Nothing technical, no mathematics. Just an explanation of what electricity is. I am having a time understanding the whole idea of how electricity works because I don't understand what electricity is. Please don't just say energy or power or a technical answer I need something more tangible to understand.


It's mostly about electrons that are not too strongly anchored to atoms - mainly metallic elements have electrons like this - they have lots of "free" electrons and, importantly, electrons are negatively charged and that means when they flow there is a transport of charge (1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs per electron). That flow of charge is electric current.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I am new to all this but fascinated. From my recolection it was Michael Faradey that discovered/harvested electricity for the first time while others just marveled in it. From your answer does this mean that Faradey was just shooting in the dark and happened to create something which exploited these free electrons. Moreover, this was before we had a concrete understanding of elementary particles and atoms, right? so how could they know/understand what they were actually doing with electrons. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13 '14 at 21:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's not correct. Faraday didn't discover or harvest electricity first. I think you may need to read up a bit more. \$\endgroup\$
    – efox29
    Oct 13 '14 at 21:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's probably a safe bet that early hominids "discovered* electricity in the form of lightning and static, but of course had no idea what it was (and didn't publish their findings!). \$\endgroup\$
    – JYelton
    Oct 13 '14 at 22:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ions don't count? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 14 '14 at 0:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Faraday. It's spelled Faraday. \$\endgroup\$
    – kolosy
    Oct 14 '14 at 0:54

Electricity is a complex of several states of electrons. If you want "something more tangible" but "No technical stuff", you're out of luck.

The simplest explanation, as can undoubtedly be had online, on such pages as wikipedia, is that electricity is a combination of voltage and current. A voltage can be present and a current can flow.

Voltage is caused by a difference in electron-balance between two points, where one has too many and the other too few for its preferred configuration, where the connection with electrons too many is negative.

Current is caused by those electrons flowing through a wire or electronic device, where the direction of the current is denoted in the opposite direction from the flow of electrons.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Here's tangible and non-technical: shuffle across a carpet in rubber soled shoes on a dry winter day. Then touch a door knob. That, friend, is electricity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Edward
    Oct 13 '14 at 21:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Edward That explains nothing about electricity. \$\endgroup\$
    – Asmyldof
    Oct 13 '14 at 21:14
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, exactly right. \$\endgroup\$
    – Edward
    Oct 13 '14 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree it does not explain anything. I'd have to be living under a rock not to have experienced static electricity. What I want to know is what is creating it in the first place. The underlining properties/laws which govern such a process. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 13 '14 at 21:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ It can tell you more than you might think. Carpet is an insulator. But sometimes when you walk on it you will free electrons, which will go to you (since you are much more conductive than the carpet). They cannot discharge back to the carpet because it mostly an insulator. So it builds up on you. When you touch metal conductor the charges now have somewhere to go, and they discharge through that. \$\endgroup\$
    – jbord39
    Jul 25 '16 at 22:25

The interaction of electrons and photons, (with some underlying nuclei holding it together.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Huh?? Why photons?? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 14 '14 at 0:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ScottSeidman, Grin, well I'm a physicist, and E&M fields can be described by photons. It's harder with Electric fields, but with magnetic fields I can point to examples where the easy way to understand something is to describe it as the absorption of low frequency photons (10 kHz - 10MHz.) I guess I should have said E&M fields and not been so cute... but a throw-away answer anyway. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 14 '14 at 12:29

Materials in our world are made up of atoms. Atoms are made up of different particles, one of which is electrons. Electrons can be made to jump from atom to atom inside a material.

An electric field is the force that pulls electrons. Electricity is the movement of electrons in an electric field.

The measure of how fast the electrons are moving is called current. The measure of the strength of the electric field's force on the electrons is called voltage.

Electrons flow more freely in some materials than in others. Materials that allow electrons to flow easily are called conductors, and materials that do not allow electrons to flow as easily are called insulators.

Electricity is useful because it allows us to easily move energy from one place to another. Electrical energy is easily converted to other forms of energy, such as heat, light, or motion. To generate electrical energy, we can convert heat, light, motion, chemical, or nuclear energy into electrical energy.

In electrical design, we use both conductors and insulators to move energy where we want it to go. We also use conductors and insulators to convert electrical energy to other forms of energy.

  • \$\begingroup\$ With that in mind if we create an electric field which "jump" the atoms and pull them apart would it matter the number of electrons we have? Could we say just have a few hundred electrons or less and continue to keep the current flowing using them with different variances of voltage to power something indefinitely? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15 '14 at 3:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @FooFighter To set up the electric field in a conductor, we have a voltage source. The voltage source provides electrons on one side and accepts electrons on the other side, so electrons aren't really added to or subtracted from the conductor. Energy is required to maintain the electric field; you can't just turn it off and expect the current to keep flowing. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15 '14 at 4:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think "energy" is what must understand more in-depth. What exactly is energy? It seems to be easy to say what it does but difficult to tell it is. Energy is what is limited and must be created, not the electrons? So it doesn't really matter the number of electrons? we could have a few hundred and power something indefinitely but what we need is energy to maintain the electric field, which brings me to another question how do we create an electric field? Apologies for all the questions lol \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15 '14 at 4:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ See "What Is Energy?". Energy is not really created, nor are the electrons. Energy is already present in our universe. With a generator, we turn one form of energy into electrical energy. It's not the electrons that power anything, it is the energy in the motion of the electrons. Think of it like a windmill. Air by itself does not power the windmill, but the motion of the air (wind) makes the windmill turn. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15 '14 at 5:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ We are harnessing the energy that is abundant all around us. I guess one could say the entire universe is electric, is that fair to say? Or rather has the potential for energy since it's composed on atoms. I am wondering what is it in the generator that captures the electrons motion? or any machine. Or does it all have to be first created by an electric field which then requires the use of another source of energy, like coal, hydro? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 15 '14 at 7:04

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