Faraday as a Discoverer by John Tyndall - HTML preview

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Chapter 7

Origin of power in the voltaic pile.

In one of the public areas of the town of Como stands a statue with no inscription on its pedestal, save that of a single name, 'Volta.' The bearer of that name occupies a place for ever memorable in the history of science. To him we owe the discovery of the voltaic pile, to which for a brief interval we must now turn our attention.

The objects of scientific thought being the passionless laws and phenomena of external nature, one might suppose that their investigation and discussion would be completely withdrawn from the region of the feelings, and pursued by the cold dry light of the intellect alone. This, however, is not always the case. Man carries his heart with him into all his works. You cannot separate the moral and emotional from the intellectual; and thus it is that the discussion of a point of science may rise to the heat of a battle-field. The fight between the rival optical theories of Emission and Undulation was of this fierce character; and scarcely less fierce for many years was the contest as to the origin and maintenance of the power of the voltaic pile. Volta himself supposed it to reside in the Contact of different metals. Here was exerted his 'Electro-motive force,' which tore the combined electricities asunder and drove them as currents in opposite directions. To render the circulation of the current possible, it was necessary to connect the metals by a moist conductor; for when any two metals were connected by a third, their relation to each other was such that a complete neutralisation of the electric motion was the result. Volta's theory of metallic contact was so clear, so beautiful, and apparently so complete, that the best intellects of Europe accepted it as the expression of natural law.

Volta himself knew nothing of the chemical phenomena of the pile; but as soon as these became known, suggestions and intimations appeared that chemical action, and not metallic contact, might be the real source of voltaic electricity. This idea was expressed by Fabroni in Italy, and by Wollaston in England. It was developed and maintained by those 'admirable electricians,' Becquerel, of Paris, and De la Rive, of Geneva. The Contact Theory, on the other hand, received its chief development and illustration in Germany. It was long the scientific creed of the great chemists and natural philosophers of that country, and to the present hour there may be some of them unable to liberate themselves from the fascination of their first-love.

After the researches which I have endeavoured to place before you, it was impossible for Faraday to avoid taking a side in this controversy. He did so in a paper 'On the Electricity of the Voltaic Pile,' received by the Royal Society on the 7th of April, 1834. His position in the controversy might have been predicted. He saw chemical effects going hand in hand with electrical effects, the one being proportional to the other; and, in the paper now before us, he proved that when the former was excluded, the latter were sought for in vain. He produced a current without metallic contact; he discovered liquids which, though competent to transmit the feeblest currents--competent therefore to allow the electricity of contact to flow through them if it were able to form a current--were absolutely powerless when chemically inactive.

One of the very few experimental mistakes of Faraday occurred in this investigation. He thought that with a single voltaic cell he had obtained the spark before the metals touched, but he subsequently discovered his error. To enable the voltaic spark to pass through air before the terminals of the battery were united, it was necessary to exalt the electro-motive force of the battery by multiplying its elements; but all the elements Faraday possessed were unequal to the task of urging the spark across the shortest measurable space of air. Nor, indeed, could the action of the battery, the different metals of which were in contact with each other, decide the point in question. Still, as regards the identity of electricities from various sources, it was at that day of great importance to determine whether or not the voltaic current could jump, as a spark, across an interval before contact. Faraday's friend, Mr. Gassiot, solved this problem. He erected a battery of 4000 cells, and with it urged a stream of sparks from terminal to terminal, when separated from each other by a measurable space of air.

The memoir on the 'Electricity of the Voltaic Pile,' published in 1834, appears to have produced but little impression upon the supporters of the contact theory. These indeed were men of too great intellectual weight and insight lightly to take up, or lightly to abandon a theory. Faraday therefore resumed the attack in a paper, communicated to the Royal Society on the 6th of February, 1840. In this paper he hampered his antagonists by a crowd of adverse experiments. He hung difficulty after difficulty about the neck of the contact theory, until in its efforts to escape from his assaults it so changed its character as to become a thing totally different from the theory proposed by Volta. The more persistently it was defended, however, the more clearly did it show itself to be a congeries of devices, bearing the stamp of dialectic skill rather than of natural truth.

In conclusion, Faraday brought to bear upon it an argument which, had its full weight and purport been understood at the time, would have instantly decided the controversy. 'The contact theory,' he urged, 'assumed that a force which is able to overcome powerful resistance, as for instance that of the conductors, good or bad, through which the current passes, and that again of the electrolytic action where bodies are decomposed by it, can arise out of nothing; that, without any change in the acting matter, or the consumption of any generating force, a current shall be produced which shall go on for ever against a constant resistance, or only be stopped, as in the voltaic trough, by the ruins which its exertion has heaped up in its own course. This would indeed be a creation of power, and is like no other force in nature. We have many processes by which the form of the power may be so changed, that an apparent conversion of one into the other takes place. So we can change chemical force into the electric current, or the current into chemical force. The beautiful experiments of Seebeck and Peltier show the convertibility of heat and electricity; and others by Oersted and myself show the convertibility of electricity and magnetism. But in no case, not even in those of the Gymnotus and Torpedo, is there a pure creation or a production of power without a corresponding exhaustion of something to supply it.'

These words were published more than two years before either Mayer printed his brief but celebrated essay on the Forces of Inorganic Nature, or Mr. Joule published his first famous experiments on the Mechanical Value of Heat. They illustrate the fact that before any great scientific principle receives distinct enunciation by individuals, it dwells more or less clearly in the general scientific mind. The intellectual plateau is already high, and our discoverers are those who, like peaks above the plateau, rise a little above the general level of thought at the time.

But many years prior even to the foregoing utterance of Faraday, a similar argument had been employed. I quote here with equal pleasure and admiration the following passage written by Dr. Roget so far back as 1829. Speaking of the contact theory, he says:-- 'If there could exist a power having the property ascribed to it by the hypothesis, namely, that of giving continual impulse to a fluid in one constant direction, without being exhausted by its own action, it would differ essentially from all the known powers in nature. All the powers and sources of motion with the operation of which we are acquainted, when producing these peculiar effects, are expended in the same proportion as those effects are produced; and hence arises the impossibility of obtaining by their agency a perpetual effect; or in other words a perpetual motion. But the electro-motive force, ascribed by Volta to the metals, when in contact, is a force which, as long as a free course is allowed to the electricity it sets in motion, is never expended, and continues to be excited with undiminished power in the production of a never-ceasing effect. Against the truth of such a supposition the probabilities are all but infinite.' When this argument, which he employed independently, had clearly fixed itself in his mind, Faraday never cared to experiment further on the source of electricity in the voltaic pile. The argument appeared to him 'to remove the foundation itself of the contact theory,' and he afterwards let it crumble down in peace.[1]

Footnote to Chapter 7

[1] To account for the electric current, which was really the core of the whole discussion, Faraday demonstrated the impotence of the Contact Theory as then enunciated and defended. Still, it is certain that two different metals, when brought into contact, charge themselves, the one with positive and the other with negative electricity. I had the pleasure of going over this ground with Kohlrausch in 1849, and his experiments left no doubt upon my mind that the contact electricity of Volta was a reality, though it could produce no current. With one of the beautiful instruments devised by himself, Sir William Thomson has rendered this point capable of sure and easy demonstration; and he and others now hold what may be called a contact theory, which, while it takes into account the action of the metals, also embraces the chemical phenomena of the circuit. Helmholtz, I believe, was the first to give the contact theory this new form, in his celebrated essay, Ueber die Erhaltung der Kraft, p. 45.