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An electric circuit is an unbroken loop of conductive material that allows electrons to flow through continuously without beginning or end.

If a circuit is broken, that means it’s conductive elements no longer form a complete path, and continuous electron flow cannot occur in it. The location of a break in a circuit is irrelevant to its inability to sustain continuous electron flow. Any break, anywhere in a circuit prevents electron flow throughout the circuit.

Conventional versus electron flow

The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.

Andres S. Tannenbaum, computer science professor

When Benjamin Franklin made his conjecture regarding the direction of charge flow (from the smooth wax to the rough wool), he set a precedent for electrical notation that exists to this day, despite the fact that we know electrons are the constituent units of charge, and that they are displaced from the wool to the wax – not from the wax to the wool – when those two substances are rubbed together. This is why electrons are said to have a negative charge: because Franklin assumed electric charge moved in the opposite direction that it actually does, and so objects he called negative (representing a deficiency of charge) actually have a surplus of electrons.

By the time the true direction of electron flow was discovered, the nomenclature of positive and negative had already been so well established in the scientific community that no effort was made to change it, although calling electrons positive would make more sense in referring to “excess” charge. You see, the terms “positive” and “negative” are human inventions, and as such have no absolute meaning beyond our own conventions of language and scientific description. Franklin could have just as easily referred to a surplus of charge as “black” and a deficiency as “white,” in which case scientists would speak of electrons having a “white” charge (assuming the same incorrect conjecture of charge position between wax and wool).

However, because we tend to associate the word “positive” with “surplus” and “negative” with “deficiency,” the standard label for electron charge does seem backward. Because of this, many engineers decided to retain the old concept of electricity with “positive” referring to a surplus of charge, and label charge flow (current) accordingly. This became known as conventional flow notation:

Conventional flow notation
Conventional flow notation

Others chose to designate charge flow according to the actual motion of electrons in a circuit. This form of symbology became known as electron flow notation:

Electron flow notation
Electron flow notation

In conventional flow notation, we show the motion of charge according to the (technically incorrect) labels of + and -. This way the labels make sense, but the direction of charge flow is incorrect. In electron flow notation, we follow the actual motion of electrons in the circuit, but the + and – labels seem backward. Does it matter, really, how we designate charge flow in a circuit? Not really, so long as we’re consistent in the use of our symbols. You may follow an imagined direction of current (conventional flow) or the actual (electron flow) with equal success insofar as circuit analysis is concerned. Concepts of voltage, current, resistance, continuity, and even mathematical treatments such as Ohm’s Law and Kirchhoff’s Laws remain just as valid with either style of notation.


  1. Lessons in Electric Circuits, Volume I – DC. By Tony R. Kuphaldt