History of the Capacitor

The invention of the capacitor varies somewhat depending on who you ask. There are records that indicate a German scientist named Ewald Georg von Kleist invented the capacitor in November 1745. Several months later Pieter van Musschenbroek, a Dutch professor at the University of Leyden came up with a very similar device in the form of the Leyden jar, which is typically credited as the first capacitor. Since Kleist didn't have detailed records and notes, nor the notoriety of his Dutch counterpart, he's often overlooked as a contributor to the capacitor's evolution. However, over the years, both have been given equal credit as it was established that their research was independent of each other and merely a scientific coincidence [source: Williams].

The Leyden jar was a very simple device. It consisted of a glass jar, half filled with water and lined inside and out with metal foil. The glass acted as the dielectric, although it was thought for a time that water was the key ingredient. There was usually a metal wire or chain driven through a cork in the top of the jar. The chain was then hooked to something that would deliver a charge, most likely a hand-cranked static generator. Once delivered, the jar would hold two equal but opposite charges in equilibrium until they were connected with a wire, producing a slight spark or shock [source: Williams].

Benjamin Franklin worked with the Leyden jar in his experiments with electricity and soon found that a flat piece of glass worked as well as the jar model, prompting him to develop the flat capacitor, or Franklin square. Years later, English chemist Michael Faraday would pioneer the first practical applications for the capacitor in trying to store unused electrons from his experiments. This led to the first usable capacitor, made from large oil barrels. Faraday's progress with capacitors is what eventually enabled us to deliver electric power over great distances. As a result of Faraday's achievements in the field of electricity, the unit of measurement for capacitors, or capacitance, became known as the farad [source: Ramasamy].

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