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Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity - The Age Of Invention

Updated Thursday, 15th November 2012

In episode two of Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, we travel back to a world full of excitement at the discovery of electricity.

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Story of Electricity Ep 2 Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Professor Jim Al-Khalili Shock And Awe is a co-production between The Open University and the BBC.

In episode two we travel back to a world full of excitement at the discovery of electricity. Jim will see how scientists finally realised that ‘electricity’ and ‘magnetism’ were linked.

Scientists like Michael Faraday worked out how electromagnetism could be used to generate electricity but it would take another breakthrough, in how we could actually use electricity before the modern world was truly created. This would be the first device that really brought electricity out of the laboratory and into the hands of ordinary people - the telegraph.

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This leap in understanding – that electricity could be sent over long distances was critical in one of the most intriguing stories in the history of electricity. Electrical distribution.

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The quest to distribute electricity was begun by the inventor Thomas Edison. In 1882 Edison opened the world’s first commercial electric power station in New York. But the system he'd come up with to deliver the electricity - DC (direct current) - could only reach customers within about one and a half miles from the power station.

Beyond that limit, most of the power was wasted in the wires and it became uneconomical. The answer to Edison's problems would come from a young Serbian physicist working for him called Nikola Tesla.

Tesla realised that for electric power to become universal, this distance limit was hopelessly impractical, so he designed an entirely new electrical system – alternating current, or AC. With AC, the voltage could be increased and power loss in the wires would be eliminated, ensuring that all the power generated actually reached the customers.

It was the solution Edison had been waiting for but a row over money drove Tesla away, and into the arms of a rival entrepreneur, George Westinghouse. In 1887, when Westinghouse and Tesla began marketing AC and its advantages over DC, Edison took it as a declaration of war and one of the fiercest battles in the history of science was ignited – the ‘War of the Currents’.

To find out more about the series, visit our Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity page

Shock And Awe: The Story Of Electricity - The Age Of Inventions was first shown on 13th October, 2011 on BBC Four. For further broadcast details and to watch online where available, visit




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