A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter XIV
Progress in electricity from Gilbert 
and Von Guericke to Franklin
We have seen how Gilbert, by his experiments with magnets, gave an impetus to the study of magnetism and electricity. Gilbert himself demonstrated some facts and advanced some theories, but the system of general laws was to come later. To this end the discovery of electrical repulsion, as well as attraction, by Von Guericke, with his sulphur ball, was a step forward; but something like a century passed after Gilbert's beginning before anything of much importance was done in the field of electricity.

In 1705, however, Francis Hauksbee began a series of experiments that resulted in some startling demonstrations. For many years it had been observed that a peculiar light was seen sometimes in the mercurial barometer, but Hauksbee and the other scientific investigators supposed the radiance to be due to the mercury in a vacuum, brought about, perhaps, by some agitation. That this light might have any connection with electricity did not, at first, occur to Hauksbee any more than it had to his predecessors. The problem that interested him was whether the vacuum in the tube of the barometer was essential to the light; and in experimenting to determine this, he invented his "mercurial fountain." Having exhausted the air in a receiver containing some mercury, he found that by allowing air to rush through the mercury the metal became a jet thrown in all directions against the sides of the vessel, making a great, flaming shower, "like flashes of lightning," as he said. But it seemed to him that there was a difference between this light and the glow noted in the barometer. This was a bright light, whereas the barometer light was only a glow. Pondering over this, Hauksbee tried various experiments, revolving pieces of amber, flint, steel, and other substances in his exhausted air-pump receiver, with negative, or unsatisfactory, results. Finally, it occurred to him to revolve an exhausted glass tube itself. Mounting such a globe of glass on an axis so that it could be revolved rapidly by a belt running on a large wheel, he found that by holding his fingers against the whirling globe a purplish glow appeared, giving sufficient light so that coarse print could be read, and the walls of a dark room sensibly lightened several feet away. As air was admitted to the globe the light gradually diminished, and it seemed to him that this diminished glow was very similar in appearance to the pale light seen in the mercurial barometer. Could it be that it was the glass, and not the mercury, that caused it? Going to a barometer he proceeded to rub the glass above the column of mercury over the vacuum, without disturbing the mercury, when, to his astonishment, the same faint light, to all appearances identical with the glow seen in the whirling globe, was produced.

Turning these demonstrations over in his mind, he recalled the well-known fact that rubbed glass attracted bits of paper, leaf-brass, and other light substances, and that this phenomenon was supposed to be electrical. This led him finally to determine the hitherto unsuspected fact, that the glow in the barometer was electrical as was also the glow seen in his whirling globe. Continuing his investigations, he soon discovered that solid glass rods when rubbed produced the same effects as the tube. By mere chance, happening to hold a rubbed tube to his cheek, he felt the effect of electricity upon the skin like "a number of fine, limber hairs," and this suggested to him that, since the mysterious manifestation was so plain, it could be made to show its effects upon various substances. Suspending some woollen threads over the whirling glass cylinder, he found that as soon as he touched the glass with his hands the threads, which were waved about by the wind of the revolution, suddenly straightened themselves in a peculiar manner, and stood in a radical position, pointing to the axis of the cylinder.

Encouraged by these successes, he continued his experiments with breathless expectancy, and soon made another important discovery, that of "induction," although the real significance of this discovery was not appreciated by him or, for that matter, by any one else for several generations following. This discovery was made by placing two revolving cylinders within an inch of each other, one with the air exhausted and the other unexhausted. Placing his hand on the unexhausted tube caused the light to appear not only upon it, but on the other tube as well. A little later he discovered that it is not necessary to whirl the exhausted tube to produce this effect, but simply to place it in close proximity to the other whirling cylinder.

These demonstrations of Hauksbee attracted wide attention and gave an impetus to investigators in the field of electricity; but still no great advance was made for something like a quarter of a century. Possibly the energies of the scientists were exhausted for the moment in exploring the new fields thrown open to investigation by the colossal work of Newton.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.