Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/Electricity in Relation to Science

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ELECTRICITY IN RELATION TO SCIENCE.[1]

By Prof. WILLIAM CROOKES.

THE third annual dinner of the Institution of Electrical Engineers was held at the Criterion on Friday, November 13th, Prof. William Crookes, the president, was in the chair. In proposing the toast of the evening, "Electricity in relation to Science," Prof. Crookes delivered the following speech:

We have happily outgrown the preposterous notion that research in any department of science is mere waste of time. It is now generally admitted that pure science, irrespective of practical applications, benefits both the investigator himself and greatly enriches the community. "It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes." Between the frog's leg quivering on Galvani's work-table and the successful telegraph or telephone there exists a direct filiation. Without the one we could not have the other.

We know little as yet concerning the mighty agency of electricity. "Substantialists" tell us it is a kind of matter. Others view it, not as matter, but as a form of energy. Others, again, reject both these views. Prof. Lodge considers it "a form, or rather a mode of manifestation, of the ether." Prof. Nikola Tesla demurs to the view of Prof. Lodge, but thinks that "nothing stands in the way of our calling electricity ether associated with matter, or bound ether." Higher authorities can not even yet agree whether we have one electricity or two opposite electricities. The only way to tackle the difficulty is to persevere in experiment and observation. If we never learn what electricity is, if, like life or like matter, it should remain an unknown quantity, we shall assuredly discover more about its attributes and its functions.

The light which the study of electricity throws upon a variety of chemical phenomena — witnessed alike in our little laboratories and in the vast laboratories of the earth and the sun — can not be overlooked. The old electro-chemical theory of Berzelius is superseded, and a new and wider theory is opening out. The facts of electrolysis are by no means either completely detected or coordinated. They point to the great probability that electricity is atomic, that an electrical atom is as definite a quantity as a chemical atom. The electrical attraction between two chemical atoms being a trillion times greater than gravitational attraction is probably the force with which chemistry is most deeply concerned.

It has been computed that in a single cubic foot of the ether which fills all space there are locked up ten thousand foot-tons of energy which have hitherto escaped notice. To unlock this boundless store and subdue it to the service of man is a task which awaits the electrician of the future. The latest researches give well-founded hopes that this vast storehouse of power is not hopelessly inaccessible. Up to the present time we have been acquainted with only a very narrow range of ethereal vibrations, from extreme red on the one side to ultra-violet on the other—say from three ten-millionths of a millimetre to eight ten-millionths of a millimetre. Within this comparatively limited range of ethereal vibrations, and the equally narrow range of sound vibrations, we have been hitherto limited to receive and communicate all the knowledge which we share with other rational beings. "Whether vibrations of the ether, slower than those which affect us as light, may not be constantly at work around us, we have until lately never seriously inquired. But the researches of Lodge in England, and Hertz in Germany, give us an almost infinite range of ethereal vibrations or electrical rays, from wave-lengths of thousands of miles down to a few feet. Here is unfolded to us a new and astonishing universe—one which it is hard to conceive should be powerless to transmit and impart intelligence.

Experimentalists are reducing the wave-lengths of the electrical rays. With every diminution in size of the apparatus the wave-lengths get shorter, and could we construct Leyden jars of molecular dimensions the rays might fall within the narrow limits of visibility. We do not yet know how the molecule could be got to act as a Leyden jar; yet it is not improbable that the discontinuous phosphorescent light emitted from certain of the rare earths, when excited by a high-tension current in a high vacuum, is really an artificial production of these electrical rays, sufficiently short to affect our organs of sight. If such a light could be produced more easily and more regularly, it would be far more economical than light from a flame or from the arc, as very little of the energy in play is expended in the form of heat-rays. Of such production of light. Nature supplies us with examples in the glow-worm and the fire-flies. Their light, though sufficiently energetic to be seen at a considerable distance, is accompanied by no liberation of heat capable of detection by our most delicate instruments.

By means of currents alternating with very high frequency. Prof. Nikola Tesla has succeeded in passing by induction through the glass of a lamp energy sufficient to keep a filament in a state of incandescence without the use of connecting wires. He has even lighted a room by producing in it such a condition that an illuminating appliance may be placed anywhere and lighted without being electrically connected with anything. He has produced the required condition by creating in the room a powerful electrostatic field alternating very rapidly. He suspends two sheets of metal, each connected with one of the terminals of the coil. If an exhausted tube is carried anywhere between these sheets, or placed anywhere, it remains always luminous.

The extent to which this method of illumination may be practically available experiments alone can decide. In any case, our insight into the possibilities of static electricity has been extended, and the ordinary electric machine will cease to be regarded as a mere toy.

Alternating currents have at the best a rather doubtful reputation. But it follows from Tesla's researches that as the rapidity of the alternation increases they become not more dangerous but less so. It further appears that a true flame can now be produced without chemical aid—a flame which yields light and heat without the consumption of material and without any chemical process. To this end we require improved methods for producing excessively frequent alternations and enormous potentials. Shall we be able to obtain these by tapping the ether? If so, we may view the prospective exhaustion of our coal-fields with indifference; we shall at once solve the smoke question, and thus dissolve all possible coal rings.

Electricity seems destined to annex the whole field, not merely of optics, but probably also of thermotics.

Rays of light will not pass through a wall, nor, as we know only too well, through a dense fog. But electrical rays of a foot or two wave-length of which we have spoken will easily pierce such mediums, which for them will be transparent.

Another tempting field for research, scarcely yet attacked by pioneers, awaits exploration. I allude to the mutual action of electricity and life. No sound man of science indorses the assertion that "electricity is life"; nor can we even venture to speak of life as one of the varieties or manifestations of energy. Nevertheless, electricity has an important influence upon vital phenomena, and is in turn set in action by the living being—animal or vegetable. We have electric fishes—one of them the prototype of the torpedo of modern warfare. There is the electric slug which used to be met with in gardens and roads about Hornsey Rise; there is also an electric centiped. In the study of such facts and such relations the scientific electrician has before him an almost infinite field of inquiry.

The slower vibrations to which I have referred reveal the bewildering possibility of telegraphy without wires, posts, cables, or any of our present costly appliances. It is vain to attempt to picture the marvels of the future. Progress, as Dean Swift observed, may be too fast for endurance. Sufficient for this generation are the wonders thereof. — Nature.


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  1. Speech delivered at the third annual dinner of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, November 13, 1891.