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


on the induction of a current on itself.

546.] Faraday has devoted the ninth series of his Researches to the investigation of a class of phenomena exhibited by the current in a wire which forms the coil of an electromagnet.

Mr. Jenkin had observed that, although it is impossible to produce a sensible shock by the direct action of a voltaic system consisting of only one pair of plates, yet, if the current is made to pass through the coil of an electromagnet, and if contact is then broken between the extremities of two wires held one in each hand, a smart shock will he felt, No such shock is felt on making contact.

Faraday showed that this and other phenomena, which he describes, are due to the same inductive action which he had already observed the current to exert on neighbouring conductors. In this case, however, the inductive action in exerted on the same conductor which carries the current, and it is so much the more powerful as the wire itself is nearer to the different elements of the current than any other wire can be.

547.] He observes, however[1], that ‘the first thought that arises in the mind is that the electricity circulates with something like momentum or inertia in the wire.' Indeed, when we consider one particular wire only, the phenomena are exactly analogous to those of a pipe full of water flowing in a continued stream. If while the stream is flowing we suddenly close the end of the tube, the momentum of the water produces a sudden pressure, which is much greater than that due to the head of water, and may be sufficient to burst the pipe.

If the water has the means of escaping through a narrow jet when the principal aperture is closed, it will be projected with a velocity much greater than that due to the head of water, and if it can escape through a valve into a chamber, it will do so, even when the pressure in the chamber is greater than that due to the head of water.

It is on this principle that the hydraulic ram is constructed, by which a small quantity of water may be raised to a great height by means of a large quantity flowing down from a much lower level.

548.] These effects of the inertia of the fluid in the tube depend solely on the quantity of fluid running through the tube, on its length, and on its section in different parts of its length. They do not depend on anything outside the tube, nor on the form into which the tube may be bent, provided its length remains the same.

In the case of the wire conveying a current this is not the case, for if a long wire is doubled on itself the effect is very small, if the two parts are separated from each other it is greater, if it is coiled up into a helix it is still greater, and greatest of all if, when so coiled, a piece of soft iron is placed inside the coil.

Again, if a second wire is coiled up with the first, but insulated from it, then, if the second wire does not form a closed circuit, the phenomena are as before, but if the second wire forms a closed circuit, an induction current is formed in the second wire, and the effects of self-induction in the first wire are retarded.

549.] These results shew clearly that, if the phenomena are due to momentum, the momentum is certainly not that of the electricity in the wire, because the same wire, conveying the same current, exhibits effects which differ according to its form; and even when its form remains the same, the presence of other bodies, such as a piece of iron or a closed metallic circuit, affects the result.

550.] It is difficult, however, for the mind which has once recognised the analogy between the phenomena of self-induction and those of the motion of material bodies, to abandon altogether the help of this analogy, or to admit that it is entirely superficial and misleading. The fundamental dynamical idea of matter, as capable by its motion of becoming the recipient of momentum and of energy, is so interwoven with our forms of thought that, when ever we catch a glimpse of it in any part of nature, we feel that a path is before us leading, sooner or later, to the complete understanding of the subject.

551.] In the case of the electric current, we find that, when the electromotive force begins to act, it does not at once produce the full current, but that the current rises gradually. What is the electromotive force doing during the time that the opposing resistance is not able to balance it? It is increasing the electric current.

Now an ordinary force, acting on a body in the direction of its motion, increases its momentum, and communicates to it kinetic energy, or the power of doing work on account of its motion.

In like manner the unresisted part of the electromotive force has been employed in increasing the electric current. Has the electric current, when thus produced, either momentum or kinetic energy?

We have already shewn that it has something very like momentum, that it resists being suddenly stopped, and that it can exert, for a short time, a great electromotive force.

But a conducting circuit in which a current has been set up has the power of doing work in virtue of this current, and this power cannot be said to be something very like energy, for it is really and truly energy.

Thus, if the current be left to itself, it will continue to circulate till it is stopped by the resistance of the circuit. Before it is stopped, however, it will have generated a certain quantity of heat, and the amount of this heat in dynamical measure is equal to the energy originally existing in the current.

Again, when the current is left to itself, it may be made to do mechanical work by moving magnets, and the inductive effect of these motions will, by Lenz's law, stop the current sooner than the resistance of the circuit alone would have stopped it. In this way part of the energy of the current may be transformed into mechanical work instead of heat.

552.] It appears, therefore, that a system containing an electric current is a seat of energy of some kind ; and since we can form no conception of an electric current except as a kinetic phenomenon[2], its energy must be kinetic energy, that is to say, the energy which a moving body has in virtue of its motion.

We have already shewn that the electricity in the wire cannot be considered as the moving body in which we are to find this energy, for the energy of a moving body does not depend on anything external to itself, whereas the presence of other bodies near the current alters its energy.

We are therefore led to enquire whether there may not be some motion going on in the space outside the wire, which is not occupied by the electric current, but in which the electromagnetic effects of the current are manifested.

I shall not at present enter on the reasons for looking in one place rather than another for such motions, or for regarding these motions as of one kind rather than another.

What I propose now to do is to examine the consequences of the assumption that the phenomena of the electric current are those of a moving system, the motion being communicated from one part of the system to another by forces, the nature and laws of which we do not yet even attempt to define, because we can eliminate these forces from the equations of motion by the method given by Lagrange for any connected system.

In the next five chapters of this treatise I propose to deduce the main structure of the theory of electricity from a dynamical hypothesis of this kind, instead of following the path which has led Weber and other investigators to many remarkable discoveries and experiments, and to conceptions, some of which are as beautiful as they are bold. I have chosen this method because I wish to shew that there are other ways of viewing the phenomena which appear to me more satisfactory, and at the same time are more consistent with the methods followed in the preceding parts of this book than those which proceed on the hypothesis of direct action at a distance.

  1. Exp. Res., 1077.
  2. Faraday, Exp. Res. (283.)