Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/257

This page has been validated.

positive electrode the equivalent quantity of oxygen, one atom of oxygen for every pair of atoms of hydrogen. If, instead of hydrogen, any other element capable of substituting hydrogen is separated from the electrolyte, this is done also in a quantity exactly equivalent to the quantity of hydrogen which would have been evolved by the same electric current.

Since that time our experimental methods and our knowledge of the laws of electrical phenomena have made enormous progress, and a great many obstacles have now been removed which entangled every one of Faraday's steps, and obliged him to fight with the confused ideas and ill-applied theoretical conceptions of some of his contemporaries. We need not hesitate to say that, the more experimental methods were refined, the more the exactness and generality of Faraday's law was confirmed.

In the beginning, Berzelius and the adherents of Volta's original theory of galvanism, based on the effects of metallic contact, raised many objections against Faraday's law. By the combination of Nobili's astatic pairs of magnetic needles with Schweigger's multiplicator, a coil of copper wire with numerous circumvolutions, galvanometers became so delicate that the electro-chemical equivalent of the smaller currents they indicated was imperceptible for all chemical methods. With the newest galvanometers you can very well observe currents which would want to last a century before decomposing one milligramme of water, the smallest quantity which is usually weighed on chemical balances. You see that, if such a current lasts only some seconds or some minutes, there is not the slightest hope to discover its products of decomposition by chemical analysis. And, even if it should last a long time, the feeble quantities of hydrogen collected at the negative electrode can vanish, because they combine with the traces of atmospheric oxygen absorbed by the liquid. Under such conditions a feeble current may continue as long as you like without producing any visible trace of electrolysis, even not of galvanic polarization, the appearance of which can be used as an indication of previous electrolysis. Galvanic polarization, as you know, is an altered state of the metallic plates which have been used as electrodes during the decomposition of an electrolyte. Polarized electrodes, when connected by a galvanometer, give a current which they did not give before being polarized. By this current the plates are discharged again and returned to their original state of equality.

This depolarizing current is indeed a most delicate means of discovering previous decomposition. I have really ascertained that under favorable conditions one can observe the polarization produced during some seconds by a current which decomposes one milligramme of water in a century.

Products of decomposition can not appear at the electrodes without motions of the constituent molecules of the electrolyte throughout the