Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/March 1879/The Electric Light

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MARCH, 1879.

By Professor JOHN TYNDALL.

THE subject of this evening's discourse was proposed by our late honorary secretary.[2] That word "late" has for me its own connotations. It implies, among other things, the loss of a comrade by whose side I have worked for thirteen years. On the other hand, regret is not without its opposite in the feeling with which I have seen him rise by sheer intrinsic merit, moral and intellectual, to the highest official position which it is in the power of English science to bestow. Well, he, whose constant desire and practice were to promote the interests and extend the usefulness of this institution, thought that, at a time when the electric light occupied so much of public attention, a few sound notions regarding it, on the more purely scientific side, might, to use his own pithy expression, be "planted" in the public mind. I am here to-night with the view of trying, to the best of my ability, to realize the idea of our friend.

In the year 1800 Volta announced his immortal discovery of the pile. Whetted to eagerness by the previous conflict between him and Galvani, the scientific men of the age flung themselves with ardor upon the new discovery, repeating Volta's experiments, and extending them in many ways. The light and heat of the voltaic circuit attracted marked attention, and in the innumerable tests and trials to which this question was subjected, the utility of platinum and charcoal as means of exalting the light was on all hands recognized. Mr. Children, with a battery surpassing in strength all its predecessors, fused platinum wires eighteen inches long, while "points of charcoal produced a light so vivid that the sunshine, compared with it, appeared feeble."[3] Such effects reached their culmination when, in 1808, through the liberality of a few members of the Royal Institution, Davy was enabled to construct a battery of two thousand pairs of plates, with which he afterward obtained calorific and luminous effects far transcending anything previously observed. The arc of flame between the carbon terminals was four inches long, and by its heat quartz, sapphire, magnesia, and lime were melted like wax in a candle-flame; while fragments of diamond and plumbago rapidly disappeared, as if reduced to vapor.[4]

The first condition to be fulfilled in the development of heat and light by the electric current is that it shall encounter and overcome resistance. Flowing through a perfect conductor, no matter what the strength of the current might be, neither heat nor light could be developed. A rod of unresisting copper carries away uninjured and unwarmed an atmospheric discharge competent to shiver to splinters a resisting oak. I send the self-same current through a wire composed of alternate lengths of silver and platinum. The silver offers little resistance, the platinum offers much. The consequence is that the platinum is raised to a white heat, while the silver is not visibly warmed. The same holds good with regard to the carbon terminals employed for the production of the electric light. The interval between them offers a powerful resistance to the passage of the current, and it is by the gathering up of the force necessary to burst across this interval that the voltaic current is able to throw the carbon into that state of violent intestine commotion which we call heat, and to which its effulgence is due. The smallest interval of air usually suffices to stop the current. But when the carbon points are first brought together and then separated, there occurs between them a discharge of incandescent matter which carries, or may carry, the current over a considerable space. The light comes almost wholly from the incandescent carbons. The space between them is filled with a blue flame which, being usually bent by the earth's magnetism, receives the name of the Voltaic Arc.

For seventy years, then, we have been in possession of this transcendent light without applying it to the illumination of our streets and houses. Such applications suggested themselves at the outset, but there were grave difficulties in their way. The first difficulty arose from the waste of the carbons, which are dissipated in part by ordinary combustion, and in part by the electric transfer of matter from the one carbon to the other. To keep the carbons at the proper distance asunder, regulators were devised—the earliest, I believe, by Staite, and the most successful by Duboscq, Foucault, and Serrin, who have been succeeded by Holmes, Siemens, Browning, Carré, Gramme, Loutin, and others. By such arrangements the first difficulty was practically overcome; but the second, a graver one, is probably inseparable from the construction of the voltaic battery. It arises from the operation of that inexorable law which, throughout the material universe, demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, refusing to yield the faintest glow of heat or glimmer of light without the expenditure of an absolutely equal quantity of some other power. Hence, in practice, the desirability of any transformation must depend upon the value of the product in relation to that of the power expended. The metal zinc can be burned like paper; it might be ignited in a flame, but it is possible to avoid the introduction of all foreign heat and to burn the zinc in air of the temperature of this room. This is done by placing zinc-foil at the focus of a concave mirror, which concentrates to a point the divergent electric beam, but which does not warm the air. The zinc burns at the focus with a violet flame, and we could readily determine he amount of heat generated by its combustion. But zinc can be burned not only in air but in liquids. It is thus burned when acidulated water is poured over it; it is also thus burned in the voltaic battery. Here, however, to obtain the oxygen necessary for its combustion, the zinc has to dislodge the hydrogen with which the oxygen is combined. The consequence is, that the heat due to the combustion of the metal in the liquid falls short of that developed by its combustion in air, by the exact quantity necessary to separate the oxygen from the hydrogen. Fully four fifths of the total heat is used up in this molecular work, only one fifth remaining to warm the battery. It is upon this residue that we must now fix our attention, for it is solely out of it that we manufacture our electric light.

Before you are two small voltaic batteries of ten cells each. The two ends of one of them are united by a thick copper wire, while into the circuit of the other a thin platinum wire is introduced. The platinum glows with a white heat, while the copper wire is not sensibly warmed. Now an ounce of zinc, like an ounce of coal, produces by its complete combustion in air a constant quantity of heat. The total heat developed by an ounce of zinc through its union with oxygen in the battery is also absolutely invariable. Let our two batteries, then, continue in action until an ounce of zinc in each of them is consumed. In the one case the heat generated is purely domestic, being liberated on the hearth where the fuel is burned, that is to say in the cells of the battery itself. In the other case, the heat is in part domestic and in part foreign—in part within the battery and in part outside. One of the fundamental truths to be borne in mind is that the sum of the foreign and domestic—of the external and internal—heats is fixed and invariable. Hence, to have heat outside you must draw upon the heat within. hese remarks apply to the electric light. By the intermediation of the electric current tbe moderate warmth of the battery is not only carried away but concentrated, so as to produce, at any distance from its origin, a heat next in order to that of the sun. The current might therefore be defined as the swift carrier of heat. Loading itself here with invisible power, by a process of transmutation which outstrips the dreams of the alchemist, it can discharge its load, in the fraction of a second, as light and heat, at the opposite side of the world.

Thus, the light and heat produced outside the battery are derived from the metallic fuel burned within the battery; and, as zinc happens to be an expensive fuel, though we have possessed the electric light for more than seventy years, it has been too costly to come into general use. But within these walls, in the autumn of 1831, Faraday discovered a new source of electricity, which we have now to investigate. On the table before me lies a coil of covered copper wire, with its ends disunited. I lift one side of the coil from the table, and in doing so exert the muscular effort necessary to overcome the simple weight of the coil. I unite its two ends and repeat the experiment. The effort now required, if accurately measured, would be found greater than before. In lifting the coil I cut the lines of the earth's magnetic force, such cutting, as proved by Faraday, being always accompanied, in a closed conductor, by the production of an "induced "electric current which, as long as the ends of the coil remained separate, had no circuit through which it could pass. The current here evoked subsides immediately as heat; this heat being the exact equivalent of the excess of effort just referred to as over and above that necessary to overcome the simple weight of the coil. When the coil is liberated it falls back to the table, and when its ends are united it encounters a resistance over and above that of the air. It generates an electric current opposed in direction to the first, and reaches the table with a diminished shock. The amount of the diminution is accurately represented by the warmth which the momentary current develops in the coil. Various devices were employed to exalt these induced currents, among which the instruments of Pixii, Clarke, and Saxton were long conspicuous. Faraday, indeed, foresaw that such attempts were sure to be made; but he chose to leave them in the hands of the mechanician, while he himself pursued the deeper study of facts and principles, "I have rather," he writes in 1831, "been desirous of discovering new facts and new relations dependent on magneto-electric induction than of exalting the force of those already obtained; being assured that the latter would find their full development hereafter."

For more than twenty years magneto-electricity had subserved its first and noblest purpose of augmenting our knowledge of the powers of nature. It had been discovered and applied to intellectual ends, its application to practical ends being still unrealized. The Drummond light had raised thoughts and hopes of vast improvements in public illumination. Many inventors tried to obtain it cheaply; and in 1853 an attempt was made to organize a company in Paris for the purpose of procuring, through the decomposition of water by a powerful magneto-electric machine constructed by M. Nollet, the oxygen and hydrogen necessary for the lime-light. The experiment failed, but the apparatus by which it was attempted suggested to Mr. Holmes other and more hopeful applications. Abandoning the attempt to produce the lime-light, with persevering skill Holmes continued to improve the apparatus and to augment its power, until it was finally able to yield a magneto-electric light comparable to that of the voltaic battery. Judged by later knowledge, this first machine would be considered cumbrous and defective in the extreme; but, judged by the light of antecedent events, it marked a great step forward.

Faraday was profoundly interested in the growth of his own discovery. The Elder Brethren of the Trinity House had had the wisdom to make him their "Scientific Adviser"; and it is interesting to notice, in his reports regarding the light, the mixture of enthusiasm and caution which characterized him. Enthusiasm was with him a motive power, guided and controlled by a disciplined judgment. He rode it as a charger, holding it in by a strong rein. While dealing with Holmes, he states the case of the light pro and con. He checks the ardor of the inventor, and, as regards cost, rejecting sanguine estimates, he insists over and over again on the necessity of continued experiment for the solution of this important question. His matured opinion was, however, strongly in favor of the light. "I beg to state," he writes in his report to the Elder Brethren, "that, in my opinion. Professor Holmes has practically established the fitness and sufficiency of the magneto-electric light for lighthouse purposes, so far as its nature and management are concerned. The light produced is powerful beyond any other that I have yet seen so applied, and in principle may be accumulated to any degree; its regularity in the lantern is great; its management easy, and its care there may be confided to attentive keepers of the ordinary degree of intellect and knowledge." As regards the conduct of Professor Holmes during these memorable experiments, it is only fair to add the following remark with which Faraday closes the report submitted to the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House on the 29th of April, 1859: "I must bear my testimony," he says, "to the perfect openness, candor, and honor of Professor Holmes. He has answered every question, concealed no weak point, explained every applied principle, given every reason for a change either in this or that direction, during several periods of close questioning, in a manner that was very agreeable to me, whose duty it was to search for real faults or possible objections in respect both of the present time and the future."[5]

Soon afterward the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House had the intelligent courage to establish the machines of Holmes permanently at Dungeness, where the magneto-electric light continued to shine for many years.

The magneto-electric machine of the Alliance Company soon succeeded that of Holmes, and was in various ways a very marked improvement on the latter. Its currents were stronger and its light brighter than those of its predecessor. In it, moreover, the commutator, the flashing and destruction of which were sources of irrregularity and deterioration in the machine of Holmes, was, at the suggestion of M. Masson,[6] entirely abandoned; alternating currents instead of the direct current being employed. M. Serrin modified his excellent lamp with the express view of enabling it to cope with alternating currents. During the International Exhibition of 1862, where the machine was shown, M. Berlioz offered to dispose of the invention to the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House. They referred the matter to Faraday, and he replied as follows: "I am not aware that the Trinity House authorities have advanced so far as to be able to decide whether they will require more magneto-electric machines, or whether, if they should require them, they see reason to suppose the means of their supply in this country, from the source already open to them, would not be sufficient. Therefore I do not see that at present they want to purchase a machine." Faraday was obviously swayed by the desire to protect the interests of Holmes, who had borne the burden and heat which fall upon the pioneer. The Alliance machines were introduced with success at Cape La Hève, near Havre; and the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House, determined to have the best available apparatus, decided, in 1868, on the introduction of machines on the Alliance principle into the lighthouses at Souter Point and the South Foreland. These machines were constructed by Professor Holmes, and they still continue in operation. With regard, then, to the application of electricity to lighthouse purposes, the course of events was this: The Dungeness light was introduced on January 31, 1862; the light at La Hève on December 26, 1863, or nearly two years later. But Faraday's experimental trial at the South Foreland preceded the lighting of Dungeness by more than two years. The electric light was afterward established at Cape Grinez. The light was started at Souter Point on January 11, 1871; and at the South Foreland on January 1, 1872. At the Lizard, which probably enjoys the newest and most powerful development of the electric light, it began to shine on January 1, 1878.
I have now to revert to a point of apparently small moment, but which really constitutes an important step in the development of this subject. I refer to the form given in 1857 to the rotating armature by Dr. Werner Siemens, of Berlin, Instead of employing coils wound transversely round cores of iron, as in the machine of Saxton, Siemens, after giving a bar of iron the proper shape, wound his wire longitudinally round it, and obtained thereby greatly augmented effects between suitably placed magnetic poles. Such an armature is employed in the small magneto-electric machine which I now introduce to your notice, and for which the institution is indebted to Mr. Henry Wilde, of Manchester. There are here sixteen permanent horseshoe magnets placed parallel to each other, and between their poles a Siemens armature. The two ends of the wire which surrounds the armature are now disconnected. In turning the handle and causing the armature to rotate, I simply overcome ordinary mechanical friction. But the two ends of the armature coil can be united in a moment, and when this is done I immediately experience a greatly increased resistance to rotation. Something over and above the ordinary friction of the machine is now to be overcome, and by the expenditure of an additional amount of muscular force I am able to overcome it. The excess of labor thus thrown upon my arm has its exact equivalent in the electric currents generated, and the heat produced by their subsidence in the coil of the armature. A portion of this heat may be rendered visible by connecting the two ends of the coil with a thin platinum wire. When the handle of the machine is rapidly turned the wire glows, first with a red heat, then with a white heat, and finally with the heat of fusion. The moment the wire melts the circuit round the armature is broken, an instant relief from the labor thrown upon the arm being the consequence. Clearly realize the equivalent of the heat here developed. During the period of turning the machine a certain amount of combustible substance was oxidized or burned in the muscles of my arm. Had it done no external work the matter consumed would have produced a definite amount of heat. Now, the muscular heat actually developed during the rotation of the machine fell short of this definite amount, the missing heat being reproduced to the last fraction in the glowing platinum wire and the other parts of the machine. Here, then, the electric current intervenes between my muscles and the generated heat, exactly as it did a moment ago between the voltaic battery and its generated heat. The electric current is to all intents and purposes a vehicle which transports the heat both of muscle and battery to any distance from the hearth where the fuel is consumed. Not only is the current a messenger, but it is also an intensifier of magical power. The temperature of my arm is, in round numbers, 100° Fahr., and it is by the intensification of this heat that one of the most refractory of metals, which requires a heat of 3,600° Fahr. to fuse it, has been reduced to the molten condition.

Zinc, as I have said, is a fuel far too expensive to permit of the electric light produced by its combustion being used for the common purposes of life, and you will readily perceive that the human muscles, or even the muscles of a horse, would be more expensive still. Here, however, we can employ the force of burning coal to turn our machine, and it is this employment of our cheapest fuel, rendered possible by Faraday's discovery, which opens out the prospect of our being able to apply the electric light to public use.

In 1866 a great step in the intensification of induced currents, and the consequent augmentation of the magneto-electric light, was taken by Mr. Henry Wilde. It fell to my lot to report upon them to the Royal Society, but before doing so I took the trouble of going to Manchester to witness Mr. Wilde's experiments. He operated in this way: Starting from a small machine like that worked in your presence a moment ago, he employed its current to excite an electro-magnet of a peculiar shape, between whose poles rotated a Siemens armature;[7] from this armature currents were obtained vastly stronger than those generated by the small magneto-electric machine. These currents might have been immediately employed to produce the electric light; but instead of this they were conducted round a second electro-magnet of vast size, between whose poles rotated a Siemens armature of corresponding dimensions. Three armatures therefore were involved in this series of operations: 1. The armature of the small magneto-electric machine; 2. The armature of the first electro-magnet, which was of considerable size; and, 3. The armature of the second electro-magnet, which was of vast dimensions. With the currents drawn from this third armature, Mr. Wilde obtained effects, both as regards heat and light, enormously transcending those previously known.[8]

But the discovery which, above all others, brought the practical question to the front is now to be considered. On the 4th of February, 1867, a paper was received by the Royal Society from Mr. William Siemens, bearing the title, "On the Conversion of Dynamic into Electrical Force without the Use of Permanent Magnetism."[9] On the 14th of February a paper from Sir Charles Wheatstone was received, bearing the title, "On the Augmentation of the Power of a Magnet by the Reaction thereon of Currents induced by the Magnet itself." Both papers, which dealt with the same discovery, and which were illustrated by experiments, were read upon the same night, viz., the 14th of February. The whole field of science hardly furnishes a more beautiful example of the interaction of natural forces than that set forth in these two papers. You can hardly find a bit of iron—you can hardly pick up an old horseshoe, for example—that does not possess a trace of permanent magnetism; and from such a small beginning Siemens and Wheatstone have taught us to rise by a series of interactions between magnet and armature to a magnetic intensity previously unapproached. Conceive the Siemens armature placed between the poles of a suitable electro-magnet. Suppose this latter to possess at starting the faintest trace of magnetism; when the armature rotates, currents of infinitesimal strength are generated in its coil. Let the ends of that coil be connected with the wire surrounding the electro-magnet. The infinitesimal current generated in the armature will then circulate round the magnet, augmenting its intensity by an infinitesimal amount. The strengthened, magnet instantly reacts upon the coil which feeds it, producing a current of greater strength. This current again passes round the magnet, which immediately brings its enhanced power to bear upon the coil. By this play of mutual give and take between magnet and armature, the strength of the former is raised in a very brief interval from almost nothing to complete magnetic saturation. Such a magnet and armature are able to produce currents of extraordinary power, and if an electric lamp be introduced into the common circuit of magnet and armature, we can readily obtain a most powerful light.[10] By this discovery, then, we are enabled to avoid the trouble and expense involved in the employment of permanent magnets; we are also enabled to drop the exciting magneto-electric machine, and the duplication of the electromagnets. By it, in short, the electric generator is so far simplified, and reduced in cost, as to enable electricity to enter the lists as the rival of our present means of illumination.

Soon after the announcement of their discovery by Siemens and Wheatstone, Mr. Holmes, at the instance of the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House, endeavored to turn this discovery to account for lighthouse purposes. Already, in the spring of 1869, he had constructed a machine which, though hampered with defects, exhibited extraordinary power. The light was developed in the focus of a dioptric apparatus placed on the Trinity Wharf at Blackwall, and witnessed by the Elder Brethren, Mr. Douglass, and myself, from an observatory at Charlton, on the opposite side of the Thames. Falling upon the suspended haze, the light illuminated the atmosphere for miles all round. Anything so sunlike in splendor had not, I imagine, been previously witnessed. The apparatus of Holmes, however, was rapidly distanced by the safer and more powerful machines of Siemens and Gramme.

As regards lighthouse illumination, the next step forward was taken by the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House in 1876-'77. Having previously decided on the establishment of the electric light at the Lizard in Cornwall, they instituted at the time referred to an elaborate series of comparative experiments wherein the machinery of Holmes, of the Alliance Company, of Siemens, and of Gramme, were pitted against each other. The Siemens and the Gramme machines delivered direct currents, while those of Holmes and the Alliance Company delivered alternating currents. The light of the latter was of the same intensity in all azimuths round the place of observation; that of the former was different in different azimuths, the discharge being so regulated as to yield a gush of light of special intensity in one direction. The following table gives in standard candles the performance of the respective machines:[11]

Name of Machines. Maximum. Minimum.
Holmes 1,523 1,523
Alliance 1,953 1,953
Gramme (No. 1) 6,663 4,016
 " (No. 2) 6,663 4,016
Siemens (large) 14,818 8,932
 " (small, No. 1) 5,359 3,339
 " (small, No. 2) 6,864 4,138
Two Holmes's coupled 2,811 2,811
Two Gramme's 11,396 6,869
Two Siemens's (Nos. 1 and 2) 14,134 8,520

These determinations were made by Mr. Douglass, the engineer-in-chief, and Mr. Ayres, the assistant engineer of the Trinity House. After this contest, which was conducted throughout in the most amicable manner, Siemens machines of the smaller type were chosen for the Lizard.[12]

We have machines capable of sustaining a single light and also machines capable of sustaining several lights. The Gramme machine, for example, which ignites the Jablochkoff candles on the Thames Embankment and at the Holborn Viaduct, delivers four currents, each passing through its own circuit. In each circuit are five lamps through which the current belonging to the circuit passes in succession. The lights correspond to so many resisting spaces, over which, as already explained, the current has to leap; the force which accomplishes the leap being that which produces the light. Whether the current is to be competent to pass through five lamps in succession, or to sustain only a single lamp, depends entirely upon the will and skill of the maker of the machine. He has, to guide him, definite laws laid down by Ohm half a century ago, by which he must abide.

Ohm has taught us how to arrange the elements of our battery so as to augment indefinitely its electro-motive force—that force, namely, which urges the current forward and enables it to surmount external obstacles. We have only to link the cells together so that the current generated by each cell shall pass through all the others, and add its electro-motive force to that of all the others. We increase, it is true, at the same time the resistance of the battery, diminishing thereby the quantity of the current from each cell, but we augment the power of the integrated current to overcome external hindrances. The resistance of the battery itself may, indeed, be rendered so great that the external resistance shall vanish in comparison. What is here said regarding the voltaic battery is equally true of magneto-electric machines. If we wish our current to leap over five intervals, and produce five lights in succession, we must invoke a sufficient electro-motive force. This is done through multiplying by the use of thin wires the convolutions of the rotating armature as, a moment ago, we augmented the cells of our voltaic battery. Each additional convolution, like each additional cell, adds its electro-motive force to that of all the others: and, though it also adds its resistance, thereby diminishing the quantity of current contributed by each convolution, the integrated current becomes endowed with the power of leaping across the successive spaces necessary for the production of a series of lights in its course. The current is, as it were, rendered at once thinner and more piercing by the simultaneous addition of internal resistance and electro-motive power. The machines, on the other hand, which produce only a single light have a small internal resistance associated with a small electro-motive force. In such machines the wire of the rotating armature is comparatively short and thick, copper ribbon instead of wire being commonly employed. Such machines deliver a large quantity of electricity of low tension—in other words, of low leaping power. Hence, though competent when their power is converged upon a single interval to produce one splendid light, their currents are unable to force a passage when the number of intervals is increased. Thus, by augmenting the convolutions of our machines, we sacrifice quantity and gain electro-motive force; while, by lessening the number of the convolutions, we sacrifice electro-motive force and gain quantity. Whether we ought to choose the one form of machine or the other depends entirely upon the external work the machine has to perform. If the object be to obtain a single light of great splendor, machines of low resistance and large quantity must be employed. If we want to obtain in the same circuit several lights of moderate intensity, machines of high internal resistance and of correspondingly high electro-motive power must be invoked.

When a coil of covered wire surrounds a bar of iron, the two ends of the coil being connected together, every alteration of the magnetism of the bar is accompanied by the development of an induced current in the coil. The current is only excited during the period of magnetic change. No matter how strong or how weak the magnetism of the bar may be, as long as its condition remains permanent no current is developed. Conceive, then, the pole of a magnet placed near one end of the bar to be moved along it toward the other end. During the time of the pole's motion there will be an incessant change in the magnetism of the bar, and accompanying this change we shall have an induced current in the surrounding coil. If, instead of moving the magnet, we move the bar and its surrounding coil past the magnetic pole, a similar alteration of the magnetism of the bar will occur, and a similar current will be induced in the coil. You have here the fundamental conception which led M. Gramme to the construction of his beautiful machine.[13] He aimed at giving continuous motion to such a bar as we have here described; and for this purpose he bent it into a continuous ring, which, by a suitable mechanism, he caused to rotate rapidly close to the poles of a horseshoe magnet. The direction of the current varied with the motion and with the character of the influencing pole. The result was that the currents in the two semicircles of the coil surrounding the ring flowed in opposite directions. But it was easy, by the mechanical arrangement called a commutator, to gather up the currents and cause them to flow in the same direction. The first machines of Gramme, therefore, furnished direct currents, similar to those yielded by the voltaic pile. M. Gramme subsequently so modified his machine as to produce alternating currents. Such machines are employed to produce the lights now exhibited on the Holborn Viaduct and the Thames Embankment.

Another machine of great alleged merit is that of M. Lontin. It resembles in shape a toothed iron wheel, the teeth being used as cores, round which are wound coils of copper wire. The wheel is caused to rotate between the opposite poles of powerful electro-magnets. On passing each pole the core or tooth is strongly magnetized, and instantly evokes in the surrounding coil an induced current of corresponding strength. The currents excited in approaching and retreating, and in passing different poles, move in opposite directions, but by means of a commutator these conflicting electric streams are gathered up and caused to flow in a common bed. The bobbins in which the currents are induced can be so increased in number as to augment indefinitely the power of the machine. To excite his electro-magnets, M. Lontin applies the principle of Mr. Wilde. A small machine furnishes a direct current, which is carried round the electro-magnets of a second and larger machine. Wilde's principle, it may be added, is also applied on the Thames Embankment and the Holborn Viaduct; a small Gramme machine being used in each case to excite the electro-magnets of the large ones.

The Farmer-Wallace machine is also an apparatus of great power. It consists of a combination of bobbins for induced currents, and of inducing electro-magnets, the latter being excited by the method discovered by Siemens and Wheatstone. In the machines intended for the production of the electric light, the electro-motive force is so great as to permit of the introduction of several lights in the same circuit. A peculiarly novel feature of the Farmer-Wallace system is the shape of the carbons. Instead of rods two large plates of carbons with beveled edges are employed, one above the other. The electric discharge passes from edge to edge, and shifts its position according as the carbon is dissipated. The duration of the light in this case far exceeds that obtainable with rods. I have myself seen four of these lights in the same circuit in Mr. Ladd's workshop in the city, and they are now, I believe, employed at the Liverpool Street Station of the Metropolitan Railway. The Farmer-Wallace "quantity machine" pours forth a flood of electricity of low tension. It is unable to cross the interval necessary for the production of the electric light, but it can fuse thick copper wires. When sent through a short bar of iridium, this refractory metal emits a light of extraordinary splendor.[14]

The machine of M. de Méritens, which he has generously brought over from Paris for our instruction, is the newest of all. In its construction he falls back upon the principle of the magneto-electric machine, employing permanent magnets as the exciters of the induced currents. Using the magnets of the Alliance Company, by a skillful disposition of his bobbins, M. de Méritens produces with eight magnets a light equal to that produced by forty magnets in the Alliance machines. While the space occupied is only one fifth, the cost is little more than one fourth that of the latter. In the De Méritens machine the commutator is abolished. The internal heat is hardly sensible, and the absorption of power, in relation to the effects produced, is small. With his larger machines M. de Méritens maintains a considerable number of lights in the same circuit.[15]


In relation to this subject inventors fall into two classes, the contrivers of regulators and the constructors of machines. M. Rapieff has hitherto belonged to inventors of the first class, but I have reason to know that he is engaged on a machine which, when complete, will place him in the other class also. Instead of two single carbon rods, M. Rapieff employs two pairs of rods, each pair forming a V. The light is produced at the common junction of the four carbons. The device for regulating the light is of the simplest character. At the bottom of the stand which supports the carbons are two small electro-magnets. One of them, when the current passes, draws the carbons together, and in so doing throws itself out of circuit, leaving the control of the light to the other. The carbons are caused to approach each other by a descending weight, which acts in conjunction with the electro-magnet. Through the liberality of the proprietors of the "Times" every facility has been given to M. Rapieff to develop and simplify his invention at Printing House Square. The illumination of the press-room, which I had the pleasure of witnessing, under the guidance of M. Rapieff himself, is extremely effectual and agreeable to the eye. There are, I believe, five lamps in the same circuit, and the regulators are so devised that the extinction of any lamp does not compromise the action of the others. M. Rapieff has lately improved his regulator.

Many other inventors might here be named, and fresh ones are daily crowding in. Mr. Werdermann has been long known in connection with this subject. Employing as negative carbon a disk, and as positive carbon a rod, he has, I am assured, obtained very satisfactory results. The small resistances brought into play by his minute arcs enable Mr. Werdermann to introduce a number of lamps into a circuit traversed by a current of only moderate electro-motive power. M. Reynier is also the inventor of a very beautiful little lamp, in which the point of a thin carbon rod, properly adjusted, is caused to touch the circumference of a carbon wheel which rotates underneath the point. The light is developed at the place of contact of rod and wheel. One of the last steps, though I am informed not quite the last, in the improvement of regulators is this: The positive carbon wastes more profusely than the negative, and this is alleged to be due to the greater heat of the former. It occurred to Mr. William Siemens to chill the negative artificially, with the view of diminishing or wholly preventing its waste. This he accomplishes by making the negative pole a hollow cone of copper, and by ingeniously discharging a small jet of cold water against the interior of the cone. His negative of copper is thus caused to remain fixed in space, for it is not dissipated, the positive carbon only needing control. I have seen this lamp in action, and can bear witness to its success.

I might go on to other inventions, achieved or projected. Indeed, there is something bewildering in the recent rush of constructive talent into this domain of applied electricity. The question and its prospects are modified from day to day, a steady advance being made toward the improvement both of machines and regulators. With regard to our public lighting, I strongly lean to the opinion that the electric light will at no distant day triumph over gas. I am not so sure that it will do so in our private houses. As, however, I am anxious to avoid dropping a word here that could influence the share market in the slightest degree, I limit myself to this general statement of opinion.

To one inventor in particular belongs the honor of the idea, and the realization of the idea, of causing the carbon rods to burn away like a candle. It is needless for me to say that I here refer to the young Russian officer, M. Jablochkoff. He sets two carbon rods upright at a small distance apart, and fills the space between them with an insulating substance like plaster of Paris. The carbon rods are fixed in metallic holders. A momentary contact is established between the two carbons by a little cross-piece of the same substance placed horizontally from top to top. This cross-piece is immediately dissipated or removed by the current, the passage of which once established is afterward maintained. The carbons gradually waste, while the substance between them melts like the wax of a candle. The comparison, however, only holds good for the act of melting; for, as regards the current, the insulating plaster is practically inert. Indeed, as proved by M. Rapieff and Mr. Wilde, the plaster may be dispensed with altogether, the current passing from point to point between the naked carbons. M. de Méritens has recently brought out a new candle, in which the plaster is abandoned, while between the two principal carbons is placed a third insulated rod of the same material. With the small De Méritens machine two of these candles can be lighted before you; they produce a very brilliant light.[16] In the Jablochkoff candle it is necessary that the carbons should be consumed at the same rate. Hence the necessity for alternating currents by which this equal consumption is secured. It will be seen that M. Jablochkoff has abolished regulators altogether, introducing the candle principle in their stead. In my judgment, the performance of the Jablochkoff candle on the Thames Embankment and the Holborn Viaduct is highly creditable, notwithstanding a considerable waste of light toward the sky. The Jablochkoff lamps, it may be added, would be more effective in a street, where their light would be scattered abroad by the adjacent houses, than in the positions which they now occupy in London.


It was my custom some years ago, whenever I needed a new and complicated instrument, to sit down beside its proposed constructor, and to talk the matter over with him. The study of the inventor's mind which this habit opened out was always of the highest interest to me. I particularly well remember the impression made upon me on such occasions by the late Mr. Darker, a philosophical instrument maker in Lambeth. This man's life was a struggle, and the reason of it was not far to seek. No matter how commercially lucrative the work upon which he was engaged might be, he would instantly turn aside from it to seize and realize the ideas of a scientific man. He had an inventor's power, and an inventor's delight in its exercise. The late Mr. Becker possessed the same power in a very considerable degree. On the Continent, Froment, Breguet, Sauerwald, and others might be mentioned as eminent instances of ability of this kind. Such minds resemble a liquid on the point of crystallization. Stirred by a hint, crystals of constructive thought immediately shoot through them. That Mr. Edison possesses this intuitive power in no common measure is proved by what he has already accomplished. He has the penetration to seize the relationship of facts and principles, and the art to reduce them to novel and concrete combinations. Hence, though he has thus far accomplished nothing that we can recognize as new in relation to the electric light, an adverse opinion as to his ability to solve the complicated problem on which he is engaged would be unwarranted.

I will endeavor to illustrate in a simple manner Mr. Edison's alleged mode of electric illumination, taking advantage of what Ohm has taught us regarding the laws of the current, and what Joule has taught us regarding the relation of resistance to the development of light and heat. From one end of a voltaic battery runs a wire, dividing at a certain point into two branches which reunite in a single wire connected with the other end of the battery. From the positive end of the battery the current passes first through the single wire to the point of junction, where it divides itself between the branches according to a well-known law. If the branches be equally resistant, the current divides itself equally between them. If one branch be less resistant than the other, more than half the current will choose the freer path. The strict law is that the quantity of current is inversely proportional to the resistance. A clear image of the process is derived from the deportment of water. When a river meets an island it divides, passing right and left of the obstacle, and afterward reuniting. If the two branch beds be equal in depth, width, and inclination, the water will divide itself equally between them. If they be unequal, the larger quantity of water will flow through the more open course. And as, in the case of the water, we may have an indefinite number of islands producing an indefinite subdivision of the trunk stream, so in the case of electricity we may have, instead of two branches, any number of branches, the current dividing itself among them, in accordance with the law which fixes the relation of flow to resistance.

Let us apply this knowledge. Suppose an insulated copper rod, which we may call an "electric main," to be laid down along one of our streets, say along the Strand. Let this rod be connected with one end of a powerful voltaic battery, a good metallic connection being established between the other end of the battery and the gas-pipes under the street. As long as the electric main continues unconnected with the gas-pipes, the circuit is incomplete and no current will flow; but if any part of the main, however distant from the battery, be connected with the adjacent gas-pipes, the circuit will be completed and the current will flow. Supposing our battery to be at Charing Cross, and our rod of copper to be tapped opposite Somerset House, a branch wire can be carried from the rod into the building, the current passing through which may be subdivided into any number of subordinate branches which reunite afterward and return through the gas-pipes to the battery. The branch currents may be employed to raise to vivid incandescence a refractory metal like iridium or one of its alloys. Instead of being tapped at one point, our main may be tapped at one hundred points. The current will divide in strict accordance with law, its power to produce light being solely limited by its strength. The process of division closely resembles the circulation of the blood; the electric main carrying the outgoing current representing a great artery, the gas-pipes carrying the return current representing a great vein, while the intermediate branches represent the various vessels by which the blood is distributed through the system. This, if I understand aright, is Mr. Edison's proposed mode of illumination. The electric force is at hand. Metals sufficiently refractory to bear being raised to vivid incandescence are also within reach. The principles which regulate the division of the current and the development of its light and heat are perfectly well known. There is no room for a "discovery," in the scientific sense of the term, but there is ample room for the exercise of that mechanical ingenuity which has given us the sewing-machine and so many other useful inventions, and which engages a greater number of minds in the United States than in any other nation in the world. Knowing something of the intricacy of the practical problem, I should certainly prefer seeing it in Mr. Edison's hands than in mine.[17]

It is sometimes stated as a recommendation to the electric light, that it is light without heat; but to disprove this it is only necessary to point to the experiments of Davy, which show that the heat of the voltaic arc transcends that of any other terrestrial source. The emission from the carbon points is capable of accurate analysis. To simplify the subject, we will take the case of a platinum wire at first slightly warmed by the current, and then, through the gradual augmentation of the latter, raised to a white heat. When first warmed, the wire sends forth rays which have no power on the optic nerve. They are what we call invisible rays; and not until the temperature of the wire has reached nearly 1,000° Fahr. does it begin to glow with a faint, red light. The rays which it emits prior to redness are all invisible rays, which can warm the hand but can not excite vision. When the temperature of the wire is raised to whiteness these dark rays not only persist, but they are enormously augmented in intensity. They constitute about 95 per cent, of the total radiation from the white-hot platinum wire. They make up nearly 90 per cent, of the emission from a brilliant electric light. You can by no means have the light of the carbons without this invisible emission as an accompaniment. The visible radiation is, as it were, built upon the invisible as its necessary foundation.

It is easy to illustrate the growth in intensity of these invisible rays as the visible ones enter the radiation and augment in power. The transparency of the simple gases and metalloids—of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, chlorine, iodine, bromine, sulphur, phosphorus, and even of carbon—for the invisible heat-rays is extraordinary. Dissolved in a proper vehicle iodine cuts the visible radiation sharply off, but allows the invisible free transmission. By dissolving iodine in sulphur. Professor Dewar has recently added to the number of our effectual ray filters. The mixture may be made as black as pitch for the visible, while remaining transparent for the invisible rays. By such filters it is possible to detach the invisible rays from the total radiation, and to watch their augmentation as the light increases. Expressing the radiation from a platinum wire when it first feels warm to the touch—when, therefore, all its rays are invisible—by the number one, the invisible radiation from the same wire raised to a white heat may be five hundred or more. It is not, then, by the diminution or transformation of the non-luminous emission that we obtain the luminous; the heat-rays maintain their ground as the necessary antecedents and companions of the light-rays. When detached and concentrated these powerful heat-rays can produce all the effects ascribed to the mirrors of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse. While incompetent to produce the faintest glimmer of light, or to effect the most delicate air-thermometer, they will inflame paper, burn up wood, and even ignite combustible metals. When they impinge upon a metal refractory enough to bear their shock without fusion, they can raise it to a heat so white and luminous as to yield, when analyzed, all the colors of the spectrum. In this way the dark rays emitted by the incandescent carbons are converted into light rays of all colors. Still, so powerless are these invisible rays to excite vision that the eye has been placed at a focus competent to raise platinum-foil to bright redness without experiencing any visual impression. Light for light, no doubt, the amount of heat imparted by the incandescent carbons to the air is far less than that imparted by gas-flames. It is less because of the smaller size of the carbons, and of the comparative smallness of the quantity of fuel consumed in a given time. It is also less because the air can not penetrate the carbons as it penetrates a flame. The temperature of the flame is lowered by the admixture of a gas which constitutes four fifths of our atmosphere, and which, while it appropriates and diffuses the heat, does not aid in the combustion; and this lowering of the temperature by the inert atmospheric nitrogen renders necessary the combustion of a greater amount of gas to produce the necessary light. In fact, though the statement may appear paradoxical, it is entirely because of its enormous actual temperature that the electric light seems so cool. It is this temperature that renders the proportion of luminous to non-luminous heat greater in the electric light than in our brightest flames. The electric light, moreover, requires no air to sustain it. It glows in the most perfect air-vacuum. Its light and heat are therefore not purchased at the expense of the vitalizing constituent of the atmosphere. It sheds its light without vitiating the air.


Two orders of minds have been implicated in the development of this subject: first, the investigator and discoverer, whose object is purely scientific, and who cares little for practical ends; secondly, the practical mechanician, whose object is mainly industrial. It would be easy, and probably in many cases true, to say that the one wants to gain knowledge, while the other wants to make money; but I am persuaded that the mechanician not unfrequently merges the hope of profit in the love of his work. Members of each of these classes are sometimes scornful toward those of the other. There is, for example, something superb in the disdain with which Cuvier hands over the discoveries of pure science to those who apply them: "Your grand practical achievements are only the easy application of truths not sought with a practical intent—truths which their discoverers pursued for their own sake, impelled solely by an ardor for knowledge. Those who turned them into practice could not have discovered them, while those who discovered them had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue them to a practical result. Your rising workshops, your peopled colonies, your vessels which furrow the seas; this abundance, this luxury, this tumult"—"this commotion," he would have added, were he now alive, "regarding the electric light"—"all come from discoverers in science, though all remain strange to them. The day that a discovery enters the market they abandon it; it concerns them no more."

In writing thus Cuvier probably did not sufficiently take into account the reaction of the applications of science upon science itself. The improvement of an old instrument or the invention of a new one is often tantamount to an enlargement and refinement of the senses of the scientific investigator. Beyond this, the amelioration of the community is also an object worthy of the best efforts of the human brain. Still, assuredly it is well and wise for a nation to bear in mind that those practical applications which strike the public eye, and excite public admiration, are the outgrowth of long-antecedent labors begun, continued, and ended under the operation of a purely intellectual stimulus. "Few," says Pasteur, "seem to comprehend the real origin of the marvels of industry and the wealth of nations. I need no other proof of this than the frequent employment in lectures, speeches, and official language of the erroneous expression, 'applied science.' A statesman of the greatest talent stated some time ago that in our day the reign of theoretic science had rightly yielded place to that of applied science. Nothing, I venture to say, could be more dangerous, even to practical life, than the consequences which might flow from these words. They show the imperious necessity of a reform in our higher education. There exists no category of sciences to which the name of applied science could be given. We have science and the applications of science which are united as tree and fruit."

A final reflection is here suggested. We have among us a small cohort of social regenerators—men of high thoughts and aspirations—who would place the operations of the scientific mind under the control of a hierarchy which should dictate to the man of science the course that he ought to pursue. How this hierarchy is to get its wisdom they do not explain. They decry and denounce scientific theories; they scorn all reference to ether, and atoms, and molecules, as subjects lying far apart from the world's needs; and yet such ultra-sensible conceptions are often the spur to the greatest discoveries. The source, in fact, from which the true natural philosopher derives inspiration and unifying power is essentially ideal. Faraday lived in this ideal world. Nearly half a century ago, when he first obtained a spark from a magnet, an Oxford don expressed regret that such a discovery should have been made, as it placed a new and facile implement in the hands of the incendiary. To regret, a Comtist hierarchy would have probably added repression, sending Faraday back to his bookbinder's bench as a more dignified and practical sphere of action than piddling with a magnet. And yet it is Faraday's spark which now shines upon our coasts, and promises to illuminate our streets, halls, quays, squares, warehouses, and, perhaps at no distant day, our homes.

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  1. A discourse delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Friday, January 17, 1879.
  2. Mr. William Spottiswoode, now President of the Royal Society.
  3. Davy, "Chemical Philosophy," p. 110.
  4. In the concluding lecture at the Royal Institution in June, 1810, Davy showed the action of this battery. He then fused iridium, the alloy of indium and osmium, and other refractory substances. See "Philosophical Magazine," vol. xxxv., p. 463. Quetelet assigns the first production of the spark between coal-points to Curtet in 1802. Davy certainly in that year showed the carbon-light with a battery of 150 pairs of plates in the theatre of the Royal Institution ("Journal of the Royal Institution," vol. i., p. 166).
  5. Holmes's first offer of his machine to the Trinity House bears the date February 2, 1857.
  6. Du Moncel, "L'Électricité," August, 1878, p. 150.
  7. Page and Moigno had previously shown that the magneto-electric current could produce powerful electro-magnets.
  8. Mr. Wilde's paper is published in the "Philosophical Transactions" for 1867, p. 89. My opinion regarding Wilde's machine was briefly expressed in a report to the Elder Brethren of the Trinity House on the 17th of May, 1866: "It gives me pleasure to state that the machine is exceedingly effective, and that it far transcends in power all other apparatus of the kind."
  9. A paper on the same subject, by Dr. Werner Siemens, was read on the 17th of January, 1867, before the Academy of Sciences in Berlin. In a letter to "Engineering," No. 622, p. 45, Mr. Robert Sabine states that Professor Wheatstone's machines were constructed by Mr. Stroh in the months of July and August, 1866. I do not doubt Mr. Sabine's statement; still it would be dangerous in the highest degree to depart from the canon, in asserting which Faraday was specially strenuous, that the date of a discovery is the date of its publication. Toward the end of December, 1866, Mr. Alfred Varley also lodged a provisional specification (which, I believe, is a sealed document) embodying the principles of the dynamo-electric machine, but some years elapsed before he made anything public. His brother, Mr. Cromwell Varley, when writing on this subject in 1867, does not mention him ("Proceedings of the Royal Society," March 14, 1867). It probably marks a national trait that sealed communications, though allowed in France, have never been recognized by the scientific societies of England.
  10. In 1867 Mr. Ladd introduced the modification of dividing the armature into two separate coils, one of which fed the electro-magnets, while the other yielded the induced currents.
  11. Observations from the sea on the night of November 21, 1876, made the Gramme and small Siemens practically equal to the Alliance. But the photometric observations, in which the external resistance was abolished, and previous to which the light-keepers had become more skilled in the management of the direct current, showed the differences recorded in the table. A close inspection of these powerful lights at the South Foreland caused my face to peel, as if it had been irritated by an Alpine sun.
  12. As the result of a recent trial by Mr. Schwendler, they have been also chosen for India.
  13. "Comptes Rendus," 1871, p. 176. See also Gaugain on the Gramme machine, "Ann. do Chim. at de Phys.," vol. xxviii., p. 324.
  14. The iridium light was shown by Mr. Ladd. It brilliantly illuminated the theatre of the Royal Institution.
  15. The small machine transforms one and a quarter horse-power into heat and light, yielding about 1,900 candles; the large machine transforms five horse-power, yielding about 9,000 candles.
  16. Both the machines of M. de Méritens and the Farmer-Wallace machine were worked by an excellent gas-engine, lent for the occasion by the Messrs. Crossley, of Manchester. The Siemens machine was worked by steam.
  17. More than thirty years ago the radiation from incandescent platinum was admirably investigated by Dr. Draper, of New York.