1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Conduction, Electric
CONDUCTION, ELECTRIC. The electric conductivity of a substance is that property in virtue of which all its parts come spontaneously to the same electric potential if the substance is kept free from the operation of electric force. Accordingly, the reciprocal quality, electric resistivity, may be defined as a quality of a substance in virtue of which a difference of potential can exist between different portions of the body when these are in contact with some constant source of electromotive force, in such a manner as to form part of an electric circuit.
All material substances possess in some degree, large or small, electric conductivity, and may for the sake of convenience be broadly divided into five classes in this respect. Between these, however, there is no sharply-marked dividing line, and the classification must therefore be accepted as a more or less arbitrary one. These divisions are: (1) metallic conductors, (2) non-metallic conductors, (3) dielectric conductors, (4) electrolytic conductors, (5) gaseous conductors. The first class comprises all metallic substances, and those mixtures or combinations of metallic substances known as alloys. The second includes such non-metallic bodies as carbon, silicon, many of the oxides and peroxides of the metals, and probably also some oxides of the non-metals, sulphides and selenides. Many of these substances, for instance carbon and silicon, are well-known to have the property of existing in several allotropic forms, and in some of these conditions, so far from being fairly good conductors, they may be almost perfect non-conductors. An example of this is seen in the case of carbon in its three allotropic conditions —charcoal, graphite and diamond. As charcoal it possesses a fairly well-marked but not very high conductivity in comparison with metals; as graphite, a conductivity about one-four-hundredth of that of iron; but as diamond so little conductivity that the substance is included amongst insulators or non-conductors. The third class includes those substances which are generally called insulators or non-conductors, but which are better denominated dielectric conductors; it comprises such solid substances as mica, ebonite, shellac, india-rubber, gutta-percha, paraffin, and a large number of liquids, chiefly hydrocarbons. These substances differ greatly in insulating power, and according as the conductivity is more or less marked, they are spoken of as bad or good insulators. Amongst the latter many of the liquid gases hold a high position. Thus, liquid oxygen and liquid air have been shown by Sir James Dewar to be almost perfect non-conductors of electricity.
The behaviour of substances which fall into these three classes is discussed below in section I., dealing with metallic conduction.
The fourth class, namely the electrolytic conductors comprises all those substances which undergo chemical decomposition when they form part of an electric circuit traversed by an electric current. They are discussed in section II., dealing with electrolytic conduction.
The fifth and last class of conductors includes the gases. The conditions under which this class of substance becomes possessed of electric conductivity are considered in section III., on conduction in gases.
In connexion with metallic conductors, it is a fact of great interest and considerable practical importance, that, although the majority of metals when in a finely divided or powdered condition are practically non-conductors, a mass of metallic powder or filings may be made to pass suddenly into a conductive condition by being exposed to the influence of an electric wave. The same is true of the loose contact of two metallic conductors. Thus if a steel point, such as a needle, presses very lightly against a metallic plate, say of aluminium, it is found that this metallic contact, if carefully adjusted, is non-conductive, but that if an electric wave is created anywhere in the neighbourhood, this non-conducting contact passes into a conductive state. This fact, investigated and discovered independently by D. E. Hughes, C. Onesti, E. Branly, O. J. Lodge and others, is applied in the construction of the “coherer,” or sensitive tube employed as a detector or receiver in that form of “wireless telegraphy” chiefly developed by Marconi. Further references to it are made in the articles Electric Waves and Telegraphy: Wireless.
International Ohm.—The practical unit of electrical resistance was legally defined in Great Britain by the authority of the queen in council in 1894, as the “resistance offered to an invariable electric current by a column of mercury at the temperature of melting ice, 14.4521 grammes in mass, of a constant cross-sectional area, and a length 106.3 centimetres.” The same unit has been also legalized as a standard in France, Germany and the United States, and is denominated the “International or Standard Ohm.” It is intended to represent as nearly as possible a resistance equal to 10° absolute C.G.S. units of electric resistance. Convenient multiples and subdivisions of the ohm are the microhm and the megohm, the former being a millionth part of an ohm, and the latter a million ohms. The resistivity of substances is then numerically expressed by stating the resistance of one cubic centimetre of the substance taken between opposed faces, and expressed in ohms, microhms or megohms, as may be most convenient. The reciprocal of the ohm is called the mho, which is the unit of conductivity, and is defined as the conductivity of a substance whose resistance is one ohm. The absolute unit of conductivity is the conductivity of a substance whose resistivity is one absolute C.G.S. unit, or one-thousandth-millionth part of an ohm. Resistivity is a quality in which material substances differ very widely. The metals and alloys, broadly speaking, are good conductors, and their resistivity is conveniently expressed in microhms per cubic centimetre, or in absolute C.G.S. units. Very small differences in density and in chemical purity make, however, immense differences in electric resistivity; hence the values given by different experimentalists for the resistivity of known metals differ to a considerable extent.