Today's scientific question is: What in the world is electricity?
     
And where does it go after it leaves the toaster?
     
        Electricity is actually made up of extremely tiny particles,
called electrons, that you cannot see with the naked eye unless you 
have been drinking.  Electrons travel at the speed of light, which in 
most American homes is 110 volts per hour.  This is very fast.  In the 
time it has taken you to read this sentence so far, an electron could 
have traveled all the way from San Francisco to Hackensack, New Jersey, 
although God alone knows why it would want to.
        The five main kinds of electricity are alternating current,
direct current, lightning, static, and European.  Most American homes 
have alternating current, which means that the electricity goes in one 
direction for a while, then goes in the other direction.  This prevents 
harmful electron buildup in the wires.
     
Although we modern persons tend to take our electric lights, radios, 
mixers, etc., for granted, hundreds of years ago people did not have 
any of these things, which is just as well because there was no place 
to plug them in.  Then along came the first Electrical Pioneer, 
Benjamin Franklin, who flew a kite in a lighting storm and received a 
serious electrical shock.  This proved that lighting was powered by the 
same force as carpets, but it also damaged Franklin's brain so severely 
that he started speaking only in incomprehensible maxims, such as "A 
penny saved is a penny earned."  Eventually he had to be given a job 
running the post office.
     
After [Benjamin] Franklin came a herd of Electrical Pioneers whose 
names have become part of our electrical terminology: Myron Volt, Mary 
Louise Amp, James Watt, Bob Transformer, etc.  These pioneers conducted 
many important electrical experiments.  For example, in 1780 Luigi 
Galvani discovered (this is the truth) that when he attached two 
different kinds of metal to the leg of a frog, an electrical current 
developed and the frog's leg kicked, even though it was no longer 
attached to the frog, which was dead anyway.  Galvani's discovery led 
to enormous advances in the field of amphibian medicine.  Today, 
skilled veterinary surgeons can take a frog that has been seriously 
injured or killed, implant pieces of metal in its muscles, and watch it 
hop back into the pond just like a normal frog, except for the fact 
that it sinks like a stone.
     
But the greatest Electrical Pioneer of them all was Thomas Edison, who 
was a brilliant inventor despite the fact that he had little formal 
education and lived in New Jersey.  Edison's first major invention in 
1877, was the phonograph, which could soon be found in thousands of 
American homes, where it basically sat until 1923, when the record was 
invented.  But Edison's greatest achievement came in 1879, when he 
invented the electric company.  Edison's design was a brilliant 
adaptation of the simple electrical circuit: the electric company sends 
electricity through a wire to a customer, then immediately gets the 
electricity back through another wire, then (this is the brilliant part) 
sends it right back to the customer again.
     
This means that an electric company can sell a customer the same batch 
of electricity thousands of times a day and never get caught, since 
very few customers take the time to examine their electricity closely. 
In fact the last year any new electricity was generated in the United 
States was 1937; the electric companies have been merely re-selling it 
ever since, which is why they have so much free time to apply for rate 
increases.
     
                -- Dave Barry, "What is Electricity?"
     
     

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