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The Nature of Electricity

There is at least one manifestation in nature, and so late as twenty years ago it seemed to be one of the most mysterious manifestations of all, which has been in great measure explained by the new discoveries. Already, at the beginning of this century, we spoke of our "age of electricity," yet there were few things in nature about which we knew less. The "electric current" rang our bells, drove our trains, lit our rooms, but none knew what the current was. There was a vague idea that it was a sort of fluid that flowed along copper wires as water flows in a pipe. We now suppose that it is a rapid movement of electrons from atom to atom in the wire or wherever the current is.

Let us try to grasp the principle of the new view of electricity and see how it applies to all the varied electrical phenomena in the world about us. As we saw, the nucleus of an atom of matter consists of positive electricity which holds together a number of electrons, or charges of negative electricity.[4] This certainly tells us to some extent what electricity is, and how it is related to matter, but it leaves us with the usual difficulty about fundamental realities. But we now know that electricity, like matter, is atomic in structure; a charge of electricity is made up of a number of small units or charges of a definite, constant amount. It has been suggested that the two kinds of electricity, i.e. positive and negative, are right-handed and left-handed vortices or whirlpools in ether, or rings in ether, but there are very serious difficulties, and we leave this to the future.

The words "positive" and "negative" electricity belong to the days when it was regarded as a fluid. A body overcharged with the fluid was called positive; an undercharged body was called negative. A positively-electrified body is now one whose atoms have lost some of their outlying electrons, so that the positive charge of electricity predominates. The negatively-electrified body is one with more than the normal number of electrons.

§ 10

What an Electric Current is

The discovery of these two kinds of electricity has, however, enabled us to understand very fairly what goes on in electrical phenomena. The outlying electrons, as we saw, may pass from atom to atom, and this, on a large scale, is the meaning of the electric current. In other words, we believe an electric current to be a flow of electrons. Let us take, to begin with, a simple electrical "cell," in which a feeble current is generated: such a cell as there is in every house to serve its electric bells.

In the original form this simple sort of "battery" consisted of a plate of zinc and a plate of copper immersed in a chemical. Long before anything was known about electrons it was known that, if you put zinc and copper together, you produce a mild current of electricity. We know now what this means. Zinc is a metal the atoms of which are particularly disposed to part with some of their outlying electrons. Why, we do not know; but the fact is the basis of these small batteries. Electrons from the atoms of zinc pass to the atoms of copper, and their passage is a "current." Each atom gives up an electron to its neighbour. It was further found long ago that if the zinc and copper were immersed in certain chemicals, which slowly dissolve the zinc, and the two metals were connected by a copper wire, the current was stronger. In modern language, there is a brisker flow of electrons. The reason is that the atoms of zinc which are stolen by the chemical leave their detachable electrons behind them, and the zinc has therefore more electrons to pass on to the copper.



An atom of Uranium, by ejecting an Alpha particle, becomes Uranium X. This substance, by ejecting Beta and Gamma rays, becomes Radium. Radium passes through a number of further changes, as shown in the diagram, and finally becomes lead. Some radio-active substances disintegrate much faster than others. Thus Uranium changes very slowly, taking 5,000,000,000 years to reach the same stage of disintegration that Radium A reaches in 3 minutes. As the disintegration proceeds, the substances become of lighter and lighter atomic weights. Thus Uranium has an atomic weight of 238, whereas lead has an atomic weight of only 206. The breaking down of atoms is fully explained in the text.


Reproduced by permission from "The Interpretation of Radium" (John Murray).


The separate threads of the tassel, being each electrified with the same kind of electricity, repel one another, and thus the tassel branches out as in the photograph.



When the radium rays, carrying an opposite electric charge to that on the tassel, strikes the threads, the threads are neutralised, and hence fall together again.



This is an actual photograph of an electric spark. It is leaping a distance of about 10 feet, and is the discharge of a million volts. It is a graphic illustration of the tremendous energy of electrons.


From "Scientific Ideas of To-day."


Take an ordinary flower-vase well dried and energetically rub it with a silk handkerchief. The vase which thus becomes electrified will attract any light body, such as a feather, as shown in the above illustration.

Such cells are now made of zinc and carbon, immersed in sal-ammoniac, but the principle is the same. The flow of electricity is a flow of electrons; though we ought to repeat that they do not flow in a body, as molecules of water do. You may have seen boys place a row of bricks, each standing on one end, in such order that the first, if it is pushed, will knock over the second, the second the third, and so on to the last. There is a flow of movement all along the line, but each brick moves only a short distance. So an electron merely passes to the next atom, which sends on an electron to a third atom, and so on. In this case, however, the movement from atom to atom is so rapid that the ripple of movement, if we may call it so, may pass along at an enormous speed. We have seen how swiftly electrons travel.

But how is this turned into power enough even to ring a bell? The actual mechanical apparatus by which the energy of the electron current is turned into sound, or heat, or light will be described in a technical section later in this work. We are concerned here only with the principle, which is clear. While zinc is very apt to part with electrons, copper is just as obliging in facilitating their passage onward. Electrons will travel in this way in most metals, but copper is one of the best "conductors." So we lengthen the copper wire between the zinc and the carbon until it goes as far as the front door and the bell, which are included in the circuit. When you press the button at the door, two wires are brought together, and the current of electrons rushes round the circuit; and at the bell its energy is diverted into the mechanical apparatus which rings the bell.

Copper is a good conductor—six times as good as iron—and is therefore so common in electrical industries. Some other substances are just as stubborn as copper is yielding, and we call them "insulators," because they resist the current instead of letting it flow. Their atoms do not easily part with electrons. Glass, vulcanite, and porcelain are very good insulators for this reason.

What the Dynamo does

But even several cells together do not produce the currents needed in modern industry, and the flow is produced in a different manner. As the invisible electrons pass along a wire they produce what we call a magnetic field around the wire, they produce a disturbance in the surrounding ether. To be exact, it is through the ether surrounding the wire that the energy originated by the electrons is transmitted. To set electrons moving on a large scale we use a "dynamo." By means of the dynamo it is possible to transform mechanical energy into electrical energy. The modern dynamo, as Professor Soddy puts it, may be looked upon as an electron pump. We cannot go into the subject deeply here, we would only say that a large coil of copper wire is caused to turn round rapidly between the poles of a powerful magnet. That is the essential construction of the "dynamo," which is used for generating strong currents. We shall see in a moment how magnetism differs from electricity, and will say here only that round the poles of a large magnet there is a field of intense disturbance which will start a flow of electrons in any copper that is introduced into it. On account of the speed given to the coil of wire its atoms enter suddenly this magnetic field, and they give off crowds of electrons in a flash.

It is found that a similar disturbance is caused, though the flow is in the opposite direction, when the coil of wire leaves the magnetic field. And as the coil is revolving very rapidly we get a powerful current of electricity that runs in alternate directions—an "alternating" current. Electricians have apparatus for converting it into a continuous current where this is necessary.

A current, therefore, means a steady flow of the electrons from atom to atom. Sometimes, however, a number of electrons rush violently and explosively from one body to another, as in the electric spark or the occasional flash from an electric tram or train. The grandest and most spectacular display of this phenomenon is the thunderstorm. As we saw earlier, a portentous furnace like the sun is constantly pouring floods of electrons from its atoms into space. The earth intercepts great numbers of these electrons. In the upper regions of the air the stream of solar electrons has the effect of separating positively-electrified atoms from negatively-electrified ones, and the water-vapour, which is constantly rising from the surface of the sea, gathers more freely round the positively-electrified atoms, and brings them down, as rain, to the earth. Thus the upper air loses a proportion of positive electricity, or becomes "negatively electrified." In the thunderstorm we get both kinds of clouds—some with large excesses of electrons, and some deficient in electrons—and the tension grows until at last it is relieved by a sudden and violent discharge of electrons from one cloud to another or to the earth—an electric spark on a prodigious scale.

§ 11


We have seen that an electric current is really a flow of electrons. Now an electric current exhibits a magnetic effect. The surrounding space is endowed with energy which we call electro-magnetic energy. A piece of magnetised iron attracting other pieces of iron to it is the popular idea of a magnet. If we arrange a wire to pass vertically through a piece of cardboard and then sprinkle iron filings on the cardboard we shall find that, on passing an electric current through the wire, the iron filings arrange themselves in circles round it. The magnetic force, due to the electric current, seems to exist in circles round the wire, an ether disturbance being set up. Even a single electron, when in movement, creates a magnetic "field," as it is called, round its path. There is no movement of electrons without this attendant field of energy, and their motion is not stopped until that field of energy disappears from the ether. The modern theory of magnetism supposes that all magnetism is produced in this way. All magnetism is supposed to arise from the small whirling motions of the electrons contained in the ultimate atoms of matter. We cannot here go into the details of the theory nor explain why, for instance, iron behaves so differently from other substances, but it is sufficient to say that here, also, the electron theory provides the key. This theory is not yet definitely proved, but it furnishes a sufficient theoretical basis for future research. The earth itself is a gigantic magnet, a fact which makes the compass possible, and it is well known that the earth's magnetism is affected by those great outbreaks on the sun called sun-spots. Now it has been recently shown that a sun-spot is a vast whirlpool of electrons and that it exerts a strong magnetic action. There is doubtless a connection between these outbreaks of electronic activity and the consequent changes in the earth's magnetism. The precise mechanism of the connection, however, is still a matter that is being investigated.