Illustration of Triboelectric effect

546 BCE Triboelectric effect

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Thales of Miletus electromagnetism Illustration of Triboelectric effect

Triboelectric effect

Thales of Miletus is said to have studied magnetism. He is said to have first described rubbing amber with wool to generate a static electrical charge, but nothing that he wrote has survived; for dating his work, we sadly use the year of his death.


I shuffle across the carpet and here is a door knob. Rub a balloon on my head and stick it to the wall. Remove a wool cardigan, pet a cat; pop and snap. With a thunderstorm approaches, hair splays in all directions. You feel, you see unseen forces crackling.

The soul of amber

The nature of the material, in Latin electrum, is to convey its charge when rubbed. Aladdin’s genie appeared when Aladdin rubbed his lamp in which the genie had been imprisoned. Who’s to say that amber doesn’t have a soul? Rub me the right way and I’ll charge up.

Thales thought that each material thing has its own soul, which defines it and gives it life. A lodestone, for example, is alive because it attracts iron particles. Instead of using mythology to explain natural phenomena, he used reasoning from observations and hypotheses.

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