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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/October 1907/Address of the President to the Engineering Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 71‎ | October 1907



IT would be impossible for any assembly of engineers to meet in annual gathering at the present time without some reference to the severe loss which the profession has so recently sustained by the death of Sir Benjamin Baker. Born in 1840, he had attained while still a comparatively young man to a position in the front rank of constructive engineers. His contributions to science cover a considerable range, but were chiefly concerned with the strength of materials, into which he made valuable investigations, and with engineering structures generally. His name will doubtless be chiefly associated with the building of great bridges, to the theory of which he contributed an important memoir entitled "A Theoretical Investigation into the Most Advantageous System of Constructing Bridges of Great Span." In this work he set forth the theory of the cantilever bridge. Upon the plan there laid down he built the Forth Bridge, besides many other large bridges in various parts of the world. With that memorable structure, completed in 1890, his name will ever be associated; but he will be remembered henceforth also as the engineer who was responsible for the great dam across the Nile at Assouan, a work which promises to have an influence for all time upon the fortunes of Egypt and upon the prosperity of its population. Sir Benjamin Baker was, moreover, closely associated with the internal railways of London, both in the early days of the Metropolitan Railway and in the later developments of the deep-level tubes. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1890, became president of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1895, and was a member of council of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, besides being an active member of the Royal Institution and of the British Association. He was also a member of the council of the Royal Society at the time of his death. He enjoyed many honorary distinctions, including degrees conferred by the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh. In 1890 there was conferred upon him the title of K.C.M.G., and in 1902 that of K.C.B.

He had but just returned from Egypt, whither he had gone in connection with the project for raising the height of the Assouan dam, so as to increase its storage to more than double the present volume, when he died very suddenly on May 19, in his sixty-seventh year.


The Development of Engineering and Us Foundation on Science

We live in an age when the development of the material resources of civilization is progressing in a ratio without parallel. International commerce spreads apace. Ocean transport is demanding greater facilities. Steamships of vaster size and swifter speed than any heretofore in use are being built every year. Not only are railways extending in all outlying parts of the world, but at home, where the territory is already everywhere intersected with lines, larger and heavier locomotives are being used, and longer runs without stopping are being made by our express trains. The horsed cars on our tramways are now being mostly superseded by larger cars, electrically propelled and traveling with greatly increased speeds. For the handling of the ever-increasing passenger traffic in our great cities electric propulsion has shown itself a necessity of the time; witness the electric railways in Liverpool and the network of electrically worked tube railways throughout London. In ten years the manufacture of automobile carriages of all sorts has sprung up into a great industry. Every year sees a greater demand for the raw materials and products, out of which the manufacturer will in turn produce the articles demanded by our complex modern life. We live and work in larger buildings; we make more use of mechanical appliances; we travel more, and our traveling is more expeditious than formerly; and not we alone but all the progressive nations. The world uses more steel, more copper, more aluminium, more paper; therefore requires more coal, more petroleum, more timber, more ores, more machinery for the getting and working of them, more trains and steamships for their transport. It requires machines that will work faster or more cheaply than the old ones to meet the increasing demands of manufacture; new fabrics; new dyes; even new foods; new and more powerful means of illumination; new methods of speaking to the ends of the earth.

We must not delude ourselves with imagining that the happiness and welfare of mankind depend only on its material advancement; or that moral, intellectual and spiritual forces are not in the ultimate resort of greater moment. But if the inquiry be propounded what it is that has made possible this amazing material progress, there is but one answer that can be given—science. Chemistry, physics, mechanics, mathematics, it is these that have given to man the possibility of organizing this tremendous development. And the great profession which has been most potent in applying these branches of science to wield the energies of nature and direct them to the service of man has been that of the engineer. Without the engineer how little of all this activity could there have been; and without mathematics, mechanics, physics and chemistry, where were the engineer?

If looking over this England of Edward the Seventh we try to put ourselves back into the England of Edward the Sixth—or for that matter of any pre-Victorian monarch—we must admit that the differences to be found in the social and industrial conditions around us are due not in any appreciable degree to any changes in politics, philosophy, religion, or law, but to science and its applications. If we look abroad, and contrast the Germany of Wilhelm the Second with the Germany of Charles the Fifth, we shall come to the like conclusion. So also in Italy, in Switzerland, in every one indeed of the progressive nations. And it is precisely in the stagnant nations, such as Spain, or Servia, where the cultivation of science has scarcely begun, that the social conditions remain in the backward state of the middle ages.


Interaction of Abstract Science and its Applications

In engineering, above all other branches of human effort, we are able to trace the close interaction between abstract science and its practical applications. Often as the connection between pure science and its applications has been emphasized in addresses upon engineering, the emphasis has almost always been laid upon the influence of the abstract upon the concrete. We are all familiar with the doctrine that the progress of science ought to be an end in itself, that scientific research ought to be pursued without regard to its immediate applications, that the importance of a discovery must not be measured by its apparent utility at the moment. We are assured that research in pure science is bound to work itself out in due time into technical applications of utility, and that the pioneer ought not to pause in his quest to work out potential industrial developments. We are invited to consider the example of the immortal Faraday, who deliberately abstained from busying himself with marketable inventions arising out of his discoveries, excusing himself on the ground that he had no time to spare for money-making. It is equally true, and equally to the point, that Faraday, when he had established a new fact or a new physical relation, ceased from busying himself with it and pronounced that it was now ready to be handed over to the mathematicians. But, admitting all these commonplaces as to the value of abstract science in itself and for its own sake, admitting also the proposition that sooner or later the practical applications are bound to follow on upon the discovery, it yet remains true that in this thing the temperament of the discoverer counts for something. There are scientific investigators who can not pursue their work if troubled by the question of ulterior applications; there are others no less truly scientific who simply can not work without the definiteness of aim that is given by a practical problem awaiting solution. There are Willanses as well as Regnaults; there are Whitworths as well as Poissons. The world needs both types of investigator; and it needs, too, yet another type of pioneer, namely, the man who, making no claim to original discovery, by patient application and intelligent skill turns to industrial fruitfulness the results already attained in abstract discovery.

There is, however, another aspect of the relation between pure and applied science, the significance of which has not been hitherto so much emphasized, but yet is none the less real—the reaction upon science and upon scientific discovery of the industrial applications. For while pure science breeds useful inventions, it is none the less true that the industrial development of useful inventions fosters the progress of pure science. No one who is conversant with the history, for example, of optics can doubt that the invention of the telescope and the desire to perfect it were the principal factors in the outburst of optical science which we associate with the names of Newton, Huygens and Euler. The practical application, which we know was in the minds of each of these men, must surely have been the impelling motive that caused them to concentrate on abstract optics their great and exceptional powers of thought. It was in the quest—the hopeless quest—of the philosophers' stone and the elixir of life that the foundations of the science of chemistry were laid. The invention of the art of photography has given immense assistance to sciences as widely apart as meteorology, ethnology, astronomy, zoology and spectroscopy. Of the laws of heat men were profoundly ignorant until the invention of the steam engine compelled scientific investigation; and the new science of thermodynamics was born. Had there been no industrial development of the steam engine, is it at all likely that the world would ever have been enriched with the scientific researches of Rankine, Joule, Regnault, Him or James Thomson? The magnet had been known for centuries, yet the study of it was utterly neglected until the application of it in the mariners' compass gave the incentive for research.

The history of electric telegraphy furnishes a very striking example of this reflex influence of industrial applications. The discovery of the electric current by Volta and the investigation of its properties appear to have been stimulated by the medical properties attributed in the preceding fifty years to electric discharges. But, once the current had been discovered, a new incentive arose in the dim possibility it suggested of transmitting signals to a distance. This was certainly a possibility, even when only the chemical effects of the current had yet been found out. Not, however, until the magnetic effects of the current had been discovered and investigated did telegraphy assume commercial shape at the hands of Cooke and Wheatstone in England and of Morse and Vail in America. Let us admit freely that these men were inventors rather than discoverers: exploiters of research rather than pioneers. They built upon the foundations laid by Volta, Oersted, Sturgeon, Henry and a host of less famous workers. But no sooner had the telegraph become of industrial importance, with telegraph lines erected on land and submarine cables laid in the sea, than fresh investigations were found necessary; new and delicate instruments must be devised; means of accurate measurement heretofore undreamed of must be found; standards for the comparison of electrical quantities must be created; and the laws governing the operations of electrical systems and apparatus must be investigated and formulated in appropriate mathematical expressions. And so, perforce, as the inevitable consequence of the growth of the telegraph industry, and mainly at the hands of those interested in submarine telegraphy, there came about the system of electrical and electromagnetic units, based on the early magnetic work of Gauss and Weber, developed further by Lord Kelvin, by Bright and Clark, and last but not least by Clerk Maxwell. Had there been no telegraph industry to force electrical measurement and electrical theory to the front, where would Clerk Maxwell's work have been? He would probably have given his unique powers to the study of optics or geometry; his electromagnetic theory of light would never have leaped into his brain; he would never have propounded the existence of electric waves in the ether. And then we should never have had the far-reaching investigations of Heinrich Hertz; nor would the British Association at Oxford in 1894 have witnessed the demonstration of wireless telegraphy by Sir Oliver Lodge. A remark of Lord Rayleigh's may here be recalled, that the invention of the telephone had probably done more than anything else to make electricians understand the principle of self-induction.

In considering this reflex influence of the industrial applications upon the progress of pure science it is of some significance to note that for the most part this influence is entirely helpful. There may be sporadic cases where industrial conditions tend temporarily to check progress by imposing persistence of a particular type of machine or appliance; but the general trend is always to help to new developments. The reaction aids the action; the law that is true enough in inorganic conservative systems, that reaction opposes the action, ceases here to be applicable, as indeed it ceases to be applicable in a vast number of organic phenomena. It is the very instability thereby introduced which is the essential of progress. The growing organism acts on its environment, and the change in the environment reacts on the organism—not in such a way as to oppose the growth, but so as to promote it. So is it with the development of pure science and its practical applications.

In further illustration of this principle one might refer to the immense effect which the engineering use of steel has had upon the study of the chemistry of the alloys. And the study of the alloys has in turn led to the recent development of metallography. It would even seem that through the study of the intimate structure of metals, prompted by the needs of engineers, we are within measurable distance of arriving at a knowledge of the secret of crystallogenesis. Everything points to the probability of a very great and rapid advance in that fascinating branch of pure science at no distant date.


History of the Development of Electric Motive Power

There is, however, one last example of the interaction of science and industry which may claim closer attention. In the history of the development of the electric motor one finds abundant illustration of both aspects of that interaction.

We go back to the year 1821, when Faraday, after studying the phenomena of electromagnetic deflexion of a needle by an electric current (Oersted's discovery), first succeeded in producing continuous rotations by electromagnetic means. In his simple apparatus a piece of suspended copper wire, carrying a current from a small battery, and dipping at its lower end into a cup of mercury, rotated continuously around the pole of a short bar-magnet of steel placed upright in the cup. In another variety of this experiment the magnet rotated around the central wire, which was fixed. These pieces of apparatus were the merest toys, incapable of doing any useful work; nevertheless they demonstrated the essential principle, and suggested further possibilities. Two years later. Barlow, using a star-wheel of copper, pivoted so that the lowest point of the star should make contact with a small pool of mercury, found that the star-wheel rotated if a current was sent through the arm of the star while the arm itself was situated between the poles of a steel horseshoe-magnet. Shortly afterwards Sturgeon improved the apparatus by substituting a copper disc for the star-wheel. The action was the same. A conductor, carrying an electric current, if placed in a magnetic field, is found to experience a mechanical drag, which is neither an attraction nor a repulsion, but a lateral force tending to move it at right angles to the direction of flow of the current and at right angles to the direction of the lines of the magnetic field in which it is situated. Still this was a toy. Two years later came the announcement by Sturgeon of the invention of the soft-iron electromagnet, one of the most momentous of all inventions, since upon it practically the whole of the constructive part of electrical engineering is based. For the first time mankind was furnished with a magnet the attractive power of which could be increased absolutely indefinitely by the mere expenditure of sufficient capital upon the iron core and its surrounding copper coils, and the provision of a sufficiently powerful source of electric current to excite the magnetization. Furthermore, the magnet was under control, and could be made to attract or to cease to attract at will by merely switching the current on or off; and, lastly, this could be accomplished from a distance, even from great distances away. How slowly the importance of this discovery was recognized is now a matter for astonishment. To state that Sturgeon died in poverty twenty-six years later is sufficient to indicate his place among the unrequited pioneers of whom the world is not worthy. Six years elapsed, and then there came a flood of suggestions of electric motors in which was applied the principle of intermittent attraction by an electromagnet, Henry in 1831 and Dal Negro in 1832 produced see-saw mechanisms so operated. Ritchie in 1833 and Jacobi in 1834 devised rotatory motors. Ritchie pivoted a rapidly commutated electromagnet between the poles of a permanent magnet—a true type of the modern motor—while Jacobi caused two multipolar electromagnets, one fixed, one movable, to put a shaft into rotation and propel a boat. A perplexing diminution of the current of the battery whenever the motor was running caused Jacobi to investigate mathematically the theory of its action. In a masterly memoir he laid down a few years later the theory of electric motive power. But in the intervening period, in 1831, Faraday had made the cardinal discovery of the mechanical generation of electric currents by magneto-electric induction, the fundamental principle of the dynamo. Down to that date the only known way—save for the feeble currents of thermopiles—to generate electric currents had been the pile of Volta, or one of the forms of battery which had been evolved from it. Now, by Faraday's discovery, the world had become possessed of a new source. And yet again, strange as it may seem, years elapsed before the world—that is, the world of engineers—discovered that an important discovery had been made. Not till some thirty years later were any magneto-electric machines made of a sufficient size to be of practical service even in telegraphy, and none were built of a sufficient power to furnish a single electric light until about the year 1857. In the meantime in America other electric motors, to be driven by batteries, had been devised by Davonport and by Page; the latter's machine had an iron plunger to be sucked by electromagnetic attraction into a hollow coil of copper wire, thereby driving a shaft and flywheel through the intermediate action of a connecting-rod and crank. Page's was, in fact, an electric engine, with two-foot stroke, single-acting, of between three and four horse-power. The battery occupied about three cubic feet and consumed, according to Page, three pounds of zinc per horse-power per day. This must have been an under-estimate; for if Daniell's cells were used the minimum consumption for a motor of 100 per cent, efficiency is known to be about two pounds of zinc per horse-power per hour.


Electric Motive Power Impossible in 1857

Upon the state of development of electric motors fifty years ago information may be gleaned from an exceedingly interesting debate at the Institution of Civil Engineers upon a paper read April 21, 1857, "On Electromagnetism as a Motive Power," by Mr. Robert Hunt, F.R.S. In this paper the author states that, though long-enduring thought has been brought to bear upon the subject, and large sums of money have been expended on the construction of machines, "yet there does not appear to be any nearer approach to a satisfactory result than there was thirty years ago." After explaining the elementary principles of electromagnetism, he describes the early motors of Dal Negro, Jacobi, Davenport, Davidson, Page and others. Reviewing these and their non-success as commercial machines, he says: "Notwithstanding these numerous trials. . . it does not appear that any satisfactory explanation has ever been given of the causes which have led to the abandonment of the idea of employing electricity as a motive power. It is mainly with the view of directing attention to these causes that the present communication has been written." He admits that electromagnets may be constructed to give any desired lifting power; but he finds that the attractive force on the iron keeper of a magnet of his own, which held 220 pounds when in contact, fell to thirty-six pounds when the distance apart was only one-fiftieth of an inch. To this rapid falling off of force, and to the hardening action on the iron of the repeated vibrations due to the mechanical concussion of the keeper, he attributed the small power of the apparatus. Also he remarked upon the diminution of the current which is observed to flow from the battery when the motor was running (which Jacobi had, in his memoir on the theory, traced to a counter electromotive force generated in the motor itself), and which reduced the effort exerted by the electromagnets; this diminution he regarded as impairing the efficiency of the machine. "All electromagnetic arrangements," he says, "suffer from the cause named, a reduction of the mechanical value of the prime mover, in a manner which has no resemblance to any of the effects due to heat regarded as a motive power." Proceeding to discuss the batteries he remarked that as animal power depends on food, and steam power on coal, so electric power depends on the amount of zinc consumed; in support of which proposition he cited the experiments of Joule. He gives as his own results that for every grain of zinc consumed in the battery his motor performed a duty equivalent to lifting eighty-six pounds one foot high. Joule and Scoresby, using Daniell's cells, had found the duty to be equivalent to raising eighty pounds one foot high, being about half the theoretical maximum duty for one grain of zinc. In the Cornish engine, doing its best duty, one grain of coal was equivalent to a duty of raising one hundred and forty-three pounds one foot high. He put the price of zinc at £35 per ton as compared with coal at less than £1 per ton, which makes the cost of power produced by an electrc motor—if computed by the consumption of zinc in a battery—about sixty times as great as that of an equal power produced by a steam-engine consuming coal. He concludees that "it would be far more economical to burn zinc under a boiler and to use it for generating steam power than to consume zinc in a battery for generating electromagnetical power."

In the discussion which followed, several men of distinction took part. Professor William Thomson, of Glasgow (Lord Kelvin), wrote, referring to the results of Joule and Scoresby: "These facts were of the highest importance in estimating the applicability of electromagnetism, as a motive power, in practise; and, indeed, the researches alluded to rendered the theory of the duty of electromagnetic engines as complete as that of the duty of waterwheels was generally admitted to be. Among other conclusions which might be drawn from these experiments was this: that, until some mode of producing electricity as many times cheaper than that of an ordinary galvanic battery as coal was cheaper than zinc, electromagnetic engines could not supersede the steam-engine." Mr. W. E. Grove (Lord Justice Sir William Grove) remarked that a practical application of the science appeared to be still distant. The great desideratum, in his opinion, was not so much improvement in the machine as in the prime mover, the battery, which was the source of power. At present the only available use for this power must be confined to special purposes where the danger of steam and the creation of vapor were sought to be avoided, or where economy of space was a great consideration. Professor Tyndall agreed with the last speaker, but suggested that there might be some way of mitigating the apparent diminution of power due to the induction of opposing electromotive forces in the machine itself. Mr. C. Cowper spoke of some experiments, made by himself and Mr. E. A. Cowper, showing the advantage gained by properly laminating the iron cores used in the motor. He put the cost of electric power at £4 per horsepower per hour. He deprecated building electric motors with reciprocating movements and cranks; described the use of silver commutators; and mentioned the need of adjusting the lead given to the contacts. There was, he said, no reason to suppose that electric motors could be made as light as steam-engines. Even in the case of small motors of one tenth or one hundredth of a horse-power, for light work, where the cost of power was of small consequence, a boy or a man turning a winch would probably furnish power at a cheaper rate. Mr. Alfred Smee agreed that the cost would be enormous for heavy work. Although motive power could not at present be produced at the same expense on a large scale by the battery as by coal, still they were enabled readily to apply the power at any distance from its source; the telegraph might be regarded as an application of motive power transmitted by electricity. Mr. G. P. Bidder considered that there had been a lamentable waste of ingenuity in attempting to bring electromagnetism into use on a large scale. Mr, Joule wrote to say that it was to be regretted that in France the delusion as to the possibility of electromagnetic engines superseding steam still prevailed. He pointed out, as a result of his calorimeter experiments, that if it were possible so to make the electric engine work as to reduce the amount to a small fraction of the strength which it had when the engine was standing still, nearly the whole of the heat (energy) due to the chemical action of the battery might be evolved as work. The less the heat evolved, as heat, in the battery, the more perfect the economy of the engine. It was the lower intensity of chemical action of zinc as compared with carbon, and the relative cost of zinc and coal, which decided so completely in favor of the steam-engine. Mr. Hunt, replying to the speakers in the discussion, said that his endeavor had been to show that the impossibility of employing electromagnetism as a motive power lay with the present voltaic battery. Before a steam-engine could be considered, the boiler and furnace must be considered. So likewise must the battery if electric power were to become economical. Then the president, Mr. Robert Stephenson wound up the discussion by remarking that there could be no doubt that the application of voltaic electricity, in whatever shape it might be developed, was entirely out of the question, commercially speaking. The mechanical application seemed to involve almost insuperable difficulties. The force exhibited by electromagnetism, though very great, extended through so small a space as to be practically useless. A powerful magnet might be compared to a steam-engine with an enormous piston, but with exceedingly short stroke; an arrangement well known to be very undesirable.

In short, the most eminent engineers in 1857 one and all condemned the idea of electric motive power as unpractical and commercially impossible. Even Faraday, in his lecture on "Mental Education" in 1854, had set down the magneto-electric engine along with mesmerism, homeopathy, odylism, the caloric engine, the electric light, the sympathetic compass, and perpetual motion as coming in different degrees amongst "subjects uniting more or less of the most sure and valuable investigations of science with the most imaginary and unprofitable speculation, that are continually passing through their various phases of intellectual, experimental or commercial development, some to be established, some to disappear, and some to recur again and again, like ill weeds that can not be extirpated, yet can be cultivated to no result as wholesome food for the mind."


Fifty Years Later

Fifty years have fled, and Hunt, Grove, Smee, Tyndall, Cowper, Joule, Bidder and Stephenson have long passed away. Lord Kelvin remains the sole and honored survivor of that remarkable symposium. But the electric motor is a gigantic practical success, and the electric motor industry has become a very large one, employing thousands of hands. Hundreds of factories have discarded their steam-engines to adopt electric-motor driving. All traveling cranes, nearly all tramcars, are driven by electric motors. In the navy and in much of the merchant service the donkey-engines have been replaced by electric motors. Electric motors of all sizes and outputs, from one twentieth of a horse-power to 8,000 horse-power, are in commercial use. One may well ask: What has wrought this astonishing revolution in the face of the unanimous verdict of the engineers of 1857?

The answer may be given in terms of the action and reaction of pure and applied science. Pure science furnished a discovery; industrial applications forced its development; that development demanded further abstract investigation, which in turn brought about new applications. It was beyond all question the development of the dynamo for the purposes of electrotyping and electric light which brought about the commercial advent of the electric motor. For about that very time Holmes and Siemens and Wilde and Wheatstone were at work developing Faraday's magneto-electric apparatus into an apparatus of more practical shape; and the electric lighthouse lamp was becoming a reality which Faraday lived to see before his death in 1867, That eventful year witnessed the introduction of the more powerful type of generator which excited its own magnets. And even before that date a young Italian had made a pronouncement which, though it was lost sight of for a time, was none the less of importance. Antonio Pacinotti in 1864 described a machine of his own devising, having a specially wound revolving ring-magnet placed between the poles of a stationary magnet, which, while it would serve as an admirable generator of electric currents if mechanically driven, would also serve as an excellent electric motor if supplied with electric currents from a battery. He thereupon laid down the principle of reversibility of action, a principle more or less dimly foreseen by others, but never before so clearly enunciated as by him. And so it turned out in the years from 1860 to 1880, when the commercial dynamo was being perfected by Gramme, Wilde, Siemens, Crompton and others, that the machines designed specially to be good and economical generators of currents proved themselves to be far better and more efficient motors than any of the earlier machines which had been devised specially to work as electro-magnetic engines. Moreover, with the perfection of the dynamo came that cheap source of electric currents which was destined to supersede the battery. That a dynamo driven by a steam-engine furnishing currents on a large scale should be a more economical source of current than a battery in which zinc was consumed, does not appear to have ever occurred to the engineers who, in 1857, discussed the feasibility of electric motive power. Indeed, had any of them thought of it, they would have condemned the suggestion as chimerical. There was a notion abroad—and it persisted into the eighties—that no electric motor could possibly have an efficiency higher than 50 per cent. This notion, based on an erroneous understanding of the theoretical investigations of Jacobi, certainly delayed the progress of events. Yet the clearest heads of the time understood the matter more truly. The true law of efficiency was succinctly stated by Lord Kelvin in 1851, and was recognized by Joule in a paper written about the same date. In 1877 Mascart pointed out how the efficiency of a given magneto-electric machine rises with its speed up to a limiting value. In 1879 Lord Kelvin and Sir William Siemens gave evidence before a parliamentary committee as to the possible high efficiency of an electric transmission of power; and in August of the same year, at the British Association meeting at Sheffield, the essential theory of the efficiency of electric motors was well and admirably put in a lecture by Professor Ayrton. In 1882 the present author designed, in illustration of the theory, a graphic construction, which has been ever since in general use to make the principle plain. The counter-electromotive force generated by the motor when running, which Hunt and Tyndall deplored as a defect, is the very thing which enables the motor to appropriate and convert the energy of the battery. Its amount relatively to the battery's own electromotive force is the measure of the degree to which the energy which would otherwise be wasted as heat is utilized as power. Pure science stepped in, then, to confirm the possibility of a high efficiency in the electric motor per se. But pure science was also brought into service in another way. An old and erroneous notion, which even now is not quite dead, was abroad to the effect that the best way of arranging a battery was so to group its component cells that its internal resistance should be equal to the resistance of the rest of the circuit. If this were true, then no battery could ever have an efficiency of more than 50 per cent. It was supposed in many quarters that this misleading rule was applicable also to the dynamo. The dynamo makers discovered for themselves the fallacy of this idea, and strove to reduce the internal resistance of the armatures of their machines to a minimum. Then the genius of the lamented John Hopkinson led him to apply to the design of the magnetic structure of the dynamo abstract principles upon which a rational proportioning of the iron and copper could result. A similar investigation was independently made by Gisbert Kapp, and between these accomplished engineers the foundations of dynamo design were set upon a scientific basis. To the perfection of the design the magnetic studies of our ex-president, Professor Ewing, contributed a notable part, since they furnished a basis for calculating out the inevitable losses of energy in armature cores by hysteresis and parasitic currents in the iron when subjected to recurring cycles of magnetization. Able constructive engineers, Brown Mordey, Crompton and Kapp, perfected the structural development, and the dynamo within four or five years became, within its class, a far more highly efficient machine than any steam-engine. And as by the principle of reversibility every dynamo is also capable of acting as a motor, the perfection of the dynamo implied the perfection, both scientific and commercial, of the motor also. The solution in the eighties of the problem how to make a dynamo to deliver current at a constant voltage when driven at a constant speed, found its counterpart in the solution by Ayrton and Perry of the corresponding problem how to make a motor which would run at constant speed when supplied with current at a constant voltage. Both solutions depend upon the adoption of a suitable compound winding of the field magnets.

A little later alternating currents claimed the attention of engineers; and the alternating current generator, or "alternator," was developed to a high degree of perfection. To perfect a motor for alternating currents was not so simple a matter. But again pure science stepped in, in the suggestion by Galileo Ferraris of the extremely beautiful theorem of the rotatory magnetic field, due to the combination of two alternating magnetic fields equal in amplitude, identical in frequency and in quadrature in space, but differing from each other by a quarter-period in phase. To develop on this principle a commercial motor required the ingenuity of Tesla and the engineering skill of Dobrowolsky and of Brown; and so the three-phase induction motor, that triumph of applied science, came to perfection. Ever since 1891, when at the Frankfort Exhibition there was shown the tour de force of transmitting 100 horse-power to a distance of 100 miles with an inclusive efficiency of 73 per cent., the commercial possibility of the electric transmission of power on a large scale was assured. The modern developments of this branch of engineering and the erection of great power-stations for the economic distribution of electric power generated by large steam plant or by water-turbines are known to all engineers. The history of the electric motor is probably without parallel in the lessons it affords of the commercial and industrial importance of science.

But the query naturally rises: If a steam-engine is still needed to drive the generator that furnishes the electric current to drive the motors, where does the economy come in? Why not use small steam-engines, and get rid of all intervening electric appliances? The answer, as every engineer knows, lies in the much higher efficiency of large steam-engines than of small ones. A single steam-engine of 1,000 horse-power will use many times less steam and coal than a thousand little steam-engines of one horse-power each, particularly if each little steam-engine required its own little boiler. The little electric motor may be designed, on the other hand, to have almost as high an efficiency as the large motor. And while the loss of energy due to condensation in long steam-pipes is most serious, the loss of energy due to transmission of electric current in mains of equal length is practically negligible. This is the abundant justification of the electric distribution of power from single generating centers to numerous electric motors placed in the positions where they are wanted to work.

  1. Leicester, 1907. The address concluded with a section on the education of engineers.