New Explanations, Alternate Mental Toolkit

William J. Beaty
Electrical Engineer, U. of Washington

How batteries create voltage
Your screwdriver dissolves like sugar. Galvani's frogs' legs dance.

Why three prongs?
Why do wall outlets have three holes? "Grounding" and safety.

What's the relation between Watts, Ohms, Amps, and Volts?
Memorizing facts? That's not learning. Tie it all together instead. Ohm's law and electrical energy.

What Is "Electricity?"
There is a simple answer to this question. Really. Not the one you expect, though.

What is Voltage?
What the heck is VOLTAGE? What the *HECK* is voltage? Charles Fort said that when investigating a circle you can start at any point.

Electricity: Frequently-asked Questions (FAQ)
Browse these Electricity Answers, or submit a new question.

Capacitor complaints
Why I never really understood capacitors...

How transistors REALLY work
Problems with traditional transistor explanations...

Explaining "electricity" visually
A simple classroom activity using red and green plastic sheets. Here's a way to visualize Electric Current, "Static", and the electric charge which creates both.

Also, jump down to Highly Recommended Books or Build-it Projects.

"Static" Electricity is really just high voltage.
Scuff on the rug, then measure your body voltage. Three Thousand Volts?!!

Electricity is not a form of energy
How can so many K12 texts and encyclopedias make a major mistake?

Right Angle Circuitry
Do Lenz' Law and the Right Hand rule still work... after you've been turned INSIDE OUT by that greasy black Fog?

"Static Electric" misconceptions
A list of things which gave me a warped view of Electrostatics. Once I recognized their existence, I was able to fight free of them.

Speed of "Electricity"?
Everyone is sure that charges flow in wires at nearly the speed of light. All the K12 books say so, and that many books can't be wrong, can they? Ah, but science is not settled by voting.

Triboelectric Series
If a cat gets trapped in a clothes dryer full of nylon pantyhose, which way do the electrons flow?

Where does EM energy flow in a circuit?
The schematic of a flashlight looks simple, but only because the electromagnetic energy flow is invisible.

How Scientists Define the word "Electricity" Quotes from J.C. Maxwell's "Treatise" and others. Maxwell says that electricity is not energy. So does Faraday. Also Millikan, Einstein, and JJ. Thompson. The CRC Handbook agrees!

Barriers to Understanding Electricity
Twenty misconceptions which prevented me from understanding simple electrical science as a student. Maybe they cause trouble for you as well?

Electricity mistakes and 'nitpicking' also How SHOULD we teach Electricity?
My encounters with elementary-school electricity, and how I started my "electricity debunking" articles.

"Static" sparks
Doorknob sparks and zapping yourself on the car door... and people who suffer from an "electric shock" disease.

The Electricity Map
How are batteries different than static cling? Perhaps this diagram will "generate" some insights.

If Voltage is Pressure...
...then how many pounds-square-inch is one volt?

Which way does 'electricity' flow?
The direction of the current. Charge really flows from negative to positive, right? RIGHT???

What Is Charge? Even if we stop asking about "electricity," we still must ask about Charge.

What Is Energy? Even if "electricity" isn't a form of energy, WHAT IS ENERGY? Is it like a substance, or is it just an abstract concept?

Sparks and Lighting
What would lightning look like if we could slow it down?

How is "static" different from "current?"
Not the usual answer found in most K12 textbooks!

How is "current" different from "net charge?"
This one goes with the article above.

Sticky Electrostatics
Use sticky tape to demonstrate electric charge.

Can current stay constant, yet voltage reverses?
Doesn't voltage always cause current? Not if we're talking about spinning flywheels made out of "electricity."

Tesla's Big Mistake
Why did physicists deride Nikola Tesla? What was really going on in Tesla's mind? Some insights...

A long rant about sound, work and electrical energy

When currents DON'T shock
High current versus low current. The oomph of the zappth.

LED explanation
How are Light Emitting Diodes like thermocouples and solar cells?

Are Amperes"Fundamental?"
Everyone learns about "Amps" but never remembers what a "Coulomb" is. This is totally backwards.

Flowing "static electricity."
If "static electricity" could flow along, would the world end? Maybe not...

Discussing Electrical Energy
I'm always getting into flamewars about this stuff...

How should we teach "electricity?"
Doing something, rather than just whining. ;)

Why "Electricity" is Impossible to Understand
Gigantic collection of thoughts on learning-barriers in electrical education.

Electricity educational links collection
Part of my Electronics Hobbyist page.

A whole large pageful of links for the electronics freak. Online discussion groups, schematic and project archives, etc.

Don't trust what random strangers on the internet stay about electricity! Instead read professional papers by PUBLISHED random strangers.

LOOKING FOR BOOKS? Try searching

(try "science fair" too)

Build These Electrical Devices

Static Electricity Projects, all the High Voltage, low-current stuff in one place.

Ultra-simple Electric Generator
Spin the magnet, light a bulb. The complement to the "Beakman Motor". Challenge: make the one run the other.

Plasma Globes, make an "eye of the storm" using a tiny Tesla coil and a plastic bag of Argon gas.

3D E-field viewing bottle
Actually SEE invisible electrostatic fields and magnetic fields by harnessing the amazing powers of Baby Oil.

Faraday Machine , a generator with no coils
Spin some copper pipe-caps in mercury pools. Create huge electric currents.

Plasma Globe with no vacuum pump The Radio Shack "Eye of the Storm" device would be REALLY impressive if it didn't need that glass globe...

Electrostatic Loudspeakers
by Mark Rehorst. No magnets, no magnetism, this speaker uses voltage-force.
Almost like wiggling the air itself.

VandeGraaff Generators
Instructions for having fun with 500,000 volts, including finding a cheap one, plans sources, FAQ, debug...

Lifts a bar magnet from below. Use this to perpetrate a Room Temperature Superconductor hoax?

Your own picoammeter. If you already have a digital voltmeter, use it in heretical fashion: as a nano-amp meter, even measure picoamps.

Ball Lightning plasma in your microwave oven
Demonstrate the 'Maser Theory' of Ball Lightning formation

Ridiculously sensitive charge detector
Build this simple circuit and detect miniscule levels of electric charge at large distances. Befuddle onlookers with the the "mysterious voice commands" trick by holding it and scuffing your shoes on a rug.

The Duluc Drypile
A "battery" with so many cells that Electrostatic effects appear.

Dangerous experiments with a big capacitor bank
Nobody died from simply reading this. But stay away from actually performing any of these demos.

Acid/Base Goldenrod secret
Use a battery to draw red lines on wet yellow paper

High Powered Ultrasound Shatters water into a fine mist. Collect some in a bowl. Probe it with high voltage, see what happens.

An electrostatic generator based on dribbling water. Also see the INLINE VERSION

ELECTROSTATIC MOTOR made from plastic pop bottles.
Who says "static electricity" must remain static, or that it's useless and feeble?

A simple device which can be used to power the pop-bottle motor.

Hints for electrostatic device construction
Building 500,000 volt devices in your basement? Avoid these pitfalls.

Solving Humidity Problems
Egor! Activate the Dehumidifier Array!

Build this and SEE electrostatic fields!

Build this moving-LEDs device which makes the flowing charges visible in wires. Wouldn't "electricity" be easier to understand if you could SEE it moving?

Incredibly easy way to make a 100-amp cable. Around the world, the physics teachers look at this and say "Doh!"

Threadlike streams of electrostatic wind
Play with these strange "threads" of high-speed, high-voltage air.

Rotating disk device makes e-fields visible
Idea for dangerous whirling mechanisms which reveal invisible field patterns.


Books, but also one website. Paul F's circuit simulator does what I've always dreamed about: uses the "charge flow" concept to animate a complex circuit without needing any hardware. The slow charges move along, and the wires' surface charge appears as changing red and green!
Paul Falstad's Java circuit simulator

Since the 1980s, K12 textbook offerings have been improving. When I first started these articles in 1986 I could find no text that wasn't choked with mistakes and misleading concepts. But during the time I lectured on the problem to teachers in MA, the late Dr. Mel Steinberg at Smith College (also in MA) was working on a solution: Genecon generators and supercapacitors. His C.A.S.T.L.E. highschool curriculum, Capacitor-aided System for Teaching and Learning Electricity, is designed to directly attack typical student misconceptions in electricity.

A curriculum:

C.A.S.T.L.E Project (also kit of parts)
For student guide zipfile, see Pasco FTP site

A textbook:

Electricity and Magnetism ( also teacher's ed)
Camille L. Wainwright
Prentice-Hall Science Explorer

A textbook:

Electrical Energy and Circuit Design
Science and Technology Concepts for Middle Schools
STC/MS Project, Smithsonian / The National Academies




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