I have been wondering this for a while, so I did some digging, and as usual, wikipedia was the most illuminative. It looks like the telegraph was the first time ground was introduced to complete a circuit. It seemed to have been a good idea to save wire if not for the fact that ground is going to have a lot more resistance, so all in all you are going to need a lot more power to get the electricity to flow.

This was fine for telegraphy, but for anything else, it seems to more trouble than its worth.

I have read the argument for a "reference point" in measuring absolute voltages. That is solution to a contrived problem. Voltages are only meaningful as potential differences. Therefore, you measure potential differences, not choose a meaningless reference frame.

As for the safety argument, it seems we would be a lot safer without the grounding system. If ground was not used to complete the circuit, electricity would generally have no reason to travel through a person into the ground. This would reduce risk of electrocution by requiring someone touch both wires to get shocked rather than just the hot one. The ground wire seems to be a safety measure taken to avoid an unnecessary problem.

As for low voltage systems, the ground creates an unnecessary source of noise. As far as I can tell, the ground would act as a giant unstable battery+antenna. Any ph difference in the ground would mean a dc offset--dependent on the difference in acidity of the water and mineral compositions at the two ground points.

Using the ground to complete the circuit for radio signals means unnecessary resistance in a circuit. Your quality is at the mercy of your choice in soil rather than the design of your circuit.

There are probably problems I missed, but I am really wondering whether there are some really sensible advantages I missed.

Does anyone know the history/philosophy of using ground to complete circuits?

  • \$\begingroup\$ How you can have voltage when there's no potential difference? You must have a referent point in the circuit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Junior
    Jul 24, 2015 at 14:00

4 Answers 4


Ground connection or referencing is used when it is used because long experience has shown it to be the best choice in practice. "Reinventing the grounding "wheel"" may have its place in some cases, but usually not. In many cases there are competing aspects, but the overall best result is gained by using ground. Power distribution systems are one such example.

Mains or grid voltage systems would be safer if the system was entirely NON ground referenced, and this is the principle that safety "isolation transformers" use BUT the moment that a fault fully or partially grounds one leg of the system anywhere on a circuit then the whole system becomes lethally dangerous to users.

Note that ONLY ONE tool should be used with an isolation transformer, and the transformer should be located near the tool. Using long cable runs after the transformer and two or more tools risks a fault to ground in one tool or wiring leaving the other unprotected.

The difficulty in keeping a system isolated is in practice (which is what counts) far harder than the issues caused by grounding. Some shipboard power systems do have both conductors floating relative to ship ground (= seawater potential when you are floating in salt water) BUT and fault to ground is dangerous, as above, ad great effort is made to track down and remove any ground faults. In a land based system that was not ground referenced, any fault to ground on the same phase would affect all users on the same phase. So a whole street of houses may be affected by a fault on one circuit in one house.

Once you have a ground referenced system the safety aspects of detection and management for individual circuits are easily handled. Earthed housings provide both protection and detection, fault currents flow to ground and can be either "encouraged" to allow easy fault termination (fuses) or detected at very low level (ELCB / GFI). Ground referencing is an overall positive in domestic power systems.

Few modern systems use ground as an actual conductor.
SWER (Single Wire Earth Return) power systems were much used at one time and are still used in some rural systems. I saw one here (NZ)some months ago but they are rare. They are in fact very useful and cost effective but are generally eliminated for reasons which often do not make technical sense. The cost of providing a good enough ground connection at each end is in most cases low compared to he cost of many km of adding an extra conductor.

19 kV SWER line:

enter image description here

Wikipedia SWER

SWER slidehow - good

SWER video - NZ

Superb SWER slideshow / tutorial

SWER - Australian experience with application to developing country use

SWER - Wikipedia

RF signals are often "launched" as imbalanced signals against a phantom image reflected in the ground. A typical quarter wave vertical radiator has an implicit image reflected in the ground plane. The tall towers of AM brodcast stations almost all use this system. There are economies in materials used compared with dipole or other antennas, radiation pattern is omnidirectional and radiation angles are suited to direct wave communications - most audiences are near the transmitter for AM broadcast stations.

  • TV receiver antennas 9the traditional Yagi designs) and long distance broadcast stations used for intercontinental news etc often use beam or similar aerials instead. The HRH delta Loop non ground referenced antenna was developed specially for and from such applications.

In systems that need grounding, techniques have been developed to provide grounds which are adequately good to adequately minimise the effects of local conditions. Ground proper is of essentially zero resistance as it is of sensibly infinite size. Connecting the local ground to the actual ground is the challenge and methods and needs are well understood for each relevant application.


You are making a bunch of incorrect assumptions. Some very old power transmission systems did use the ground as one of the conductors, but that's not how things are done today, at least not new systems.

Otherwise, you make the assumption that things are always connected to earth ground when this is not true. Here in the US, the power feed to a house is actually floating. It is from the secondary of a transformer off of one of the three phases. The secondary is 220 V with a center tap. Most circuits are run between one end and the center tap to get 110 V. High power circuits like electric ranges or dryers are wired accross the whole secondary and are therefore 220 V.

While the three wires from the transformer secondary are floating, the center tap is deliberately grounded at the house. This is in part to deal with lightening and to prevent large static buildup. Without the ground connection, the whole circuit could charge up to some high voltage relative to ground. In a lightening storm this could be particularly bad, even without a direct hit.

When you say "ground", you should really distinguish between earth ground and circuit ground. Earth ground is what it sounds like, a direct connection into the earth. Circuit ground really has nothing necessarily to do with real earth ground. It is just the name we give to the node in the circuit we consider the 0 V reference for the other nodes. This is mostly for convenience.

Radio is a whole different issue again. Radio waves don't complete a circuit, at least not in the general normal case when you're in the far field. Ground is used in radios as the reference for the antenna, and sometimes as a mirror to make a small antenna look larger. Sometimes that ground is earth ground, but often not, and it certainly doesn't have to be.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Interesting. So do power grids use ground--if only in the same way houses do? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 15, 2012 at 18:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Feynman: I don't know what "the same way houses do" means, but as I said, except for some very old power lines, at least here in the US, they have their own wires for return currents and don't use earth ground. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 15, 2012 at 22:26

I noticed this site in my quest to find the first time someone decided to ground and electrical supply network. The reasons for earthing or grounding is at least 3 fold as far as I have found while studying electricity:

1 Static build from up particularly on overhead supplies. The static build up on overhead wires from wind etc which are of course directly connected to household appliances would give someone a nasty shock say from a toaster element via a person to ground.

2 Arcing Ground Phenomena. I read in an old document about early supply system in Wisconsin. Many references on the net to Arcing Ground. But as I understand it in the early ungrounded systems it was noticed that when one phase conductor fell to ground and was picked up again an arc was drawn unexpectedly. It has been realised since that once one wire contacts ground an unintentional complete circuit is formed via the capacitance between other phases and the now connected ground. At times a close to resonant circuit is formed causing very high voltages between the other phases and the unintended ground conductor which is dangerous. By connecting the various voltage levels of the supply system to ground this Arcing Ground Problem is eliminated as the capacitive coupling between overhead conductors and ground is shorted out.

3 The ground is a conductor. So if in an ungrounded system an insulation failure occurs such that one phase is connected to ground the ground becomes live at that voltage but little else happens. Until a second fault occurs. The ground then connects the two faults together and high currents and unintended energising of equipment may occur. ie A toaster with its active connected to ground at No 1 Main St may be connected to a lamp at No 26 Main St with its active also shorted to ground. Turning the toaster on at No 1 will cause the lamp to illuminate at No 26 and visa versa. No doubt that would have confused any electrician. Buy connecting the star (Wye) point of the supply transformer to ground we know exactly what to expect of the ground. It is a neutral conductor simply because we connect it to the supply neutral. (Or centre wire of a single phase centre tap transformer) Unfortunately this means if a person touches a phase conductor whilst in contact with ground they will receive a shock.

The voltage reference thing is just that by earthing the star point the voltage to ground is minimised to the phase voltage rather than the line voltage. SWER systems are still common in rural areas of Australia. Some mines, factories and ships run with an unearthed system. In this case indicators or relays are arranged so that if a connection to ground occurs it is immediately indicated or alarmed and the on duty electrician will find and fix the fault (hopefully) before a second ground connection occurs. The advantage being that the system can experience one fault and not trip so maintaining supply and production. As long as the fault is quickly isolated and fixed. Anyone know who and when they first grounded the supply system?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Good info, but could you maybe do a little formatting to make it easier to read? \$\endgroup\$
    – JRE
    Jul 24, 2015 at 12:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did a quick edit. I agree with @JRE, even if an answer is good, people aren't going to take you seriously if you didn't take the 10 to 20 seconds to format the answer so it's easier to read. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 24, 2015 at 12:56

View the electrical system as our circulatory system, a pressure line and a return line, positive and negative, hot and neutral, (a single loop) in the most simplest of circuits. Ground should only be used for safety.


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