Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/May 1902/The Electronic Theory of Electricity




MAY 1902.


By Dr. J. A. FLEMING, F. R. S.,


CONSIDERABLE progress has been made of late years in our knowledge concerning the structure and relations of atoms and electricity. Recent discoveries have moreover placed in a new light old theories and experimental work. The remarkable investigations and deductions made from his own experiments and those of others, which have led Professor J. J. Thomson to the conclusion that atoms can be split up into, or can give off, smaller masses, which he calls corpuscles, were explained by him in a most interesting article in the Popular Science Monthly for August, 1901.[1] There seems to be good evidence that in a glass vessel exhausted to a high vacuum through the walls of which are sealed platinum wires, we have a torrent of small bodies or so-called corpuscles projected from the kathode or negative wire, when the terminals are connected to an induction coil or electrical machine.

Twenty-five years ago Sir William Crookes explored with wonderful skill many of the effects due to electric discharge through such high vacua, and came to the conclusion that they could only be explained by the supposition that there was present in the tube matter in a fourth state, neither solid, liquid, nor gaseous, but 'radiant matter 7 projected in straight lines from the surface of the negative pole or kathode, the particles moving with immense velocity, and all charged with negative electricity. He showed by beautiful experiments that this radiant matter bombarded the glass walls and produced phosphorescence, could be focused on to metal sheets and render them red hot, and could drive round little windmills or vanes included in the tube. It therefore possesses the quality of inertia and in virtue of the electric charge it carries, it is virtually an electric current and can be deflected by a magnet. The proof which has been given by Professor Thomson that this 'radiant matter' consists of corpuscles, a thousand times smaller than an atom of hydrogen in mass, and that they are shot off from the kathode with a velocity which is comparable with that of light, explains at once both their kinetic energy and also the manner in which they are able to pass through windows of aluminium, as shown by Lenard, and get into the space outside the tube. Furthermore, evidence has been put forward to show that the electric charge carried by each one of these tiny corpuscles is exactly the same as that which a hydrogen atom carries in the act of electrolysis or when it forms a hydrogen ion.

It seems tolerably clear from all the facts of electrolysis that electricity can only pass through a conducting liquid or electrolyte by being carried on atoms or groups of atoms which are called ions—i. e., wanderers. The quantity thus carried by a hydrogen atom or other monad element, such as sodium, silver or potassium, is a definite natural unit of electricity. The quantity carried by any other atom or group of atoms acting as an ion is always an exact integer multiple of this natural unit. This small indivisible quantity of electricity has been called by Dr. Johnstone Stoney an Electron or atom of electricity. The artificial or conventional unit of electric quantity on the centimeter, gram, second system as defined by the British Association Committee on Electrical Units is as follows:

An electrostatic unit of electric quantity is the charge which when placed upon a very small sphere repels another similarly charged sphere, the centers being one centimeter apart, with a mechanical force of one dyne. The dyne is a mechanical unit of force and is that force which acting for one second on a mass of one gram gives it a velocity of one centimeter per second. Hence, by the law of inverse squares the force in dynes exerted by two equal charges at a distance is equal to . Two other units of electric quantity are in use. The electromagnetic unit, which is thirty thousand million times as great as the electrostatic unit, and the practical unit called the coulomb or ampère-second which is three thousand million times the electrostatic unit. We can calculate easily the relation between the electron and the coulomb; that is, between nature's unit of electricity and the British Association unit, as follows:

If we electrolyze any electrolyte, say acidified water which yields up hydrogen at the negative electrode, we find that to evolve a volume of one cubic centimeter of hydrogen gas at 0° C. and 760 mm. we have to pass through the electrolyte a quantity of electricity equal to 8.62 coulombs. For 96,540 coulombs are required to evolve one gram of hydrogen and 11,200 cubic centimeters at 0° C. and atmospheric pressure weigh one gram. The number 8.62 is the quotient of 96,540 by 11,200.

Various arguments, some derived from the kinetic theory of gases, indicate that the number of molecules of hydrogen in a cubic centimeter is probably best represented by the number twenty million million million =2 X 1019 . Hence it follows, since there are two atoms of hydrogen in a molecule, that in electrostatic units the electric charge on a hydrogen atom or hydrogen ion is

of a C. G. S electrostatic unit

of a coulomb.

Accordingly, if the above atomic charge is called one electron then the conventional British Association electrostatic unit of electric quantity is equal to 1540 million electrons, and the quantity called a coulomb is nearly five million million million electrons. The electron or the electric charge carried by a hydrogen atom or ion is evidently a very important physical constant. If we electrolyze, that is decompose by electricity aqueous solutions of various salts, such as sodium chloride, zinc chloride, copper sulphate, silver nitrate, we find, in accordance with Faraday's Laws of Electrolysis, that the passage of a given quantity of electricity through these solutions decomposes them in proportional amounts such that for every 46 grams of sodium liberated there are 65 of zinc, 63.5 of copper and 216 of silver. These masses are called chemical equivalents. Accordingly, if we imagine a number of vessels placed in a row containing these solutions and by means of platinum connecting links or plates we pass an electric current through the series, for every atom of copper or zinc carried to their respective kathodes,, we shall have two atoms of silver or sodium similarly transported. Since the same quantity of electricity must pass through every vessel in the same time it is evident that the above fact may be interpreted by assuming that whilst an atom of silver or sodium acting as an ion carries one electron, an atom of zinc or copper carries two electrons.

In the same way we may have atoms which carry three, four, five or six electrons. Thus we may interpret the facts of chemical valency and Faraday's Law of Electrolysis in terms of the electron.

We are thus confronted by the idea, long ago suggested by Weber and by Helmholtz, that the agency we call electricity is atomic in structure, that is to say, we can only have it in amounts which are all exact multiples of a certain small unit. Electricity therefore resembles those articles of commerce like cigars, which we can buy in exact numbers, 1, 10, 50, 100, 1000, but we cannot buy half a cigar or five sixths of a cigar. If then the law which holds good for electricity in association with atoms during electrolysis holds good generally, a very important advance has been made in establishing the fact that there is a small indivisible unit of it which can be multiplied but not divided, and every quantity of electricity, small or large, is an exact integer multiple of this unit, the electron.

Theories of Electricity.

Various answers have been given at different times to the question—What is electricity? It has been defined as an imponderable fluid, as a force, as a mode of motion, a form of energy, an ether strain or displacement or a molecular motion.

At one time physicists have considered it as a single entity or fluid; at others it has been pronounced to be duplex in nature and positive and negative fluids or electricities have been hypothecated.

The state of electrification has been looked upon at one period as due to an excess or defect of a single electricity, at others as a consequence of the resolution of some neutral fluid into two components. An electrical charge on a conductor has been regarded as something given to or put upon the conductor and also as a state of strain or displacement in the surrounding non-conductor. The intelligent but non-scientific inquirer is often disappointed when he finds no simple, and as he thinks essential, answer forthcoming to the above question, and he asks why it cannot be furnished.

We must bear in mind, however, that scientific hypotheses as to the underlying causes of phenomena are subject to the law of evolution and have their birth, maturity and decay. Theory necessarily succeeds theory, and whilst no one hypothesis can be looked upon as expressing the whole truth, neither is any likely to be destitute of all truth if it sufficiently reconciles a large number of observed facts.

The notion that we can reach an absolutely exact and ultimate explanation of any group of physical effects is a fallacious idea. We must ever be content with the best attainable sufficient hypothesis that can at any time be framed to include the whole of the observations under our notice. Hence the question, What is electricity? no more admits of a complete and final answer to-day than does the question, What is Life? Though this idea may seem discouraging, it does not follow that the trend of scientific thought is not in the right direction. We are not simply wandering round and round, chasing some elusive Will-o'-the-wisp, in our pursuit after a comprehension of the structure of the universe. Each physical hypothesis serves, however, as a lamp to conduct us a certain stage on the journey. It illuminates a limited portion of the path, throwing a light before and behind for some distance, but it has to be discarded and exchanged at intervals because it has become exhausted and its work is done.

The construction and testing of scientific theories is therefore an important part of scientific work. The mere collection of facts or even their utilization is not the ultimate and highest goal of scientific investigation. The aim of the most philosophic workers has always been to penetrate beneath the surface of phenomena and discover those great underlying fundamental principles on which the fabric of nature rests. From time to time a fresh endeavor has to be made to reconstruct, in the light of newly acquired knowledge, our scientific theory of any group of effects. Thus, the whole of electrical phenomena have become illuminated of late years by a theory which has been developed concerning the atomic structure of electricity and this hypothesis is called the Electronic Theory of Electricity.

The Atomic Theory.

The opinion that matter is atomic in structure is one which has grown in strength as chemical and physical knowledge has progressed. From Democritus, who is said to have taught it in Greece, to John Dalton who gave it definiteness, and to Lord Kelvin who furnished the earliest numerical estimate of the size of atoms, it has been found to be the best reconciler of very diverse and numerous facts. Let us consider what it really means. Suppose we take some familiar substance, such as common table salt, and divide a mass of it into the smallest grains visible to the eye. Each tiny fragment is as much entitled by all tests to be called table salt, or to give it the chemical name, sodic chloride, as a mountain of the material. Imagine that we continue the subdivision under a good microscope; we might finally obtain a little mass of about one hundred-thousandth of an inch in diameter, but beyond this point it would hardly be visible even under a powerful lens. We may, however, suppose the subdivision continued a hundred fold by some more delicate means until we finally arrive at a small mass of about one ten-millionth of an inch in diameter. A variety of arguments furnished by Maxwell, Boltzmann, Loschmidt, Lord Kelvin and others show that there is a high degree of probability that any further subdivision would cause the portions into which the salt is divided to be no longer identical in properties, but there would be two kinds of parts' or particles, such that if all of one kind were collected together they would form a metal called sodium, and if all of the other kind were similarly picked out they would form a non-metal called chlorine. Each of these smallest portions of table salt, which if divided are no longer salt, is called a molecule of sodic chloride, and each of the parts into which the molecule is divisible is called an atom, of sodium or of chlorine. In dealing with the dimensions of these very small portions of matter an inch or a centimeter is too clumsy a unit. To express the size of an atom in fractions of an inch is worse than stating the diameter of an apple in fractions of a mile. Every one knows what is meant by a millimeter; it is nearly one twenty-fifth part of an inch. A meter is equal to a thousand millimeters. Suppose a millimeter divided into a thousand parts. Each of these is called a micron and denoted by the Greek letter μ. This however is still too large a unit of length for measuring the size of atoms, so we again divide the micron into a thousand parts and call each a micromillimeter or micromil, and denote it by the symbol μμ. Lord Kelvin's estimate of the diameter of a molecule is that it lies between one hundredth of a micromil and two micromils, that is between .01 μμ and 2 μμ. This is certainly a very wide estimate, but it is the best yet to hand, and for present purposes we may take it that an atom is a small portion of matter of approximately one millionth of a millimeter or one micromil (1 μμ) in diameter. On the same scale the wave length of a ray of yellow light is about 0.6 μ or 600 μμ. that is six hundred times the size of an atom. We know nothing as yet about the relative sizes of different kinds of atoms. In the next place as regards the number of molecules in a given space, various distinguished physicists, Maxwell, Kelvin, Boltzmann, Van der Waals and others, have given estimates for the number of molecules in a cubic centimeter of air at ordinary temperature and pressure, which vary between 1018 and 1021 or between a million billion and a thousand million billion. All we can do is to take a rough mean of these different values, and we shall consider that in one cubic centimeter of hydrogen or other gas at 0° C. and 760 mm. or freezing point and ordinary pressure there are about 2 1019 or twenty million million million molecules. To understand what this enormous number means we must realize that if we could pick out all the molecules in one cubic inch of air and place them side by side in a row, small as they are individually, the row would extend nearly twice the distance from the earth to the sun.

Having provided ourselves with a rough idea of the sizes and numbers of the molecules of any gas we proceed to obtain an idea of their weight or mass. Since 11,162 cubic centimeters of hydrogen gas at 0° C. and 760 mm. weigh one gram, it follows from the above facts that each molecule of hydrogen has a mass of nearly 1/1023 of a gram. To weigh these tiny atoms we must therefore take a unit of weight equal to one billionth of one billionth of a gram, and then on this scale the hydrogen molecule weighs 10 such units. We may obtain in another way an illustration of the mass size and number of the molecules of any gas in the following manner:

First as to size. We can in a good Whitworth measuring instrument detect a variation in length of a metal bar equal to one millionth of an inch. This short length would be occupied by 25 molecules placed in a row close together. We can in a good microscope see a small object whose diameter is one hundred-thousandth of an inch. In a small box of this size we could pack 16 million molecules close together. The smallest weight which can be weighed on a very good chemical balance is one hundredth of a milligram. The united weight of one million million million molecules of hydrogen would therefore just be detectable on such a balance.

Ultra-Atomic Matter.

Until a few years ago our knowledge of the divisibility of matter may be said to have ended with the chemical unit, the atom. But of late years information has been steadily accumulating which has made us acquainted with matter in a finer state of subdivision. For a long time a controversy was carried on, whether the radiation in a high vacuum tube which proceeds from the kathode was a material substance or a wave motion of some kind. But no fact yet found is inconsistent with the notion which originated with Sir William Crookes that the transfer which takes place is that of something which has the inertia quality of matter, and his term 'radiant matter' is a peculiarly suitable phrase to describe the phenomena. The great advance which has since been made, by Professor Thomson and others, is that of measuring accurately the amount of bending which a stream of this radiant matter experiences under a known magnetic force and from this deducing the ratio between the mass of the radiant particle and the electric charge carried by it. This measurement shows that if the radiant matter consists of corpuscles or particles, each of them carries a charge of one electron, but has a mass of about one thousandth of a hydrogen atom.

The evidence therefore exists that Crookes' 'radiant matter' also called the 'kathode rays' and Thomson's 'corpuscles' are one and the same thing and that these corpuscles may be described as fragments broken off from chemical atoms and possessing only a small fraction of their mass. These particles are shot off from the negative terminal or kathode of the vacuum tube with a velocity which is from one fifth to one third the velocity of light.

Moreover it has been shown that when the kathode rays pass through a thin metal window in a vacuum tube and get into the space outside, thus forming Lenard's rays, they are likewise only the same or similar corpuscles in the space outside rather than inside the vacuum tube. Finally it has been proved that these electrified corpuscles are present as well in the mass of a gas through which Röntgen rays have passed, also in the mysterious radiation called Becquerel rays which proceeds from uranium and other radio-active substances, also in all flames, near all very hot bodies and in the air near certain metallic surfaces on which ultra-violet light falls. In every case the corpuscle is charged with an electron charge of negative electricity. If a corpuscle originates as a fragment chipped off from an electrically neutral atom and is negatively charged, it follows that the remainder of the atom of matter is left positively charged.

The word 'atom' therefore, as far as it signifies something which cannot be cut, is becoming a misnomer as applied to the chemical unit of matter, because this latter is capable of being divided into two parts of very unequal size. First, a small part which is negatively electrified and which is identically the same, no matter from what chemical atom it originates, and secondly, a much larger mass which is the remainder of the atom and is positively electrified, but which has a different nature depending on the kind of chemical atom broken up. The question has then begun to be debated whether we can distinguish between the corpuscle and the electric charge it carries and if so in what way. In other words, can we have an unelectrified corpuscle or is the corpuscle so identified with its electric charge that they are one and the same thing? It has been shown experimentally that an electric charge in motion is in effect an electric current, and we know that an electric current possesses something equivalent to inertia, that is, it cannot be started and stopped instantly, and it possesses energy. We call this electric inertia inductance, hence the question arises whether the energy of the corpuscles when in motion is solely due to the electric inductance or whether it is partly due to what may be called the ponderable inertia of the corpuscle.

This very difficult question has not yet been even approximately settled. At the present moment we have no evidence that we can separate the electron charge from the corpuscle itself. If this is the case, then the corpuscles taken together constitute for all practical purposes negative electricity, and we can no more have anything which can be called electricity apart from corpuscles than we can have momentum apart from moving matter. For this reason it is sometimes usual to speak of the corpuscle carrying its charge of one electron of negative electricity simply as an electron, and to drop all distinction between the electric charge and the vehicle in or on which it is conveyed.

It is remarkable that so far no one has been able to produce or find a corpuscle positively electrified. Positive electricity is only known in association with masses as large as atoms, but negative electricity is identified with corpuscles or masses only a small fraction of the size of an atom. This does not prove that an atom may not include positive corpuscles or electrons, but only that so far we have not been able to isolate them.

The Electronic Theory of Electricity.

From this point of view a theory of electricity originates called the electronic theory. The principal objects of consideration in this theory are these electrons which constitute what we call electricity. An atom of matter in its neutral condition has been assumed to consist of an outer shell or envelope of negative electrons associated with some core or matrix which has an opposite electrical quality, such that if an electron is withdrawn from the atom the latter is left positively electrified.

A neutral atom minus an electron constitutes the natural unit of positive electricity and the electron and the neutral atom minus an electron are sometimes called negative and positive ions. Deferring for a moment a further analysis of possible atomic structure we may say that with the above hypothesis in hand we have then to express our statements of electrical facts in terms of the electron as the fundamental idea.

All that can be attempted here is a very brief exposition of the success which has so far attended this effort to create a new range of electrical conceptions. Let us consider first the fundamental difference between substances in respect of electrical conductivity. In the electronic theory what is the distinction between conductors and non-conductors? It must be remembered that on the electronic hypothesis an electric current is a movement of electrons. Hence a conductor must be a substance in which electrons free to move exist. It is considered therefore that in metals and good conductors a certain proportion of the atoms are broken up into positive and negative ions or into electrons and remainders of atoms which we may call coelectrons. There may be a constant decomposition and recomposition of atoms taking place, and any given electron so to speak flits about, now forming part of one atom and now of another and anon enjoying a free existence. It resembles a person visiting from house to house forming a unit in different households and in between being a solitary person in the street. In non-conductors on the other hand the electrons are much restricted in their movements, and can be displaced a little way but are pulled back again when released. The positive and negative ions or electrons and coelectrons never have the opportunity to part company very far.

The reader who is familiar with the modern doctrine of the ionization of salts in solution will see that a close similarity exists between this view of the atomic state of a metal and the chemical state of a salt in solution. The ionic theory of solution is that if some salt, say sodic chloride, is placed in water a certain proportion of the molecules of sodic chloride are dissociated into sodium and chlorine ions, that is to say, atoms possessing electric charges, and the electric conductivity of the solution is due to the mobility of these saline ions.

On the electronic theory a certain proportion of the atoms of a conductor are similarly in a state of electronization. The application of an electromotive force to the conductor thus at once causes the electrons to begin to migrate. If we compare conductors and non-conductors we shall see that the former are mostly elementary bodies, the metals and alloys or graphitic carbon, whilst the latter are all very complex substances such as glass, ebonite, the oils, shellac, gutta-percha, etc. These last have large and complex molecules but the good conductors have all simple molecules and small atomic volumes. The exceptions apparently are sulphur and carbon in the form of diamond. When, however, we remember that carbon and sulphur are elements very prone to polymerize and so to speak combine with themselves they may not really be an exception. The electrons may therefore have much more difficulty in exchanging from atom to atom or in making their way between or through the molecules when these are very complex than when they are simple.

The question then may be asked why these free electrons do not all escape from the conductor. The answer is that there must be an equal quantity of electrons and coelectrons or remainders of atoms or of so-called negative and positive ions, and the stronger attraction between these involves the expenditure of work to separate them. The radioactive substances, such as uranium, polonium, radium, actinium and others, to which so much attention has been paid lately, do seem to have the power of emitting their corpuscles or electrons and scattering them abroad, and hence can only do this at the expense of some of their own internal molecular energy or else drawing upon the heat of surrounding bodies.

We come next to the explanation of the familiar fact of electrification by friction. Why is it that when we rub a glass rod with a bit of silk the two things are equally and oppositely electrified? To explain this on the electronic theory we have to consider the state of affairs at the surface of any substance immersed say in air. At the surface where the air and glass meet there will be an electronization of atoms which appears to result in the formation of a double layer of electrons and coelectrons or negative and positive ions. This is probably an attempt on the part of the glass and air to combine chemically together. The same state exists at the surface of the silk. When we rub these two things together these double layers are very roughly treated and are broken up. The whole lot of electrons and coelectrons or residual portions of atoms get mixed up and more or less divided up between the two surfaces. As however every negative electron has its positive coelectron, it follows that what one surface gains the other must lose. Hence in the end we may have a majority of negative ions or electrons left on the one surface and a majority of positive ions or coelectrons left on the other surface, and the glass and the silk are then electrified with equal quantities but opposite sign. Owing to the mutual repulsion of the similar electrons the charge resides wholly on the surface.

This conception of the existence of a double layer of opposite electricities or ions at the surface of contact of two substances has been put forward to account for the familiar effect of the electrification of air by falling drops of water. It has long been known that the air in the neighborhood of waterfalls of fresh water is electrified negatively, whereas the air in the neighborhood of splashing salt water, as at the seaside, is positively electrified and the explanation that has been given by Professor J. J. Thomson is that this is due to the breaking up of this double layer of ions at the surface of the drop when it strikes the ground.

Atomic Valency.

At this stage it may be well to indicate that any valid theory of electricity must involve an explanation of the facts of chemical combination and chemical valency as well. At present all ideas on the structure of atoms must necessarily be purely speculative. So much advance has been made however in the development of a department of chemistry called stereo-chemistry that we need not despair of coming to know in time much about the architecture of atoms and molecules. The way is cleared, however, for some consistent explanations if we can assume that one or more free electrons can attach themselves to a neutral atom and so give it a negative charge of electricity. We may suppose as a first assumption that in a neutral atom which is otherwise complete there exist localities at which one or more electrons can find a permanent attachment. The atom is then no longer neutral but negatively electrified. If the atom can as it were accommodate one electron it is a monovalent element, if two it is divalent and so on. If it cannot accommodate any at all it is an avalent or non-valent element.

Consider the case of gaseous molecules. Chemical facts teach us. that the molecules of free gaseous hydrogen, oxygen or other gases contain two atoms, so that these free molecules are represented by the symbols H2, O2, etc. In these cases hydrogen and oxygen are so to speak combined with themselves. We can explain this by the supposition that most neutral atoms are unstable structures. In contact with each other some lose one or more electrons and an equal number gain one or more electrons. Hence in a mass say of hydrogen we have some atoms which are positively electrified and some which are negatively electrified then called atomic ions, and these ions united pair and pair form the molecules of hydrogen which may be represented by (H, H) similarly for other gases. Certain neutral atoms such as those of argon are monatomic and non-valent and these appear to be unable to enter into combination either with each other or with other atoms. Accordingly, in a mass of free hydrogen there are no free electrons and all the positively charged and negatively charged H atoms are in union. Hence the gas is a non-conductor of electricity. But we can make it a conductor by heating it to a high temperature. The explanation of this is that a high temperature dissociates some of the molecules into atoms and these under the action of electric force move in opposite directions, thus creating an electric current. Thus air at ordinary temperatures is an almost perfect non-conductor, but at a white heat it conducts electricity freely.

The monovalent elements like hydrogen are those neutral atomic structures which can lose one electron or take up one electron, becoming respectively positive atomic ions and negative atomic ions. In the same way the divalent elements such as oxygen are those neutral atomic structures which can part with two electrons and take up two and so on for trivalent, quadrivalent, etc., atoms. The work required to remove the second electron probably is very much greater than that required to remove the first. Hence in polyvalent atoms the valencies have unequal energy values.

Consider now a mass of intermingled oxygen and hydrogen consisting of neutral molecules. The state is a stable one as long as all the molecules are neutral. If, however, we dissociate a few of the hydrogen and oxygen molecules by an electric spark or by heat then there is a recombination. A positive oxygen ion unites with two negative hydrogen ions and a negative oxygen ion with two positive hydrogen ions and the result is two neutral molecules of water. This combination takes place because the union of oxygen ions with hydrogen ions to form water evolves more heat and exhausts more potential energy than the combination of oxygen with oxygen and hydrogen with hydrogen ions in equivalent quantity. The energy set free by the union of the O and H is sufficient to continue the dissociation of further gaseous molecules so the action is explosive and is propagated throughout the mass.

There is however a broad distinction between the elements in this respect, viz.: that some atoms are prevalently electropositive and others electronegative. A metallic atom for instance is electropositive, but the atoms of non-metals are mostly electronegative. Moreover metals in the mass are electrically good conductors, whereas non-metals in the mass are non-conductors or bad conductors. This may be explained by the varying degree of force required to detach electrons from neutral atoms and conversely the varying degree of attachment of electrons for neutral atoms. Thus we may consider that the metallic atoms lose very easily one or more electrons and also that there is a somewhat feeble attachment in their case between the neutral atom and the free electron. Hence metals in the mass are conductors because there are plenty of free electrons present in them. On the other hand, in the case of non-metallic atoms the force required to detach one or more electrons from the atom is much greater and conversely the attachment of free electrons for the neutral atom is larger. Accordingly, in non-metals there are few free electrons and they are therefore non-conductors. Moreover the presence of positive and negative atomic ions causes them to link together into more or less complex molecules and they exhibit polyvalency and act as the grouping elements in molecular complexes. This is a very characteristic quality of the elements, sulphur, silicon and carbon.

Helmholtz long ago laid stress on the fact that certain physical and chemical effects could only be explained by assuming a varying attraction of electricity for matter. The same idea followed out leads to an hypothesis of chemical combination and dissociation of salts in solution. Thus a molecule of sodic chloride is the electrical union of a monovalent sodium ion or sodium atom minus one electron with a chlorine ion which is a chlorine atom plus one electron. It may be asked why in this case does not the extra electron pass over from the chlorine to the sodium ion and leave two neutral atoms. The answer is because the union between the electron and the chloride is probably far more intimate than that between the atomic groups. These latter may revolve round their common center of mass like a double star, but the electron which gives rise to the binding attraction may be more intimately attached to the atomic group into which it has penetrated.

Voltaic Action.

Any theory of electricity must in addition present some adequate account of such fundamental facts as voltaic action and magneto-electric induction. Let us briefly consider the former. Suppose a strip of copper attached to one of zinc and the compound bar immersed in water to which a little hydrochloric acid has been added.

All chemical knowledge seems to point to the necessity and indeed validity of the assumption that the work required to be done to remove an electron from a neutral atom varies with the atom. Conversely the attraction which exists between a free electron and an atom deprived of an electron also varies. Accordingly the attraction between atomic ions, that is, atoms one of which has gained and one of which has lost electrons, is different. Upon this specific attraction of an atomic ion for electrons or their relative desire to form themselves into neutral molecules depends what used to be called chemical affinity. Mr. Rutherford has shown that negative ions gave up their charges more readily to some metals than others and most readily to the electro-positive metals. Hence a zinc atomic ion is more ready to take up electrons and again become neutral than a copper ion.

Consider then the simple voltaic couple above described. In the electrolyte we have hydrogen ions which are H atoms minus an electron, and chlorine ions which are chlorine atoms plus an electron. These are wandering about in a menstruum which consists of water molecules and hydrochloride acid molecules. Then in the metal bar we have zinc and copper divalent ions which are these atoms each minus two electrons, and also an equivalent number of free and mobile electrons.

If we adopt Volta's original view of contact electricity, we must assume that at the surface of contact of the metals there is some action which drives electrons across the boundary from the zinc to the copper. This may be due to the neutral copper atoms having a slightly greater attraction for electrons than the neutral zinc atom. The zinc is therefore slightly electrified positively and the copper negatively. Accordingly in the electrolyte the negative chlorine ions move to the zinc and combine with positive zinc ions, forming neutral zinc chloride, two chlorine ions going to one zinc ion. The hydrogen ions therefore diffuse to the copper side and each takes up a free electron from the copper, becoming neutral hydrogen atoms and there escape.

In proportion as the zinc atomic ions are removed from the zinc bar and the corresponding free electrons from the copper, so must there be a gradual diffusion of electrons from the zinc bar to the copper bar across the metallic junction. But this constitutes the voltaic current flowing in the circuit. It is a current of negative electricity flowing from zinc to copper and equivalent to a positive current from copper to zinc. The energy of this current arises from the differential attraction of zinc and copper ions for chlorine ions and is therefore the equivalent of the exhaustion of the chemical potential energy of the cell. Thus the electronic theory outlines for us in a simple manner the meaning of voltaic action. Even if we do not admit the existence of a metallic junction volta contact force, the theory of the cell may be based on the view that the movement of the saline ions in the electrolyte is determined by the law that that motion takes place which results in the greatest exhaustion of potential energy. Hence the chlorine ions move to the zinc and not to the copper.

In the same manner the electronic theory supplies a clue to the explanation of the production of an electric current when a conductor is moved across a magnetic field. Every electron in motion creates a magnetic force. Hence a uniform magnetic field may be considered as if due to a moving sheet of electrons. The 'cutting' of a conductor across a magnetic field will therefore be accompanied by the same reactions as if a procession of electrons were suddenly started in it. This, however, would involve at the moment of starting a backward push on surrounding electrons, just as when a boat is set in motion by oars the boat is pushed forward and the water is pushed back. Hence there is an induced current at the moment when the field begins in the conductor. Similarly the reaction at stopping the procession would drag the surrounding electrons with it. Accordingly the induced currents when the field ceases is in the opposite direction to that when it begins.

The electronic theory has in the hands of other theorists such as Professors P. Drude and E. Riecke been shown to be capable of rendering an account of most thermomagnetic effects on metals, contact electricity, the so-called Thomson effects in thermoelectricity, and also the Hall effect in metals when placed in a magnetic field.

Electrons and Æther.

The ultimate nature of an electron and its relation to the æther has engaged the attention of many physicists, but we may refer here more particularly to the views of Dr. J. Larmor whose investigations in this difficult subject are described in his book on 'Æther and Matter' and also in a series of important papers on the transactions of the Royal Society of London, entitled 'A Dynamical Theory of the Electric and Luminiferous Medium' (Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc, 1893, 1895, 1898). Larmor starts with the assumption of an æther which is a frictionless fluid, but possesses the property of inertia; in other words he assumes that its various parts can have motion with respect to each other and that this motion involves the association of energy with the medium. He regards the electron as a strain center in the æther, that is as a locality from which aether strain radiates. Electrons can therefore be either positive or negative according to the direction of the strain and to every positive electron there is a corresponding negative one. Atoms according to him are collocations of electrons in stable orbital motion like star clusters or systems.

An electron in motion is in fact a shifting center of æther strain and it can be displaced through a stationary æther just as a kink or knot in a rope can be changed from place to place on the rope.

An electron in vibration creates an æther wave but it radiates only when its velocity is being accelerated and not when it is uniform.

The type of æther which Larmor assumes as the basis of his reasoning is one which has a rotational elasticity, that is to say, the various portions of it do not resist being sheared or slid over each other, but they resist being given a rotation round any axis. Starting from these postulates and guided by the general and fundamental principle of Least Action he has erected a consistent scheme of molecular physics in which he finds an explanation of most observed facts.

The discovery by Zeeman of the effect of a strong magnetic field in triplicating or multiplicating the lines in the spectrum of a flame placed in a magnetic field meets with an obvious explanation when we remember that the effect of a magnetic field on an electron in motion is to accelerate it always transversely to its own motion and the direction of the field. Hence it follows that a magnetic field properly situated will increase the velocity of an electron rotating in one direction and retard it if rotating in another. But a linear vibration may be resolved into the sum of two oppositely directed circular motions and accordingly a magnetic force properly applied must act on a single spectral line, which results from the vibration of an electron in such manner as to create two other lines on either side, one representing a slightly quicker and the other a slightly slower vibration.

The notion of an electron or point charge of electricity as the ultimate element in the structure of matter having been accepted, we are started on a further enquiry as to the nature of the electron itself. It is obvious that if the electron is a strain center or singular point in the æther, then corresponding to every negative electron there must be a positive one. In other words electrons must exist in pairs of such kind that their simultaneous presence at one point would result in the annihilation of both of them.

On the view that material atoms are built up of electrons we have to seek for a structural form of atom which shall be stable and equal to the production of effects we find to exist.

The first idea which occurs is that an atom may be a collection of electrons in static equilibrium. But it can be shown that if the electrons simply attract and repel each other at all distances according to the law of the inverse square no such structure can exist. The next idea is that the equilibrium may be dynamic rather than static. That an atom may consist of electrons, as suggested by Larmor, in orbital motion round each other, in fact that each atom is a miniature solar system.

Against this view, however, Mr. T. H. Jeans ('Mechanism of Radiation,' Proc. Phys. Soc. Lond., Vol. 17, p. 760) has pointed out that an infinite number of vibrations of the electrons would be possible about each state of steady motion and hence the spectrum of a gas would be a continuous one and not a bright-line spectrum.

If we are to assume an atom to consist wholly of positive and negative electrons or point charges of electricity, Mr. Jeans has indicated that we may obtain a stable structure by postulating that the electrons, no matter whether similar or dissimilar, all repel each other at very small distances.

We might then imagine an atom to be built up of concentric shells of electrons like the coats of an onion alternately positive and negative, the outermost layer being in all cases negative. The difference between the total number of positive and negative electrons is the valency of the atom.

On this view an atom of hydrogen would consist of from 700 to 1,000 positive and negative electrons arranged in concentric layers in a spherical form. The vibrations which emit light are not those of the atom as a whole but of the individual electrons which compose it.

The reason for assuming that in all cases the outermost layer of electrons is negative is that if it were not so, if some atoms had their outer layers of negative and some of positive electrons, two atoms when they collided would become entangled and totally lose their individuality. There would be no permanence. Hence our present atoms may be, so to speak, the survivors in a struggle for existence which has resulted in the survival only of all atoms which are of like sign in the outer layer of electrons. We see an instance of a similar action in the case of the like directed rotation of all the planets round the sun which is due to the operation of the law of conservation of angular momentum. As a consequence of the equality of sign of the outer layer of electrons two atoms cannot approach infinitely near to each other. They mutually repel at very small distances. This suggestion makes it clear why we only know at present free negative electrons; it is because we can only detach a corpuscle or electron from the outer layer of an atom. It is clear, however, that the complete law of mutual action of electrons has yet to be determined. We have also to account for gravitation and this involves the postulate that all atomic groups of electrons without regard to sign must attract each other. Hence we need some second Newton who shall formulate for us the true law of action of these electrons which form the 'foundation stones of the material universe.' Facts seem to suggest that the complete mathematical expression for the law of mutual action of two electrons must show:

1. That at exceedingly small distances they all repel each other without regard to sign.

2. That at greater distances positive electrons repel positive and negative repel negative, but unlike electrons attract, with a force which varies inversely as the square of the distance.

3. Superimposed on the above there must be a resultant effect such that all atoms attract each other at distances great compared with their size without regard to the relative number of positive and negative electrons which compose them, inversely as the square of the distance.

In this last condition we have the necessary postulate to account for universal gravitation in accordance with Newton's law.

It is conceivable, however, that this differential or resultant universal attraction to which gravitation is due is only true of electrons when gathered together so as to form atoms. In other words, every atom attracts every other atom; but every electron does not attract every other electron. Universal gravitation may be an effect due to the collocation of electrons to form atoms and molecules, but not an attribute of electrons in themselves, though, if the gravitative effect is proportional to the product of the total number of electrons in each mass, the Newtonian law will be fulfilled. It has been also suggested that a sufficient source for the necessary resultant mass attraction may be found in a slight superiority of the attractive force between two opposite electrons over the repulsion between two similar electrons.


In the above sketch of the electronic theory we have made no attempt to present a detailed account of discoveries in their historical order or connect them especially with their authors. The only object has been to show the evolution of the idea that electricity is atomic in structure, and thus these atoms of electricity called electrons attach themselves to material atoms and are separable from them. These detachable particles constitute as far as we yet know negative electricity. The regular free movements of electrons create what we call an electric current in a conductor, whilst their vibrations when attached to atoms are the cause of æther waves or radiation, whether actinic, luminous, or thermal. The æther can only move and be moved by electrons. Hence it is the electron which has a grip of the æther and which, by its rapid motions, creates radiation, and in turn is affected by it. We have therefore to think of an atom as a sort of planet accompanied by smaller satellites which are the electrons. Moreover the electrons are capable of an independent existence, in which case they are particles of so-called negative electricity. The atom having its proper quota of electrons is electrically neutral, but with electrons subtracted it is a positive atomic ion, and with electrons added to it it is a negative atomic ion. It has been shown from a quantitative study of such diverse phenomena as the Zeeman effect, the conductibility produced in gases by Röntgen rays or by ultra violet light and from the magnetic deflection of kathode rays, that in all cases where we have to deal with free moving, or vibrating electrons, the electric charge they carry is the same as that conveyed by a hydrogen atom in electrolysis.

There is good ground for the view that when a gas is made incandescent, either by an electric discharge or in any other way, the vibrating bodies which give rise to the light waves are these electrons in association with the atom. The energy of mass movement of the atom determines temperature, but the fact that we may have light given out without heat, in short, cold light, becomes at once possible if it is the vibrating electric particle attached to the atom which is the cause of eye-affecting radiation or light.

Lorentz, Helmholtz, Thomson and others have shown that such a conception of atomic structure enables us to explain many electro-optic phenomena which are inexplicable on any other theory. Maxwell's theory that electric and magnetic effects are due to strains and stresses in the æther, rendered an intelligible account of electric phenomena, so to say, in empty space, and its verification by Hertz placed on a firm basis the theory that the agencies we call electric and magnetic force are affections of the æther. But the complications introduced by the presence of matter in the electric and magnetic fields presented immense difficulties which Maxwell's theory was not able to overcome.

The electronic theory of electricity, which is an expansion of an idea originally due to Weber, does not invalidate the ideas which lie at the base of Maxwell's theory, but it supplements them by a new conception, viz., that of the electron or electric particle as the thing which is moved by electric force and which in turn gives rise to magnetic force as it moves. The conception of the electron as a point or small region towards which lines of strain in the æther converge, necessitates the correlative motion of positive and negative electrons. We are then led to ask whether the atom is not merely a collocation of electrons. If so, all mechanical and material effects must be translated into the language of electricity. We ought not to seek to create mechanical explanations of electrical phenomena, but rather electrical ones of mechanical effects. The inertia of matter is simply due to the inductance of the electron, and ultimately to the time element which is involved in the creation of æther strain in a new place. All the facts of electricity and magnetism are capable of being restated in terms of the electron idea. All chemical changes are due to the electric forces brought into existence between atoms which have gained or lost electrons. If moving electrons constitute an electric current, then electrons in rotation are the cause of magnetic effects. In optics it is capable of giving a consistent explanation of dispersion, absorption and anomalous dispersion and the relation of the index of refraction to the dielectric constant. A scientific hypothesis, with this wide embrace, which opens many closed doors and enables us to trace out the hidden connection between such various departments of physical phenomena, is one which must continue to attract investigators. Physical enquirers are at present, however, groping for guiding facts in this difficult field of investigation, but we have confidence that mathematical and experimental research will in due time bring the reward of greater light.

  1. See Popular Science Monthly, Vol. LIX., p. 323, 'On Bodies Smaller than Atoms,' by Professor J. J. Thomson, F.R.S. See also by the same author a paper in the Philosophical Magazine for December, 1899, 'On the Masses of the Ions in Gases at Low Pressures.'