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
The experiments of Stephen Gray
In 1729 Stephen Gray (died in 1736), an eccentric and irascible old pensioner of the Charter House in London, undertook some investigations along lines similar to those of Hauksbee. While experimenting with a glass tube for producing electricity, as Hauksbee had done, he noticed that the corks with which he had stopped the ends of the tube to exclude the dust, seemed to attract bits of paper and leaf-brass as well as the glass itself. He surmised at once that this mysterious electricity, or "virtue," as it was called, might be transmitted through other substances as it seemed to be through glass.

"Having by me an ivory ball of about one and three-tenths of an inch in diameter," he writes, "with a hole through it, this I fixed upon a fir-stick about four inches long, thrusting the other end into the cork, and upon rubbing the tube found that the ball attracted and repelled the feather with more vigor than the cork had done, repeating its attractions and repulsions for many times together. I then fixed the ball on longer sticks, first upon one of eight inches, and afterwards upon one of twenty-four inches long, and found the effect the same. Then I made use of iron, and then brass wire, to fix the ball on, inserting the other end of the wire in the cork, as before, and found that the attraction was the same as when the fir-sticks were made use of, and that when the feather was held over against any part of the wire it was attracted by it; but though it was then nearer the tube, yet its attraction was not so strong as that of the ball. When the wire of two or three feet long was used, its vibrations, caused by the rubbing of the tube, made it somewhat troublesome to be managed. This put me to thinking whether, if the ball was hung by a pack-thread and suspended by a loop on the tube, the electricity would not be carried down the line to the ball; I found it to succeed accordingly; for upon suspending the ball on the tube by a pack-thread about three feet long, when the tube had been excited by rubbing, the ivory ball attracted and repelled the leaf-brass over which it was held as freely as it had done when it was suspended on sticks or wire, as did also a ball of cork, and another of lead that weighed one pound and a quarter."

Gray next attempted to determine what other bodies would attract the bits of paper, and for this purpose he tried coins, pieces of metal, and even a tea-kettle, "both empty and filled with hot or cold water"; but he found that the attractive power appeared to be the same regardless of the substance used.

"I next proceeded," he continues, "to try at what greater distances the electric virtues might be carried, and having by me a hollow walking-cane, which I suppose was part of a fishing-rod, two feet seven inches long, I cut the great end of it to fit into the bore of the tube, into which it went about five inches; then when the cane was put into the end of the tube, and this excited, the cane drew the leaf-brass to the height of more than two inches, as did also the ivory ball, when by a cork and stick it had been fixed to the end of the cane.... With several pieces of Spanish cane and fir-sticks I afterwards made a rod, which, together with the tube, was somewhat more than eighteen feet long, which was the greatest length I could conveniently use in my chamber, and found the attraction very nearly, if not altogether, as strong as when the ball was placed on the shorter rods."

This experiment exhausted the capacity of his small room, but on going to the country a little later he was able to continue his experiments. "To a pole of eighteen feet there was tied a line of thirty-four feet in length, so that the pole and line together were fifty-two feet. With the pole and tube I stood in the balcony, the assistant below in the court, where he held the board with the leaf-brass on it. Then the tube being excited, as usual, the electric virtue passed from the tube up the pole and down the line to the ivory ball, which attracted the leaf-brass, and as the ball passed over it in its vibrations the leaf-brass would follow it till it was carried off the board."

Gray next attempted to send the electricity over a line suspended horizontally. To do this he suspended the pack-thread by pieces of string looped over nails driven into beams for that purpose. But when thus suspended he found that the ivory ball no longer excited the leaf-brass, and he guessed correctly that the explanation of this lay in the fact that "when the electric virtue came to the loop that was suspended on the beam it went up the same to the beam," none of it reaching the ball. As we shall see from what follows, however, Gray had not as yet determined that certain substances will conduct electricity while others will not. But by a lucky accident he made the discovery that silk, for example, was a poor conductor, and could be turned to account in insulating the conducting-cord.

A certain Mr. Wheler had become much interested in the old pensioner and his work, and, as a guest at the Wheler house, Gray had been repeating some of his former experiments with the fishing-rod, line, and ivory ball. He had finally exhausted the heights from which these experiments could be made by climbing to the clock-tower and exciting bits of leaf-brass on the ground below.

"As we had no greater heights here," he says, "Mr. Wheler was desirous to try whether we could not carry the electric virtue horizontally. I then told him of the attempt I had made with that design, but without success, telling him the method and materials made use of, as mentioned above. He then proposed a silk line to support the line by which the electric virtue was to pass. I told him it might do better upon account of its smallness; so that there would be less virtue carried from the line of communication.

"The first experiment was made in the matted gallery, July 2, 1729, about ten in the morning. About four feet from the end of the gallery there was a cross line that was fixed by its ends to each side of the gallery by two nails; the middle part of the line was silk, the rest at each end pack-thread; then the line to which the ivory ball was hung and by which the electric virtue was to be conveyed to it from the tube, being eighty and one-half feet in length, was laid on the cross silk line, so that the ball hung about nine feet below it. Then the other end of the line was by a loop suspended on the glass cane, and the leaf-brass held under the ball on a piece of white paper; when, the tube being rubbed, the ball attracted the leaf-brass, and kept it suspended on it for some time."

This experiment succeeded so well that the string was lengthened until it was some two hundred and ninety-three feet long; and still the attractive force continued, apparently as strong as ever. On lengthening the string still more, however, the extra weight proved too much for the strength of the silk suspending-thread. "Upon this," says Gray, "having brought with me both brass and iron wire, instead of the silk we put up small iron wire; but this was too weak to bear the weight of the line. We then took brass wire of a somewhat larger size than that of iron. This supported our line of communication; but though the tube was well rubbed, yet there was not the least motion or attraction given by the ball, neither with the great tube, which we made use of when we found the small solid cane to be ineffectual; by which we were now convinced that the success we had before depended upon the lines that supported the line of communication being silk, and not upon their being small, as before trial I had imagined it might be; the same effect happening here as it did when the line that is to convey the electric virtue is supported by pack-thread."

Soon after this Gray and his host suspended a pack-thread six hundred and sixty-six feet long on poles across a field, these poles being slightly inclined so that the thread could be suspended from the top by small silk cords, thus securing the necessary insulation. This pack-thread line, suspended upon poles along which Gray was able to transmit the electricity, is very suggestive of the modern telegraph, but the idea of signalling or making use of it for communicating in any way seems not to have occurred to any one at that time. Even the successors of Gray who constructed lines some thousands of feet long made no attempt to use them for anything but experimental purposes - simply to test the distances that the current could be sent. Nevertheless, Gray should probably be credited with the discovery of two of the most important properties of electricity - that it can be conducted and insulated, although, as we have seen, Gilbert and Von Guericke had an inkling of both these properties.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.