Michael Faraday was for many years Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, London, where his researches did more to subdue electricity to the service of man than those of any other physicist who ever lived. “Faraday as a Discoverer,” by Professor John Tyndall (his successor) depicts a mind of the rarest ability and a character of the utmost charm. This biography is published by D. Appleton & Co., New York: the extracts which follow are from the third chapter.
In 1831 we have Faraday at the climax of his intellectual strength, forty years of age, stored with knowledge and full of original power. Through reading, lecturing, and experimenting, he had become thoroughly familiar with electrical science: he saw where light was needed and expansion possible. The phenomena of ordinary electric induction belonged, as it were, to the alphabet of his knowledge: he knew that under ordinary circumstances the presence of an electrified body was sufficient to excite, by induction, an unelectrified body. He knew that the wire which carried an electric current was an electrified body, and still that all attempts had failed to make it excite in other wires a state similar to its own.
What was the reason of this failure? Faraday never could work from the experiments of others, however clearly described. He knew well that from every experiment issues a kind of radiation, luminous, in different degrees to different minds, and he hardly trusted himself to reason upon an experiment that he had not seen. In the autumn of 1831 he began to repeat the experiments with electric currents, which, up to that time, had produced no positive result. And here, for the sake of younger inquirers, if not for the sake of us all, it is worth while to dwell for a moment on a power which Faraday possessed in an extraordinary degree. He united vast strength with perfect flexibility. His momentum was that of a river, which combines weight and directness with the ability to yield to the flexures of its bed. The intentness of his vision in any direction did not apparently diminish his power of perception in other directions; and when he attacked a subject, expecting results, he had the faculty of keeping his mind alert, so that results different from those which he expected should not escape him through pre-occupation.
He began his experiments “on the induction of electric currents” by composing a helix of two insulated wires, which were wound side by side round the same wooden cylinder. One of these wires he connected with a voltaic battery of ten cells, and the other with a sensitive galvanometer. When connection with the battery was made, and while the current flowed, no effect whatever was observed at the galvanometer. But he never accepted an experimental result, until he had applied to it the utmost power at his command. He raised his battery from ten cells to one hundred and twenty cells, but without avail. The current flowed calmly through the battery wire without producing, during its flow, any sensible result upon the galvanometer.
“During its flow,” and this was the time when an effect was expected—but here Faraday’s power of lateral vision, separating, as it were from the line of expectation, came into play—he noticed that a feeble movement of the needle always occurred at the moment when he made contact with the battery; that the needle would afterward return to its former position and remain quietly there unaffected by the flowing current. At the moment, however, when the circuit was interrupted the needle again moved, and in a direction opposed to that observed on the completion of the circuit.
This result, and others of a similar kind, led him to the conclusion “that the battery current through the one wire did in reality induce a similar current through the other; but that it continued for an instant only, and partook more of the nature of the electric wave from a common Leyden jar than of the current from a voltaic battery.” The momentary currents thus generated were called induced currents, while the current which generated them was called the inducing current. It was immediately proved that the current generated at making the circuit[Pg 10] was always opposed in direction to its generator, while that developed on the rupture of the circuit coincided in direction with the inducing current. It appeared as if the current on its first rush through the primary wire sought a purchase in the secondary one, and, by a kind of kick, impelled backward through the latter an electric wave, which subsided as soon as the primary current was fully established.
Faraday, for a time, believed that the secondary wire, though quiescent when the primary current had been once established, was not in its natural condition, its return to that condition being declared by the current observed at breaking the circuit. He called this hypothetical state of the wire the electro-tonic state: he afterwards abandoned this hypothesis, but seemed to return to it in after life. The term electro-tonic is also preserved by Professor Du Bois Reymond to express a certain electric condition of the nerves, and Professor Clerk Maxwell has ably defined and illustrated the hypothesis in the Tenth Volume of the “Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society.”
The mere approach of a wire forming a closed curve to a second wire through which a voltaic current flowed was then shown by Faraday to be sufficient to arouse in the neutral wire an induced current, opposed in direction to the inducing current; the withdrawal of the wire also generated a current having the same direction as the inducing current; those currents existed only during the time of approach or withdrawal, and when neither the primary nor the secondary wire was in motion, no matter how close their proximity might be, no induced current was generated.
Faraday has been called a purely inductive philosopher. A great deal of nonsense is, I fear, uttered in this land of England about induction and deduction. Some profess to befriend the one, some the other, while the real vocation of an investigator, like Faraday, consists in the incessant marriage of both. He was at this time full of the theory of Ampère, and it cannot be doubted that numbers of his experiments were executed merely to test his deductions from that theory. Starting from the discovery of Oersted, the celebrated French philosopher had shown that all the phenomena of magnetism then known might be reduced to the mutual attractions and repulsions of electric currents. Magnetism had been produced from electricity, and Faraday, who all his life long entertained a strong belief in such reciprocal actions, now attempted to effect the evolution of electricity from magnetism. Round a welded iron ring he placed two distinct coils of covered wire, causing the coils to occupy opposite halves of the ring. Connecting the ends of one of the coils with a galvanometer, he found that the moment the ring was magnetized, by sending a current through the other coil, the galvanometer needle whirled round four or five times in succession. The action, as before, was that of a pulse, which vanished immediately. On interrupting the current, a whirl of the needle in the opposite direction occurred. It was only during the time of magnetization or demagnetization that these effects were produced. The induced currents declared a change of condition only, and they vanished the moment the act of magnetization or demagnetization was complete.
The effects obtained with the welded ring were also obtained with straight bars of iron. Whether the bars were magnetized by the electric current, or were excited by the contact of permanent steel magnets, induced currents were always generated during the rise, and during the subsidence of the magnetism. The use of iron was then abandoned, and the same effects were obtained by merely thrusting a permanent steel magnet into a coil of wire. A rush of electricity through the coil accompanied the insertion of the magnet; an equal rush in the opposite direction accompanied its withdrawal. The precision with which Faraday describes these results, and the completeness with which he defined the boundaries of his facts, are wonderful. The magnet, for example, must not be passed quite through the coil, but only half through, for if passed wholly through, the needle is stopped as by a blow, and then he shows how this blow results from a reversal of the electric wave in the helix. He next operated with the powerful permanent magnet of the Royal Society, and obtained with it, in an exalted degree, all the foregoing phenomena.
And now he turned the light of these discoveries upon the darkest physical phenomenon of that day. Arago had discovered in 1824, that a disk of non-magnetic metal had the power of bringing a vibrating magnetic needle suspended over it rapidly to rest; and that on causing the disk to rotate the magnetic needle rotated along with it. When both were quiescent, there was not the slightest measurable attraction or repulsion exerted between the needle and the disk; still when in motion the disk was competent to drag after it, not only a light needle, but a heavy magnet. The question had been probed and investigated with admirable skill by both Arago and Ampère, and Poisson had published a theoretic memoir on the subject; but no cause could be assigned for so extraordinary an action. It had also been examined in this country by two celebrated men, Mr. Babbage and Sir John Herschel; but it still remained a mystery. Faraday always recommended the suspension of judgment in cases of doubt. “I have always admired,” he says, “the prudence and philosophical reserve shown by M. Arago in resisting the temptations to give a theory of the effect he had discovered, so long as he could not devise one which was perfect in its application, and in refusing to assent to the imperfect theories of others.” Now, however, the time for theory had come. Faraday saw mentally the rotating disk, under the operation of the magnet, flooded with his induced currents, and from the known laws of interaction between currents and magnets he hoped to deduce the motion observed by Arago. That hope he realized, showing by actual experiment that when his disk rotated currents passed through it, their position and direction being such as must, in accordance with the established laws of electro-magnetic action, produce the observed rotation.
Introducing the edge of his disk between the poles of the large horseshoe magnet of the Royal Society, and connecting the axis and the edge of the disk, each by a wire with a galvanometer, he obtained, when the disk was turned round, a constant flow of electricity. The direction of the current was determined by the direction of the motion, the current being reversed when the rotation was reversed. He now states the law which rules the production of currents in both disks and wires, and in so doing uses, for the first time, a phrase which has since become famous. When iron filings are scattered over a magnet, the particles of iron arrange themselves in certain determined lines called magnetic curves. In 1831, Faraday for the first time called these curves “lines of magnetic force;” and he showed that to produce induced currents neither approach to nor withdrawal from a magnetic source, or centre, or pole, was essential, but that it was only necessary to cut appropriately the lines of magnetic force. Faraday’s first paper on Magneto-electric Induction, which I have here endeavoured to condense, was read before the Royal Society on the 24th of November, 1831.
On January 12, 1832, he communicated to the Royal Society a second paper on “Terrestrial Magneto-electric Induction,” which was chosen as the Bakerian Lecture for the year. He placed a bar of iron in a coil of wire, and lifting the bar into the direction of the dipping needle, he excited by this action a current in the coil. On reversing the bar, a current in the opposite direction rushed through the wire. The same effect was produced, when, on holding the helix in the line of dip, a bar of iron was thrust into it. Here, however, the earth acted on the coil through the intermediation of the bar of iron. He abandoned the bar and simply set a copper-plate spinning in a horizontal plane; he knew that the earth’s lines of magnetic force then crossed the plate at an angle of about 70°. When the plate spun round, the lines of force were intersected and induced currents generated, which produced their proper effect when carried from the plate to the galvanometer. “When the plate was in the magnetic meridian, or in any other plane coinciding with the magnetic dip, then its rotation produced no effect upon the galvanometer.”
At the suggestion of a mind fruitful in suggestions of a profound and philosophic character—I mean that of Sir John Herschel—Mr. Barlow, of Woolwich, had experimented with a rotating iron shell. Mr. Christie had also performed an elaborate series of experiments on a rotating iron disk. Both of them had found that when in rotation the body exercised a peculiar action upon the magnetic needle, deflecting it in a manner which was not observed during quiescence; but neither of them was aware at the time of the agent which produced this extraordinary deflection. They ascribed it to some change in the magnetism of the iron shell and disk.
But Faraday at once saw that his induced currents must come into play here, and he immediately obtained them from an iron disk. With a hollow brass ball, moreover, he produced the effects obtained by Mr. Barlow. Iron was in no way necessary: the only condition of success was that the rotating body should be of a character to admit of the formation of currents in its substance: it must, in other words, be a conductor of electricity. The higher the conducting power the more copious were the currents. He now passes from his little brass globe to the globe of the earth. He plays like a magician with the earth’s magnetism. He sees the invisible lines along which its magnetic action is exerted and sweeping his wand across these lines evokes this new power. Placing a simple loop of wire round a magnetic needle he bends its upper portion to the west: the north pole of the needle immediately swerves to the east: he bends his loop to the east, and the north poles moves to the west. Suspending a common bar magnet in a vertical position, he causes it to spin round its own axis. Its pole being connected with one end of a galvanometer wire, and its equator with the other end, electricity rushes round the galvanometer from the rotating magnet. He remarks upon the “singular independence” of the magnetism and the body of the magnet which carries it. The steel behaves as if it were isolated from its own magnetism.
And then his thoughts suddenly widen, and he asks himself whether the rotating earth does not generate induced currents as it turns round its axis from west to east. In his experiment with the twirling magnet the galvanometer wire remained at rest; one portion of the circuit was in motion relatively to another portion. But in the case of the twirling planet the galvanometer wire would necessarily be carried along with the earth; there would be no relative motion. What must be the consequence? Take the case of a telegraph wire with its two terminal plates dipped into the earth, and suppose the wire to lie in the magnetic meridian. The ground underneath the wire is influenced like the wire itself by the earth’s rotation; if a current from south to north be generated in the wire, a similar current from south to north would be generated in the earth under the wire; these currents would run against the same terminal plates, and thus neutralize each other.
This inference appears inevitable, but his profound vision perceived its possible invalidity. He saw that it was at least possible that the difference of conducting power between the earth[Pg 18] and the wire might give one an advantage over the other, and that thus a residual or differential current might be obtained. He combined wires of different materials, and caused them to act in opposition to each other, but found the combination ineffectual. The more copious flow in the better conductor was exactly counterbalanced by the resistance of the worst. Still, though experiment was thus emphatic, he would clear his mind of all discomfort by operating on the earth itself. He went to the round lake near Kensington Palace, and stretched four hundred and eighty feet of copper wire, north and south, over the lake, causing plates soldered to the wire at its ends to dip into the water. The copper wire was severed at the middle, and the severed ends connected with a galvanometer. No effect whatever was observed. But though quiescent water gave no effect, moving water might. He therefore worked at London Bridge for three days during the ebb and flow of the tide, but without any satisfactory result. Still he urges, “Theoretically it seems a necessary consequence, that where water is flowing there electric currents should be formed. If a line be imagined passing from Dover to Calais through the sea, and returning through the land, beneath the water, to Dover, it traces out a circuit of conducting matter one part of which, when the water moves up or down the channel, is cutting the magnetic curves of the earth, while the other is relatively at rest…. There is every[Pg 19] reason to believe that currents do run in the general direction of the circuit described, either one way or the other, according as the passage of the waters is up or down the channel.” This was written before the submarine cable was thought of, and he once informed me that actual observation upon that cable had been found to be in accordance with his theoretic deduction.
Three years subsequent to the publication of these researches, that is to say on January 29, 1835, Faraday read before the Royal Society a paper “On the influence by induction of an electric current upon itself.” A shock and spark of a peculiar character had been observed by a young man named William Jenkin, who must have been a youth of some scientific promise, but who, as Faraday once informed me, was dissuaded by his own father from having anything to do with science. The investigation of the fact noticed by Mr. Jenkin led Faraday to the discovery of the extra current, or the current induced in the primary wire itself at the moments of making and breaking contact, the phenomena of which he described and illustrated in the beautiful and exhaustive paper referred to.
Seven and thirty years have passed since the discovery of magneto-electricity; but, if we except the extra current, until quite recently nothing of moment was added to the subject. Faraday entertained the opinion that the discoverer of a great law or principle had a right to the “spoils”—this was his term—arising from its[Pg 20] illustration; and guided by the principle he had discovered, his wonderful mind, aided by his wonderful ten fingers, overran in a single autumn this vast domain, and hardly left behind him the shred of a fact to be gathered by his successors.
And here the question may arise in some minds, What is the use of it all? The answer is, that if man’s intellectual nature thirsts for knowledge then knowledge is useful because it satisfies this thirst. If you demand practical ends, you must, I think, expand your definition of the term practical, and make it include all that elevates and enlightens the intellect, as well as all that ministers to the bodily health and comfort of men. Still, if needed, an answer of another kind might be given to the question “what is its use?” As far as electricity has been applied for medical purposes, it has been almost exclusively Faraday’s electricity. You have noticed those lines of wire which cross the streets of London. It is Faraday’s currents that speed from place to place through these wires. Approaching the point of Dungeness, the mariner sees an unusually brilliant light, and from the noble lighthouse of La Hève the same light flashes across the sea. These are Faraday’s sparks exalted by suitable machinery to sun-like splendour. At the present moment the Board of Trade and the Brethren of the Trinity House, as well as the Commissioners of Northern Lights, are contemplating the introduction of the Magneto-electric Light at numerous points upon our coasts; and future generations will be able to refer to those guiding stars in answer to the question, what has been the practical use of the labours of Faraday? But I would again emphatically say, that his work needs no justification, and that if he had allowed his vision to be disturbed by considerations regarding the practical use of his discoveries, those discoveries would never have been made by him. “I have rather,” he writes in 1831, “been desirous of discovering new facts and new relations dependent on magneto-electric induction, than of exalting the force of those already obtained; being assured that the latter would find their full development hereafter.”
In 1817, when lecturing before a private society in London on the element chlorine, Faraday thus expresses himself with reference to this question of utility. “Before leaving this subject, I will point out the history of this substance as an answer to those who are in the habit of saying to every new fact, ‘What is its use?’ Dr. Franklin says to such, ‘What is the use of an infant?’ The answer of the experimentalist is, ‘Endeavour to make it useful.’ When Scheele discovered this substance, it appeared to have no use; it was in its infancy and useless state, but having grown up to maturity, witness its powers, and see what endeavours to make it useful have done.”