1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Electrometer

ELECTROMETER, an instrument for measuring difference of potential, which operates by means of electrostatic force and gives the measurement either in arbitrary or in absolute units (see Units, Physical). In the last case the instrument is called an absolute electrometer. Lord Kelvin has classified electrometers into (1) Repulsion, (2) Attracted disk, and (3) Symmetrical electrometers (see W. Thomson, Brit. Assoc. Report, 1867, or Reprinted Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetization, p. 261).

Repulsion Electrometers.—The simplest form of repulsion electrometer is W. Henley’s pith ball electrometer (Phil. Trans., 1772, 63, p. 359) in which the repulsion of a straw ending in a pith ball from a fixed stem is indicated on a graduated arc (see Electroscope). A double pith ball repulsion electrometer was employed by T. Cavallo in 1777.

It may be pointed out that such an arrangement is not merely an arbitrary electrometer, but may become an absolute electrometer within certain rough limits. Let two spherical pith balls of radius r and weight W, covered with gold-leaf so as to be conducting, be suspended by parallel silk threads of length l so as just to touch each other. If then the balls are both charged to a potential V they will repel each other, and the threads will stand out at an angle 2θ, which can be observed on a protractor. Since the electrical repulsion of the balls is equal to C2V24l2 sin2 θ dynes, where C = r is the capacity of either ball, and this force is balanced by the restoring force due to their weight, Wg dynes, where g is the acceleration of gravity, it is easy to show that we have

V = 2l sin θ Wg tan θ

as an expression for their common potential V, provided that the balls are small and their distance sufficiently great not sensibly to disturb the uniformity of electric charge upon them. Observation of θ with measurement of the value of l and r reckoned in centimetres and W in grammes gives us the potential difference of the balls in absolute C.G.S. or electrostatic units. The gold-leaf electroscope invented by Abraham Bennet (see Electroscope can in like manner, by the addition of a scale to observe the divergence of the gold-leaves, be made a repulsion electrometer.

Fig. 1.—Snow-Harris’s Disk Electrometer.

Attracted Disk Electrometers.—A form of attracted disk absolute electrometer was devised by A. Volta. It consisted of a plane conducting plate forming one pan of a balance which was suspended over another insulated plate which could be electrified. The attraction between the two plates was balanced by a weight put in the opposite pan. A similar electric balance was subsequently devised by Sir W. Snow-Harris,[1] one of whose instruments is shown in fig. 1. C is an insulated disk over which is suspended another disk attached to the arm of a balance. A weight is put in the opposite scale pan and a measured charge of electricity is given to the disk C just sufficient to tip over the balance. Snow-Harris found that this charge varied as the square root of the weight in the opposite pan, thus showing that the attraction between the disks at given distance apart varies as the square of their difference of potential.

The most important improvements in connexion with electrometers are due, however, to Lord Kelvin, who introduced the guard plate and used gravity or the torsion of a wire as a means for evaluating the electrical forces.

Fig. 2.—Kelvin’s Portable
  Fig. 3.    

His portable electrometer is shown in fig. 2. H H (see fig. 3) is a plane disk of metal called the guard plate, fixed to the inner coating of a small Leyden jar (see fig. 2). At F a square hole is cut out of H H, and into this fits loosely without touching, like a trap door, a square piece of aluminium foil having a projecting tail, which carries at its end a stirrup L, crossed by a fine hair (see fig. 3). The square piece of aluminium is pivoted round a horizontal stretched wire. If then another horizontal disk G is placed over the disk H H and a difference of potential made between G and H H, the movable aluminium trap door F will be attracted by the fixed plate G. Matters are so arranged by giving a torsion to the wire carrying the aluminium disk F that for a certain potential difference between the plates H and G, the movable part F comes into a definite sighted position, which is observed by means of a small lens. The plate G (see fig. 2) is moved up and down, parallel to itself, by means of a screw. In using the instrument the conductor, whose potential is to be tested, is connected to the plate G. Let this potential be denoted by V, and let v be the potential of the guard plate and the aluminium flap. This last potential is maintained constant by guard plate and flap being part of the interior coating of a charged Leyden jar. Since the distribution of electricity may be considered to be constant over the surface S of the attracted disk, the mechanical force f on it is given by the expression,[2]

f = S (V − v)2 ,
Fig. 4.—Kelvin’s Absolute Electrometer.

where d is the distance between the two plates. If this distance is varied until the attracted disk comes into a definite sighted position as seen by observing the end of the index through the lens, then since the force f is constant, being due to the torque applied by the wire for a definite angle of twist, it follows that the difference of potential of the two plates varies as their distance. If then two experiments are made, first with the upper plate connected to earth, and secondly, connected to the object being tested, we get an expression for the potential V of this conductor in the form

V = A (d ′ − d),

where d and d ′ are the distances of the fixed and movable plates from one another in the two cases, and A is some constant. We thus find V in terms of the constant and the difference of the two screw readings.

Lord Kelvin’s absolute electrometer (fig. 4) involves the same principle. There is a certain fixed guard disk B having a hole in it which is loosely occupied by an aluminium trap door plate, shielded by D and suspended on springs, so that its surface is parallel with that of the guard plate. Parallel to this is a second movable plate A, the distances between the two being measurable by means of a screw. The movable plate can be drawn down into a definite sighted position when a difference of potential is made between the two plates. This sighted position is such that the surface of the trap door plate is level with that of the guard plate, and is determined by observations made with the lenses H and L. The movable plate can be thus depressed by placing on it a certain standard weight W grammes.

Suppose it is required to measure the difference of potentials V and V′ of two conductors. First one and then the other conductor is connected with the electrode of the lower or movable plate, which is moved by the screw until the index attached to the attracted disk shows it to be in the sighted position. Let the screw readings in the two cases be d and d ′. If W is the weight required to depress the attracted disk into the same sighted position when the plates are unelectrified and g is the acceleration of gravity, then the difference of potentials of the conductors tested is expressed by the formula

V − V′ = (dd ′) 8πgW ,

where S denotes the area of the attracted disk.

The difference of potentials is thus determined in terms of a weight, an area and a distance, in absolute C.G.S. measure or electrostatic units.

Fig. 5.

Symmetrical Electrometers include the dry pile electrometer and Kelvin’s quadrant electrometer. The principle underlying these instruments is that we can measure differences of potential by means of the motion of an electrified body in a symmetrical field of electric force. In the dry pile electrometer a single gold-leaf is hung up between two plates which are connected to the opposite terminals of a dry pile so that a certain constant difference of potential exists between these plates. The original inventor of this instrument was T. G. B. Behrens (Gilb. Ann., 1806, 23), but it generally bears the name of J. G. F. von Bohnenberger, who slightly modified its form. G. T. Fechner introduced the important improvement of using only one pile, which he removed from the immediate neighbourhood of the suspended leaf. W. G. Hankel still further improved the dry pile electrometer by giving a slow motion movement to the two plates, and substituted a galvanic battery with a large number of cells for the dry pile, and also employed a divided scale to measure the movements of the gold-leaf (Pogg. Ann., 1858, 103). If the gold-leaf is unelectrified, it is not acted upon by the two plates placed at equal distances on either side of it, but if its potential is raised or lowered it is attracted by one disk and repelled by the other, and the displacement becomes a measure of its potential.

Fig. 6.—Kelvin’s Quadrant Electrometer.

A vast improvement in this instrument was made by the invention of the quadrant electrometer by Lord Kelvin, which is the most sensitive form of electrometer yet devised. In this instrument (see fig. 5) a flat paddle-shaped needle of aluminium foil U is supported by a bifilar suspension consisting of two cocoon fibres. This needle is suspended in the interior of a glass vessel partly coated with tin-foil on the outside and inside, forming therefore a Leyden jar (see fig. 6). In the bottom of the vessel is placed some sulphuric acid, and a platinum wire attached to the suspended needle dips into this acid. By giving a charge to this Leyden jar the needle can thus be maintained at a certain constant high potential. The needle is enclosed by a sort of flat box divided into four insulated quadrants A, B, C, D (fig. 5), whence the name. The opposite quadrants are connected together by thin platinum wires. These quadrants are insulated from the needle and from the case, and the two pairs are connected to two electrodes. When the instrument is to be used to determine the potential difference between two conductors, they are connected to the two opposite pairs of quadrants. The needle in its normal position is symmetrically placed with regard to the quadrants, and carries a mirror by means of which its displacement can be observed in the usual manner by reflecting the ray of light from it. If the two quadrants are at different potentials, the needle moves from one quadrant towards the other, and the image of a spot of light on the scale is therefore displaced. Lord Kelvin provided the instrument with two necessary adjuncts, viz. a replenisher or rotating electrophorus (q.v.), by means of which the charge of the Leyden jar which forms the enclosing vessel can be increased or diminished, and also a small aluminium balance plate or gauge, which is in principle the same as the attracted disk portable electrometer by means of which the potential of the inner coating of the Leyden jar is preserved at a known value.

According to the mathematical theory of the instrument,[3]</a> if V and V′ are the potentials of the quadrants and v is the potential of the needle, then the torque acting upon the needle to cause rotation is given by the expression,

C (V − V′) {v1/2 (V + V′)},

where C is some constant. If v is very large compared with the mean value of the potentials of the two quadrants, as it usually is, then the above expression indicates that the couple varies as the difference of the potentials between the quadrants.

Dr J. Hopkinson found, however, before 1885, that the above formula does not agree with observed facts (Proc. Phys. Soc. Lond., 1885, 7, p. 7). The formula indicates that the sensibility of the instrument should increase with the charge of the Leyden jar or needle, whereas Hopkinson found that as the potential of the needle was increased by working the replenisher of the jar, the deflection due to three volts difference between the quadrants first increased and then diminished. He found that when the potential of the needle exceeded a certain value, of about 200 volts, for the particular instrument he was using (made by White of Glasgow), the above formula did not hold good. W. E. Ayrton, J. Perry and W. E. Sumpner, who in 1886 had noticed the same fact as Hopkinson, investigated the matter in 1891 (Proc. Roy. Soc., 1891, 50, p. 52; Phil. Trans., 1891, 182, p. 519). Hopkinson had been inclined to attribute the anomaly to an increase in the tension of the bifilar threads, owing to a downward pull on the needle, but they showed that this theory would not account for the discrepancy. They found from observations that the particular quadrant electrometer they used might be made to follow one or other of three distinct laws. If the quadrants were near together there were certain limits between which the potential of the needle might vary without producing more than a small change in the deflection corresponding with the fixed potential difference of the quadrants. For example, when the quadrants were about 2.5 mm. apart and the suspended fibres near together at the top, the deflection produced by a P.D. of 1.45 volts between the quadrants only varied about 11% when the potential of the needle varied from 896 to 3586 volts. When the fibres were far apart at the top a similar flatness was obtained in the curve with the quadrants about 1 mm. apart. In this case the deflection of the needle was practically quite constant when its potential varied from 2152 to 3227 volts. When the quadrants were about 3.9 mm. apart, the deflection for a given P.D. between the quadrants was almost directly proportional to the potential of the needle. In other words, the electrometer nearly obeyed the theoretical law. Lastly, when the quadrants were 4 mm. or more apart, the deflection increased much more rapidly than the potential, so that a maximum sensibility bordering on instability was obtained. Finally, these observers traced the variation to the fact that the wire supporting the aluminium needle as well as the wire which connects the needle with the sulphuric acid in the Leyden jar in the White pattern of Leyden jar is enclosed in a metallic guard tube to screen the wire from external action. In order that the needle may project outside the guard tube, openings are made in its two sides; hence the moment the needle is deflected each half of it becomes unsymmetrically placed relatively to the two metallic pieces which join the upper and lower half of the guard tube. Guided by these experiments, Ayrton, Perry and Sumpner constructed an improved unifilar quadrant electrometer which was not only more sensitive than the White pattern, but fulfilled the theoretical law of working. The bifilar suspension was abandoned, and instead a new form of adjustable magnetic control was adopted. All the working parts of the instrument were supported on the base, so that on removing a glass shade which serves as a Leyden jar they can be got at and adjusted in position. The conclusion to which the above observers came was that any quadrant electrometer made in any manner does not necessarily obey a law of deflection making the deflections proportional to the potential difference of the quadrants, but that an electrometer can be constructed which does fulfil the above law.

The importance of this investigation resides in the fact that an electrometer of the above pattern can be used as a wattmeter (q.v.), provided that the deflection of the needle is proportional to the potential difference of the quadrants. This use of the instrument was proposed simultaneously in 1881 by Professors Ayrton and G. F. Fitzgerald and M. A. Potier. Suppose we have an inductive and a non-inductive circuit in series, which is traversed by a periodic current, and that we desire to know the power being absorbed to the inductive circuit. Let v1, v2, v3 be the instantaneous potentials of the two ends and middle of the circuit; let a quadrant electrometer be connected first with the quadrants to the two ends of the inductive circuit and the needle to the far end of the non-inductive circuit, and then secondly with the needle connected to one of the quadrants (see fig. 5). Assuming the electrometer to obey the above-mentioned theoretical law, the first reading is proportional to

v1v2 { v3 v1 + v2 }

and the second to

v1v2 { v2 v1 + v2 }.

The difference of the readings is then proportional to

(v1v2) (v2v3).

But this last expression is proportional to the instantaneous power taken up in the inductive circuit, and hence the difference of the two readings of the electrometer is proportional to the mean power taken up in the circuit (Phil. Mag., 1891, 32, p. 206). Ayrton and Perry and also P. R. Blondlot and P. Curie afterwards suggested that a single electrometer could be constructed with two pairs of quadrants and a duplicate needle on one stem, so as to make two readings simultaneously and produce a deflection proportional at once to the power being taken up in the inductive circuit.

Fig. 7.—Quadrant Electrometer. Dolezalek Pattern.

Quadrant electrometers have also been designed especially for measuring extremely small potential differences. An instrument of this kind has been constructed by Dr. F. Dolezalek (fig. 7). The needle and quadrants are of small size, and the electrostatic capacity is correspondingly small. The quadrants are mounted on pillars of amber which afford a very high insulation. The needle, a piece of paddle-shaped paper thinly coated with silver foil, is suspended by a quartz fibre, its extreme lightness making it possible to use a very feeble controlling force without rendering the period of oscillation unduly great. The resistance offered by the air to a needle of such light construction suffices to render the motion nearly dead-beat. Throughout a wide range the deflections are proportional to the potential difference producing them. The needle is charged to a potential of 50 to 200 volts by means of a dry pile or voltaic battery, or from a lighting circuit. To facilitate the communication of the charge to the needle, the quartz fibre and its attachments are rendered conductive by a thin film of solution of hygroscopic salt such as calcium chloride. The lightness of the needle enables the instrument to be moved without fear of damaging the suspension. The upper end of the quartz fibre is rotated by a torsion head, and a metal cover serves to screen the instrument from stray electrostatic fields. With a quartz fibre 0.009 mm. thick and 60 mm. long, the needle being charged to 110 volts, the period and swing of the needle was 18 seconds. With the scale at a distance of two metres, a deflection of 130 mm. was produced by an electromotive force of 0.1 volt. By using a quartz fibre of about half the above diameter the sensitiveness was much increased. An instrument of this form is valuable in measuring small alternating currents by the fall of potential produced down a known resistance. In the same way it may be employed to measure high potentials by measuring the fall of potential down a fraction of a known non-inductive resistance. In this last case, however, the capacity of the electrometer used must be small, otherwise an error is introduced.[4]

See, in addition to references already given, A. Gray, Absolute Measurements in Electricity and Magnetism (London, 1888), vol. i. p. 254; A. Winkelmann, Handbuch der Physik (Breslau, 1905), pp. 58-70, which contains a large number of references to original papers on electrometers.  (J. A. F.) 

  1. It is probable that an experiment of this kind had been made as far back as 1746 by Daniel Gralath, of Danzig, who has some claims to have suggested the word “electrometer” in connexion with it. See Park Benjamin, The Intellectual Rise in Electricity (London, 1895), p. 542.
  2. See Maxwell, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (2nd ed.), i. 308.
  3. See Maxwell, Electricity and Magnetism (2nd ed., Oxford, 1881), vol. i. p. 311.
  4. See J. A. Fleming, Handbook for the Electrical Laboratory and Testing Room, vol. i. p. 448 (London, 1901).