The horrible images coming out of Texas this week, with millions of people losing electricity amidst freezing temperatures, is an excruciating example of the power of electricity to dictate our lives.
Electricity is perhaps the modern innovation we most take for granted. It’s not a sexy new app or a game-changing device. It’s more like the air we breathe — always there, until it’s not.
Just as the pandemic made us appreciate the fundamental act that keeps our bodies alive — breathing — the freezing storms have made us appreciate the fundamental technology that keeps our lives going — electrical power.
Hardly anything can function without it. The devices that keep us warm in the cold or cool in the heat; the digital technology that keeps us connected and entertained; the gathering places that bring us together; the hospitals that keep us alive; the laboratories where vaccines and other cures are discovered; the grocery stores that stock our sustenance, and on and on — all live or die on the availability of electricity.
What’s extraordinary about this “app of all apps” is that no one really invented it. As Nancy Atkinson writes in Universe Today, “electricity is a form of energy and it occurs in nature,” which means humanity actually “discovered” this life-changing elixir.
What’s extraordinary about this “app of all apps” is that no one really invented it.
The discovery is a story unto itself, which, Atkinson writes, “goes back more than two thousand years [when] the Ancient Greeks discovered that rubbing fur on amber (fossilized tree resin) caused an attraction between the two — and so what the Greeks discovered was actually static electricity.”
By the 17th century, “many electricity-related discoveries had been made, such as the invention of an early electrostatic generator, the differentiation between positive and negative currents, and the classification of materials as conductors or insulators.”
Enormous progress occurred over the ensuing centuries to make electricity ubiquitous and indispensable. “When it came time to develop it commercially and scientifically,” Atkinson writes, “there were several great minds working on the problem at the same time.”
No great minds were needed to develop the oxygen we breathe all day long. It was always there for the taking. We took it naturally.
Electricity required a lot more effort to discover and nurture. But when I see the devastation that can occur when electrical power goes down, I have to think that they’re both on the same level — that electricity has become the oxygen of modern civilization.
It’s possible that in some distant future, we will have discovered and implemented alternatives to electricity that work even better. But for now, just as we must protect the quality of the air we breathe, we must also protect the electrical power that keeps our lives going.