1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Electroscope

Fig. 1.—Henley’s Electroscope.

ELECTROSCOPE, an instrument for detecting differences of electric potential and hence electrification. The earliest form of scientific electroscope was the versorium or electrical needle of William Gilbert (1544–1603), the celebrated author of the treatise De magnete (see Electricity). It consisted simply of a light metallic needle balanced on a pivot like a compass needle. Gilbert employed it to prove that numerous other bodies besides amber are susceptible of being electrified by friction.[1] In this case the visible indication consisted in the attraction exerted between the electrified body and the light pivoted needle which was acted upon and electrified by induction. The next improvement was the invention of simple forms of repulsion electroscope. Two similarly electrified bodies repel each other. Benjamin Franklin employed the repulsion of two linen threads, C. F. de C. du Fay, J. Canton, W. Henley and others devised the pith ball, or double straw electroscope (fig. 1). T. Cavallo about 1770 employed two fine silver wires terminating in pith balls suspended in a glass vessel having strips of tin-foil pasted down the sides (fig. 2). The object of the thimble-shaped dome was to keep moisture from the stem from which the pith balls were supported, so that the apparatus could be used in the open air even in the rainy weather. Abraham Bennet (Phil. Trans., 1787, 77, p. 26) invented the modern form of gold-leaf electroscope. Inside a glass shade he fixed to an insulated wire a pair of strips of gold-leaf (fig. 3). The wire terminated in a plate or knob outside the vessel. When an electrified body was held near or in contact with the knob, repulsion of the gold leaves ensued. Volta added the condenser (Phil. Trans., 1782), which greatly increased the power of the instrument. M. Faraday, however, showed long subsequently that to bestow upon the indications of such an electroscope definite meaning it was necessary to place a cylinder of metallic gauze connected to the earth inside the vessel, or better still, to line the glass shade with tin-foil connected to the earth and observe through a hole the indications of the gold leaves (fig. 4). Leaves of aluminium foil may with advantage be substituted for gold-leaf, and a scale is sometimes added to indicate the angular divergence of the leaves.

Fig. 2.—Cavallo’s Electroscope. Fig. 3.—Bennet’s

The uses of an electroscope are, first, to ascertain if any body is in a state of electrification, and secondly, to indicate the sign of that charge. In connexion with the modern study of radio-activity, the electroscope has become an instrument of great usefulness, far outrivalling the spectroscope in sensibility. Radio-active bodies are chiefly recognized by the power they possess of rendering the air in their neighbourhood conductive; hence the electroscope detects the presence of a radio-active body by losing an electric charge given to it more quickly than it would otherwise do. A third great use of the electroscope is therefore to detect electric conductivity either in the air or in any other body.

Fig. 4.—Gold-Leaf

To detect electrification it is best to charge the electroscope by induction. If an electrified body is held near the gold-leaf electroscope the leaves diverge with electricity of the same sign as that of the body being tested. If, without removing the electrified body, the plate or knob of the electroscope is touched, the leaves collapse. If the electroscope is insulated once more and the electrified body removed, the leaves again diverge with electricity of the opposite sign to that of the body being tested. The sign of charge is then determined by holding near the electroscope a glass rod rubbed with silk or a sealing-wax rod rubbed with flannel. If the approach of the glass rod causes the leaves in their final state to collapse, then the charge in the rod was positive, but if it causes them to expand still more the charge was negative, and vice versa for the sealing-wax rod. When employing a Volta condensing electroscope, the following is the method of procedure:—The top of the electroscope consists of a flat, smooth plate of lacquered brass on which another plate of brass rests, separated from it by three minute fragments of glass or shellac, or a film of shellac varnish. If the electrified body is touched against the upper plate whilst at the same time the lower plate is put to earth, the condenser formed of the two plates and the film of air or varnish becomes charged with positive electricity on the one plate and negative on the other. On insulating the lower plate and raising the upper plate by the glass handle, the capacity of the condenser formed by the plates is vastly decreased, but since the charge on the lower plate including the gold leaves attached to it remains the same, as the capacity of the system is reduced the potential is raised and therefore the gold leaves diverge widely. Volta made use of such an electroscope in his celebrated experiments (1790–1800) to prove that metals placed in contact with one another are brought to different potentials, in other words to prove the existence of so-called contact electricity. He was assisted to detect the small potential differences then in question by the use of a multiplying condenser or revolving doubler (see Electrical Machine). To employ the electroscope as a means of detecting radio-activity, we have first to test the leakage quality of the electroscope itself. Formerly it was usual to insulate the rod of the electroscope by passing it through a hole in a cork or mass of sulphur fixed in the top of the glass vessel within which the gold leaves were suspended. A further improvement consisted in passing the metal wire to which the gold leaves were attached through a glass tube much wider than the rod, the latter being fixed concentrically in the glass tube by means of solid shellac melted and run in. This insulation, however, is not sufficiently good for an electroscope intended for the detection of radio-activity; for this purpose it must be such that the leaves will remain for hours or days in a state of steady divergence when an electrical charge has been given to them.

Fig. 5.—Curie’s Electroscope.

In their researches on radio-activity M. and Mme P. Curie employed an electroscope made as follows:—A metal case (fig. 5), having two holes in its sides, has a vertical brass strip B attached to the inside of the lid by a block of sulphur SS or any other good insulator. Joined to the strip is a transverse wire terminating at one end in a knob C, and at the other end in a condenser plate P′. The strip B carries also a strip of gold-leaf L, and the metal case is connected to earth. If a charge is given to the electroscope, and if any radio-active material is placed on a condenser plate P attached to the outer case, then this substance bestows conductivity on the air between the plates P and P′, and the charge of the electroscope begins to leak away. The collapse of the gold-leaf is observed through an aperture in the case by a microscope, and the time taken by the gold-leaf to fall over a certain distance is proportional to the ionizing current, that is, to the intensity of the radio-activity of the substance.

A very similar form of electroscope was employed by J. P. L. J. Elster and H. F. K. Geitel (fig. 6), and also by C. T. R. Wilson (see Proc. Roy. Soc., 1901, 68, p. 152). A metal box has a metal strip B suspended from a block or insulator by means of a bit of sulphur or amber S, and to it is fastened a strip of gold-leaf L. The electroscope is provided with a charging rod C. In a dry atmosphere sulphur or amber is an early perfect insulator, and hence if the air in the interior of the box is kept dry by calcium chloride, the electroscope will hold its charge for a long time. Any divergence or collapse of the gold-leaf can be viewed by a microscope through an aperture in the side of the case.

Fig. 6.—Elster and
 Geitel Electroscope.
Fig. 7.—Wilson’s Electroscope.

Another type of sensitive electroscope is one devised by C. T. R. Wilson (Proc. Cam. Phil. Soc., 1903, 12, part 2). It consists of a metal box placed on a tilting stand (fig. 7). At one end is an insulated plate P kept at a potential of 200 volts or so above the earth by a battery. At the other end is an insulated metal wire having attached to it a thin strip of gold-leaf L. If the plate P is electrified it attracts the strip which stretches out towards it. Before use the strip is for one moment connected to the case, and the arrangement is then tilted until the strip extends at a certain angle. If then the strip of gold-leaf is raised or lowered in potential it moves to or from the plate P, and its movement can be observed by a microscope through a hole in the side of the box. There is a particular angle of tilt of the case which gives a maximum sensitiveness. Wilson found that with the plate electrified to 207 volts and with a tilt of the case of 30°, if the gold-leaf was raised one volt in potential above the case, it moved over 200 divisions of the micrometer scale in the eye-piece of the microscope, 54 divisions being equal to one millimetre. In using the instrument the insulated rod to which the gold-leaf is attached is connected to the conductor, the potential of which is being examined. In the use of all these electroscopic instruments it is essential to bear in mind (as first pointed out by Lord Kelvin) that what a gold-leaf electroscope really indicates is the difference of potential between the gold-leaf and the solid walls enclosing the air space in which they move.[2] If these enclosing walls are made of anything else than perfectly conducting material, then the indications of the instrument may be uncertain and meaningless. As already mentioned, Faraday remedied this defect by coating the inside of the glass vessel in which the gold-leaves were suspended to form an electroscope with tinfoil (see fig. 4). In spite of these admonitions all but a few instrument makers have continued to make the vicious type of instrument consisting of a pair of gold-leaves suspended within a glass shade or bottle, no means being provided for keeping the walls of the vessel continually at zero potential.

See J. Clerk Maxwell, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, vol. i. p. 300 (2nd ed., Oxford, 1881); H. M. Noad, A Manual of Electricity, vol. i. p. 25 (London, 1855); E. Rutherford, Radio-activity.  (J. A. F.) 

  1. See the English translation by the Gilbert Club of Gilbert’s De magnete, p. 49 (London, 1900).
  2. See Lord Kelvin, "Report on Electrometers and Electrostatic Measurements," Brit. Assoc. Report for 1867, or Lord Kelvin's Reprint of Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetism, p. 260.