Thales of Miletus wrote in the 6th century BC that rubbing fur on various substances, such as amber, would cause a particular attraction between the two, which is now known as static electricity. The Greeks noted that the amber buttons could attract light objects such as hair and that if they rubbed the amber for long enough they could even get a spark to jump.
A number of objects found in Iraq in 1938 dated to the early centuries AD (Sassanid Mesopotamia), called the Baghdad Battery, resembles a galvanic cell and is believed by some to have been used for electroplating, although there is no real consensus and proof on what the purpose of these devices was and if they were indeed electrical in nature, and is therefore speculative in nature.
Italian physician Girolamo Cardano wrote about electricity in De Subtilitate (1550) distinguishing, perhaps for the first time, between electrical and magnetic forces. In 1600 the English scientist William Gilbert, in De Magnete, expanded on Cardano's work and coined the New Latin word electricus from ἤλεκτρον (elektron), the Greek word for "amber". The first usage of the word electricity is ascribed to Sir Thomas Browne in his 1646 work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica.
Gilbert was followed in 1660 by Otto von Guericke, who invented an early electrostatic generator. Other pioneers were Robert Boyle, who in 1675 stated that electric attraction and repulsion can act across a vacuum; Stephen Gray, who in 1729 classified materials as conductors and insulators; and C. F. du Fay who first identified the two types of electricity that would later be called positive and negative.
The Leyden jar, a type of capacitor for electrical energy in large quantities, was invented at Leiden University by Pieter van Musschenbroek in 1745. William Watson, when experimenting with the Leyden jar, discovered in 1747 that a discharge of static electricity was equivalent to an electric current.
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin promoted his investigations of electricity and theories through the famous, though extremely dangerous, experiment of flying a kite through a storm-threatened sky. A key attached to the kite string sparked and charged a Leyden jar, thus establishing the link between lightning and electricity. Following these experiments he invented a lightning rod. It is either Franklin (more frequently) or Ebenezer Kinnersley of Philadelphia (less frequently) who is considered as the establisher of the convention of positive and negative electricity.
Franklin's observations aided later scientists such as Michael Faraday, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, André-Marie Ampère, and Georg Simon Ohm whose work provided the basis for modern electrical technology. The work of Faraday, Volta, Ampere, and Ohm is honored by society, in that fundamental units of electrical measurement are named after them.
Volta discovered that chemical reactions could be used to create positively charged anodes and negatively charged cathodes. When a conductor was attached between these, the difference in the electrical potential (also known as voltage) drove a current between them through the conductor. The potential difference between two points is measured in units of volts in recognition of Volta's work.
In 1800 Volta constructed the first device to produce a large electric current, later known as the electric battery. Napoleon, informed of his works, summoned him in 1801 for a command performance of his experiments. He received many medals and decorations, including the Légion d'honneur.
By the end of the 19th century electrical engineers had become a distinct profession, separate from physicists and inventors. They created companies that investigated, developed and perfected the techniques of electricity transmission, and gained support from governments all over the world for starting the first worldwide electrical telecommunication network, the telegraph network. Pioneers in this field included Werner von Siemens, founder of Siemens AG in 1847, and John Pender, founder of Cable & Wireless.
The late 19th and early 20th century produced such giants of electrical engineering as Nikola Tesla, inventor of the polyphase induction motor; Samuel Morse, inventor of a long-range telegraph; Thomas Edison, inventor of the first commercial electrical energy distribution network; George Westinghouse, inventor of the electric locomotive; Charles Steinmetz, theoretician of alternating current; Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and founder of a successful telephone business.
Marshall McLuhan analyzed the social and cultural impact of the electric age. While the previous age of mechanization had spread the idea of splitting every process into a sequence, this was ended by the introduction of the instant speed of electricity that brought simultaneity. This imposed the cultural shift from the approach of focusing on "specialized segments of attention" (adopting one particular perspective), to the idea of "instant sensory awareness of the whole", an attention to the "total field", a "sense of the whole pattern". It made evident and prevalent the sense of "form and function as a unity", an "integral idea of structure and configuration". This had major impact in the disciplines of painting (with cubism), physics, poetry, communication and educational theory.
The rapid advance of electrical technology in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries led to commercial rivalries, such as the so-called War of the Currents between Edison's direct-current system and Tesla's alternating-current method. Often, concurrent research in widely scattered locations led to multiple claims to the invention of a device or system.