1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Galvanometer

GALVANOMETER, an instrument for detecting or measuring electric currents. The term is generally applied to instruments which indicate electric current in scale divisions or arbitrary units, as opposed to instruments called amperemeters (q.v.), which show directly on a dial the value of the current in amperes. Galvanometers may be divided into direct current and alternating current instruments, according as they are intended to measure one or other of these two classes of currents (see Electrokinetics).

Direct Current Galvanometers.—The principle on which one type of direct current galvanometer, called a movable needle galvanometer, depends for its action is that a small magnet when suspended in the centre of a coil of wire tends to set its magnetic axis in the direction of the magnetic field of the coil at that point due to the current passing through it. In the other type, or movable coil galvanometer, the coil is suspended and the magnet fixed; hence the coil tends to set itself with its axis parallel to the lines of force of the magnet. The movable system must be constrained in some way to take up and retain a definite position when no current is passing by means which are called the “control.”

In its simple and original form the movable needle galvanometer consisted of a horizontal magnetic needle suspended within a coil of insulated wire by silk fibres or pivoted on a point like a compass needle. The direction of such a needle is controlled by the direction of the terrestrial magnetic force Movable needle galvanometer. within the coil. If the needle is so placed that its axis is parallel to the plane of the coil, then when an electric current passes through the coil it is deflected and places itself at an angle to the axis of the coil determined by the strength of the current and of the controlling field. In the early forms of movable needle galvanometer the needle was either a comparatively large magnet several inches in length, or else a smaller magnet was employed carrying a long pointer which moved over a scale of degrees so as to indicate the deflexion. A method of measuring the deflexion by means of a mirror scale and telescope was introduced by K. F. Gauss and W. Weber. The magnet had a mirror attached to it, and a telescope having cross wires in the focus was used to observe the scale divisions of a fixed scale seen reflected in the mirror. Lord Mirror galvanometers. Kelvin (Professor W. Thomson) made the important improvement of reducing the size of the needle and attaching it to the back of a very small mirror, the two being suspended by a single fibre of cocoon silk. The mirror was made of silvered microscopic glass about 1/4 in. in diameter, and the magnetic needle or needles consisted of short fragments of watchspring cemented to its back. A ray of light being thrown on the mirror from a lamp the deflexions of the needle were observed by watching the movements of a spot of light reflected from it upon a fixed scale. This form of mirror galvanometer was first devised in connexion with submarine cable signalling, but soon became an indispensable instrument in the physical laboratory.

In course of time both the original form of single needle galvanometer and mirror galvanometer were improved by introducing the astatic principle and weakening the external controlling magnetic field. If two magnetic needles of equal size and moment are attached rigidly to one stem parallel to each Astatic galvanometers. other but with poles placed in opposite directions an astatic system results; that is, if the needles are so suspended as to be free to move in a horizontal plane, and if they are made exactly equal in magnetic strength, the system will have no directive power. If one needle is slightly weaker than the other, the suspended system will set itself with some axis parallel to the lines of force of a field in which it is placed. In a form of astatic needle galvanometer devised by Professor A. Broca of Paris, the pair of magnetized needles are suspended vertically and parallel to each other with poles in opposite directions. The upper poles are included in one coil and the lower poles within another coil, so connected that the current circulates in the right direction in each coil to displace the pairs of poles in the same direction. By this mode of arrangement a greater magnetic moment can be secured, together with more perfect astaticity and freedom from disturbance by external fields. The earth’s magnetic field can be weakened by means of a controlling magnet arranged to create in the space in the interior of the galvanometer coils an extremely feeble controlling magnetic field. In instruments having a coil for each needle and designed so that the current in both coils passes so as to turn both needles in the same direction, the controlling magnet is so adjusted that the normal position of the needles is with the magnetic axis parallel to the plane of the coil. An astatic magnetic system used in conjunction with a mirror galvanometer gives a highly sensitive form of instrument (fig. 1); it is, however, easily disturbed by stray magnetic fields caused by neighbouring magnets or currents through conductors, and therefore is not suitable for use in many places.

Fig. 1.—Kelvin Astatic Mirror Galvanometer. Elliott square pattern.

This fact led to the introduction of the movable coil galvanometer which was first devised by Lord Kelvin as a telegraphic signalling instrument but subsequently modified by A. d’Arsonval and others into a laboratory galvanometer (fig. 2). In this instrument a permanent magnet, generally of the horseshoe Movable coil galvanometer. shape, is employed to create a strong magnetic field, in which a light movable coil is suspended. The suspension is bifilar, consisting of two fine wires which are connected to the ends of the coil and serve to lead the current in and out. If such a coil is placed with its plane parallel to the lines of force of the permanent magnet, then when a current is passing through it it displaces itself in the field, so as to set with its axis more nearly parallel to the lines of force of the field. The movable coil may carry a pointer or a mirror; in the latter form it is well represented by several much used laboratory instruments. The movable coil galvanometer has the great advantage that it is not easily disturbed by the magnetic fields caused by neighbouring magnets or electric currents, and thus is especially useful in the electrical workshop and factory.

In the practical construction of the suspended needle fixed coil galvanometer great care must be taken with the insulation of the wire of the coil. This wire is generally silk-covered, wound on a frame, the whole being thoroughly saturated with paraffin wax. In some cases two wires are wound Construction and use. on in parallel, constituting a “differential galvanometer.” When properly adjusted this instrument can be used for the exact comparison of electric currents by a null method, because if an electric current is passed through one wire and creates certain deflexions of the needle, the current which annuls this deflexion when passed through the other wire must be equal to the first current. In the construction of a movable coil galvanometer, it is usual to intensify the magnetic field by inserting a fixed soft iron core in the interior of the movable coil. If the current to be measured is too large to be passed entirely through the galvanometer, a portion is allowed to flow through a circuit connecting the two terminals of the instrument. This circuit is called a shunt and is generally arranged so as to take 0.9, 0.99, or 0.999 of the total current, leaving 0.1, 0.01 or 0.001 to flow through the galvanometer. W. E. Ayrton and T. Mather have designed a universal shunt box or resistance which can be applied to any galvanometer and by which a known fraction of any current can be sent through the galvanometer when we know its resistance (see Jour. Inst. Elec. Eng. Lond., 1894, 23, p. 314). A galvanometer can be calibrated, or the meaning of its deflexion determined, by passing through it an electric current of known value and observing the deflexion of the needle or coil. The known current can be provided in the following manner:—a single secondary cell of any kind can have its electromotive force measured by the potentiometer (q.v.), and compared with that of a standard voltaic cell. If the secondary cell is connected with the galvanometer through a known high resistance R, and if the galvanometer is shunted, that is, has its terminals connected by another resistance S, then if the resistance of the galvanometer itself is denoted by G, the whole resistance of the shunted galvanometer and high resistance has a value represented by R + GS/G+S, and therefore the current through the galvanometer produced by an electromotive force E of the cell is represented by


Fig. 2.—Movable Coil Galvanometer.

Suppose this current produces a deflexion of the needle or coil or spot of light equal to X scale divisions, we can then alter the value of the resistances R and S, and so determine the relation between the deflexion and the current. By the sensitiveness of the galvanometer is meant the deflexion produced by a known electromotive force put upon its terminals or a known current sent through it. It is usual to specify the sensitiveness of a mirror galvanometer by requiring a certain deflexion, measured in millimetres, of a spot of light thrown on the scale placed at one metre from the mirror, when an electromotive force of one-millionth of a volt (microvolt) is applied to the terminals of the galvanometer; it may be otherwise expressed by stating the deflexion produced under the same conditions when a current of one microampere is passed through the coil. In modern mirror galvanometers a deflexion of 1 mm. of the spot of light upon a scale at 1 metre distance can be produced by a current as small as one hundred millionth (10−8) or even one ten thousand millionth (10−10) of an ampere. It is easy to produce considerable sensitiveness in the galvanometer, but for practical purposes it must always be controlled by the condition that the zero remains fixed, that is to say, the galvanometer needle or coil must come back to exactly the same position when no current is passing through the instrument. Other important qualifications of a galvanometer are its time-period and its dead-beatness. For certain purposes the needle or coil should return as quickly as possible to the zero position and with either no, or very few, oscillations. If the latter condition is fulfilled the galvanometer is said to be “dead-beat.” On the other hand, for some purposes the galvanometer is required with the opposite quality, that is to say, there must be as little retardation as possible to the needle or coil when set in motion under an impulsive blow. Such a galvanometer is called “ballistic.” The quality of a galvanometer in this respect is best estimated by taking the logarithmic decrement of the oscillations when the movable system is set swinging. This last term is defined as the logarithm of the ratio of one swing to the next succeeding swing, and a galvanometer of which the logarithmic decrement is large, is said to be highly damped. For many purposes, such as for resistance measurement, it is desirable to have a galvanometer which is highly damped; this result can be obtained by affixing to the needles either light pieces of mica, when it is a movable needle galvanometer, or by winding the coil on a silver frame when it is a movable coil galvanometer. On the other hand, for the comparison of capacities of condensers and for other purposes, a galvanometer is required which is as little damped as possible, and for this purpose the coil must have the smallest possible frictional resistance to its motion through the air. In this case the moment of inertia of the movable system must be decreased or the control strengthened.

The Einthoven string galvanometer is another form of sensitive instrument for the measurement of small direct currents. It consists of a fine wire or silvered quartz fibre stretched in a strong magnetic field. When a current passes through the wire it is displaced across the field and the displacement is observed with a microscope.

Fig. 3.—Helmholtz Tangent Galvanometer.

For the measurement of large currents a “tangent galvanometer” is employed (fig. 3). Two fixed circular coils are placed apart at a distance equal to the radius of either coil, so that a current passing through them creates in the central region between them a nearly uniform magnetic field. Tangent galvanometer. At the centre of the coils is suspended a small magnetic needle the length of which should not be greater than 1/10 the radius of either coil. The normal position of the needle is at right angles to the line joining the centre of the coils. If a current is passed through the coils, the needle will be deflected, and the tangent of the angle of its deflexion will be nearly proportional to the current passing through the coil, provided that the controlling field is uniform in strength and direction, and that the length of the magnetic needle is so short that the space in which it rotates is a practically uniform magnetic field.

Alternating Current Galvanometers.—For the detection of small alternating currents a magnetic needle or movable coil galvanometer is of no utility. We can, however, construct an instrument suitable for the purpose by suspending within a coil of insulated wire a small needle of soft iron placed with its axis at an angle of 45° to the axis of the coil. When an alternating current passes through the coil the soft iron needle tends to set itself in the direction of the axis of the coil, and if it is suspended by a quartz fibre or metallic wire so as to afford a control, it can become a metrical instrument. Another arrangement, devised by J. A. Fleming in 1887, consists of a silver or copper disk suspended within a coil, the plane of the disk being held at 45° to that of the coil. When an alternating current is passed through the coil, induced currents are set up in the disk and the mutual action causes the disk to endeavour to set itself so that these currents are a minimum. This metal disk galvanometer has been made sufficiently sensitive to detect the feeble oscillatory electric currents set up in the receiving wire of a wireless telegraph apparatus. The Duddell thermal ammeter is another very sensitive form of alternating current galvanometer. In it the current to be detected or measured is passed through a high resistance wire or strip of metal leaf mounted on glass, over which is suspended a closed loop of bismuth and antimony, forming a thermoelectric couple. This loop is suspended by a quartz fibre in a strong magnetic field, and one junction of the couple is held just over the resistance wire and as near it as possible without touching. When an alternating current passes through the resistance it creates heat which in turn acts on the thermo-junction and generates a continuous current in the loop, thus deflecting it in the magnetic field. The sensitiveness of such a thermal ammeter can be made sufficiently great to detect a current of a few microamperes.

References.—J. A. Fleming, A Handbook for the Electrical Laboratory and Testing Room, vol. i. (London, 1901); W. E. Ayrton, T. Mather and W. E. Sumpner, “On Galvanometers,” Proc. Phys. Soc. London (1890), 10, 393; H. R. Kempe, A Handbook of Electrical Testing (London, 1906); A. Gray, Absolute Measurements in Electricity and Magnetism, vol. ii. part ii. (London, 1893). Useful information is also contained in the catalogues of all the principal electrical instrument makers—Messrs. Elliott Bros., Nalder, The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, Pitkin, Hartmann and Braun, Queen and others.  (J. A. F.)