A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism/Part II/Chapter I





230.] We have seen, in Art. 45, that when a conductor is in electrical equilibrium the potential at every point of the conductor must be the same.

If two conductors and are charged with electricity so that the potential of is higher than that of , then, if they are put in communication by means of a metallic wire touching both of them, part of the charge of will be transferred to , and the potentials of and will become in a very short time equalized.

231.] During this process certain phenomena are observed in the wire , which are called the phenomena of the electric conflict or current.

The first of these phenomena is the transference of positive electrification from to and of negative electrification from to . This transference may be also effected in a slower manner by bringing a small insulated body into contact with and alternately. By this process, which we may call electrical convection, successive small portions of the electrification of each body are transferred to the other. In either case a certain quantity of electricity, or of the state of electrification, passes from one place to another along a certain path in the space between the bodies.

Whatever therefore may be our opinion of the nature of electricity, we must admit that the process which we have described constitutes a current of electricity. This current may be described as a current of positive electricity from to or a current of negative electricity from to or as a combination of these two currents.

According to Fechner's and Weber's theory it is a combination of a current of positive electricity with an exactly equal current of negative electricity in the opposite direction through the same substance. It is necessary to remember this exceedingly artificial hypothesis regarding the constitution of the current in order to understand the statement of some of Weber's most valuable experimental results.

If, as in Art. 36, we suppose units of positive electricity transferred from to and units of negative electricity transferred from to in unit of time, then, according to Weber's theory, , and or is to be taken as the numerical measure of the current.

We, on the contrary, make no assumption as to the relation between and but attend only to the result of the current, namely, the transference of of positive electrification from to , and we shall consider the true measure of the current. The current, therefore, which Weber would call 1 we shall call 2.

On Steady Currents.

232.] In the case of the current between two insulated conductors at different potentials the operation is soon brought to an end by the equalization of the potentials of the two bodies, and the current is therefore essentially a Transient current.

But there are methods by which the difference of potentials of the conductors may be maintained constant, in which case the current will continue to flow with uniform strength as a Steady Current.

The Voltaic Battery.

The most convenient method of producing a steady current is by means of the Voltaic Battery.

For the sake of distinctness we shall describe Daniell's Constant Battery:—

A solution of sulphate of zinc is placed in a cell of porous earthenware, and this cell is placed in a vessel containing a saturated solution of sulphate of copper. A piece of zinc is dipped into the sulphate of zinc, and a piece of copper is dipped into the sulphate of copper. Wires are soldered to the zinc and to the copper above the surface of the liquid. This combination is called a cell or element of Daniell's battery. See Art. 272.

233.] If the cell is insulated by being placed on a non-conducting stand, and if the wire connected with the copper is put in contact with an insulated conductor , and the wire connected with the zinc is put in contact with , another insulated conductor of the same metal as , then it may be shewn by means of a delicate electrometer that the potential of exceeds that of by a certain quantity. This difference of potentials is called the Electromotive Force of the Daniell's Cell.

If and are now disconnected from the cell and put in communication by means of a wire, a transient current passes through the wire from to , and the potentials of and become equal. and may then be charged again by the cell, and the process repeated as long as the cell will work. But if and be connected by means of the wire , and at the same time connected with the battery as before, then the cell will maintain a constant current through , and also a constant difference of potentials between and . This difference will not, as we shall see, be equal to the whole electromotive force of the cell, for part of this force is spent in maintaining the current through the cell itself.

A number of cells placed in series so that the zinc of the first cell is connected by metal with the copper of the second, and so on, is called a Voltaic Battery. The electromotive force of such a battery is the sum of the electromotive forces of the cells of which it is composed. If the battery is insulated it may be charged with electricity as a whole, but the potential of the copper end will always exceed that of the zinc end by the electromotive force of the battery, whatever the absolute value of either of these potentials may be. The cells of the battery may be of very various construction, containing different chemical substances and different metals, provided they are such that chemical action does not go on when no current passes.

234.] Let us now consider a voltaic battery with its ends insulated from each other. The copper end will be positively or vitreously electrified, and the zinc end will be negatively or resinously electrified.

Let the two ends of the battery be now connected by means of a wire. An electric current will commence, and will in a very short time attain a constant value. It is then said to be a Steady Current.

Properties of the Current.

235.] The current forms a closed circuit in the direction from copper to zinc through the wires, and from zinc to copper through the solutions.

If the circuit be broken by cutting any of the wires which connect the copper of one cell with the zinc of the next in order, the current will be stopped, and the potential of the end of the wire in connexion with the copper will be found to exceed that of the end of the wire in connexion with the zinc by a constant quantity, namely, the total electromotive force of the circuit.

Electrolytic Action of the Current.

236.] As long as the circuit is broken no chemical action goes on in the cells, but as soon as the circuit is completed, zinc is dissolved from the zinc in each of the Daniell's cells, and copper is deposited on the copper.

The quantity of sulphate of zinc increases, and the quantity of sulphate of copper diminishes unless more is constantly supplied.

The quantity of zinc dissolved and also that of copper deposited is the same in each of the Daniell's cells throughout the circuit, whatever the size of the plates of the cell, and if any of the cells be of a different construction, the amount of chemical action in it bears a constant proportion to the action in the Daniell's cell. For instance, if one of the cells consists of two platinum plates dipped into sulphuric acid diluted with water, oxygen will be given off at the surface of the plate where the current enters the liquid, namely, the plate in metallic connexion with the copper of Daniell's cell, and hydrogen at the surface of the plate where the current leaves the liquid, namely, the plate connected with the zinc of Daniell's cell.

The volume of the hydrogen is exactly twice the volume of the oxygen given off in the same time, and the weight of the oxygen is exactly eight times the weight of the hydrogen.

In every cell of the circuit the weight of each substance dissolved, deposited, or decomposed is equal to a certain quantity called the electrochemical equivalent of that substance, multiplied by the strength of the current and by the time during which it has been flowing.

For the experiments which established this principle, see the seventh and eighth series of Faraday's Experimental Researches; and for an investigation of the apparent exceptions to the rule, see Miller's Chemical Physics and Widemann's Galvanismus.

237.] Substances which are decomposed in this way are called Electrolytes. The process is called Electrolysis. The places where the current enters and leaves the electrolyte are called Electrodes. Of these the electrode by which the current enters is called the Anode, and that by which it leaves the electrolyte is called the Cathode. The components into which the electrolyte is resolved are called Ions: that which appears at the anode is called the Anion, and that which appears at the cathode is called the Cation.

Of these terms, which were, I believe, invented by Faraday with the help of Dr. Whewell, the first three, namely, electrode, electrolysis, and electrolyte have been generally adopted, and the mode of conduction of the current in which this kind of decomposition and transfer of the components takes place is called Electrolytic Conduction.

If a homogeneous electrolyte is placed in a tube of variable section, and if the electrodes are placed at the ends of this tube, it is found that when the current passes, the anion appears at the anode and the cation at the cathode, the quantities of these ions being electrochemically equivalent, and such as to be together equivalent to a certain quantity of the electrolyte. In the other parts of the tube, whether the section be large or small, uniform or varying, the composition of the electrolyte remains unaltered. Hence the amount of electrolysis which takes place across every section of the tube is the same. Where the section is small the action must therefore be more intense than where the section is large, but the total amount of each ion which crosses any complete section of the electrolyte in a given time is the same for all sections.

The strength of the current may therefore be measured by the amount of electrolysis in a given time. An instrument by which the quantity of the electrolytic products can be readily measured is called a Voltameter.

The strength of the current, as thus measured, is the same at every part of the circuit, and the total quantity of the electrolytic products in the voltameter after any given time is pro portional to the amount of electricity which passes any section in the same time.

238.] If we introduce a voltameter at one part of the circuit of a voltaic battery, and break the circuit at another part, we may suppose the measurement of the current to be conducted thus. Let the ends of the broken circuit be and , and let be the anode and the cathode. Let an insulated ball be made to touch and alternately, it will carry from to a certain measurable quantity of electricity at each journey. This quantity may be measured by an electrometer, or it may be calculated by multiplying the electromotive force of the circuit by the electrostatic capacity of the ball. Electricity is thus carried from to on the insulated ball by a process which may be called Convection. At the same time electrolysis goes on in the voltameter and in the cells of the battery, and the amount of electrolysis in each cell may be compared with the amount of electricity carried across by the insulated ball. The quantity of a substance which is electrolysed by one unit of electricity is called an Electrochemical equivalent of that substance.

This experiment would be an extremely tedious and troublesome one if conducted in this way with a ball of ordinary magnitude and a manageable battery, for an enormous number of journeys would have to be made before an appreciable quantity of the electrolyte was decomposed. The experiment must therefore be considered as a mere illustration, the actual measurements of electrochemical equivalents being conducted in a different way. But the experiment may be considered as an illustration of the process of electrolysis itself, for if we regard electrolytic conduction as a species of convection in which an electrochemical equivalent of the anion travels with negative electricity in the direction of the anode, while an equivalent of the cation travels with positive electricity in the direction of the cathode, the whole amount of transfer of electricity being one unit, we shall have an idea of the process of electrolysis, which, so far as I know, is not inconsistent with known facts, though, on account of our ignorance of the nature of electricity and of chemical compounds, it may be a very imperfect representation of what really takes place.

Magnetic Action of the Current.

239.] Oersted discovered that a magnet placed near a straight electric current tends to place itself at right angles to the plane passing through the magnet and the current. See Art. 475.

If a man were to place his body in the line of the current so that the current from copper through the wire to zinc should flow from his head to his feet, and if he were to direct his face towards the centre of the magnet, then that end of the magnet which tends to point to the north would, when the current flows, tend to point towards the man's right hand.

The nature and laws of this electromagnetic action will be discussed when we come to the fourth part of this treatise. What we are concerned with at present is the fact that the electric current has a magnetic action which is exerted outside the current, and by which its existence can be ascertained and its intensity measured without breaking the circuit or introducing anything into the current itself.

The amount of the magnetic action has been ascertained to be strictly proportional to the strength of the current as measured by the products of electrolysis in the voltameter, and to be quite independent of the nature of the conductor in which the current is flowing, whether it be a metal or an electrolyte.

240.] An instrument which indicates the strength of an electric current by its magnetic effects is called a Galvanometer.

Galvanometers in general consist of one or more coils of silk-covered wire within which a magnet is suspended with its axis horizontal. When a current is passed through the wire the magnet tends to set itself with its axis perpendicular to the plane of the coils. If we suppose the plane of the coils to be placed parallel to the plane of the earth's equator, and the current to flow round the coil from east to west in the direction of the apparent motion of the sun, then the magnet within will tend to set itself with its magnetization in the same direction as that of the earth considered as a great magnet, the north pole of the earth being similar to that end of the compass needle which points south.

The galvanometer is the most convenient instrument for measuring the strength of electric currents. We shall therefore assume the possibility of constructing such an instrument in studying the laws of these currents, reserving the discussion of the principles of the instrument for our fourth part. When therefore we say that an electric current is of a certain strength we suppose that the measurement is effected by the galvanometer.