Experiments with Alternate Currents of Very High Frequency and their Application to Methods of Artificial Illumination, Part 1 - A Nikola Tesla Lecture

Part 1 of a lecture delivered by Nikola Tesla to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia College, New York.

The Electrical Engineer, A Weekly Journal of Electrical Engineering, Volume VIII, From July 3, 1891 to December 25, 1891.



There is no subject more captivating, more worthy of study, than nature. To understand this great mechanism, to discover the forces which are active, and the laws which govern them, is the highest aim of the intellect of man.

Nature has stored up in the universe infinite energy. The eternal recipient and transmitter of this infinite energy is the ether. The recognition of the existence of ether, and of the functions it performs, is one of the most important results of modern scientific research. The mere abandoning of the idea of action at a distance, the assumption of a medium pervading all space and connecting all gross matter, has freed the minds of thinkers of an ever present doubt, and by opening a new horizon—-new and unforeseen possibilities—-has given fresh interest to phenomena with which we are familiar of old. It has been a great step towards the understanding of the forces of nature and their multifold manifestations to our senses. It has been for the enlightened student of physics what the understanding of the mechanism of the firearm or of the steam engine was for the barbarian. Phenomena upon which we used to look as wonders baffling explanation we now see in a different light. The spark of an induction coil, the glow of an incandescent lamp, the manifestations of the mechanical forces of currents and magnets, are no longer beyond our grasp. Instead of the incomprehensible, as before, their observation suggests now in our minds a simple mechanism, and although as to its precise nature all is still conjecture, yet we know that the truth cannot be much longer hidden, and instinctively we feel that the understanding is dawning upon us. We still admire these beautiful phenomena, these strange forces, but we are helpless no longer; we can, in a certain measure, explain them, account for them, and we are hopeful of finally succeeding in unraveling the mystery which surrounds them.

In how far we can understand the world around us is the ultimate thought of every student of nature. The coarseness of our senses prevents us from recognizing the ulterior construction of matter, and astronomy, this grandest and most positive of natural sciences, can only teach us something that happens, as it were, in our immediate neighbourhood; of the remoter portions of the boundless universe, with its numberless stars and suns, we know nothing. But far beyond the limit of perception of our senses the spirit still can guide us, and so we may hope that even these unknown worlds--infinitely small and great--may in a measure became known to us. Still, even if this knowledge should reach us, the searching mind will find a barrier, perhaps forever unsurpassable, to the true recognition of that which seems to be, the mere appearance of which is the only and slender basis of all our philosophy.

Of all the forms of nature's immeasurable, all-pervading energy, which ever and ever changing and moving, like a soul animates the inert universe, those of electricity and magnetism are perhaps the most fascinating. The effects of gravitation, of heat and light we observe daily, and soon we get accustomed to them, and soon they lose for us the character of the marvelous and wonderful; but electricity and magnetism, with their singular relationship, with their seemingly dual character, unique among the forces in nature, with their phenomena of attractions, repulsions and rotations, strange manifestations of mysterious agents, stimulate and excite the mind to thought and research. What is electricity? and What is magnetism? These questions have been asked again and again. The most able intellects have ceaselessly wrestled with the problem; still the question has not as yet been fully answered. But while we cannot even to-day state what these singular forces are, yet we have made good headway towards the solution of the problem. We are now confident that electric and magnetic phenomena are attributable to ether, and we are perhaps justified in saying that the effects of static electricity are effects of ether under strain, and those of dynamic electricity and electromagnetism effects of ether in motion. But this still leaves the question, as to what electricity and magnetism are, unanswered.

First, we naturally enquire, What is electricity, and is there such a thing as electricity? In interpreting electric phenomena, we may speak of electricity or of an electric condition, state or effect. If we speak of electric effects, we must distinguish two such effects, opposite in character and neutralizing each other, as observation shows that two such opposite effects exist. This is unavoidable, for in a medium of the properties of ether we cannot possibly exert a strain, or produce a displacement or motion of any kind, without causing in the surrounding medium an equivalent and opposite effect. But if we speak of electricity, meaning a thing, we must, I think, abandon the idea of two electricities, as the existence of two such things is highly improbable. For how can we imagine that there should be two things, equivalent in amount, alike in their properties, but of opposite character, both clinging to matter, both attracting and completely neutralizing each other? Such an assumption, though suggested by many phenomena, though most convenient for explaining them, has little to commend it. If there is such a thing as electricity, there can be only one such thing, and, excess and want of that one thing, possibly; but more probably its connection determines the positive and negative character. The old theory of Franklin, though falling short in some respect, is, from a certain point of view, after all, the most plausible one. Still, in spite of this, the theory of the two electricities is generally accepted, as it apparently explains electric phenomena in a more satisfactory manner. But a theory which better explains the facts is not necessarily true. Ingenious minds will invent theories to suit observation, and almost every independent thinker has his own views on the subject.

It is not with the object of advancing an opinion, but with the desire of acquainting you better with some of the results, which I will describe, to show you the reasoning I have followed, the departures I have made--that I venture to express, in a few words, the views and convictions which have led me to these results.

I adhere to the idea that there is a thing which we have been in the habit of calling electricity. The question is, What is that thing? or, What, of all things, the existence of which we know, have we the best reason to call electricity? We know that it acts like an incompressible fluid; that there must be a constant quantity of it in nature; that it can be neither produced nor destroyed; and, what is more important, the electromagnetic theory of light and all facts observed teach us that electric and ether phenomena are identical. The idea at once suggests itself, therefore, that electricity might be called ether. In fact, this view has in a certain sense been advanced by Dr. Lodge. His interesting work has been read by everyone, and many have been convinced by his arguments. His great ability, and the interesting nature of the subject, keep the reader spellbound; but when the impressions fade, one realizes that he has to deal only with ingenious explanations. I must confess that I cannot believe in two electricities, much less in a doubly constituted ether. The puzzling behavior of the ether as a solid to waves of light and heat, and as a fluid to the motion of bodies through it, is certainly explained in the most natural and satisfactory manner by assuming it to be in motion, as Sir William Thomson has suggested; but, regardless of this, there is nothing which would enable us to conclude with certainty that, while a fluid is not capable of transmitting transverse vibrations of a few hundred or thousand per second, it might not be capable of transmitting such vibrations when they range into hundreds of million millions per second. Nor can anyone prove that there are transverse ether waves emitted from an alternate current machine, giving a small number of alternations per second; to such slow disturbances, the ether, if at rest, may behave as a true fluid.

Returning to the subject, and bearing in mind that the existence of two electricities is, to say the least, highly improbable, we must remember, that we have no evidence of electricity, nor can we hope to get it, unless gross matter is present. Electricity, therefore, cannot be called ether in the broad sense of the term; but nothing would seem to stand in the way of calling electricity ether associated with matter, or bound ether; or, in other words, that the so called static charge of the molecule is ether associated in some way with the molecule. Looking at it in that light, we would be justified in saying that electricity is concerned in all molecular actions.

Now, precisely what the ether surrounding the molecules is, wherein it differs from ether in general, can only be conjectured. It cannot differ in density, ether being incompressible; it must, therefore, be under some strain or in motion, and the latter is the most probable. To understand its functions, it would be necessary to have an exact idea of the physical construction of matter, of which, of course, we can only form a mental picture.

But of all the views on nature, the one which assumes one matter and one force, and a perfect uniformity throughout, is the most scientific and most likely to be true. An infinitesimal world, with the molecules and their atoms spinning and moving in orbits, in much the same manner as celestial bodies, carrying with them and probably spinning with them ether, or in other words, carrying with them static charges, seems to my mind the most probable view, and one which, in a plausible manner, accounts for most of the phenomena observed. The spinning of the molecules and their ether sets up ether tensions or electrostatic strains; the equalization of ether tensions sets up ether motions or electric currents, and the orbital movements produce the effects of electro and permanent magnetism.

About 15 years ago Prof. Rowland demonstrated a most interesting and important fact--namely, that a static charge carried around produces the effects of an electric current. Leaving out of consideration the precise nature of the mechanism which produces the attraction and repulsion of currents, and conceiving the electrostatically charged molecules in motion, this experimental fact gives us a fair idea of magnetism. We can conceive lines or tubes of force which physically exist, being formed of rows of directed moving molecules; we can see that these lines must be closed; that they must tend to shorten and expand, etc. It likewise explains in a reasonable way the most puzzling phenomenon of all, permanent magnetism, and, in general, has all the beauties of the Ampere theory without possessing the vital defect of the same--namely, the assumption of molecular currents. Without enlarging further upon the subject, I would say that I look upon all electrostatic, current and magnetic phenomena as being due to electrostatic molecular forces.

The preceding remarks I have deemed necessary to a full understanding of the subject as it presents itself to my mind.

Of all these phenomena the most important to study are the current phenomena, on account of the already extensive and ever-growing use of currents for industrial purposes. It is now a century since the first practical source of current has been produced, and ever since the phenomena which accompany the flow of currents have been diligently studied, and through the untiring efforts of scientific men the simple laws which govern them have been discovered. But these laws were found to hold good only when the currents are of a steady character. When the currents are rapidly varying in strength, quite different phenomena, often unexpected, present themselves, and quite different laws hold good, which even now have not been determined as fully as is desirable, though through the work, principally of English scientists, enough knowledge has been gained on the subject to enable us to treat simple cases which now present themselves in daily practice.

The phenomena which are peculiar to the changing character of the currents are greatly exalted when the rate of change is increased, hence the study of these currents is considerably facilitated by the employment of properly constructed apparatus. It was with this and other objects in view that I constructed alternate-current machines capable of giving more than two million reversals of current per minute, and to this circumstance it is principally due that I am able to bring to your attention some of the results thus far reached, which I hope will prove to be a step in advance on account of their direct bearing upon one of the most important problems--namely, the production of a practical and efficient source of light.

The study of such rapidly alternating currents is very interesting. Nearly every experiment discloses something new. Many results may, of course, be predicted, but many more are unforeseen. The experimenter makes many interesting observations. For instance, we take a piece of iron and hold it against a magnet. Starting from low alternations and running up higher and higher, we feel the impulses succeed each other faster and faster, get weaker and weaker, and finally disappear. We then observe a continuous pull; the pull, of course, is not continuous; it only appears so to us; our sense of touch is imperfect.

We may next establish an arc between the electrodes and observe as the alternations rise that the note which accompanies alternating arcs gets shriller and shriller, gradually weakens, and finally ceases. The air vibrations, of course, continue, but they are too weak to be perceived; our sense of hearing fails us.

We observe the small physiological effects, the rapid heating of the iron cores and conductors, curious inductive effects, interesting condenser phenomena, and still more interesting light phenomena with a high-tension induction coil. All these experiments and observations would be of the greatest interest to the student, but their description would lead me too far from the principal subject. Partly for this reason, and partly on account of the vastly greater importance, I will confine myself to the description of the light effects produced by these currents.

In the experiments to this end a high-tension induction coil or equivalent apparatus for converting currents of comparatively low into currents of high tension is used.

If you will be sufficiently interested in the results I shall describe as to enter into an experimental study of this subject; if you will be convinced of the truth of the arguments I shall advance, your aim will be to produce high frequencies and high potentials--in other words, powerful electrostatic effects. You will then encounter many difficulties, which, if completely overcome, would allow us to produce truly wonderful results.

First will be met the difficulty of obtaining the required frequencies by means of mechanical apparatus, and, if they be obtained otherwise, obstacles of a different nature will present themselves. Next it will be found difficult to provide the requisite insulation without considerably increasing the size of the apparatus, for the potentials required are high, and owing to the rapidity of the alternations the insulation presents peculiar difficulties. So, for instance, when a gas is present, the discharge may work by the molecular bombardment of the gas and consequent heating, through as much as an inch of the best solid insulating material, such as glass, hard rubber, porcelain, sealing wax, etc, in fact, through any known insulating substance. The chief requisite in the insulation of the apparatus is, therefore, the exclusion of any gaseous matter.

In general, my experience tends to show that bodies which possess the highest specific inductive capacity, such as glass, afford a rather feeble insulation to others, which, while they are good insulators, have a much smaller specific inductive capacity, such as oils, for instance, the dielectric losses being no doubt greater in the former. The difficulty of insulating, of course, only exists when the potentials are excessively high, for with potentials such as a few thousand volts there is no particular difficulty encountered in conveying currents from a machine giving, say, 20,000 alternations per second, to quite a distance. This number of alternations, however, is by far too small for many purposes, though quite sufficient for some practical applications. This difficulty of insulating is fortunately not a vital drawback; it affects mostly the size of the apparatus, for, when excessively high potentials would be used, the light-giving devices would be located not far from the apparatus, and often they would be quite close to it. As the air-bombardment of the insulated wire is dependent on condenser action, the loss may be reduced to a trifle by using excessively thin wires heavily insulated.

Another difficulty will be encountered in the capacity and self-induction necessarily possessed by the coil. If the coil be large--that is, if it contain a great length of wire--it will be generally unsuited for excessively high frequencies; if it be small, it may be well adapted for such frequencies, but the potential might then not be as high as desired. A good insulator, and preferably one possessing a small specific inductive capacity, would afford a twofold advantage. First, it would enable us to construct a very small coil capable of withstanding enormous differences of potential; and secondly, such a small coil, by reason of its smaller capacity and self-induction, would be capable of a quicker and more vigorous vibration. The problem then of constructing a coil or induction apparatus of any kind possessing the requisite qualities I regard as one of no small importance, and it has occupied me for a considerable time.

The investigator who desires to repeat the experiments which I will describe, with an alternate-current machine, capable of supplying currents of the desired frequency, and an induction coil, will do well to take the primary coil out and mount the secondary in such a manner as to be able to look through the tube upon which the secondary is wound. He will then be able to observe the streams which pass from the primary to the insulating tube, and from their intensity he will know how far he can strain the coil. Without this precaution he is sure to injure the insulation. This arrangement permits, however, an easy exchange of the primaries, which is desirable in these experiments.

The selection of the type of machine best suited for the purpose must be left to the judgment of the experimenter. There are here illustrated three distinct types of machines, which, besides others, I have used in my experiments.

FIG. 1.

Fig. 1 represents the machine used in my experiments before this institute. The field magnet consists of a ring of wrought iron with 384 pole projections. The armature comprises a steel disc to which is fastened a thin, carefully welded rim of wrought iron. Upon the rim are wound several layers of fine, well annealed iron wire, which, when wound, is passed through shellac. The armature wires are wound around brass pins, wrapped with silk thread. The diameter of the armature wire in this type of machine should not be more than one-sixth of the thickness of the pole projections, else the local action will be considerable.

FIG. 2.

Fig. 2 represents a larger machine of a different type. The field magnet of this machine consists of two like parts which either enclose an exciting coil, or else are independently wound. Each part has 480 pole projections, the projections of one facing those of the other. The armature consists of a wheel of hard bronze, carrying the conductors which revolve between the projections of the field magnet. To wind the armature conductors, I have found it most convenient to proceed in the following manner: I construct a ring of hard bronze of the required size. This ring and the rim of the wheel are provided with the proper number of pins, and both fastened upon a plate. The armature conductors being wound, the pins are cut off and the ends of the conductors fastened by two rings which screw to the bronze ring and the rim of the wheel respectively. The whole may then be taken off and forms a solid structure. The conductors in such a type of machine should consist of sheet copper, the thickness of which, of course, depends on the thickness of the pale projections; or else twisted thin wires should be employed.

FIG. 3.

Fig. 3 is a smaller machine, in many respects similar to the former, only here the armature conductors and the exciting coil are kept stationary, while only a block of wrought iron is revolved.

It would be uselessly lengthening this description were I to dwell more on the details of construction of these machines. Besides, they have been described somewhat more elaborately in the N.Y. Electrical Engineer, of March 18, 1891. I deem it well, however, to call the attention of the investigator to two things, the importance of which, though self-evident, he is nevertheless apt to underestimate; namely, to the local action in the conductors, which must be carefully avoided, and to the clearance, which must be small. I may add, that since it is desirable to use very high peripheral speeds, the armature should be of very large diameter in order to avoid impracticable belt speeds. Of the several types of these machines which have been constructed by me, I have found that the type illustrated in Fig. 1 caused me the least trouble in construction, as well as in maintenance, and on the whole, it has been a good experimental machine.

FIG. 4.

In operating an induction coil with very rapidly alternating currents, among the first luminous phenomena noticed are naturally those presented by the high-tension discharge. As the number of alternations per second is increased, or as--the number being high--the current through the primary is varied, the discharge gradually changes in appearance. It would be difficult to describe the minor changes which occur, and the conditions which bring them about, but one may note five distinct forms of the discharge.

First, one may observe a weak, sensitive discharge in the form of a thin, feeble coloured thread, Fig. 4. It always occurs when, the number of alternations per second being high, the current through the primary is very small. In spite of the excessively small current, the rate of change is great, and the difference of potential at the terminals of the secondary is therefore considerable, so that the arc is established at great distance; but the quantity of "electricity" set in motion is insignificant, barely sufficient to maintain a thin, threadlike arc. It is excessively sensitive and may be made so to such a degree that the mere act of breathing near the coil will affect it, and unless it is perfectly well protected from currents of air, it wriggles around constantly. Nevertheless, it is in this form excessively persistent, and when the terminals are approached to, say, one-third of the striking distance, it can be blown out only with difficulty. This exceptional persistency, when short, is largely due to the arc being excessively thin; presenting, therefore, a very small surface to the blast. Its great sensitiveness, when very long, is probably due to the motion of the particles of dust suspended in the air.

When the current through the primary is increased, the discharge gets broader and stronger, and the effect of the capacity of the coil becomes visible until, finally, under proper conditions, a white flaming arc, Fig. 5, often as thick as one's finger, and striking across the whole coil, is produced. It develops remarkable heat, and may be further characterized by the absence of the high note which accompanies the less powerful discharges. To take a shock from the coil under these conditions would not be advisable, although under different conditions, the potential being much higher, a shock from the coil may be taken with impunity.

FIG. 5.

The importance of these elements in an alternate-current circuit is now well known, and, under ordinary conditions, the general rules are applicable. But in an induction coil exceptional conditions prevail. First, the self-induction is of little importance before the arc is established, when it asserts itself; but perhaps never as prominently as in ordinary alternate-current circuits, because capacity is distributed all along the coil, and by reason of the fact that the coil usually discharges through very great resistances; hence the currents are exceptionally small. Secondly, the capacity goes on increasing continually as the potential rises, in consequence of absorption which takes place to a considerable extent. Owing to this there exists no critical relationship between these quantities, and ordinary rules would not seem to be applicable. As the potential is increased either in consequence of the increased frequency or of the increased current through the primary, the amount of the energy stored becomes greater and greater, and the capacity gains more and more in importance. Up to a certain point the capacity is beneficial, but after that it begins to be an enormous drawback. It follows from this that each coil gives the best result with a given frequency and primary current. A very large coil, when operated with currents of very high frequency, may not give as much as 1/8 inch spark. By adding capacity to the terminals the condition may be improved, but what the coil really wants is a lower frequency.

When the flaming discharge occurs, the conditions are evidently such that the greatest current is made to flow through the circuit. These conditions may be attained by varying the frequency within wide limits, but the highest frequency at which the flaming arc can still be produced, determines, for a given primary current, the maximum striking distance of the coil. In the flaming discharge the eclat effect of the capacity is not perceptible; the rate at which the energy is being stored then just equals the rate at which it can be disposed of through the circuit. This kind of discharge is the severest test for a coil; the break, when it occurs, is of the nature of that in an overcharged Leyden jar. To give a rough approximation I would state that, with an ordinary coil of, say, 10,000 ohms resistance, the most powerful arc would be produced with about 12,000 alternations per second.

FIG. 6. FIG 7. FIG 8.

When the frequency is increased beyond that rate, the potential, of course, rises, but the striking distance may, nevertheless, diminish, paradoxical as it may seem. As the potential rises the coil attains more and more the properties of a static machine until, finally, one may observe the beautiful phenomenon of the streaming discharge, Fig. 6, which may be produced across the whole length of the coil. At that stage streams begin to issue freely from all points and projections. These streams will also be seen to pass in abundance in the space between the primary and the insulating tube. When the potential is excessively high they will always appear, even if the frequency be low, and even if the primary be surrounded by as much as an inch of wax, hard rubber, glass, or any other insulating substance. This limits greatly the output of the coil, but I will later show how I have been able to overcome to a considerable extent this disadvantage in the ordinary coil.

Besides the potential, the intensity of the streams depends on the frequency; but if the coil be very large they show themselves, no matter how low the frequencies used. For instance, in a very large coil of a resistance of 67,000 ohms, constructed by me some time ago, they appear with as low as 100 alternations per second and less, the insulation of the secondary being 3/4 inch of ebonite. When very intense they produce a noise similar to that produced by the charging of a Holtz machine, but much more powerful, and they emit a strong smell of ozone. The lower the frequency, the more apt they are to suddenly injure the coil. With excessively high frequencies they may pass freely without producing any other effect than to heat the insulation slowly and uniformly.

The existence of these streams shows the importance of constructing an expensive coil so as to permit of one's seeing through the tube surrounding the primary, and the latter should be easily exchangeable; or else the space between the primary and secondary should be completely filled up with insulating material so as to exclude all air. The non-observance of this simple rule in the construction of the commercial coils is responsible for the destruction of many an expensive coil.

At the stage when the streaming discharge occurs, or with somewhat higher frequencies, one may, by approaching the terminals considerably and regulating properly the effect of capacity, produce a veritable spray of small silver-white sparks or a bunch of excessively thin silvery threads, Fig. 7, amidst a powerful brush--each spark or thread possibly corresponding to one alternation. This, when produced under proper conditions, is probably the most beautiful discharge, and when an air blast is directed against it, it presents a singular appearance. The spray of sparks, when received through the body, causes some inconvenience, whereas, when the discharge simply streams, nothing at all is likely to be felt if large conducting objects are held in the hands to protect them from receiving small burns.

If the frequency is still more increased, then the coil refuses to give any spark unless at comparatively small distances, and the fifth typical form of discharge may be observed, Fig. 8. The tendency to stream out and dissipate is then so great that when the brush is produced at one terminal no sparking occurs, even if, as I have repeatedly tried, the hand, or any conducting object, is held within the stream; and, what is mere singular, the luminous stream is not at all easily deflected by the approach of a conducting body.

At this stage the streams seemingly pass with the greatest freedom through considerable thicknesses of insulators, and it is particularly interesting to study their behaviour. For this purpose it is convenient to connect to the terminals of the coil two metallic spheres which may be placed at any desired distance, Fig. 9.

FIG. 9.

Spheres are preferable to plates, as the discharge can be better observed. By inserting dielectric bodies between the spheres, beautiful discharge phenomena may be observed. If the spheres be quite close and a spark be playing between them, by interposing a thin plate of ebonite between the spheres the spark instantly ceases, and the discharge spreads into an intensely luminous circle several inches in diameter, provided the spheres are sufficiently large. The passage of the streams heats, and after a while softens the rubber so much that two plates may be made to stick together in this manner. If the spheres are so far apart that no spark occurs, even if they are far beyond the striking distance, by inserting a thick plate of glass, the discharge is instantly induced to pass from the spheres to the glass in the form of luminous streams. It appears almost as though these streams pass through the dielectric. In reality this is not the case, as the streams are due to the molecules of the air which are violently agitated in the space between the oppositely charged surfaces of the spheres. When no dielectric other than air is present, the bombardment goes on, but is too weak to be visible. By inserting a dielectric the inductive effect is much increased, and besides, the projected air molecules find an obstacle, and the bombardment becomes so intense that the streams become luminous. If by any mechanical means we could effect such a violent agitation of the molecules we could produce the same phenomenon. A jet of air escaping through a small hole under enormous pressure and striking against an insulating substance, such as glass, may be luminous in the dark, and it might be possible to produce phosphorescence of the gloss or other insulators in this manner.

The greater the specific inductive capacity of the interposed dielectric, the more powerful the effect produced. Owing to this, the streams show themselves with excessively high potentials, even if the glass be as much as 1 1/2 in. to 2 in. thick. But besides the heating due to bombardment, some heating goes on undoubtedly in the dielectric, being apparently greater in glass than in ebonite. I attribute this to the greater specific inductive capacity of the glass, in consequence of which, with the same potential difference, a greater amount of energy is taken up in it than in rubber. It is like connecting to a battery a copper and a brass wire of the same dimensions. The copper wire, though a more perfect conductor, would heat more by reason of its taking more current. Thus what is otherwise considered a virtue of the glass is here a defect. Glass usually gives way much quicker than ebonite; when it is heated to a certain degree, the discharge suddenly breaks through at one point, assuming then the ordinary form of an arc.

The heating effect produced by molecular bombardment of the dielectric would, of course, diminish as the pressure of the air is increased, and at enormous pressure it would be negligible, unless the frequency would increase correspondingly.

It will be often observed in these experiments that when the spheres are beyond the striking distance, the approach of a glass plate, for instance, may induce the spark to jump between the spheres. This occurs when the capacity of the spheres is somewhat below the critical value which gives the greatest difference of potential at the terminals of the coil. By approaching a dielectric, the specific inductive capacity of the space between the spheres is increased, producing the same effect as if the capacity of the spheres were increased. The potential at the terminals may then rise so high that the air space is cracked. The experiment is best performed with dense glass or mica.

Another interesting observation is that a plate of insulating material, when the discharge is passing through it, is strongly attracted by either of the spheres--that is, by the nearer one, this being obviously due to the smaller mechanical effect of the bombardment on that side, and perhaps also to the greater electrification.

FIG. 10.

From the behaviour of the dielectrics in these experiments we may conclude, that the best insulator for these rapidly alternating currents would be the one possessing the smallest specific inductive capacity, and at the same time one capable of withstanding the greatest differences of potential; and thus two diametrically opposite ways of securing the required insulation are indicated--namely, to use either a perfect vacuum or a gas under great pressure; but the former would be preferable. Unfortunately neither of these two ways is easily carried out in practice.

It is especially interesting to note the behavior of an excessively high vacuum in these experiments. If a test tube provided with external electrodes, and exhausted to the highest possible degree, be connected to the terminals of the coil, Fig. 10, the electrodes of the tube are instantly brought to a high temperature, and the glass at each end of the tube is rendered intensely phosphorescent, but the middle appears comparatively dark, and for a while remains cool.

When the frequency is so high that the discharge shown in Fig. 8 is observed, considerable dissipation no doubt occurs in the coil. Nevertheless, the coil may be worked for a long time, as the heating is gradual.

In spite of the fact that the difference of potential may be enormous, little is felt when the discharge is passed through the body, provided the hands are armed. This is to some extent due to the higher frequency, but principally to the fact that less energy is available externally, when the difference of potential reaches an enormous value, owing to the circumstance that with the rise of potential, the energy absorbed in the coil increases as the square of the potential. Up to a certain point the energy available externally increases with the rise of potential, then it begins to fall off rapidly. Thus, with the ordinary high-tension induction coil, the curious paradox exists, that while with a given current through the primary the shock might be fatal, with many times that current it might be perfectly harmless, even if the frequency be the same. With high frequencies and excessively high potentials when the terminals are not connected to bodies of some size, practically all the energy supplied to the primary is taken up by the coil. There is no breaking through, no local injury, but all the material, insulating and conducting, is uniformly heated.

To avoid misunderstanding in regard to the physiological effect of alternating currents of very high frequency, I think it necessary to state that, while it is an undeniable fact that they are incomparably less dangerous than currents of low frequencies, yet it should not be thought that they are altogether harmless. What has just been said refers only to currents from an ordinary high-tension induction coil, which currents are necessarily very small; if received directly from a machine or from a secondary of low resistance, they produce more or less powerful effects, and may cause serious injury, especially when used in conjunction with condensers.

FIG. 11.

The streaming discharge of a high-tension induction coil differs in many respects from that of a powerful static machine. In colour it has neither the violet of the positive, nor the brightness of the negative, static discharge, but lies somewhere between, being, of course, alternatively positive and negative. But since the streaming is more powerful when the point or terminal is electrified positively than when electrified negatively, it follows that the point of the brush is more like the positive, and the root more like the negative, static discharge. In the dark, when the brush is very powerful, the root may appear almost white. The wind produced by the escaping streams, though it may be very strong--often indeed to such a degree that it may be felt quite a distance from the coil--is, nevertheless, considering the quantity of the discharge smaller than that produced by the positive brush of a static machine, and it effects the flame much less powerfully. From the nature of the phenomenon we can conclude that the higher the frequency, the smaller must, of course, be the wind produced by the streams, and with sufficiently high frequencies no wind at all would be produced at the ordinary atmospheric pressures. With frequencies obtainable by means of a machine, the mechanical effect is sufficiently great to revolve, with considerable speed, large pin-wheels, which in the dark present a beautiful appearance owing to the abundance of the streams, Fig. 11.

In general, most of the experiments usually performed with a static machine can be performed with an induction coil when operated with very rapidly alternating currents. The effects produced, however, are much more striking, being of incomparably greater power. When a small length of ordinary cotton-covered wire, Fig. 12, is attached to one terminal of the coil, the streams issuing from all points of the wire may be so intense as to produce a considerable light effect. When the potentials and frequencies are very high, a wire insulated with guttapercha or rubber and attached to one of the terminals, appears to be covered with a luminous film. A very thin bare wire when attached to a terminal emits powerful streams and vibrates continually to and fro or spins in a circle, producing a singular effect, Fig. 13. Some of these experiments have been described by me in the Electrical World (New York) of February 21, 1891.

Another peculiarity of the rapidly alternating discharge of the induction coil is its radically different behaviour with respect to points and rounded surfaces.

FIG. 12.

If a thick wire, provided with a ball at one end and with a point at the other, be attached to the positive terminal of a static machine, practically all the charge will be lost through the point, on account of the enormously greater tension, dependent on the radius of curvature. But if such a wire is attached to one of the terminals of the induction coil, it, will be observed that with very high frequencies streams issue from the ball almost as copiously as from the point, Fig. 14.

FIG. 13. FIG 14. FIG. 15.

It is hardly conceivable that we could produce such a condition to an equal degree in a static machine, for the simple reason, that the tension increases as the square of the density, which in turn is proportional to the radius of curvature; hence, with a steady potential an enormous charge would be required to make streams issue from a polished ball while it is connected with a point. But with an induction coil, the discharge of which alternates with great rapidity, it is different. Here we have to deal with two distinct tendencies. First, there is the tendency to escape which exists in a condition of rest, and which depends on the radius of curvature; second, there is the tendency to dissipate into the surrounding air by condenser action, which depends on the surface. When one of these tendencies is a maximum, the other is at a minimum. At the point the luminous stream is principally due to the air molecules coming bodily in contact with the point; they are attracted and repelled, charged and discharged, and, their atomic charges being thus disturbed, vibrate and emit light waves. At the ball, on the contrary, there is no doubt that the effect is to a great extent produced inductively, the air molecules not necessarily coming in contact with the ball, though they undoubtedly do so. To convince ourselves of this we only need to exalt the condenser action, for instance, by enveloping the ball, at some distance, by a better conductor than the surrounding medium, the conductor being, of course, insulated; or else by surrounding it with a better dielectric and approaching an insulated conductor; in both cases the streams will break forth more copiously. Also, the larger the ball with a given frequency, or the higher the frequency, the more will the ball have the advantage over the point. But, since a certain intensity of action is required to render the streams visible, it is obvious that in the experiment described the ball should not be taken too large.

In consequence of this two-fold tendency it is possible to produce by means of points effects identical to those produced by capacity. Thus, for instance, by attaching to one terminal of the coil a small length of soiled wire, presenting many points and offering great facility to escape, the potential of the coil may be raised to the same value as by attaching to the terminal a polished ball of a surface many times greater than that of the wire.

An interesting experiment, showing the effect of the points, may be performed in the following manner: Attach to one of the terminals of the coil a cotton-covered wire about 2 ft. in length, and adjust the conditions so that streams issue from the wire. In this experiment the primary coil should be preferably placed so that it extends only about half way into the secondary coil. Now touch the free terminal of the secondary with a conducting object held in the hand, or else connect it to an insulated body of some size. In this manner the potential on the wire may be enormously raised. The effect of this will be to either increase, or to diminish, the streams. If they increase, the wire is too short; if they diminish, it is too long. By adjusting the length of the wire, a point is found where the touching of the other terminal does not at all affect the streams. In this case the rise of potential is exactly counteracted by the drop through the coil. It will be observed that small lengths of wire produce considerable difference in the magnitude and luminosity of the streams. The primary coil is placed sidewise for two reasons: first, to increase the potential at the wire, and, second, to increase the drop through the coil. The sensitiveness is thus augmented.

There is still another and far more striking peculiarity of the brush discharge produced by very rapidly alternating currents. To observe this it is best to replace the usual terminals of the coil by two metal columns insulated with a good thickness of ebonite. It is also well to close all fissures and cracks with wax so that the brushes cannot form anywhere except at the tops of the columns. If the conditions are carefully adjusted--which, of course, must be left to the skill of the experimenter--so that the potential rises to an enormous value, one may produce two powerful brushes several inches long, nearly white at their roots, which in the dark bear a striking resemblance to two flames of a gas escaping under pressure, Fig. 15. But they do not only resemble, they are veritable flames, for they are hot. Certainly they are not as hot as a gas burner, but they would be so if the frequency and the potential would be sufficiently high. Produced with, say, 20,000 alternations per second, the heat is easily perceptible, even if the potential is not excessively high. The heat developed is, of course, due to the impact of the air molecules against the terminals and against each other. As at the ordinary pressures the mean free path is excessively small, it is possible that in spite of the enormous initial speed imparted to each molecule upon coming in contact with the terminal, its progress, by collision with other molecules, is retarded to such an extent that it does not get away far from the terminal, but may strike the same many times in succession. The higher the frequency, the less the molecule is able to get away, and this the more so, as for a given effect the potential required is smaller; and a frequency is conceivable, perhaps even obtainable, at which practically the same molecules would strike the terminal. Under such conditions the exchange of the molecules would be very slow, and the heat produced at, and very near, the terminal would be excessive. But if the frequency would go on increasing constantly, the heat produced would begin to diminish for obvious reasons. In the positive brush of a static machine the exchange of the molecules is very rapid, the stream is constantly of one direction, and there are fewer collisions, hence the heating effect must be very small. Anything that impairs the facility of exchange tends to increase the local heat produced. Thus, if a bulb be held over the terminal of the coil so as to enclose the brush, the air contained in the bulb is very quickly brought to a high temperature. If a glass tube be held over the brush so as to allow the draught to carry the brush upwards, scorching hot air escapes at the top of the tube. Anything held within the brush is of course rapidly heated, and the possibility of using such heating effects suggests itself.

When contemplating this singular phenomenon of the hot brush, we cannot help being convinced that a similar process must take place in the ordinary flame, and it seems strange that after all these centuries past of familiarity with the flame, now, in this era of electric lighting and heating, we are finally led to recognize that since time immemorial we have, after all, always had "electric light and heat" at our disposal. It is also of no little interest to contemplate that we have a possible way of producing--by other than chemical means--a veritable flame, which would give light and heat without any material being consumed, without any chemical process taking place, and to accomplish this, we only need to perfect methods of producing enormous frequencies and potentials. I have no doubt that if the potential could be made to alternate with sufficient rapidity and power, the brush formed at the end of a wire would lose its electrical characteristics and would become flame-like. The flame must be due to electrostatic molecular action.

This phenomenon now explains in a manner which can hardly be doubted the frequent accidents occurring in storms. It is well known that objects are often set on fire without the lightning striking them. We shall presently see how this can happen. On a nail in a roof, for instance, or on a projection of any kind, more or less conducting, or rendered so by dampness, a powerful brush may appear. If the lightning strikes somewhere in the neighbourhood, the enormous potential may be made to alternate or fluctuate perhaps many million times a second. The air molecules are violently attracted and repelled, and by their impact produce such a powerful heating effect that a fire is started. It is conceivable that a ship at sea may, in this manner, catch fire at many points at once. When we consider that even with the comparatively low frequencies obtained from a dynamo machine, and with potentials of no more than 100,000 or 200,000 volts, the heating effects are considerable, we may imagine how much more powerful they must be with frequencies and potentials many times greater, and the above explanation seems, to say the least, very probable. Similar explanations may have been suggested, but I am not aware that, up to the present, the heating effects of a brush produced by a rapidly alternating potential have been experimentally demonstrated, at least not to such a remarkable degree.


Anonymous said…
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