seem backward. Does it matter, really, how we designate charge flow in a circuit? Not really, so long as we're consistent in the use of our symbols. You may follow an imagined direction of current (conventional flow) or the actual (electron flow) with equal success insofar as circuit analysis is concerned. Concepts of voltage, current, resistance, continuity, and even mathematical treatments such as Ohm's Law (chapter 2) and Kirchhoff's Laws (chapter 6) remain just as valid with either style of notation.
You will find conventional flow notation followed by most electrical engineers, and illustrated in most engineering textbooks. Electron flow is most often seen in introductory textbooks (this one included) and in the writings of professional scientists, especially solid-state physicists who are concerned with the actual motion of electrons in substances. These preferences are cultural, in the sense that certain groups of people have found it advantageous to envision electric current motion in certain ways. Being that most analyses of electric circuits do not depend on a technically accurate depiction of charge flow, the choice between conventional flow notation and electron flow notation is arbitrary . . . almost.
Many electrical devices tolerate real currents of either direction with no difference in operation. Incandescent lamps (the type utilizing a thin metal filament that glows white-hot with sufficient current), for example, produce light with equal efficiency regardless of current direction. They even function well on alternating current (AC), where the direction changes rapidly over time. Conductors and switches operate irrespective of current direction, as well. The technical term for this irrelevance of charge flow is nonpolarization. We could say then, that incandescent lamps, switches, and wires are nonpolarized components. Conversely, any device that functions differently on currents of different direction would be called a polarized device.
There are many such polarized devices used in electric circuits. Most of them are made of so-called semiconductor substances, and as such aren't examined in detail until the third volume of this book series. Like switches, lamps, and batteries, each of these devices is represented in a schematic diagram by a unique symbol. As one might guess, polarized device symbols typically contain an arrow within them, somewhere, to designate a preferred or exclusive direction of current. This is where the competing notations of conventional and electron flow really matter. Because engineers from long ago have settled on conventional flow as their "culture's" standard notation, and because engineers are the same people who invent electrical devices and the symbols representing them, the arrows used in these devices' symbols all point in the direction of conventional flow, not electron flow. That is to say, all of these devices' symbols have arrow marks that point against the actual flow of electrons through them.
Perhaps the best example of a polarized device is the diode. A diode is a one-way "valve" for electric current, analogous to a check valve for those familiar with plumbing and hydraulic systems. Ideally, a diode provides unimpeded flow for current in one direction (little or no resistance), but prevents flow in the other direction (infinite resistance). Its schematic symbol looks like this:
Placed within a battery/lamp circuit, its operation is as such:
When the diode is facing in the proper direction to permit current, the lamp glows. Otherwise, the diode blocks all electron flow just like a break in the circuit, and the lamp will not glow.
If we label the circuit current using conventional flow notation, the arrow symbol of the diode makes perfect sense: the triangular arrowhead points in the direction of charge flow, from positive to negative:
On the other hand, if we use electron flow notation to show the true direction of electron travel around the circuit, the diode's arrow symbology seems backward:
For this reason alone, many people choose to make conventional flow their notation of choice when drawing the direction of charge motion in a circuit. If for no other reason, the symbols associated with semiconductor components like diodes make more sense this way. However, others choose to show the true direction of electron travel so as to avoid having to tell themselves, "just remember the electrons are actually moving the other way" whenever the true direction of electron motion becomes an issue.
In this series of textbooks, I have committed to using electron flow notation. Ironically, this was not my first choice. I found it much easier when I was first learning electronics to use conventional flow notation, primarily because of the directions of semiconductor device symbol arrows. Later, when I began my first formal training in electronics, my instructor insisted on using electron flow notation in his lectures. In fact, he asked that we take our textbooks (which were illustrated using conventional flow notation) and use our pens to change the directions of all the current arrows so as to point the "correct" way! His preference was not arbitrary, though. In his 20-year career as a U.S. Navy electronics technician, he worked on a lot of vacuum-tube equipment. Before the advent of semiconductor components like transistors, devices known as vacuum tubes or electron tubes were used to amplify small electrical signals. These devices work on the phenomenon of electrons hurtling through a vacuum, their rate of flow controlled by voltages applied between metal plates and grids placed within their path, and are best understood when visualized using electron flow notation.
When I graduated from that training program, I went back to my old habit of conventional flow notation, primarily for the sake of minimizing confusion with component symbols, since vacuum tubes are all but obsolete except in special applications. Collecting notes for the writing of this book, I had full intention of illustrating it using conventional flow.
Years later, when I became a teacher of electronics, the curriculum for the program I was going to teach had already been established around the notation of electron flow. Oddly enough, this was due in part to the legacy of my first electronics instructor (the 20-year Navy veteran), but that's another story entirely! Not wanting to confuse students by teaching "differently" from the other instructors, I had to overcome my habit and get used to visualizing electron flow instead of conventional. Because I wanted my book to be a useful resource for my students, I begrudgingly changed plans and illustrated it with all the arrows pointing the "correct" way. Oh well, sometimes you just can't win!
On a positive note (no pun intended), I have subsequently discovered that some students prefer electron flow notation when first learning about the behavior of semiconductive substances. Also, the habit of visualizing electrons flowing against the arrows of polarized device symbols isn't that difficult to learn, and in the end I've found that I can follow the operation of a circuit equally well using either mode of notation. Still, I sometimes wonder if it would all be much easier if we went back to the source of the confusion -- Ben Franklin's errant conjecture -- and fixed the problem there, calling electrons "positive" and protons "negative."
Contributors to this chapter are listed in chronological order of their contributions, from most recent to first. See Appendix 2 (Contributor List) for dates and contact information.
Bill Heath (September 2002): Pointed out error in illustration of carbon atom -- the nucleus was shown with seven protons instead of six.
Ben Crowell, Ph.D. (January 13, 2001): suggestions on improving the technical accuracy of voltage and charge definitions.
Jason Starck (June 2000): HTML document formatting, which led to a much better-looking second edition.
Lessons In Electric Circuits copyright (C) 2000-2023 Tony R. Kuphaldt, under the terms and conditions of the CC BY License.