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

Book 3, chapter VII
The modern development of electricity and magnetism
Davy and Electric light
Volta's announcement of his pile was scarcely two months old when two Englishmen, Messrs. Nicholson and Carlisle, made the discovery that the current from the galvanic battery had a decided effect upon certain chemicals, among other things decomposing water into its elements, hydrogen and oxygen. On May 7, 1800, these investigators arranged the ends of two brass wires connected with the poles of a voltaic pile, composed of alternate silver and zinc plates, so that the current coming from the pile was discharged through a small quantity of "New River water." "A fine stream of minute bubbles immediately began to flow from the point of the lower wire in the tube which communicated with the silver," wrote Nicholson, "and the opposite point of the upper wire became tarnished, first deep orange and then black. . . ." The product of gas during two hours and a half was two- thirtieths of a cubic inch. "It was then mixed with an equal quantity of common air," continues Nicholson, "and exploded by the application of a lighted waxen thread."

This demonstration was the beginning of the very important science of electro-chemistry.

The importance of this discovery was at once recognized by Sir Humphry Davy, who began experimenting immediately in this new field. He constructed a series of batteries in various combinations, with which he attacked the "fixed alkalies," the composition of which was then unknown. Very shortly he was able to decompose potash into bright metallic globules, resembling quicksilver. This new substance he named "potassium." Then in rapid succession the elementary substances sodium, calcium, strontium, and magnesium were isolated.

It was soon discovered, also, that the new electricity, like the old, possessed heating power under certain conditions, even to the fusing of pieces of wire. This observation was probably first made by Frommsdorff, but it was elaborated by Davy, who constructed a battery of two thousand cells with which he produced a bright light from points of carbon - the prototype of the modern arc lamp. He made this demonstration before the members of the Royal Institution in 1810. But the practical utility of such a light for illuminating purposes was still a thing of the future. The expense of constructing and maintaining such an elaborate battery, and the rapid internal destruction of its plates, together with the constant polarization, rendered its use in practical illumination out of the question. It was not until another method of generating electricity was discovered that Davy's demonstration could be turned to practical account.

In Davy's own account of his experiment he says:

"When pieces of charcoal about an inch long and one-sixth of an inch in diameter were brought near each other (within the thirtieth or fortieth of an inch), a bright spark was produced, and more than half the volume of the charcoal became ignited to whiteness; and, by withdrawing the points from each other, a constant discharge took place through the heated air, in a space equal to at least four inches, producing a most brilliant ascending arch of light, broad and conical in form in the middle. When any substance was introduced into this arch, it instantly became ignited; platina melted as readily in it as wax in a common candle; quartz, the sapphire, magnesia, lime, all entered into fusion; fragments of diamond and points of charcoal and plumbago seemed to evaporate in it, even when the connection was made in the receiver of an air-pump; but there was no evidence of their having previously undergone fusion. When the communication between the points positively and negatively electrified was made in the air rarefied in the receiver of the air-pump, the distance at which the discharge took place increased as the exhaustion was made; and when the atmosphere in the vessel supported only one- fourth of an inch of mercury in the barometrical gauge, the sparks passed through a space of nearly half an inch; and, by withdrawing the points from each other, the discharge was made through six or seven inches, producing a most brilliant coruscation of purple light; the charcoal became intensely ignited, and some platina wire attached to it fused with brilliant scintillations and fell in large globules upon the plate of the pump. All the phenomena of chemical decomposition were produced with intense rapidity by this combination."[1]

But this experiment demonstrated another thing besides the possibility of producing electric light and chemical decomposition, this being the heating power capable of being produced by the electric current. Thus Davy's experiment of fusing substances laid the foundation of the modern electric furnaces, which are of paramount importance in several great commercial industries.

While some of the results obtained with Davy's batteries were practically as satisfactory as could be obtained with modern cell batteries, the batteries themselves were anything but satisfactory. They were expensive, required constant care and attention, and, what was more important from an experimental standpoint at least, were not constant in their action except for a very limited period of time, the current soon "running down." Numerous experimenters, therefore, set about devising a satisfactory battery, and when, in 1836, John Frederick Daniell produced the cell that bears his name, his invention was epoch- making in the history of electrical progress. The Royal Society considered it of sufficient importance to bestow the Copley medal upon the inventor, whose device is the direct parent of all modern galvanic cells. From the time of the advent of the Daniell cell experiments in electricity were rendered comparatively easy. In the mean while, however, another great discovery was made.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.