The Next “Potential Difference”

February 27, 2017


The stage was set, the seats were filled, and the evening candles lighting the Royal Society’s demonstration theatre were one by one extinguished.  As all eyes adjusted to the blackness of the 1705 evening, Francis Hauksbee began to slowly crank the wheel of his contraption, which in turn began to spin a carefully suspended evacuated glass globe.   As the globe picked up speed, Francis lightly placed his free hand against the vessel’s surface.   To the astonishment and awe of all those gathered for the London evening lecture, along the outlines of Francis’ hand the globe undeniably began to glow a “hauntingly blue hue.” Francis’ machine – it seemed – had created light!

Because of his obligations as Sir Isaac Newton’s lab technician, Francis was pulled in too many other directions to spend sufficient time, himself, to unravel the mystery of how his machine had “made light,” but he had done his part.  For the Hauksbee machine would drive the research agenda of the brightest mind of the enlightenment for the decades to come. And, step-by-step the mysteries of “electricity” were unraveled.

Making electricity (in this case static) seemed easy enough – but could it be transferred or better yet stored?  The famous thought experiments of Benjamin Franklin and studies by others using Leyden Jars demonstrated unequivocally that the mystical thing called “electricity” could in fact be collected and stored.  But it was the remarkable insights of Alessandro Volta and his “piles” of acid and metal discs that set the stage for another Royal Society evening about 100 years after Hauksbee’s.   In 1805, using the then largest battery ever built (800 volta piles) Sir Humphry Davy stunned the evening Royal Society guests with a much, much more powerful form of electrical display.  Powered by his battery array, Davy nearly blinded the crowd with a brilliant electric arc created between two charcoal rods that he held in each hand.   Using stored electricity, Davy had brought the bright light of day into the darkness of night and thus began the race to wire, then light, the modern world.

Although Volta’s batteries had proven useful in demonstrating the ability of current to flow between two “potential differences,” as he called them, it was the connection between magnetic fields and electricity made by Michael Faraday that set the stage for the most prevalent forms of power generation (and electric motors themselves) that we still rely on today.  Once realizing that electrical current can induce the creation of a magnetic field, Faraday then worked backwards to demonstrate that by spinning a magnet around an electrical conductor an electric current is produced.  With these electromagnetic current generating devices connected to hydraulic dams, steam or combustion engines and eventually to nuclear (and now even wind) turbines, it seemed that electricity could be produced in an endless supply.   A newly harnessed force of nature that could transform every home, as long as it had a wire.

Now approximately 100 years later, electricity has become almost ubiquitous and considered essential to the developed world*.  Without it, society as we have come to expect it would rapidly collapse.  Having moved past metal wires and power grids to silicon wafers and algorithms, the electricity of our day is “information.”  Not simply the storage or transfer of, but rather its creation, and not just by man but increasingly by machine.  As in the earliest days of Hauksbee, our “information machines” are still in their infancy, though undeniably generating by themselves a new “current of knowledge” each and every day. With the cognitive computing self-learning systems of IBM’s Watson, to Google’s Deep Mind AlphaGo and many others we are witnessing the earliest beginnings of this type of newly created content, and machine derived decision support.  Another example is Google’s Magenta Project, in which the TensorFlow machine learning platform is being used to produce new creative works of music and art.

As prophetically imagined by Ada Lovelace while she wrote the code for the very first computer, “from these machines will come new works of creativity and beauty.”  It will be these new insights, creative combinations and completely unanticipated contributions that will have been the “electricity of our day” and on which we will seem completely unable to exist not too far into our future.

* Tragically, we still have about 1.7B that live without access to electricity.