Faraday as a Discoverer by John Tyndall - HTML preview

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Chapter 2

Early researches: magnetic rotations: liquefaction of gases: heavy glass: Charles Anderson: contributions to physics.

Oersted, in 1820, discovered the action of a voltaic current on a magnetic needle; and immediately afterwards the splendid intellect of Ampere succeeded in showing that every magnetic phenomenon then known might be reduced to the mutual action of electric currents. The subject occupied all men's thoughts: and in this country Dr. Wollaston sought to convert the deflection of the needle by the current into a permanent rotation of the needle round the current. He also hoped to produce the reciprocal effect of causing a current to rotate round a magnet. In the early part of 1821, Wollaston attempted to realise this idea in the presence of Sir Humphry Davy in the laboratory of the Royal Institution.[1] This was well calculated to attract Faraday's attention to the subject. He read much about it; and in the months of July, August, and September he wrote a 'history of the progress of electro-magnetism,' which he published in Thomson's 'Annals of Philosophy.' Soon afterwards he took up the subject of 'Magnetic Rotations,' and on the morning of Christmas-day, 1821, he called his wife to witness, for the first time, the revolution of a magnetic needle round an electric current. Incidental to the 'historic sketch,' he repeated almost all the experiments there referred to; and these, added to his own subsequent work, made him practical master of all that was then known regarding the voltaic current. In 1821, he also touched upon a subject which subsequently received his closer attention--the vaporization of mercury at common temperatures; and immediately afterwards conducted, in company with Mr. Stodart, experiments on the alloys of steel. He was accustomed in after years to present to his friends razors formed from one of the alloys then discovered.

During Faraday's hours of liberty from other duties, he took up subjects of inquiry for himself; and in the spring of 1823, thus self-prompted, he began the examination of a substance which had long been regarded as the chemical element chlorine, in a solid form, but which Sir Humphry Davy, in 1810, had proved to be a hydrate of chlorine, that is, a compound of chlorine and water. Faraday first analysed this hydrate, and wrote out an account of its composition. This account was looked over by Davy, who suggested the heating of the hydrate under pressure in a sealed glass tube. This was done. The hydrate fused at a blood-heat, the tube became filled with a yellow atmosphere, and was afterwards found to contain two liquid substances. Dr. Paris happened to enter the laboratory while Faraday was at work. Seeing the oily liquid in his tube, he rallied the young chemist for his carelessness in employing soiled vessels. On filing off the end of the tube, its contents exploded and the oily matter vanished. Early next morning, Dr. Paris received the following note:--

'Dear Sir,--The oil you noticed yesterday turns out to be liquid chlorine.

'Yours faithfully,

'M. Faraday.'[2]

The gas had been liquefied by its own pressure. Faraday then tried compression with a syringe, and succeeded thus in liquefying the gas.

To the published account of this experiment Davy added the following note:--'In desiring Mr. Faraday to expose the hydrate of chlorine in a closed glass tube, it occurred to me that one of three things would happen: that decomposition of water would occur;... or that the chlorine would separate in a fluid state.' Davy, moreover, immediately applied the method of self-compressing atmosphere to the liquefaction of muriatic gas. Faraday continued the experiments, and succeeded in reducing a number of gases till then deemed permanent to the liquid condition. In 1844 he returned to the subject, and considerably expanded its limits. These important investigations established the fact that gases are but the vapours of liquids possessing a very low boiling-point, and gave a sure basis to our views of molecular aggregation. The account of the first investigation was read before the Royal Society on April 10, 1823, and was published, in Faraday's name, in the 'Philosophical Transactions.' The second memoir was sent to the Royal Society on December 19, 1844. I may add that while he was conducting his first experiments on the liquefaction of gases, thirteen pieces of glass were on one occasion driven by an explosion into Faraday's eye.

Some small notices and papers, including the observation that glass readily changes colour in sunlight, follow here. In 1825 and 1826 Faraday published papers in the 'Philosophical Transactions' on 'new compounds of carbon and hydrogen,' and on 'sulphonaphthalic acid.' In the former of these papers he announced the discovery of Benzol, which, in the hands of modern chemists, has become the foundation of our splendid aniline dyes. But he swerved incessantly from chemistry into physics; and in 1826 we find him engaged in investigating the limits of vaporization, and showing, by exceedingly strong and apparently conclusive arguments, that even in the case of mercury such a limit exists; much more he conceived it to be certain that our atmosphere does not contain the vapour of the fixed constituents of the earth's crust. This question, I may say, is likely to remain an open one. Dr. Rankine, for example, has lately drawn attention to the odour of certain metals; whence comes this odour, if it be not from the vapour of the metal?

In 1825 Faraday became a member of a committee, to which Sir John Herschel and Mr. Dollond also belonged, appointed by the Royal Society to examine, and if possible improve, the manufacture of glass for optical purposes. Their experiments continued till 1829, when the account of them constituted the subject of a 'Bakerian Lecture.' This lectureship, founded in 1774 by Henry Baker, Esq., of the Strand, London, provides that every year a lecture shall be given before the Royal Society, the sum of four pounds being paid to the lecturer. The Bakerian Lecture, however, has long since passed from the region of pay to that of honour, papers of mark only being chosen for it by the council of the Society. Faraday's first Bakerian Lecture, 'On the Manufacture of Glass for Optical Purposes,' was delivered at the close of 1829. It is a most elaborate and conscientious description of processes, precautions, and results: the details were so exact and so minute, and the paper consequently so long, that three successive sittings of the Royal Society were taken up by the delivery of the lecture.[3] This glass did not turn out to be of important practical use, but it happened afterwards to be the foundation of two of Faraday's greatest discoveries.[4]

The experiments here referred to were commenced at the Falcon Glass Works, on the premises of Messrs. Green and Pellatt, but Faraday could not conveniently attend to them there. In 1827, therefore, a furnace was erected in the yard of the Royal Institution; and it was at this time, and with a view of assisting him at the furnace, that Faraday engaged Sergeant Anderson, of the Royal Artillery, the respectable, truthful, and altogether trustworthy man whose appearance here is so fresh in our memories. Anderson continued to be the reverential helper of Faraday and the faithful servant of this Institution for nearly forty years.[5]

In 1831 Faraday published a paper, 'On a peculiar class of Optical Deceptions,' to which I believe the beautiful optical toy called the Chromatrope owes its origin. In the same year he published a paper on Vibrating Surfaces, in which he solved an acoustical problem which, though of extreme simplicity when solved, appears to have baffled many eminent men. The problem was to account for the fact that light bodies, such as the seed of lycopodium, collected at the vibrating parts of sounding plates, while sand ran to the nodal lines. Faraday showed that the light bodies were entangled in the little whirlwinds formed in the air over the places of vibration, and through which the heavier sand was readily projected. Faraday's resources as an experimentalist were so wonderful, and his delight in experiment was so great, that he sometimes almost ran into excess in this direction. I have heard him say that this paper on vibrating surfaces was too heavily laden with experiments.

Footnotes to Chapter 2

[1] The reader's attention is directed to the concluding paragraph of the 'Preface to the Second Edition written in December, 1869. Also to the Life of Faraday by Dr. Bence Jones, vol. i. p. 338 et seq.

[2] Paris: Life of Davy.

[3] Viz., November 19, December 3 and 10.

[4] I make the following extract from a letter from Sir John Herschel, written to me from Collingwood, on the 3rd of November, 1867:--

'I will take this opportunity to mention that I believe myself to have originated the suggestion of the employment of borate of lead for optical purposes. It was somewhere in the year 1822, as well as I can recollect, that I mentioned it to Sir James (then Mr.) South; and, in consequence, the trial was made in his laboratory in Blackman Street, by precipitating and working a large quantity of borate of lead, and fusing it under a muffle in a porcelain evaporating dish. A very limpid (though slightly yellow) glass resulted, the refractive index 1.866! (which you will find set down in my table of refractive indices in my article "Light," Encyclopaedia Metropolitana). It was, however, too soft for optical use as an object-glass. This Faraday overcame, at least to a considerable degree, by the introduction of silica.'

[5] Regarding Anderson, Faraday writes thus in 1845:--'I cannot resist the occasion that is thus offered to me of mentioning the name of Mr. Anderson, who came to me as an assistant in the glass experiments, and has remained ever since in the laboratory of the Royal Institution. He assisted me in all the researches into which I have entered since that time; and to his care, steadiness, exactitude, and faithfulness in the performance of all that has been committed to his charge, I am much indebted.--M. F.' (Exp. Researches, vol. iii. p. 3, footnote.)