What Is the Difference between Electronic and Electrical Devices?

When the field of electronics was invented in 1883, electrical devices had already been around for at least 100 years. For example:

  • The first electric batteries were invented by a fellow named Alessandro Volta in 1800. Volta’s contribution is so important that the common volt is named for him. (There is some archeological evidence that the ancient Parthian Empire may have invented the electric battery in the second century BC, but if so we don’t know what they used their batteries for, and their invention was forgotten for 2,000 years.)

  • The electric telegraph was invented in the 1830s and popularized in America by Samuel Morse, who invented the famous Morse code used to encode the alphabet and numerals into a series of short and long clicks that could be transmitted via telegraph. In 1866, a telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic Ocean allowing instantaneous communication between the United States and Europe.

All of these devices, and many other common devices still in use today, such as light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, and toasters, are known as electrical devices. So what exactly is the difference between electrical devices and electronic devices?

The answer lies in how devices manipulate electricity to do their work. Electrical devices take the energy of electric current and transform it in simple ways into some other form of energy — most likely light, heat, or motion. The heating elements in a toaster turn electrical energy into heat so you can burn your toast. And the motor in your vacuum cleaner turns electrical energy into motion that drives a pump that sucks the burnt toast crumbs out of your carpet.

In contrast, electronic devices do much more. Instead of just converting electrical energy into heat, light, or motion, electronic devices are designed to manipulate the electrical current itself to coax it into doing interesting and useful things.

That very first electronic device invented in 1883 by Thomas Edison manipulated the electric current passing through a light bulb in a way that let Edison create a device that could monitor the voltage being provided to an electrical circuit and automatically increase or decrease the voltage if it became too low or too high.

One of the most common things that electronic devices do is manipulate electric current in a way that adds meaningful information to the current. For example, audio electronic devices add sound information to an electric current so that you can listen to music or talk on a cellphone. And video devices add images to an electric current so you can watch great movies until you know every line by heart.

Keep in mind that the distinction between electric and electronic devices is a bit blurry. What used to be simple electrical devices now often include some electronic components in them. For example, your toaster may contain an electronic thermostat that attempts to keep the heat at just the right temperature to make perfect toast.

And even the most complicated electronic devices have simple electrical components in them. For example, although your TV set's remote control is a pretty complicated little electronic device, it contains batteries, which are simple electrical devices.

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