March Birthdays: Kirchhoff to Kaiulani


Kirchhoff, Einstein, Ohm, Millikan

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2018

Gustav Kirchhoff, who you can blame for the miserable complexity of electrical transmission and distribution systems, was born on March 12, 1824, in Konigsberg, Germany. 

As a seminar exercise in 1845 (essentially, a homework assignment), he set forth Kirchhoff's Laws governing electrical flows in circuits. He later co-discovered two elements on the periodic table, rubidium and cesium, atomic numbers 37 and 55. 

Kirchhoff's collaborator in finding two of the 118 elements was Robert Bunsen. That's right, he's the one that invented the mainstay of chem labs since, the Bunsen burner.

Albert Einstein, whose theories were both special and general, suggested that atomic chain reactions would produce energy in enormous quantities, as in today's nuclear power plants. He was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany. 

Einstein's famous formula, E=mc2, says a change in mass, m, causes a gigantic change in energy, E. That constant, c2, ruling the relationship of m and E, is really quite large. But why is this important for our electric grid? 

The combustion at coal and natural gas power plants deals with the valence electrons of atoms. Yes, this brings back bad memories for most of you about high school science. 

Valence electrons are the unpaired electrons in the outermost shell of an atom. They're the ones that form the bond of one atom with another. When we add heat, the bonds break, and energy is released in the form of steam. Before you know it, steam turbines turn, electrical generators generate, and we have our electricity. 

E=mc2 shows there is much more energy stored inside the nucleus of an atom than with its valence electrons. The chain reactions at nuclear power plants deal with the nucleus, splitting atoms including their nucleus. You then have a far greater amount of energy to turn turbines and generate.

George Ohm, whose law of resistance, electrical as opposed to political, was born on March 17, 1789, in Erlangen, Germany. 

His 1827 book introduced Ohm's Law, E=IR, familiar to physics and electrical engineering students as the relationship between an electrical line's voltage, E, current, I, and resistance, R. The law was resisted at first, pun intended, with the German Minister of Education saying "A professor who preached such heresies was unworthy to teach science." 

Units of resistance are called ohms, the unique symbol for which is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. The symbol, like an upside-down bath tub, is not in many fonts. So a variety of substitutes have been utilized, which can be a bit confusing.

Robert Millikan, whose work on the photoelectric effect led to the solar industry and ultimately the net metering controversy, was born on March 22, 1868, in Morrison, Illinois. 

Convinced Albert Einstein's 1905 theory on the photoelectric effect was wrong (firm in his belief that light is solely a wave), in 1914 he found experimentally that Einstein was correct. The 1923 Nobel Prize for physics was won by Millikan for the finding. He later conducted astronomical research and came up with the name "cosmic rays."

The light bulb patent, tendered by Thomas Edison on August 11, 1880, was granted on March 22, 1881, so let's call that our birthday of the world's electricity industries.

When Princess Kaiulani, niece of King David Kalakaua of Hawaii, threw the switch on March 23, 1888, she lighted the streets of Honolulu. This birth of electricity in the Hawaiian islands has led to the many trips from the mainland in our day, to study high penetration of distributed solar and the utility of the future.