Final Word

Is a jewel of development losing its sparkle?


There is much symbolism – mostly of the negative type – caught up in the news that South Africa’s electricity supply network is heading for more troubled times.

Coming on top of the running news, for some time now, of electricity utility Eskom’s entanglement in state capture and dodgy contracts, Johannesburg’s electricity utility, City Power, last week warned that the country’s electricity sector has become unsustainable and heading for a “breaking point.”

This sparked a curiosity about the history of electricity, and its harnessing, which has played such an important role in the development of our modern economy. For the purposes of this column, we were especially curious where, and how, this wondrous phenomenon of natural science got its name, electricity?

The first use of the word electricity in English is ascribed to Sir Thomas Browne in his 1646 work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica. It is however, predated by the word electric from the Latin word electricus literally meaning “resembling amber,” from the word electrum (amber).

Electric was first used by Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), who is best known for his philosophy of empiricism, arguing the possibility of scientific knowledge based on inductive reasoning and careful observation of phenomenon in nature. He used the word electric to describe materials, like amber, that attracted other objects.

Latin, in turn, got the word from the Greek word electron for amber. The origin of the Greek word is unknown, but there is speculation that it might have come from a Phoenician word elēkrŏn, which quite appropriately in the modern context, meant 'shining light.'

Amber of course is fossilized tree resin, which has been appreciated through the ages for its colour and natural beauty since Neolithic times, and highly valued, from antiquity to the present, as a gemstone.  

Amber has the property of attracting other light bodies of material, like paper, when subjected to friction, as in rubbing it with cloth. It is the property itself that became known as electricity.

The word charge in the sense of being the process of generating the electric phenomenon was first used in 1767 and the term quantity of electricity was once common in scientific publications. The original, attractive, meaning has over the years become known as electromagnetic energy and electricity is now almost exclusively used to indicate electric current or energy flows that keep the lights on and drive the machines of industrial production.

However, now this once scientific gem of production processes, which became an essential component of economic development, seems to be under threat in South Africa – yet gain.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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