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Most people would refer to computers as being electronic, whereas a flashlight would be described as electric.

I know the general difference (electronic devices use transistors?), but what is it exactly, and how did the second term even come into existence? Why not just use electric for both?

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The distinction comes from the two fields of electrical engineering and electronics (which some consider a subset of the former). Electronics refers to technology that works by controlling the motion of electrons in ways that go beyond electrodynamic properties like voltage and current. That is, electrical technology would work the same if you replaced electrons by some other charge-carrying particles, but electronic technology depends on the specific properties of electrons themselves, such as in semiconductor medium.

Because electronic devices are typically used for representing and manipulating information, this makes for a simple rule of thumb for distinguishing electrical and electronic. Typically, if something uses electricity merely as energy, it is electrical, while if it uses electricity as the medium for manipulating information, it is almost surely electronic.

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    +1 Excellent answer. An electronic device uses electrical charge in logic circuits, for any purpose, data storage, mathematical or communications, usually all of the above. Whereas electrical simply states the device uses electricity. Note, all electronic devices are also electrical devices, it is a subset. – Orbling Nov 27 '10 at 12:03
  • "Typically, if something uses electricity merely as energy, it is electrical, while if it uses electricity as the medium for manipulating information, it is almost surely electronic". No, for example a diode bridge, a LED are electronic components, they deal with energy, not information. The actual difference is the use of semi-conductor material in electronics vs conductor in electrical engineering, for the electron flow. See my answer. – mins Feb 9 at 19:57
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Electric / electrical systems use electricity to transmit and manipulate power.

Electronic systems use electricity to transmit and manipulate information.

E.g. an electric battery stores power that can be used to light an electric light bulb. An electronic light sensor produces a voltage that depends on the amount of light falling upon it, which might be used as part of a system that automatically switches a lightbulb off in the daytime.

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The distinction for the two words you are referring to is with regards to the complexity of the circuit which uses electricity.

A flashlight is a very simple system. It doesn't primarily feature integrated circuits or digital logic or any advanced circuitry. It uses electricity thus it is "electric".

A computer is an extremely complex circuit. Most people can't begin to grasp the concept of a CPU from the perspective of a current-flow device. An electrician can't just hook it up to the power mains.

At some point along the complexity spectrum a device ceases to be merely electric and becomes electronic. Note: I think this also requires integrated circuits and the like. I don't imagine that anyone would refer to the power grid as electronic (though some components of it are).

Consider these cases:

  • An electric chair
  • An electronic chair

The first is a chair which predominantly features electricity. The second is a chair which has some feature made of a complex circuit (for example, the seats in cars which are automatically-adjusting).

  • An electric toaster
  • An electronic toaster

The first is a run of the mill toaster. The second is a toaster that lets you program in an image to burn into the toast, and which sends you an email when the toast is done.

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    They have toasters that let you program images to burn into the toast??? I want one. (If they don't, you should definitely patent the idea.) – Peter Shor Jan 12 '14 at 16:12
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Devices that run on electricity are 'electric' — for example, electric lights, electric heaters, electric cars and so on; while 'electronic' refers to devices which manipulate electrical current internally through switches. It’s also used for virtual forms of things that were traditionally in the physical world, such as electronic stores and electronic books.

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How did the term electronic come into existence? It original use was as an adjective that applied to electrons rather than electricity. For example, electronic orbital is used to describe the position of electrons in atoms and molecules, and nobody uses electric orbital.

It's possible that originally, in the 1940s, circuits with vacuum tubes in them were called electronic circuits, while circuits using just wires, batteries, resistors, and so forth, were called electric circuits. This would make sense, because vacuum tubes use electrons in a more fundamental way than these other elements of circuits. Certainly, the term electronic circuit (see Ngram) started gaining usage in the 1930s, the era of vacuum tubes.

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Meaning of electronic

Electricity is not more than the flow of electrons in a medium. The distinction between electric and electronic is simply determined by the type of medium used.

  • Electric devices are these where electrons flow in a conductor, usually a metallic wire or a metallic part of an electric device like a switch, but it can also be a liquid, like in a car battery.

  • Electronic devices have first used vacuum tubes in which electrons flow, in partial vacuum, in the form of an electronic beam. This is the origin of the name electronics.

  • Vacuum was soon replaced by semi-conductor materials like silicon used in diodes and transistors, a technology first known as solid state electronics.

That said, it's sometimes difficult to say whether some technology is actually electric or electronic without looking under the hood. In layman language it's correct to use electric in place of electronic (but not vice-versa), but unfortunately some information is lost.

We can say a component is electronic as soon as electrons don't simply flow in metallic parts.


Additional details

What was purely electric is becoming electronic, e.g. home lighting was based on incandescent lights and mechanical switches. Today we see LEDs and dimmers, both are electronic devices.

Circuits with a high voltage or a high current (power grids, engines, generators) seldom use electronic devices. It's not economically viable, and sometimes not yet feasible. But there are notable exceptions: rectifier (diode), switch (thyristor), radio amplifier (klystron), microwave heater (magnetron), lighting (high luminosity LED), power supply (switched-mode and static inverter) are examples of high power electronic devices.

But the kingdom of electronics is low voltage, low current and low power, found in complex devices used in audio, radio, television, computers, control... These fields make great use of very fast and sensitive electronic components, and often wouldn't exist without them.

Most devices are a mix of electric and electronic components. For example in a washing machine, the motor, the heater, the valves are electric components, but the logic (engine control, user interface panel) is electronic.

Electronics is a subfield of electrical engineering.

  • «In layman language it's correct to use electric in place of electronic ». I understand what you mean, but electric dictionary sounds odd to me, to say the least. I don't think it's right because, when you copy an e-dictionary to a pen or hd drive, though you'lll need electricity to read it, it exists without it, but not without something electronic (the physical substratum). – cdlvcdlv Jun 26 at 8:57
  • @cdlvcdlv: "electric dictionary sounds odd to me", indeed because a software works only on electronic computers. So in this case you may replace dictionary software by electronic dictionary if you prefer (acceptable though technically incorrect). When I say "In layman language it's correct to use electric in place of electronic", I mean for physical devices like a clock, because you may not know if the clock is based on electronic components. – mins Jun 26 at 9:16

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