This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
Just now nothing save electricity is talked about in scientific circles. During the meeting of the British Association the greatest possible prominence was given to electrical questions and propositions The success of the electric light, the introduction of the Faure battery with a great flourish of trumpets, and the magnificent display of electrical instruments and machinery at Paris, have all operated to the same end. The daily press has taken the subject up, and journals which were nothing hitherto if not political, now indulge in magnificent rhapsodies concerning the future of electricity. Even eminent engineers, carried away by the intoxication of the moment, have not hesitated to say that the steam engine is doomed, and that its place will be taken by the electricity engine. In the midst of all this noise and clamor and blowing of personal trumpets, it is not easy to keep one's head clear, and mistakes may be made which will cause disappointment to many and retard the progress of electrical science. We confidently expect that electricity will prove a potent agent by and by in the hands of the speculator for extracting gold from the pockets of the public, and we write now to warn our readers in time, and to endeavor to clear the air of some of the mists with which it is obscured. There is, no doubt, a great future before electricity; but it is equally certain that electricity can never do many things which the half informed may be readily made to believe it will do. We propose here to say enough on this point to enlighten our readers, without troubling them with perplexing problems and speculations.
No one at this moment knows what electricity is; but for our present purpose we may regard it as a fluid, non-elastic, and without weight, and universally diffused through the universe. To judge by recently published statements, a large section of the reading public are taught that this fluid is a source of power, and that it may be made to do the work of coal. This is a delusion. So long as electricity remains in what we may call a normal state of repose, it is inert. Before we can get any work out of electricity a somewhat greater amount of work must be done upon it. If this fundamental and most important truth be kept in view it will not be easy to make a grave mistake in estimating the value of any of the numerous schemes for making electricity do work which will ere long be brought before the public. To render our meaning clearer, we may explain that in producing the electric light, for instance, a certain quantity of electricity passes in through one wire to the lamp, and precisely the same quantity passes out through the other wire, and on to the earth or return wire completing the circuit. Not only is the quantity the same, the velocity is also unchanged. But in going through the lamp the current has done something. It has overcome the resistance of the carbons, heated them to a dazzling white heat, and so performed work. In doing this the current of electricity has lost something. Led from the first lamp to a second, it is found powerless--if the first lamp be of sufficient size. What is it that the electricity has lost? It has parted with what electricians would term "potential," or the capacity for performing work. What this is precisely, or in what way the presence or absence of potential modifies the nature of the electric current, no one knows; but it is known that this potential can only be conferred on electricity by doing work on the electricity in the first instance. The analogy between electricity and a liquid like water will now be recognized. So long as the water is at rest, it is inert. If we pump it up to a height, we confer on it the equivalent of potential. We can let the water fall into the buckets of an overshot wheel. Its velocity leaving the tail race may be identical with that at which it left the supply trough to descend on the wheel. Its quantity will be the same. It will be in all respects unchanged, just as the current of electricity passing through a lamp is unchanged; but it has, nevertheless, lost something. It has parted with its potential--capacity for doing work--and it becomes once more inert. But the duty which it discharged in turning the mill wheel was somewhat less than the precise equivalent of the work done in pumping it up to a level with the top of the wheel. In the same way the electric current never can do work equal in amount to the work done on it in endowing it with potential.
It will thus be seen that electricity can only be used as a means of transmitting power from one place to another, or for storing power up at one time to be used at a subsequent period; but it cannot be used to originate power in the way coal can be used. It possesses no inherent potential. It is incapable of performing work unless something is done to it first. We have spoken of it as a fluid, but only for the sake of illustration. As we have said, no one knows what it is, but the theory which bids fair for acceptance is that it is a mode of motion of the all-pervading ether. Very curious and instructive experiments are now being carried out in Paris by Dr. Bjerkness, of Christiania, in the Norwegian section of the electrical exhibition. This gentleman submerges thin elastic diaphragms in water, and causes them to vibrate, or rather pulsate, by compressed air. He finds that if they pulsate synchronously they attract each other. If the pulsations are not simultaneous, the disks repel each other. From this and other results he has obtained, it may be argued that the ether plays the part of the water in Dr. Bjerkness' tank, and that when special forms of vibration are set up in bodies they become competent to attract or repel other bodies. This being so, it will be seen that the power of attraction or repulsion of an electrical body depends in the first instance on the motion set up in the body attracted or repulsed, and this motion is, of course, some function of the work originally done on the body. We need not pursue this argument further. Among the most scientific investigators of the day it is admitted that the efficiency of electricity as a doer of work, or a producer of action at a distance, must depend for its value on the performance of work in some one way or another on the electricity itself in the first instance. It may be worth while here to dispel a popular delusion. It is held very generally that electricity can be made, as, for instance, by the galvanic battery. There is no reason to believe anything of the kind; but whether it is or is not true that electricity is actually made by the combustion of zinc in a galvanic trough, it is quite certain that this electricity, unless it possesses potential, can do no work, no matter how great its quantity. Of course, it is to be understood that all electric currents possess potential. If they did not, their presence would be unknown; but the potential of a current is in all cases the result of work done on electricity, either by the oxidation of zinc, or in some other way. This is a broad principle, but it is strictly consistent in every respect with the truth. Electricity, then, is, as we have said, totally different from coal; and it can never become a substitute for it alone. Water power, air power, or what we may, for want of a better phrase, call chemical power, combined with electricity, can be used as a substitute for coal; but electricity cannot of itself be employed to do work. It is true, however, that electricity, on which work has already been done, may be found in nature. Atmospheric electricity, for example, may perhaps yet be utilized. It is by no means inconceivable that the electricity contained in a thunder cloud might be employed to charge a Faure battery; but up to the present no one has contemplated the obtaining of power from the clouds, and whether it is or is not practicable to utilize a great natural force in this way does not affect our statement. The use of electricity must be confined to its power of transmitting or storing up energy, and this truth being recognized, it becomes easy to estimate the future prospects of electricity at something like their proper value.