Let us develop an industrial electric motor from first principles.

Alessandro Volta developed a battery whose ingredients were copper, zinc, seawater, and imagination. These ingredients have been available since prehistory; his voltaic pile was made in 1800. Hans Christian Orsted developed the principles of electromagnetism in 1820 when he noticed that a compass was deflected by the current drawn from a battery. A year later, Michael Faraday, who knew Orsted, was able to make a wire rotate around a magnet. It took him until 1831 to explain what magnetic induction. With this explanation in hand, the amazingly named Hippolyte Pixii built an AC electrical generator. By 1844, the first industrial application of an AC motor was made in a Birmingham factory.

Is there any reason that this process could not have been carried out starting in 1600, had Volta made his discovery then. Perhaps it would not have gone so fast, but is it realistic that the first non-waterpowered factories of the late 1700s would be powered by electric motors. Or, put another way, could electric generators have been available for factory work before steam engines?


6 Answers 6


No, there is a lot more too it than that, a generator generates electricity. Electricity on it's own isn't much use, you need electric machines that use it, and some way to store it, which is a whole other matter and set of inventions. Electricity was around a long time before people found an industrial use for it.

Steam and water power on the other hand have much more obvious and intuitive mechanical uses so you can easily repurpose existing technology to them. Gears, linkages and suchlike were already in use. Capacitors, resistors and all the rest weren't.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes, agree with this. Maybe if engines weren't the first thing to operate with electricity, as they are not really straightforward without deriving them from other types of engines. What if someone discovered that one can make light and/or heat with electricity and already has the technology to make simple batteries out of apples or potatoes and wants to make something stronger? $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2018 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ @RealSubtle probably get burnt for witchcraft ;) $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Feb 6, 2018 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ +1. IIRC people have been finding primitive batteries similar to what Volta "invented" that date to ancient times. But people did not have any other known practical use for them than electroplating, which was of very little practical impact. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2018 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ I showed in my post that the time from first battElectricity was around a long time before people found an industrial use for it.ery to industrial electric process was 44 years. How do you say that 'Electricity was around a long time before people found an industrial use for it?' Sure, it was around but within 50 years of it being available, people found a use for it. Once you have a working electric motor (which is 50 years of work), the gears, linkages and such like are the same between a steam engine and electric motor. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Feb 6, 2018 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ A generator is not an electric motor. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Feb 7, 2018 at 12:00

With modern knowledge we can adjust design to "down-tech" generator. For example, a multi-polar generator would not require a high rate of rotation. But, it took surprisingly long in 19th century to understand such simple ideas as self-excitation and necessity to lower internal resistance of generator (see history of Edison's long-legged Mary-Ann, SA #41, pages 276, 305).

Without a time traveler this knowledge has to be "mined" with spending great effort on thinking about theory and checking it. There would be little incentive for this -- unlike steam engine, generator does not "produce" mechanical energy, it is just useful for transfer of energy.

While there was some demand for this in 1600s-1700s as well, it was much smaller. And even in 19th century, with all progress of scientific methods, and supply of energy, just begging to be transferred, it took some decades to understand electricity enough to make it useful.

I would say that in a world with lots of atmospheric and animal electricity, lots of hydroenergy and little fossil fuels it has some chance to happen.

  • $\begingroup$ The importance of the fact that we're not directly getting mechanical energy is hard to understate. At the beginning of the industrial revolution people thought in terms of mechanical energy. Electricity was the stuff of laboratories only. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2018 at 9:17

Of course!


Accumulators are easier to produce. Volta's battery design could be complemented by a manual worker hot-swapping batteries to the electric engine, just in the same way in which a manual worker need to shovel coal inside the furnace for a steam engine to run.


These are harder. Mostly because the transfer of mechanical energy to electric energy is a "recent" discovery. However, note that such discovery does not depend on the invention of a steam engine.

The answer is water turbines.

Mills, be it watermills or windmills or horsemills, have existed for a very long time. Some claim that Egyptians and Babylonians have been using them too.

Gears too have existed for quite some time, with obvious implications that one could couple a watermill with a gearbox to increase the rotational speed derived from simply splashing water on the turbine.

Finally, plug that to an alternator, and enjoy some good wattage. Fun fact: magnet-based alternators work both as electricity generating devices, as well as electric engines. If large amounts of power are not a must, any SE user could build that in their kitchen sink.

--- EDIT for science-fiction aficionados, and not for long-lasting factory work.

Could some form of electric engine be invented with the knowledge from the XVII and XVIII centuries?

Galvani and the Frankenstein's propulsion

Galvani's experiments on dead frogs showed that it is possible to activate muscles using electrostatic potentials. Previous studies on anatomy had made it clear that limbs move thanks to the action of pairs of antagonist muscles.

The Frankenstein's propulsion works by using parts of large dead animals. For instance, the shark-propulsion uses dead sharks attached to the back, or the bottom, of a boat. Electrodes are inserted in the dead body, with the terminals in the desired muscle groups, and sealed with gum and wax. A simple hand operated mechanism, such as a wheel with a rotating lever, rhythmically discharges a Volta's pile via the electrodes, causing the antagonist muscles to contract asynchronously, hence generating movement. For instance, this could be used to make the dead shark flap its tail.

The Frankenstein's engine lasts as long as the battery lasts and as long as the muscle groups don't start rotting. Injecting the veins of the animals with adequate preserving fluids may lengthen the life of your Frankenstein's engine.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the first part, but I think the second part is a bit far out. There is a problem with your machine parts rotting, if you are using animal parts to do industrial scale work. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Feb 6, 2018 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion I completely agree with you. I just added the second part to give an answer more in the flavor of what was known during the XVII century. I'll clarify that the second part is science-fiction at best :-D By the way, what should these first-principle electric engines do? Perhaps there are electric workarounds with knowledge from the time. $\endgroup$
    – NofP
    Feb 6, 2018 at 14:51

There is a way, but it would be impractical.

First let's establish that steam engines use the expansion of water vapor to generate work. To use this as the basis for a steam generator without first inventing the steam engine (and modern steam generators are really just steam engines connected to induction coils), you need a thermoelectric generator.

The principle behind thermoelectric generation happened to be discovered in 1821 by Thomas Johann Seebeck, after the invention of the steam engine, but not too far off. The problem here is that it would be more efficient to simply heat the generator directly than to heat steam and then use the steam to heat the generator.


I would say yes. An electrical generator needs mechanical movement to generate electricity. One could attach an electrical generator to a water wheel. One could connect an electric motor to that generator and effectively 'transport' power.

A dynamo on a bicycle (I had one back in 1989, W. Germany) does not need a steam-powered generator to power the light on the bicycle.



If man had discovered electroluminescence before steam engines then the face of the world would have been different.

Some naturally found electroluminescent material include: Naturally blue diamond, as well as some other chemical compound (source: wikipedia)

Combining this with either animal based electricity or a primitive battery could enable the first artificial light sources to be made.

If we then make this a quest similar to the quest for philosopher's stone in our history and potentially in a society where water and wood are rare, but where such compounds are easily available (either from meteors or volcanoes) then electricity could become the first technology to be studied and then developped instead of steam engine (which came from Northern England where water, wood and coal were/are abundant).


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