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In 1855 the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C., at the instance of their secretary, Professor Joseph Henry, took evidence with respect to his claims as inventor of the electric telegraph. The essential paragraphs of Professor Henry’s statement are taken from the Proceedings of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1857.

There are several forms of the electric telegraph; first, that in which frictional electricity has been proposed to produce sparks and motion of pith balls at a distance.

Second, that in which galvanism has been employed to produce signals by means of bubbles of gas from the decomposition of water.

Third, that in which electro-magnetism is the motive power to produce motion at a distance; and again, of the latter there are two kinds of telegraphs, those in which the intelligence is indicated by the motion of a magnetic needle, and those in which sounds and permanent signs are made by the attraction of an electro-magnet. The latter is the class to which Mr. Morse’s invention belongs. The following is a brief exposition of the several steps which led to this form of the telegraph.

The first essential fact which rendered the electro-magnetic telegraph possible was discovered by Oersted, in the winter of 1819-’20. It is illustrated in the magnetic needle is deflected by the action of a current of galvanism transmitted through the wire A B.

Fig. 1 Fig. 1

The second fact of importance, discovered in 1820, by Arago and Davy, is illustrated in Fig. 2. It consists in this, that while a current of galvanism is passing through a copper wire A B, it is magnetic, it attracts iron filings and not those of copper or brass, and is capable of developing magnetism in soft iron.

Fig. 2 Fig. 2

The next important discovery, also made in 1820, by Ampère, was that two wires through which galvanic currents are passing in the same direction attract, and in the opposite direction, repel, each other. On this fact Ampère founded his celebrated theory, that magnetism consists merely in the attraction of electrical currents revolving at right angles to the line joining the two poles of the magnet. The magnetization of a bar of steel or iron, according to this theory consists in establishing within the metal by induction a series of electrical currents, all revolving in the same direction at right angles to the axis or length of the bar.

Fig. 3 Fig. 3

It was this theory which led Arago, as he states, to adopt the method of magnetizing sewing needles and pieces of steel wire, shown in Fig. 3. This method consists in transmitting a current of electricity through a helix surrounding the needle or wire to be magnetised. For the purpose of insulation the needle was enclosed in a glass tube, and the several turns of the helix were at a distance from each other to insure the passage of electricity through the whole length of the wire, or, in other words, to prevent it from seeking a shorter passage by cutting across from one spire to another. The helix employed by Arago obviously approximates the arrangement required by the theory of Ampère, in order to develop by induction the magnetism of the iron. By an attentive perusal of the original account of the experiments of Arago, it will be seen that, properly speaking, he made no electro-magnet, as has been asserted by Morse and others; his experiments were confined to the magnetism of iron filings, to sewing needles and pieces of steel wire of the diameter of a millimetre, or of about the thickness of a small knitting needle.

Fig. 4 Fig. 4

Mr. Sturgeon, in 1825, made an important step in advance of the experiments of Arago, and produced what is properly known as the electro-magnet. He bent a piece of iron wire into the form of a horseshoe, covered it with varnish to insulate it, and surrounded it with a helix, of which the spires were at a distance. When a current of galvanism was passed through the helix from a small battery of a single cup the iron wire became magnetic, and continued so during the passage of the current. When the current was interrupted the magnetism disappeared, and thus was produced the first temporary soft iron magnet.

The electro-magnet of Sturgeon is shown in Fig. 4. By comparing Figs. 3 and 4 it will be seen that the helix employed by Sturgeon was of the same kind as that used by Arago; instead however, of a straight steel wire inclosed in a tube of glass, the former employed a bent wire of soft iron. The difference in the arrangement at first sight might appear to be small, but the difference in the results produced was important, since the temporary magnetism developed in the arrangement of Sturgeon was sufficient to support a weight of several pounds, and an instrument was thus produced of value in future research.

Fig. 5 Fig. 5

The next improvement was made by myself. After reading an account of the galvanometer of Schweigger, the idea occurred to me that a much nearer approximation to the requirements of the theory of Ampère could be attained by insulating the conducting wire itself, instead of the rod to be magnetized, and by covering the whole surface of the iron with a series of coils in close contact. This was effected by insulating a long wire with silk thread, and winding this around the rod of iron in close coils from one end[Pg 28] to the other. The same principle was extended by employing a still longer insulated wire, and winding several strata of this over the first, care being taken to insure the insulation between each stratum by a covering of silk ribbon. By this arrangement the rod was surrounded by a compound helix formed of a long wire of many coils, instead of a single helix of a few coils, (Fig. 5).

In the arrangement of Arago and Sturgeon the several turns of wire were not precisely at right angles to the axis of the rod, as they should be, to produce the effect required by the theory, but slightly oblique, and therefore each tended to develop a separate magnetism not coincident with the axis of the bar. But in winding the wire over itself, the obliquity of the several turns compensated each other, and the resultant action was at right angles to the bar. The arrangement then introduced by myself was superior to those of Arago and Sturgeon, first in the greater multiplicity of turns of wire, and second in the better application of these turns to the development of magnetism. The power of the instrument with the same amount of galvanic force, was by this arrangement several times increased.

Fig. 6 Fig. 6

The maximum effect, however, with this arrangement and a single battery was not yet obtained. After a certain length of wire had been coiled upon the iron, the power diminished with a further increase of the number of turns. This was due to the increased resistance which the longer wire offered to the conduction of electricity. Two methods of improvement therefore suggested themselves. The first consisted, not in increasing the length of the coil, but in using a number of separate coils on the same piece of iron. By this arrangement the resistance to the conduction of the electricity was diminished and a greater quantity made to circulate around the iron from the same battery. The second method of producing a similar result consisted in increasing the number of elements of the battery, or, in other words, the projectile force of the electricity, which enabled it to pass through an increased number of turns of wire, and thus, by increasing the length of the wire, to develop the maximum power of the iron.

To test these principles on a larger scale, the experimental magnet was constructed, which is shown in Fig. 6. In this a number of compound helices were placed on the same bar, their ends left projecting, and so numbered that they could be all united into one long helix, or variously combined in sets of lesser length.

From a series of experiments with this and other magnets it was proved that, in order to produce the greatest amount of magnetism from a battery of a single cup, a number of helices is required; but when a compound battery is used, then one long wire must be employed, making many turns around the iron, the length of wire and consequently the number of turns being commensurate with the projectile power of the battery.

In describing the results of my experiments, the terms intensity and quantity magnets were introduced to avoid circumlocution, and were intended to be used merely in a technical sense. By the intensity magnet I designated a piece of soft iron, so surrounded with wire that its magnetic power could be called into operation by an intensity battery, and by a quantity magnet, a piece of iron so surrounded by a number of separate coils, that its magnetism could be fully developed by a quantity battery.

I was the first to point out this connection of the two kinds of the battery with the two forms of the magnet, in my paper in Silliman’s Journal, January, 1831, and clearly to state that when magnetism was to be developed by means of a compound battery, one long coil was to be employed, and when the maximum effect was to be produced by a single battery, a number of single strands were to be used.

These steps in the advance of electro-magnetism, though small, were such as to interest and astonish the scientific world. With the same battery used by Mr. Sturgeon, at least a hundred times more magnetism was produced than could have been obtained by his experiment. The developments were considered at the time of much importance in a scientific point of view, and they subsequently furnished the means by which magneto-electricity, the phenomena of dia-magnetism, and the magnetic effects on polarized light were discovered. They gave rise to the various forms of electro-magnetic machines which have since exercised the ingenuity of inventors in every part of the world, and were of immediate applicability in the introduction of the magnet to telegraphic purposes. Neither the electro-magnet of Sturgeon nor any electro-magnet ever made previous to my investigations was applicable to transmitting power to a distance.

The principles I have developed were properly appreciated by the scientific mind of Dr. Gale, and applied by him to operate Mr. Morse’s machine at a distance.

Previous to my investigations the means of developing magnetism in soft iron were imperfectly understood. The electro-magnet made by Sturgeon, and copied by Dana, of New York, was an imperfect quantity magnet, the feeble power of which was developed by a single battery. It was entirely inapplicable to a long circuit with an intensity battery, and no person possessing the requisite scientific knowledge, would have attempted to use it in that connection after reading my paper.

In sending a message to a distance, two circuits are employed, the first a long circuit through which the electricity is sent to the distant station to bring into action the second, a short one, in which is the local battery and magnet for working the machine. In order to give projectile force sufficient to send the power to a distance, it is necessary to use an intensity battery in the long circuit, and in connection with this, at the distant station, a magnet surrounded with many turns of one long wire must be employed to receive and multiply the effect of the current enfeebled by its transmission through the long conductor. In the local or short circuit either an intensity or a quantity magnet may be employed. If the first be used, then with it a compound battery will be required; and, therefore on account of the increased resistance due to the greater quantity of acid, a less amount of work will be performed by a given amount of material; and, consequently, though this arrangement is practicable it is by no means economical. In my original paper I state that the advantages of a greater conducting power, from using several wires in the quantity magnet, may, in a less degree, be obtained by substituting for them one large wire; but in this case, on account of the greater obliquity of the spires and other causes, the magnetic effect would be less. In accordance with these principles, the receiving magnet, or that which is introduced into the long circuit, consists of a horseshoe magnet surrounded with many hundred turns of a single long wire, and[Pg 33] is operated with a battery of from twelve to twenty-four elements or more, while in the local circuit it is customary to employ a battery of one or two elements with a much thicker wire and fewer turns.

It will, I think, be evident to the impartial reader that these were improvements in the electro-magnet, which first rendered it adequate to the transmission of mechanical power to a distance; and had I omitted all allusion to the telegraph in my paper, the conscientious historian of science would have awarded me some credit, however small might have been the advance which I made. Arago and Sturgeon, in the accounts of their experiments, make no mention of the telegraph, and yet their names always have been and will be associated with the invention. I briefly, however, called attention to the fact of the applicability of my experiments to the construction of the telegraph; but not being familiar with the history of the attempts made in regard to this invention, I called it “Barlow’s project,” while I ought to have stated that Mr. Barlow’s investigation merely tended to disprove the possibility of a telegraph.

I did not refer exclusively to the needle telegraph when, in my paper, I stated that the magnetic action of a current from a trough is at least not sensibly diminished by passing through a long wire. This is evident from the fact that the immediate experiment from which this deduction was made was by means of an electro-magnet and not by means of a needle galvanometer.

Fig. 7 Fig. 7

At the conclusion of the series of experiments which I described in Silliman’s Journal, there were two applications of the electro-magnet in my mind: one the production of a machine to be moved by electro-magnetism, and the other the transmission of or calling into action power at a distance. The first was carried into execution in the construction of the machine described in Silliman’s Journal, vol. xx, 1831, and for the purpose of experimenting in regard to the second, I arranged around one of the upper rooms in the Albany Academy a wire of more than a mile in length, through which I was enabled to make signals by sounding a bell, (Fig. 7.) The mechanical arrangement for effecting this object was simply a steel bar, permanently magnetized, of about ten inches in length, supported on a pivot, and placed with its north end between the two arms of a horseshoe magnet. When the latter was excited by the current, the end of the bar thus placed was attracted by one arm of the horseshoe, and repelled by the other, and was thus caused to move in a horizontal plane and its further extremity to strike a bell suitably adjusted.

I also devised a method of breaking a circuit, and thereby causing a large weight to fall. It was intended to illustrate the practicability of calling into action a great power at a distance capable of producing mechanical effects; but as a description of this was not printed, I do not place it in the same category with the experiments of which I published an account, or the facts which could be immediately deduced from my papers in Silliman’s Journal.

From a careful investigation of the history of electro-magnetism in its connection with the telegraph, the following facts may be established:

1. Previous to my investigations the means of developing magnetism in soft iron were imperfectly understood, and the electro-magnet which then existed was inapplicable to the transmission of power to a distance.

2. I was the first to prove by actual experiment that, in order to develop magnetic power at a distance, a galvanic battery of intensity must be employed to project the current through the long conductor, and that a magnet surrounded by many turns of one long wire must be used to receive this current.

3. I was the first actually to magnetize a piece of iron at a distance, and to call attention to the fact of the applicability of my experiments to the telegraph.

4. I was the first to actually sound a bell at a distance by means of the electro-magnet.

5. The principles I had developed were applied by Dr. Gale to render Morse’s machine effective at a distance.


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