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I recently came to know about the Conventional Current vs. Electron Flow issue.
Doing some search I found that the reason for this is that Benjamin Franklin made a mistake when naming positive and negative charges.
There is even this little comic about that http://xkcd.com/567/

My question is, how can a naming convention be wrong?
Perhaps I don't understand what is the actual mistake here, I don't know. But I don't see how a naming convention could be wrong or right. There is no right and wrong about that. It could've been any other name, like charge A and charge B.

I'll appreciate anyone can help me understand what is wrong in all this.

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This is not true historically! Franklin was wrong in defining a one fluid theory. His "choose" of "direction" was not wrong, because such a decision is arbitrary. –  Georg Nov 17 '11 at 11:36
A convention cannot be wrong, because it is something you define. It does not make sense to debate whether a definition is wrong or not. You can, however, say something about whether a definition is useful or not. –  Antillar Maximus Dec 17 '11 at 21:48
duplicated by physics.stackexchange.com/q/68471/4552 –  Ben Crowell Jun 18 '13 at 18:12
@BenCrowell, the questions are related but fundamentally different. I'm asking what's the reason for the convention. He's asking why is the convention wrong. Saying they are duplicates is like saying "what's the reason for playing games" is a duplicate of "why is playing games wrong"... –  Pacerier Jun 18 '13 at 19:13

7 Answers 7

It's not a mistake, and conventional current is not wrong or backwards.

The labeling of one polarity of charge as "positive" and the other as "negative" is totally arbitrary. It could be done either way and everything would still work out the same. Franklin didn't choose wrong; he just chose. Labeling protons as negative and electrons as positive wouldn't change anything.

Electric current is a flow of electric charge. Charge can be positive (protons) or negative (electrons), and both types of charged particles can and do flow in electric circuits:

(The Hall Effect can be used to show whether a charge carrier is positively charged and flowing in one direction, or negatively charged and flowing in the other.)

If you considered only the electron flow as current, your calculations would be wrong. You need to consider the net flow of charge, no matter what the charge carriers. Conventional current abstracts away the different charge carriers and represents all of these different flows as a net flow of positive charge, simplifying circuit analysis.

Conventional current is not the opposite of electron current, so if they were defined to flow in the same direction, it would be even easier to confuse them and go through life misunderstanding what current is. Electron current is a subset of conventional current. Conventional current combines the effects of electron, ion, proton, and hole flows all into one number.

Wikipedia agrees:

In other media, any stream of charged objects may constitute an electric current. To provide a definition of current that is independent of the type of charge carriers flowing, conventional current is defined to flow in the same direction as positive charges.

Also see Ben Franklin should have said electrons are positive? Wrong.

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If we defined debt to be positive, and cash to be negative, it would also just be an arbitrary labelling. Then, for me to buy lunch from you, you could just pay me $10 worth of debt. In my opinion, this definition would not be optimal. –  Peter Shor Nov 17 '11 at 17:14
@Peter Franklin proposed a "one fluid" theory. That means that he did not introduce pos and/or negative charged particles. He thought of one sort of "electric fluidum", having an excess was positive, lack of some made objects negative. For us today it is ovious that one can have exess or lack only with respect to something "opposite". That is the "error" in Flanklins convention, not the direction or "debts". –  Georg Nov 17 '11 at 17:46
@GetFree Electron flow direction is not "the" current direction! Is that so difficult? And "Everywhere I read" seems to be sources like wiki or worse. –  Georg Nov 17 '11 at 21:22
While I agree that it is silly to call an arbitrary convention like this "wrong", the one we've got engenders a lot of confusion when first learning electronics, and the other one would be better from that particular point of view. –  dmckee Mar 23 '12 at 21:12
@dmckee: I don't think so. It would cause even more confusion if conventional current and electron current both went in the same direction, since they're not the same thing but would more easily be confused for each other. –  endolith Mar 24 '12 at 18:33

(Someone resurrected this oldie in the queue, so just to be a contrary voice...)

Ben Franklin did get it wrong. He had just developed a remarkable new theory of electricity in which positive (+) and negative (-) had specific and accurate meanings, and he was unable to apply the two labels in the way he intended.

In Franklin's time electricity was thought to be composed of two fluids, "vitreous" and "resinous", that annihilated each other when they came into contact. Franklin's clever idea was to realize that the two-fluid theory was redundant, and that a single fluid flowing through metals would suffice. This led him directly to an analogy with water pressure or air pressure, in which a single fluid flows from the end of a pipe that has positive (+) pressure, and towards the end with negative (-) or vacuum-like pressure.

The problem was that Franklin had no way to separate the fluid from the metal to tell which way it was moving. He could make sparks, sure, but the fluid (electricity) moved so incredibly fast that nothing accurate could be discerned from watching them.

It was only with the invention decades later of the Crookes tube that it became possible to tell the direction of flow of this mysterious electrical fluid, specifically by watching the shadows it cast on the inside of an empty tube. Only then was it realized that the fluid that Franklin postulated was moving from the "negative" pressure side (-) to the "positive" pressure side, (+). But it was already too late. Decades of papers and textbooks using Franklin's theory and conventions had already been written, and it would have been a nightmare to attempt to flip the convention at that point.

We now call these particles of electrical fluid "electrons," and they do indeed behave very much like the fastest and most nimble fluid imaginable. For the most common way to convey this fluid, via metals, it is the negative terminal of a battery that creates a positive pressure (or voltage) to push the fluid outward, and it is the positive terminal that creates a negative pressure to pull the electrons back in.

(This similarity also explains why using analogies with water pressure to explain voltages and electrical flow can be a lot more insightful than one might expect. Both really are examples of fluids under pressure, even if the terminology is different and the analogy is incomplete due to electrons having the ability to do things that material fluids cannot.)

So, bottom line: Franklin clearly would have labeled his own choice an error if he had had access to better data, so I think we can too.

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Some people say that the NET FLOW OF CHARGE in a metal conductor goes from the positive terminal to the negative one (even though the electrons are moving in the oposite way). And since what matters is the net flow and not the electrons movement, it is correct to assume that electricity moves from positive to negative. I've read a number of discussions here and there between people that really seem to know what they are talking about, and there is no final agreement about it. –  GetFree Dec 31 '12 at 17:23
@GetFree: The net flow of charge is what's important in electronics, not the flow of electrons. However, you could count the net flow of positive charge in one direction, or the net flow of negative charge in the other direction, and it wouldn't make any difference. –  endolith Apr 11 '13 at 21:20
This one still amuses me hugely. Unless my admittedly old sources were wrong back whenever I read them -- and I doubt that very much -- I wasn't trying to make a logical equivalence argument. I was just trying to tell what happened, in real, external history! Franklin did think there was a fluid, and he really was hoping he got the labels right. Back then, positive meant you had something and negative meant you didn't, just as it still does with modern bank accounts. Can you make Franklin's mistake work by generalizing the labels to be more abstract? Sure! But come on, it was just an error. –  Terry Bollinger Oct 13 '13 at 0:59
"just as it still does with modern bank accounts." --- Every positive ("debit") entry on my books is a negative ("credit") entry on someone else's. A credit is actually a negative --- it's the bank recording that they must pay you money. –  The Photon Feb 15 at 17:31
Hi @ThePhoton, absolutely correct. Interestingly enough, the most perfect form of the debt/credit symmetry you just mentioned occurs on the imaginary axis of the complex plane, where the labeling of which side is positive and which is negative is entirely arbitrary. That's not quite try for the real number line, where for example squaring +1 maps you back to the same location of +1, while squaring -1 maps you to the other side of the number line, to +1 again. Alas, such symmetries matter naught, since Franklin was just using "+" to assert that some quite real fluid (electrons) was flowing. –  Terry Bollinger Feb 15 at 23:43

Central to this discussion is a common and widespread misconception: the wrong idea that electric current is a flow of electrons, and that flows of positive charge are impossible.

Nope and nope.

Only in metals is an electric current a flow of electrons. Protons can flow, and so can ions of both polarities. The type of charge-carrier depends on the type of conductor: metals, electrolytes, ionized gases. So, Franklin may have been "backwards" about way metals conduct a charge flow. But he wasn't wrong about proton conductors and PEMs used in solid-electrolyte fuel cells. Franklin was also wrong about battery acid and neon signs, where the moving charges have opposite polarities and flow in opposite directions. In Franklin's terms, electrolytes contain two (or more) kinds of 'electric fluid,' not just one.

In fact, when you get shocked by a HV power supply, no electrons flow through your body. The voltage impressed across your flesh produces a flow of the ions commonly found in your tissues: positive sodium and potassium ions, and negative chlorides, each polarity of ions flowing in opposite directions. How then can we describe the amperes which are electrocuting you?! Easy. Just use Conventional Current. That's what it's for. (Hint: ammeters measure conventional current. They do not report the percentages of positives and negatives drifting in opposite direction within the circuit.)

It's really quite amazing how many authors seem to believe Franklin's discredited one-fluid theory of electricity, or believe that electric currents are somehow "made out of electrons."

Conductor examples:

Metals - yes, electrons

Semiconductors - electrons in two energy bands (lower band is vacancies or 'holes')

Plasma - electrons, positive ions, negative ions (if Hydrogen plasma, then H+ bare protons are part of the current.)

Distilled water - protons (H+ ions) and OH- ions, no electrons

Battery acid - protons (H+ ions) and SO4- ions, no electrons

Oceans - Na+ ions, Cl- ions, some H+ and OH-, no electrons

Human flesh - Na+ ions, K+ ions, Cl- ions, many misc ions, no electrons

I suspect that WW-2 military training manuals are partly to blame for this situation. For instruction of technicians, their authors concentrated on metal wires and vacuum tubes, and based their concepts on the over-simplified (wrong) idea that "electricity equals electrons," and that all positive charges were really just a case of missing electrons.

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I would disagree. Ions get their positive and negative charges because of a surplus or deficit of valence electrons creating a charge imbalance. The positive ions in the battery (or in electrolysis of water) may flow to the negative, and vice versa, but the fluid charge carrier at the subatomic level remains the electron. The ions only move because the electrons moved first. –  KeithS Sep 4 '13 at 3:53
>get their positive and negative charges because of a surplus or< @KeithS incorrect, because positive charge isn't just a "lack of electrons," instead positive charge is always caused by protons. The pos charge carrier is the proton. Think: if you have some electrons in space, and you remove them, have you created positive charge? Nope. And a proton-beam in vacuum is a beam of genuine positive particles, and isn't just a "lack of electrons" flying along. Fallacy: all atoms are naturally neutral? So positive ions had to have lost an electron? Nope: QM is stronger than electrostatics. –  william beaty Oct 1 '13 at 7:41
Define "natural". Sodium in its elemental metal form is indeed electrically neutral. It's just so unwilling to be neutral, because the sole valence electron is in such a high energy state compared to the size of its nucleus, that as long as there is anything more willing to have that electron in the neighborhood, the atom will give it up. All atoms, by definition, are electrically neutral; if they have a charge imbalance they are ions. –  KeithS Oct 11 '13 at 17:35
I'm not disagreeing that electrical charge is caused by two opposing types of particles. What I'm stating is that the electron, as shown by Thomson's work, is the more mobile and "fluid-like" of the two particles that cause electrostatic charge. The energy required to induce an electrostatic potential by moving electrons around is far lower than to do so by moving protons around; as such it is the natural genesis of any charge imbalance observed in our everyday systems. –  KeithS Oct 11 '13 at 17:50
Case in point: ol' Ben moved electrons around between a glass rod and a wool cloth just by friction. Moving protons between atoms wasn't accomplished by man until the advent of the nuclear reactor, and the primary "natural" means of creating anything larger than hydrogen is stellar nucleogenesis. So, I would continue to assert that positive ions did indeed "lose" their electron, in the face of your scorn, because the alternate hypothesis for the creation of any arbitrary observed charge imbalance is that the ion has been in that unbalanced state since it was last ejected by a supernova. –  KeithS Oct 11 '13 at 17:58

This is a common question and the answer is related to the fact that electric current is defined simply as the flow of electric charge. Thus, it is an abstract current since electric charge is a property, not an entity. Electric charge must be "carried" be something.

The direction of flow of positive charge is taken to be the direction of electric current. Thus, a flow of negative charge contributes to an electric current in the opposite direction.

Electron current is the flow of electrons and, since electrons have the property of negative electric charge, an electron current is necessarily a flow of charge, i.e., an electric current (in the opposite direction of the electric current).

But, it is often the case that electric current is due to the flow of other charged entities besides electrons. For example, within the electrolyte of a battery or within a plasma, the flow of charged ions contribute to the electric current.

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This just a convention that arose (I think) in the 19th century before the existance of electrons had been established. There is no special significance to it.

In $p$-type semiconductors it's possible to model the current flow as the motion of positive holes, and these travel from the positive pole to the negative pole. However it's still really electrons that are moving, and you'd struggle to interpret current flow in metals using this model.

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Electricity is a manifestation due to electronic movement, which are negatively charged.

But quite some time ago when this was not known, franklin proposed to call the deficiency of electrons as positive, and excess of electrons as negative; which is followed now!!! which eventually resulted in electronic charge to be known as negative!!!

Poor electron now has to live with the negative charge it was thrusted upon by Franklin.

As a matter of fact, in electrical terminology, current flows from positive terminal to negative terminal; while physically electrons flows from negative terminal to positive terminal. So, now due to that mistake by Franklin we have to call electric flow as reverse of electron flow!!!

I too wish it was the other way round, life would have been a bit more simpler!!

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so what was Franklin's mistake? To propose a naming convention? –  GetFree Nov 17 '11 at 11:29
ya...sort of!!! but considering what the world knew about electricity and electron at his time...you cannot blame him...read more about it xkcdsucks.blogspot.com/2009/04/… in the comments... –  Vineet Menon Nov 17 '11 at 11:35
But in a semiconductor, the holes do flow from positive to negative! –  FrankH Nov 17 '11 at 14:36
There's a reason we call holes quasi-particles, and don't use that term for electrons. Negative mass is just one reason; anisotropic mass another. Electrons can escape from semiconductors when hit by light, holes can't. But yes, of course, there are many cases where it's easier to use holes as a convenient fiction, e.g. the Hall effect. –  MSalters Nov 17 '11 at 20:15
@endolith:because its the electron which cause the anodic light what JJ Thomson saw in his cathode ray experiment. Because its the electron that's NOT having anisotropic mass. Because its the electron which manifest itself everywhere, not just semiconductors. –  Vineet Menon Nov 18 '11 at 5:12

Positive charges attract negative charges. The same goes for a positive potential (a negative charge wants it's potential to be as high as possible). So the electron flows from the -pole to the +pole increasing it's potential in the proces.

You could see the positive pole as a positive charge that's trying to attract the electon.

Or to follow the approved answer:''It's because we defined the charge of an electron to be the negative charge that these conventions mix up.'' If we were to switch all of the negative charges to positive ones and the positive to the negative ones, then the current and electron flow would coincide. That's simply a matter of convention.

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