Fragments of science, V. 1-2
by John Tyndall
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The machine of M. de Meritens, 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 skilful disposition of his bobbins, M. de Meritens 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 of the latter. In the de Meritens 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 Meritens maintains a considerable number of lights in the same circuit. [Footnote: 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.]


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 develope 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 disc, 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 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 towards 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 honour of the idea, and the realisation of the idea, of causing the carbon rods to burn away like a candle. It is needless 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 afterwards 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 Meritens 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 Meritens machine two of these candles can be lighted before you; they produce a very brilliant light. [Footnote: The machine of M. de Meritens 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.] 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 towards 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 realise 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 crystallisation. 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 recognise 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 endeavour 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 afterwards reuniting. If the two branch beds be equal in depth, width, and inclination, the water will divi de 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 water-pipes under the street. As long as the electric main continues unconnected with the water-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 water-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 wire can be carried from the rod into the building, and the current passing through the wire may be subdivided into any number of subordinate branches, which reunite afterwards and return through the water-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 water-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 at hand. 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. Knowing something of the intricacy of the practical problem, I should certainly prefer seeing it in Mr. Edison's hands to having it in mine. [Footnote: More than thirty years ago the radiation from incandescent platinum was admirably investigated by Dr. Draper of New York.]


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 gradually 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 deg. 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 cannot 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 elementary 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 1, the invisible radiation from the same wire raised to a white heat may be 500 or more. [Footnote: See article 'Radiation', vol. i.]

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 affect 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 analysed, all the colours of the spectrum. In this way the dark rays emitted by the incandescent carbons are converted into light rays of all colours. 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 cannot 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 vitalising constituent of the atmosphere.

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 wishes 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 towards 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 ardour 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 labours 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 amongst 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 aether, 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 the 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 peddling 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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