Faraday as a Discoverer HTML version

Chapter 8
Researches on frictional electricity: induction: conduction: specific inductive capacity:
theory of contiguous particles.
The burst of power which had filled the four preceding years with an amount of
experimental work unparalleled in the history of science partially subsided in 1835, and
the only scientific paper contributed by Faraday in that year was a comparatively
unimportant one, 'On an improved Form of the Voltaic Battery.' He brooded for a time:
his experiments on electrolysis had long filled his mind; he looked, as already stated, into
the very heart of the electrolyte, endeavouring to render the play of its atoms visible to
his mental eye. He had no doubt that in this case what is called 'the electric current' was
propagated from particle to particle of the electrolyte; he accepted the doctrine of
decomposition and recomposition which, according to Grothuss and Davy, ran from
electrode to electrode. And the thought impressed him more and more that ordinary
electric induction was also transmitted and sustained by the action of 'contiguous
His first great paper on frictional electricity was sent to the Royal Society on November
30, 1837. We here find him face to face with an idea which beset his mind throughout his
whole subsequent life,--the idea of action at a distance. It perplexed and bewildered him.
In his attempts to get rid of this perplexity, he was often unconsciously rebelling against
the limitations of the intellect itself. He loved to quote Newton upon this point; over and
over again he introduces his memorable words, 'That gravity should be innate, inherent,
and essential to matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a
vacuum and without the mediation of anything else, by and through which this action and
force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe
no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall
into it. Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws;
but whether this agent be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my
Faraday does not see the same difficulty in his contiguous particles. And yet, by
transferring the conception from masses to particles, we simply lessen size and distance,
but we do not alter the quality of the conception. Whatever difficulty the mind
experiences in conceiving of action at sensible distances, besets it also when it attempts
to conceive of action at insensible distances. Still the investigation of the point whether
electric and magnetic effects were wrought out through the intervention of contiguous
particles or not, had a physical interest altogether apart from the metaphysical difficulty.
Faraday grapples with the subject experimentally. By simple intuition he sees that action
at a distance must be exerted in straight lines. Gravity, he knows, will not turn a corner,
but exerts its pull along a right line; hence his aim and effort to ascertain whether electric
action ever takes place in curved lines. This once proved, it would follow that the action
is carried on by means of a medium surrounding the electrified bodies. His experiments
in 1837 reduced, in his opinion, this point of demonstration. He then found that he could