Stephen Gray and the Invention of Wire

Inventor of Wire

Stephen Gray (1666-1736)

Stephen Gray, who lived from 1666 to 1736, was a skilled astronomer, instrument maker and electrical experimenter. Out of favor with the brilliant but contentious Isaac Newton, who headed the influential Royal Society, Gray spent most of his life unrecognized. He worked in obscurity, staying with friends and supporters and living in homes for the destitute.

Gray’s early work consisted of astronomical observations, particularly of sunspots. He ground lenses and built a telescope, soon making a number of discoveries and becoming known for his accurate and detailed observations. It wasn’t long before he came to the attention of the English Royal Astronomer, John Flamsteed, who befriended and supported him. But this created a problem for Gray, because Flamsteed was on the wrong side of an extended dispute with Newton, effectively freezing Gray out of the mainstream of English science.

Flamsteed was able to secure for Gray a modest pension, but it was hardly enough to live on. In addition to poverty, ill health became an issue. Nevertheless, Gray pursued his interests, creating for himself an ambitious work schedule and diligently recording his findings.

His defining contributions were in the field of electrical conduction. The first major breakthrough came about by accident. He found that static charges within a glass tube were conveyed outward through wooden stoppers intended only to prevent entry of dust and foreign matter. Gray concluded that electricity could be conducted from one location to another. Perhaps he never envisioned our worldwide system of continental power grids with underground distribution and overhead service drop cables, nor the existence of transatlantic cables that span the ocean, but these were certainly products of his life’s work.

Electrical Transmission Lines

Electrical Transmission Lines

It wasn’t long before Gray was stringing conductors down hallways from room to room and out windows in the homes of friends who took him in.

At this time, it was assumed by Gray and others that wire would consist of cotton or hemp fibers, which could easily be formed into long strands as needed. These materials were capable of carrying the relatively high static voltages then available. But a problem was the metal hangers used to support these primitive wires. They tended to ground out the electrical energy.

Soon Gray realized that various materials offer greater and lesser resistance to the flow of electrical energy, and he came to formulate a theory of conductors and insulators, although he never used the exact words. His great accomplishment at the time was conveying electricity over distances approaching 1000 feet; Gray would be shocked today to see that you can buy 1000ft spools of THHN Stranded Wire for $130 (after we had explained inflation, of course).

Further experiments led him to a theory of polarity, which encouraged European colleagues to devise a “two fluid” theory of electricity, although the terms positive and negative, implying a flow of particles, came much later.

Gray’s discoveries paved the way for telegraphy, but he was largely unrecognized in his time and in the decades that followed. He spent his final years in a home for the destitute, and it is not known where he was buried. Most likely it was in a common grave in London, in an area reserved for paupers.

 

By Guest Columnist David Herres

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