Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/September 1882/Electromania



A HISTORY of electricity, in order to be complete, must include two distinct and very different subjects: the history of electrical science, and a history of electrical exaggerations and delusions. The progress of the first has been followed by a crop of the second from the time when Kleist, Muschenbroek, and Cuneus endeavored to bottle the supposed fluid, and in the course of these attempts stumbled upon the "Leyden-jar."

Dr. Lieberkuhn, of Berlin, describes the startling results which he obtained, or imagined, "when a nail or a piece of brass wire is put into a small apothecary's phial and electrified." He says that "if, while it is electrifying, I put my finger or a piece of gold which I hold in my hand to the nail, I receive a shock which stuns my arms and shoulders." At about the same date (the middle of the last century), Muschenbroek stated, in a letter to Réaumur, that, on taking a shock from a thin glass bowl, "he felt himself struck in his arms, shoulders, and breast, so that he lost his breath, and was two days before he recovered from the effects of the blow and the terror"; and that he "would not take a second shock for the kingdom of France." From the description of the apparatus, it is evident that this dreadful shock was no stronger than many of us have taken scores of times for fun, and have given to our school-fellows when we became the proud possessors of our first electrical machine.

Conjurers, mountebanks, itinerant quacks, and other adventurers operated throughout Europe, and were found at every country fair and fête displaying the wonders of the invisible agent by giving shocks and professing to cure all imaginable ailments. Then came the discoveries of Galvani and Volta, followed by the demonstrations of Galvani's nephew Aldini, whereby dead animals were made to display the movements of life, not only by the electricity of the voltaic pile, but, as Aldini especially showed, by a transfer of the mysterious agency from one animal to another. According to his experiments (that seem to be forgotten by modern electricians), the galvanometer of the period, a prepared frog, could be made to kick by connecting its nerve and muscle with muscle and nerve of a recently killed ox, with or without metallic intervention.

Thus arose the dogma which still survives in the advertisements of electrical quacks, that "electricity is life," and the possibility of reviving the dead was believed by many. Executed criminals were in active demand; their bodies were expeditiously transferred from the gallows or scaffold to the operating-table, and their dead limbs were made to struggle and plunge, their eyeballs to roll, and their features to perpetrate the most horrible contortions by connecting nerves with one pole, and muscles with the opposite pole of a battery.

The heart was made to beat, and many men of eminence supposed that if this could be combined with artificial respiration, and kept up for a while, the victim of the hangman might be restored, provided the neck was not broken. Curious tales were loudly whispered concerning gentle hangings and strange doings at Dr. Brookes's, in Leicester Square, and at the Hunterian Museum, in Windmill Street, now flourishing as "The Café de l'Étoile." When a child, I lived about midway between these celebrated schools of practical anatomy, and well remember the tales of horror that were recounted concerning them. When Bishop and Williams (no relation to the writer) were hanged for burking, i. e., murdering people in order to provide "subjects" for dissection, their bodies were sent to Windmill Street, and the popular notion was that, being old and faithful servants of the doctors, they were galvanized to life, and again set up in their old business.

It is amusing to read some of the treatises on medical galvanism that were published at about this period, and contrast their positive statements of cures effected and results anticipated with the position now attained by electricity as a curative agent. Then came the brilliant discoveries of Faraday, Ampère, etc., demonstrating the relations between electricity and magnetism, and immediately following them a multitude of patents for electro-motors, and wild dreams of superseding steam-engines by magneto-electric machinery.

The following, which I copy from "The Penny Mechanic," of June 10, 1837, is curious, and very instructive to those who think of investing in any of the electric-power companies of to-day: "Mr. Thomas Davenport, a Vermont blacksmith, has discovered a mode of applying magnetic and electro-magnetic power, which we have good ground for believing will be of immense importance to the world." This announcement is followed by reference to Professor Silliman's "American Journal of Science and the Arts," for April, 1837, and extracts from American papers, of which the following is a specimen: "1. We saw a small cylindrical battery, about nine inches in length, three or four in diameter, produce a magnetic power of about three hundred pounds, and which, therefore, we could not move with our utmost strength. 2. We saw a small wheel, five and a half inches in diameter, performing more than six hundred revolutions in a minute, and lift a weight of twenty-four pounds one foot per minute, from the power of a battery of still smaller dimensions. 3. We saw a model of a locomotive-engine traveling on a circular railroad with immense velocity, and rapidly ascending an inclined plane of far greater elevation than any hitherto ascended by steam-power. And these and various other experiments which we saw convinced us of the truth of the opinion expressed by Professors Silliman, Renwick, and others, that the power of machinery may be increased from this source beyond any assignable limit. It is computed by these learned men that a circular galvanic battery about three feet in diameter, with magnets of a proportionable surface, would produce at least a hundred horsepower; arid therefore that two such batteries would be sufficient to propel ships of the largest class across the Atlantic. The only materials required to generate and continue this power for such a voyage would be a few thin sheets of copper and zinc, and a few gallons of mineral water."

The Faure Accumulator is but a very weak affair compared with this, Sir William Thomson notwithstanding. To render the date of the above fully appreciable, I may note that three months later the magazine from which it is quoted was illustrated with a picture of the London and Birmingham Railway Station, displaying a first-class passenger with a box-seat on the roof of the carriage, and followed by an account of the trip to Boxmoor, the first installment of the London and Northwestern Railway. It tells us that, "the time of starting having arrived, the doors of the carriages are closed, and, by the assistance of the conductors, the train is moved on a short distance toward the first bridge, where it is met by an engine, which conducts it up the inclined plane as far as Chalk Farm. Between the canal and this spot stands the station-house for the engines; here, also, are fixed the engines which are to be employed in drawing the carriages up the inclined plane from Euston quare, by a rope upward of a mile in length, the cost of which was upward of £400." After describing the next change of engines, in the same matter-of-course way as the changing of stage-coach horses, the narrative proceeds to say that "entering the tunnel from broad daylight to perfect darkness has an exceedingly novel effect."

I make these parallel quotations for the benefit of those who imagine that electricity is making such vastly greater strides than other sources of power. I well remember making this journey to Boxmoor, and four or five years later traveling on a circular electro-magnetic railway. Comparing that electric railway with those now exhibiting, and comparing the Boxmoor trip with the present work of the London and Northwestern Railway, I have no hesitation in affirming that the rate of progress in electro-locomotion during the last forty years has been far smaller than that of steam.

The leading fallacy which is urging the electro-maniacs of the present time to their ruinous investments is the idea that electro-motors are novelties, and that electric-lighting is in its infancy; while gas-lighting is regarded as an old or mature middle-aged business, and therefore we are to expect a marvelous growth of the infant and no further progress of the adult. These excited speculators do not appear to be aware of the fact that electric-lighting is older than gas-lighting; that Sir Humphry Davy exhibited the electric light in Albemarle Street, while London was still dimly lighted by oil-lamps, and long before gas-lighting was attempted anywhere. The lamp used by Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution, at the beginning of the present century, was an arrangement of two carbon pencils, between which was formed the "electric arc" by the intensely vivid incandescence and combustion of the particles of carbon passing between the solid carbon electrodes. The light exhibited by Davy was incomparably more brilliant than anything that has been lately shown either in London, or Paris, or at Sydenham. His arc was four inches in length, the carbon pencils were four inches apart, and a broad, dazzling arch of light bridged the whole space between. The modern arc-lights are but pygmies, mere specs, compared with this, a leap of one eighth or one quarter inch constituting their maximum achievement.

Comparing the actual progress of gas and electric lighting, the gas has achieved by far the greater strides; and this is the case even when we compare very recent progress. The improvements connected with gas-making have been steadily progressive; scarcely a year has passed from the date of Murdoch's efforts to the present time, without some or many decided steps having been made. The progress of electric-lighting has been a series of spasmodic leaps, backward as well as forward. As an example of stepping backward, I may refer to what the newspapers have described as the "discoveries" of Mr. Edison, or the use of an incandescent wire, or stick, or sheet of platinum, or platino-iridium; or a thread of carbon, of which the "Swan" and other modern lights are rival modifications.

As far back as 1846 I was engaged in making apparatus and experiments for the purpose of turning to practical account "King's, patent electric light," the actual inventor of which was a young American, named Starr, who died in 1847, when about twenty-five years of age, a victim of overwork and disappointment in his efforts to perfect this invention and a magneto-electric machine, intended to supply the power in accordance with some of the "latest improvements" of 1881 and 1882. I had a share in this venture, and was very enthusiastic until after I had become practically acquainted with the subject. We had no difficulty in obtaining a splendid and perfectly steady light, better than any that are shown at the Crystal Palace. We used platinum, and alloys of platinum and iridium, abandoned them as Edison did more than thirty years later, and then tried a multitude of forms of carbon, including that which constitutes the last "discovery" of Mr. Edison, viz., burned cane. Starr tried this on theoretical grounds, because cane being coated with silica, he predicted that by charring it we should obtain a more compact stick or thread, as the fusion of the silica would hold the carbon-particles together. He finally abandoned this and all the rest in favor of the hard deposit of carbon which lines the inside of gas-retorts, some specimens of which we found to be so hard that we required a lapidary's wheel to cut them into the thin sticks.

Our final wick was a piece of this of square section, and about one eighth of an inch across each way. It was mounted between two forceps—one holding each end, and thus leaving a clear half-inch between. The forceps were soldered to platinum wires, one of which passed upward through the top of the barometer-tube, expanded into a lamp-glass at its upper part. This wire was sealed to the glass as it passed through. The lower wire passed down the middle of the tube. The tube was filled with mercury and inverted over a cup of mercury. Being thirty inches long up to the bottom of the expanded portion, or lamp-globe, the mercury fell below this and left a Torricellian vacuum there. One pole of the battery, or dynamo-machine, was connected with the mercury in the cup, and the other with the upper wire. The stick of carbon glowed brilliantly, and with perfect steadiness. I subsequently exhibited this apparatus in the Town-Hall of Birmingham, and many times at the Midland Institute. The only scientific difficulty connected with this arrangement was that due to a slight volatilization of the carbon, and its deposition as a brown film upon the lamp-glass; but this difficulty is not insuperable.—Knowledge.