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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
  • Would we call LED light bulb which can be connected to a smartphone electric or electronic? – Vladimir Nazarenko Jan 15 at 18:00
  • @Vladimir I suppose you should ask mins. – user1635 Jan 15 at 20:48
  • @VladimirNazarenko: A LED is an electronic component made of semi-conductor materials. An incandescent light is barely more than a metallic wire, therefore it is technically referred to as an electric component. Note than anything electronic is also electric, as electronics is a subfield of electricity. Another example, an USB connector is an electrical part (it doesn't matter it is connected to a computer). Anything passive is a good candidate for electric adjective (there are indeed many exceptions). – mins Jan 27 at 15:59
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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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  • "Electronic systems use electricity to transmit and manipulate information". How does a silicium rectifier or a LED, fit into this definition? Why would, according to this definition, an incandescent lamp be less electronic than a LED? The key isn't the purpose, but the technology behind (semiconductors). There was electromechanical calculators (motor driven, no semiconductors) before electronic pocket calculators (transistors). – mins Jan 26 at 10:54
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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
  • "a flashlight is a very simple system [..] uses electricity thus it is 'electric'". For an incandescent bulb yes, for a modern LED flashlight no. A 'white' LED (actually blue) is a very sophisticated electronic component, for which not less than a Nobel prize in Physics was awarded to the inventors. – mins Jan 27 at 16:07
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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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Electronic strictly denotes electricity in semi-conductor material (initially in the vacuum of a vacuum tube).

Saying a device is electronic means it works by using semi-conductor components (or vacuum tubes), namely diodes, transistors, etc. For the latter, they can be crammed into integrated circuits for easiness and space reduction (several millions over a single cm²).

Electronics is a subfield of electrical engineering, so it's safe to say something is electric when we don't know if electronics is actually used in the design. When we say a device is electronic, this is because we know or we assume the circuit contains electronic components.

The distinction electric / electronic is not based on the purpose or the function of the circuit, e.g. dealing with power vs dealing with signal, as stated in other answers.

For example, there are incandescent lamps and light-emitting diodes (LED) lamps:

enter image description here
Electric vs electronic lamp. Source: left, right

Both deal with power, no 'signal' is involved, still the former is an electric device and the latter an electronic device (as the word diode contained in the name suggests).


Flow of electrons in an electrical circuit

An electric current is a flow of electrons in a conductor, usually a metallic wire or a metallic part of an electric device like a switch.

It can also be a liquid solution, like the electrolyte in a battery or a plasma like in fluorescent tubes.

The particularity of a conductor, a switch, a battery, an incandescent lamp, etc (and also a resistor and and an inductor which are commonly found in electronic circuits), is they are passive components. The current of electrons flowing through them as they work is mostly constant, they don't change it.

Flow of electrons in a vacuum tube

The first electronic component has been a vacuum tube. In a vacuum tube, there are two or more wires (electrodes) separated by partial vacuum which is an insulator. One of these wires (the cathode) is heated so that electrons are energized and try to leave the wire.

Diode
A simple vacuum tube, a triode, with its heated cathode. Source

As expected with an insulator, electrons cannot move in vacuum, there is no electric current, the impatient electrons must stay on their wire!

However, in a vacuum tube there is a way to transfer more energy to the heated electrons packed on the cathode. When using this way (which is technically named the grid), electrons are accelerated and can leave their wire and jump in vacuum to reach one or more distant wires. When this is occurring a current starts flowing in the circuit. The good thing is this current can be changed by adding more or less energy via the grid. This way the electron flow, which is called the electronic current, is an amplified version of the grid current.

This property of a vacuum tube to create the electronic current in vacuum and act as an amplifier is the base of what is called electronics, to distinguish it from the other fields of electrical engineering. Electronics was born with the vacuum tube.

From tube to transistor (and semi-conductors in general)

The vacuum tube was soon replaced by semi-conductor materials. The technology was named solid state electronics because, semi-conductor materials, like vacuum, are actually insulators that can conduct more or less when activated.

enter image description here
A surface mounted transistor, the equivalent of the previous vacuum tube. Source

Semi-conductor materials like doped silicon are used to build diodes and transistors which are the modern equivalents of vacuum tubes.

Electric or electronic?

As said electronics is a subfield of electrical engineering, so everything which is electronic is also electric. However sometimes it's interesting to also tell the circuit has some complexity added by the use of electronic components based on semi-conductor properties (vacuum tubes are seldom used in mainstream products, the notable exception being the microwave oven).

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 electronic exceptions:

But because semi-conductor components are delicate to use 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, often electronic parts are used to control other parts and provide the interface with the user:

  • In a washing machine, the motor, the heater, the valves are electric components, but the logic (engine control, user interface panel) is electronic.

  • In a computer, nearly everything is electronic (based on transistors), but a few parts are pure electric components (fan, loud speakers). However a computer cannot work without an additional element: The software. Computers (smartphones, digital thermometers, digital watches, electronic games, electronic dictionaries, ...) are programmable electronic devices.

Digital electronics

Digital electronics was introduced in the 60s.

Electronics deals with level of currents which are not fixed, that is the components can receive and produce different levels of current (or voltage for our purpose here). With the advance of computers, it was soon obvious using only two levels would lead to simplified circuits, faster circuits and less errors in computations.

Specialized components, named digital components, were designed to perform operations on these two levels, as if these two levels were representing the two binary values O and 1. Such operations were the binary addition (Boolean function or), the binary product (Boolean and), the complement (not) and as much as we want of derived operations.

By combining several of these digital operators, an unlimited set of functions can be realized, based on inputs converted into binary data.

This opened the era of digital electronics. Digital circuits are replacing traditional electronics, in all domains, not only in computer technology.

For example radio receivers have been a long time only based on non-digital electronics (analog electronics), and it was not obvious they could become digital except for the secondary functions. Radio deals with received signals which are so tiny everybody doubted the reception could be made using digital circuits (it was like sending the bull in the china shop). But software-defined radio receivers are now the standard. No only they process radio on a binary form, but they have replaced the hardware (electronic components, filters, oscillators) by pure software working on a computer. They are infinitely more versatile than their analog versions and can be reconfigured in a split second.


More info on Wikipedia:

Electronics deals with electrical circuits that involve active electrical components such as vacuum tubes, transistors, diodes, integrated circuits, optoelectronics, and sensors, associated passive electrical components, and interconnection technologies.

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  • «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 '19 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 '19 at 9:16
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    You seem to have contradicted yourself. You said electric devices can be ones where electrons flow through a liquid such as a car battery but then you state "We can say a component is electronic as soon as electrons don't simply flow in metallic parts". – Stack Underflow Jan 26 at 6:26
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    @StackUnderflow: Yes, I should have said "conductor" instead of "metallic", as all the rest of the text explains. Lightning for example is not part of electronics, as a plasma is a conductor. Electronics involves a current in something other than a conductor (or an electrolyte which is a liquid conductor), typically vacuum or semi-conductors. – mins Jan 26 at 9:54

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