How was Static Shock explained centuries ago?

This winter, I have been zapped countless time by static shock and I wondering how people explained static shock prior to our enlightenment.

Was static electricity part of the accusations of witchcraft?

The cat fur gods are angry! :smiley:

The same way it’s mostly explained today:
“What just happened? The door knob just hurt me!”
“That’s just an electric shock.”
“But how does it work?”
“I just told you, it’s an electric shock.”

Humans have a remarkable capacity for giving something a label and then thinking that the label is an explanation.

But people from 500 yrs ago had no idea what electric shock was.

One of the early scientific investigators was William Gilbert, 16th century. He thought rubbing an object robbed it of some of it’s fluids or “humors” and caused an “effluvium” in the air around the body. Pretty good for the level of knowledge available in his era.

Thales (around 600 BC) thought all matter possessed life to some degree - Hylozoism. He may have thought that the properties of lodestone and rubbed amber, which he observed, were because of the life force it possessed.

You don’t need the concept of electricity to have the concept of shock. The OED has electric shock from the mid-1700s, but the word shock already had 200 years of use for other sudden sensations from physical clashes to horror. There must have been a way to describe the sensation before the French word choc was borrowed in the 1500s, though. My guess would be “thrill,” ultimately from a word meaning “pierce,” which goes back to Old English. I’m not aware of any explanations for the cause of the sensation.

Neither do most people nowadays. If you’re just referring to the terminology, “electric” referred to what we now know as “static electricity” long before anyone had any idea about flowing electricity.

WAG: The idea of electricity existed long before it was proven or discovered, like how Einstein’s theory of relativity took years before an experiment was devised to prove it, or a round Earth, or the sun being the center of the galaxy.

You might find a philosophical answer in the writings of Aristotle. He conducted many experiments on the natural world, and shoehorned them into his philosophical framework. FWIW, our work “electricity” comes from the Greek word for amber, which you can rub with fur to get a static discharge. Can’t find that site online just now, must have been cut out of Wikipedia for some reason.

You see, if you’re walking along on a carpet with hard rubber soles, and you touch a door knob, you get a sharp jolt, and need a REAL GOOD ANSWER RIGHT NOW FOR THIS DEVILTRY. But if you’re wearing sandals and robes rubbing lumps of amber against fur at a marble table in an open portico, you can make a calmer assessment.

Or you know, what yabob: said:

Here ya go.

ETA: I should have said “Let me Wikipedia that for you.” :slight_smile:


Gravity did it.

What do you mean by “the idea of electricity”? Is it just the idea that when you rub some things together, and then touch a big piece of metal or another person, you get a shock? Because the experiment for that is just as old as the idea.

And incidentally, the Sun is nowhere near the center of the Galaxy.

Also they might not have experienced any.

In Hawaii, when a new dock was built from polyethelene boards, people were stunned, shocked, :slight_smile: to find that you’d get small sparks when walking on the dock and then touching metal posts. They’d never encountered anything so bizarre. Problem was, in Hawaii you only experience finger-sparks if you work in a heavily air-conditioned office, with poor humidity control, with carpets, and you wear the right kind of shoe soles.

Centuries ago you’d need a carpet, low-humidity weather, far from the salt-spray infested seashore locations, and be wearing exotic shoe soles (since leather usually doesn’t work. Neither does barefoot.) I suspect that the carpet would also need to be lifted up on a wood floor.

On the other hand, maybe people said “ah, that’s just Amberzation, same as when the amber buttons on your wool coat get covered with little lint fibers which stand on end while swaying about when your finger approaches.” English “amber” means “Elektron.” The mysterious Amber-ic force. Just as weird as the LoadStonic-force reported by the Thessalian Magnetes peoples. Little did they know that it was all part of a single science of LoadStono-Elektronism.

All you need is dry winter weather and a cat.

Bravo, Sir. Well-played.

As noted above, ancient authors were familiar with the phenomenon of static attraction in, e.g., rubbed amber. This encyclopedia article notes that the fifth-century chronicler Eustathius mentioned a philosopher who, “while dressing and undressing, emitted occasionally sudden crackling sparks”.

There doesn’t seem to have been any effort to explain such phenomena systematically in ancient sources, but it was probably often encountered. Cold weather + woolen clothing = static.

No, you need the right footwear too. I don’t shock the poor cats at all if I’m not wearing shoes/boots with a soles of man-made material - bare feet and socked feet don’t give zaps so far as I’ve ever observed. I wonder if wool socks would produce the necessary static, though.

Picking subatomic nits, what comes directly from “amber” is “electron”: ἤλεκτρον is Greek for amber.
(no, I can’t write Greek. But I knew would have it…)

IIRC, lodestones bugged him a lot more.