What's the Difference Between
'Static' Electricity and
'Current' Electricity?
1997 William Beaty BSEE

This is a really tough question to answer. It's not hard because it's complicated, it's hard because dictionaries contain several different definitions for each of these words, and some of them are wrong.

Perhaps you'd rather see the answer to a slightly different question:

What is "static" electricity?
What's the difference between Electric Charge and Electric Current?

If you ask "what is Static Electricity?" or "what is Current Electricity", different people will give you different answers. This happens because people cannot agree upon the meanings of the words "static electricity" and "current electricity". This is a serious problem. In science, we want a term like "static electricity" to have just one meaning. When a scientific term aquires several different meanings, people become confused, and they can get into useless arguments about what "static" and "current" really are.

Here is a possible solution to this problem. Don't ask "what is the difference between static and current electricity". Instead ask "what are the various definitions of the words 'static electricity' and 'current electricity'?" Also ask "how do the meanings of the words cause trouble?"


Static and current electricity are not stuff, they are not energy. Instead they are subject areas, they are groups of things which happen. In technical terms, they are called "classes of phenomena".
What exactly is a "class of phenomena?" Here's one example: weather. "Weather" is not a stuff, neither is it a form of energy, but if you investigate the sky, you will find lots of "weather" up there. Weather is not made of H2O molecules or nitrogen or light rays, yet weather involves water, and air, and sunlight. Weather is a class of phenomena, it is a bunch of different things that people group together. Human beings created the idea of "weather", and human beings decide when something is "weather" or when it is not. Water is "weather" if it is falling as rain, but water in a bucket is not "weather," even if the bucket is full of rainwater.

Under Definition 1, the word "electricity" means "electrical phenomena." In that case "electricity" is a thing very much like "weather." It doesn't really exist except in our minds. "Electricity" is a bunch of electrical happenings which human beings have grouped together. Looking for "electricity" inside wires would be as foolish as collecting rainwater in order to look for tiny pieces of "weather" in the water.

Under definition one, ELECTROSTATIC EVENTS occur whenever positive and negative electric charges are held apart from each other. When you comb your hair on a dry day, and then you find that your comb can pick up bits of dust ...then that is a static electric occurrence, it is an example of "static electricity." But watch out: there is no "electricity" in the hair or in the comb. Instead, the rising hair IS the "static electricity." The crackling sounds ARE the "static electricity", in the same way that rain and wind and sunshine are the "weather".

Under definition one, ELECTRIC CURRENT EVENTS occur whenever positive charges flow through negative charges, or when negative charges flow through positive charges. When you turn on a flashlight, the charges that are already within the wires will begin begin to flow. The light bulb lights up, and the whole thing is a current-electric happening. It is an electrical phenomenon; an example of "current electricity." But no "current electricity" flows in the wires. Instead, the lighting of the bulb, the turning of the switch, the magnetic fields around the wires, and the unseen motion of the charges, all these things *are* the "current electricity". They are electrical happenings, electrical phenomena, therefore they are "electricity." Under Definition One, "electricity" means "electrical phenomena."


There's another completely different way to think about the words "static" and "current":

"Static Electricity and "Current Electricity" are two types of science.
Just as "physics" is a science, and "geology" is a science, there is a science called "static electricity." In professional circles it is actually called Electrostatics. And just as "biology" is a science and "optics" is another, there is a type of science called "current electricity." Scientists have a more official name for it, they call it "Electrodynamics." Static electricity is the study of electric charges and the way they separate and combine. Static Electricity studies the attraction and repulsion between charges, and the invisible electrical fields they create. Current Electricity is the study of the flowing or wiggling of charges, of the magnetic attraction and repulsion they create, and of the way they can move electrical energy around. Under definition two, "electricity" is not a stuff and not an energy. It is a science. In a similar way, "physics" and "biology" are not energy or stuff. Blood moves through the arteries and veins, but this is not a flow of "biology". And electric charge might flow inside wires, but this is not a flow of "electricity." Electrical science cannot flow in wires!


This definition appears in books and dictionaries, but it is misleading and mostly wrong:

Static electricity and current electricity are two forms of energy.
It is misleading to say that they are energy, because this gives everyone the wrong idea that electrical charges are a form of energy. Charges are not energy, they are matter, they are part of the electrons and protons which make up all atoms.

It is misleading to say that 'static' and 'current' are energy, because it will lead us to believe that classes of phenomena are types energy. Is weather a kind of energy? Is geology a kind of energy? Occurrences are not energy. Classes of phenomena are not real things, they are collections of happenings which human beings have grouped together.

Definition 3 might also give us the wrong idea that electric current is a flow of energy. It is not. When charges flow, energy does not flow along with them. There is actually just one form of electrical energy, not two. It is called "electromagnetism." Electromagnetic energy is light waves, radio waves, magnetic fields, and electric fields. Static electricity and current electricity are not made of electromagnetic fields, therefore they are not a form of electrical energy.

However, Definition 3 can be found in dictionaries. People commonly use the words "static" and "current" to mean "energy." This suggests that, even though Definition 3 is wrong, Definition 3 is real. It suggests that the English meaning of "static" and "current" has slowly changed, and that they now mean "energy" rather than electrical phenomena or electrical science. Don't forget that dictionaries also contain slang words. Dictionaries record which words we commonly use, even we use those words incorrectly, or even if we assign several contradictory meanings to the words.


If you start to discuss "static" and "current," people will argue with you. Some people will tell you that Definition One is the real answer, and that all the other definitions are wrong. Other's will try to convince you that Definition Two is real and the others are incorrect. But these people are all wrong, since ALL these definitions can be found in various dictionaries and encyclopedias. All three definitions are real. If you prefer one of them, then you have a problem, because there is no way to erase the others from all those textbooks and dictionaries, and there is no way to force other people to stop using the alternate meanings of "static" and "current." And finally, if you want to know what "static" and "current" really are, you will encounter endless trouble, since the very words themselves have several contradictory meanings. If you try to learn the "one true meaning," you will receive crazy answers which don't make sense..

My advice: avoid the fight entirely. Never use the words "static electricity", instead say "net charge" or "separated charge" or "the science of electrostatics". Also, never say "current electricity", instead say "charge flow" or "electric current", or "the science of electrodynamics". In this way you can avoid all the fuss, and get down to understanding the real science which hides somewhere behind all the confusing and misused words.

Perhaps you'd like the answer to a slightly different question:

What's the difference between ELECTRIC CHARGE and ELECTRIC CURRENT?

The Electricity Map

'Static' Electricity that Flows

Electricity Misconceptions

Misconception References

All Electricity Articles




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