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

Book 3, chapter VII
The modern development of electricity and magnetism
Faraday and electro-magnetic induction
With these great discoveries and inventions at hand, electricity became no longer a toy or a "plaything for philosophers," but of enormous and growing importance commercially. Still, electricity generated by chemical action, even in a very perfect cell, was both feeble and expensive, and, withal, only applicable in a comparatively limited field. Another important scientific discovery was necessary before such things as electric traction and electric lighting on a large scale were to become possible; but that discovery was soon made by Sir Michael Faraday.

Faraday, the son of a blacksmith and a bookbinder by trade, had interested Sir Humphry Davy by his admirable notes on four of Davy's lectures, which he had been able to attend. Although advised by the great scientist to "stick to his bookbinding" rather than enter the field of science, Faraday became, at twenty-two years of age, Davy's assistant in the Royal Institution. There, for several years, he devoted all his spare hours to scientific investigations and experiments, perfecting himself in scientific technique.

A few years later he became interested, like all the scientists of the time, in Arago's experiment of rotating a copper disk underneath a suspended compass- needle. When this disk was rotated rapidly, the needle was deflected, or even rotated about its axis, in a manner quite inexplicable. Faraday at once conceived the idea that the cause of this rotation was due to electricity, induced in the revolving disk - not only conceived it, but put his belief in writing. For several years, however, he was unable to demonstrate the truth of his assumption, although he made repeated experiments to prove it. But in 1831 he began a series of experiments that established forever the fact of electro-magnetic induction.

In his famous paper, read before the Royal Society in 1831, Faraday describes the method by which he first demonstrated electro-magnetic induction, and then explained the phenomenon of Arago's revolving disk.

"About twenty-six feet of copper wire, one-twentieth of an inch in diameter, were wound round a cylinder of wood as a helix," he said, "the different spires of which were prevented from touching by a thin interposed twine. This helix was covered with calico, and then a second wire applied in the same manner. In this way twelve helices were "superposed, each containing an average length of wire of twenty-seven feet, and all in the same direction. The first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh of these helices were connected at their extremities end to end so as to form one helix; the others were connected in a similar manner; and thus two principal helices were produced, closely interposed, having the same direction, not touching anywhere, and each containing one hundred and fifty-five feet in length of wire.

One of these helices was connected with a galvanometer, the other with a voltaic battery of ten pairs of plates four inches square, with double coppers and well charged; yet not the slightest sensible deflection of the galvanometer needle could be observed.

"A similar compound helix, consisting of six lengths of copper and six of soft iron wire, was constructed. The resulting iron helix contained two hundred and eight feet; but whether the current from the trough was passed through the copper or the iron helix, no effect upon the other could be perceived at the galvanometer.

"In these and many similar experiments no difference in action of any kind appeared between iron and other metals.

"Two hundred and three feet of copper wire in one length were passed round a large block of wood; other two hundred and three feet of similar wire were interposed as a spiral between the turns of the first, and metallic contact everywhere prevented by twine. One of these helices was connected with a galvanometer and the other with a battery of a hundred pairs of plates four inches square, with double coppers and well charged. When the contact was made, there was a sudden and very slight effect at the galvanometer, and there was also a similar slight effect when the contact with the battery was broken. But whilst the voltaic current was continuing to pass through the one helix, no galvanometrical appearances of any effect like induction upon the other helix could be perceived, although the active power of the battery was proved to be great by its heating the whole of its own helix, and by the brilliancy of the discharge when made through charcoal.

"Repetition of the experiments with a battery of one hundred and twenty pairs of plates produced no other effects; but it was ascertained, both at this and at the former time, that the slight deflection of the needle occurring at the moment of completing the connection was always in one direction, and that the equally slight deflection produced when the contact was broken was in the other direction; and, also, that these effects occurred when the first helices were used.

"The results which I had by this time obtained with magnets led me to believe that the battery current through one wire did, in reality, induce a similar current through the other wire, but that it continued for an instant only, and partook more of the nature of the electrical wave passed through from the shock of a common Leyden jar than of that from a voltaic battery, and, therefore, might magnetize a steel needle although it scarcely affected the galvanometer.

"This expectation was confirmed; for on substituting a small hollow helix, formed round a glass tube, for the galvanometer, introducing a steel needle, making contact as before between the battery and the inducing wire, and then removing the needle before the battery contact was broken, it was found magnetized.

"When the battery contact was first made, then an unmagnetized needle introduced, and lastly the battery contact broken, the needle was found magnetized to an equal degree apparently with the first; but the poles were of the contrary kinds."[3]

To Faraday these experiments explained the phenomenon of Arago's rotating disk, the disk inducing the current from the magnet, and, in reacting, deflecting the needle. To prove this, he constructed a disk that revolved between the poles of an electro-magnet, connecting the axis and the edge of the disk with a galvanometer. ". . . A disk of copper, twelve inches in diameter, fixed upon a brass axis," he says, "was mounted in frames so as to be revolved either vertically or horizontally, its edge being at the same time introduced more or less between the magnetic poles. The edge of the plate was well amalgamated for the purpose of obtaining good but movable contact; a part round the axis was also prepared in a similar manner.

"Conductors or collectors of copper and lead were constructed so as to come in contact with the edge of the copper disk, or with other forms of plates hereafter to be described. These conductors we're about four inches long, one-third of an inch wide, and one-fifth of an inch thick; one end of each was slightly grooved, to allow of more exact adaptation to the somewhat convex edge of the plates, and then amalgamated. Copper wires, one-sixteenth of an inch in thickness, attached in the ordinary manner by convolutions to the other ends of these conductors, passed away to the galvanometer.

"All these arrangements being made, the copper disk was adjusted, the small magnetic poles being about one-half an inch apart, and the edge of the plate inserted about half their width between them. One of the galvanometer wires was passed twice or thrice loosely round the brass axis of the plate, and the other attached to a conductor, which itself was retained by the hand in contact with the amalgamated edge of the disk at the part immediately between the magnetic poles. Under these circumstances all was quiescent, and the galvanometer exhibited no effect. But the instant the plate moved the galvanometer was influenced, and by revolving the plate quickly the needle could be deflected ninety degrees or more."[4]

 This rotating disk was really a dynamo electric machine in miniature, the first ever constructed, but whose direct descendants are the ordinary dynamos. Modern dynamos range in power from little machines operating machinery requiring only fractions of a horsepower to great dynamos operating street-car lines and lighting cities; but all are built on the same principle as Faraday's rotating disk. By this discovery the use of electricity as a practical and economical motive power became possible.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.