Imagine you are living in the mid 20th century, in a modern house with all modern conveniences. You have a new electric oven, a refrigerator, an inside lavatory (bliss), and of course, you have electricity. It is wonderful to have so many modern appliances, and electricity is such a wonder. You know many people have had it for years, but the old neighbourhood you lived in was not electrified, so it is still a marvel to you. The only thing which does make you nervous is that apparently, if you don’t have the correct fuses, and don’t know how to look after them, electricity can be very dangerous. You have an electrician coming to check things over for you and teach you about them today though, so that will be wonderful.
When I showed the children this ceramic fuse holder and fuse, they had no idea at all what it could be. Of course, the children know about fuses, on a basic level, with their parents occasionally telling them that ‘I have to fix the fuse’ or ‘the fuse has blown’, but most have never seen a fuse. Even those who had seen a fuse did not recognise this one though, as it is an old fashioned type made of ceramic and is much larger than the household fuses we use. In fact, there were parents who did not recognise it! The fuse did intrigue the children though as they had never thought of electricity being old enough to have evolved so much. It is also a huge fuse, much bigger than fuses which would be used in a home. It is far more likely to have been used in a factory, or perhaps even on the railways.
The history of fuses is, perhaps unsurprisingly, closely tied to the history of electricity. However, electricity actually has a longer history than many realise. The oldest and most natural of all electrical sources is lightning, and this has, of course, been around since time immemorial. The ancients knew about static electricity, and about lightning, but this was not created by man. As early as 1660 though, people were experimenting with creating electricity. In this year Otto Von Guericke created the first electric generator. He used his machine to show that electricity could be conducted over a substantial distance (several feet) along wet string. In the 1700s several English scientists conducted experiments with electricity and this was also the era when Ben Franklins famous kite experiment was conducted. In 1752, just as a storm was beginning to break out, he flew a kite with a metal key attached to the end. The key was hung close to a jar and, although there was not yet any lightening, electricity was conducted along the wet kite string, through the key and sparks were seen jumping into the jar until eventually the jar could not carry any more charge. This experiment proved that lightening and electricity were the same thing.
It was not until 1800 though until Alessandro Volta created the first ‘battery’. At the time it was called the voltaic pile and it was made up of a stack of zinc, copper and acid or salt soaked disks which could store electricity. Volta knew the electric cell worked, but he didn’t know why. None the less, he was an important figure in the history of electricity and the volt is named after him. It was Charles Edison who brought electricity to the world though, when he created the electric lightbulb in 1879. He wanted to bring electric light to every home and he built the first electric generating station which provided electricity to one square mile of New York City in 1882.
So what is a fuse and why do we use them? Fuses are essentially a safety mechanism, placed in an electrical circuit to control and limit the flow of electricity. If too much electricity is passing through the fuse the fuse will break (blow) and the flow will stop which makes electricity much safer. Essentially, they are designed to be the weakest link in the flow of electricity. Today there are many different sorts of fuses (though ceramic ones are pretty unusual, and this one would not have wire inside it), but they all serve essentially the same purpose, to make electricity safe. Today we have 'safety switches' which make using electrictity safer still, but we also still use fuses and most people still keep some fuse wire in their fuse box!
If anybody knows any more about this fuse, please let us know!