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



241.] If by means of an electrometer we determine the electric potential at different points of a circuit in which a constant electric current is maintained, we shall find that in any portion of the circuit consisting of a single metal of uniform temperature throughout, the potential at any point exceeds that at any other point farther on in the direction of the current by a quantity depending on the strength of the current and on the nature and dimensions of the intervening portion of the circuit. The difference of the potentials at the extremities of this portion of the circuit is called the External electromotive force acting on it. If the portion of the circuit under consideration is not homogeneous, but contains transitions from one substance to another, from metals to electrolytes, or from hotter to colder parts, there may be, besides the external electromotive force, Internal electromotive forces which must be taken into account.

The relations between Electromotive Force, Current, and Resistance were first investigated by Dr. G. S. Ohm, in a work published in 1827, entitled Die Galvanische Kette Mathematisch Bearbeitet, translated in Taylor's Scientific Memoirs. The result of these investigations in the case of homogeneous conductors is commonly called 'Ohm's Law.'

Ohm's Law.

The electromotive force acting between the extremities of any part of a circuit is the product of the strength of the current and the Resistance of that part of the circuit.

Here a new term is introduced, the Resistance of a conductor, which is defined to be the ratio of the electromotive force to the strength of the current which it produces. The introduction of this term would have been of no scientific value unless Ohm had shewn, as he did experimentally, that it corresponds to a real physical quantity, that is, that it has a definite value which is altered only when the nature of the conductor is altered.

In the first place, then, the resistance of a conductor is independent of the strength of the current flowing through it.

In the second place the resistance is independent of the electric potential at which the conductor is maintained, and of the density of the distribution of electricity on the surface of the conductor.

It depends entirely on the nature of the material of which the conductor is composed, the state of aggregation of its parts, and its temperature.

The resistance of a conductor may be measured to within one ten thousandth or even one hundred thousandth part of its value, and so many conductors have been tested that our assurance of the truth of Ohm's Law is now very high, In the sixth chapter we shall trace its applications and consequences.

Generation of Heat by the Current.

242.] We have seen that when an electromotive force causes a current to flow through a conductor, electricity is transferred from a place of higher to a place of lower potential. If the transfer had been made by convection, that is, by carrying successive charges on a ball from the one place to the other, work would have been done by the electrical forces on the ball, and this might have been turned to account. It is actually turned to account in a partial manner in those dry pile circuits where the electrodes have the form of bells, and the carrier ball is made to swing like a pendulum between the two bells and strike them alternately. In this way the electrical action is made to keep up the swinging of the pendulum and to propagate the sound of the bells to a distance. In the case of the conducting wire we have the same transfer of electricity from a place of high to a place of low potential without any external work being done. The principle of the Conservation of Energy therefore leads us to look for internal work in the conductor. In an electrolyte this internal work consists partly of the separation of its components. In other conductors it is entirely converted into heat.

The energy converted into heat is in this case the product of the electromotive force into the quantity of electricity which passes. But the electromotive force is the product of the current into the resistance, and the quantity of electricity is the product of the current into the time. Hence the quantity of heat multiplied by the mechanical equivalent of unit of heat is equal to the square of the strength of the current multiplied into the resistance and into the time.

The heat developed by electric currents in overcoming the resistance of conductors has been determined by Dr. Joule, who first established that the heat produced in a given time is proportional to the square of the current, and afterwards by careful absolute measurements of all the quantities concerned, verified the equation

where is Joule's dynamical equivalent of heat, the number of units of heat, the strength of the current, the resistance of the conductor, and the time during which the current flows. These relations between electromotive force, work, and heat, were first fully explained by Sir W. Thomson in a paper on the application of the principle of mechanical effect to the measurement of electromotive forces[1].

243.] The analogy between the theory of the conduction of electricity and that of the conduction of heat is at first sight almost complete. If we take two systems geometrically similar, and such that the conductivity for heat at any part of the first is proportional to the conductivity for electricity at the corresponding part of the second, and if we also make the temperature at any part of the first proportional to the electric potential at the corresponding point of the second, then the flow of heat across any area of the first will be proportional to the flow of electricity across the corresponding area of the second.

Thus, in the illustration we have given, in which flow of electricity corresponds to flow of heat, and electric potential to temperature, electricity tends to flow from places of high to places of low potential, exactly as heat tends to flow from places of high to places of low temperature.

244.] The theory of potential and that of temperature may therefore be made to illustrate one another; there is, however, one remarkable difference between the phenomena of electricity and those of heat.

Suspend a conducting body within a closed conducting vessel by a silk thread, and charge the vessel with electricity. The potential of the vessel and of all within it will be instantly raised, but however long and however powerfully the vessel be electrified, and whether the body within be allowed to come in contact with the vessel or not, no signs of electrification will appear within the vessel, nor will the body within shew any electrical effect when taken out.

But if the vessel is raised to a high temperature, the body within will rise to the same temperature, but only after a considerable time, and if it is then taken out it will be found hot, and will remain so till it has continued to emit heat for some time.

The difference between the phenomena consists in the fact that bodies are capable of absorbing and emitting heat, whereas they have no corresponding property with respect to electricity. A body cannot be made hot without a certain amount of heat being supplied to it, depending on the mass and specific heat of the body, but the electric potential of a body may be raised to any extent in the way already described without communicating any electricity to the body.

245.] Again, suppose a body first heated and then placed inside the closed vessel. The outside of the vessel will be at first at the temperature of surrounding bodies, but it will soon get hot, and will remain hot till the heat of the interior body has escaped.

It is impossible to perform a corresponding electrical experiment. It is impossible so to electrify a body, and so to place it in a hollow vessel, that the outside of the vessel shall at first shew no signs of electrification but shall afterwards become electrified. It was for some phenomenon of this kind that Faraday sought in vain under the name of an absolute charge of electricity.

Heat may be hidden in the interior of a body so as to have no external action, but it is impossible to isolate a quantity of electricity so as to prevent it from being constantly in inductive relation with an equal quantity of electricity of the opposite kind.

There is nothing therefore among electric phenomena which corresponds to the capacity of a body for heat. This follows at once from the doctrine which is asserted in this treatise, that electricity obeys the same condition of continuity as an incompressible fluid. It is therefore impossible to give a bodily charge of electricity to any substance by forcing an additional quantity of electricity into it. See Arts. 61, 111, 329, 334.

  1. Phil. Mag., Dec. 1851.