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.
[Footnote: A lecture by Dr. O. J. Lodge, delivered at the London Institution on December 16, 1880.]
Ever since the subject on which I have the honor to speak to you to-night was arranged, I have been astonished at my own audacity in proposing to deal in the course of sixty minutes with a subject so gigantic and so profound that a course of sixty lectures would be quite inadequate for its thorough and exhaustive treatment.
I must indeed confine myself carefully to some few of the typical and most salient points in the relation between electricity and light, and I must economize time by plunging at once into the middle of the matter without further preliminaries.
Now, when a person is setting off to discuss the relation between electricity and light, it is very natural and very proper to pull him up short with the two questions: What do you mean by electricity? and What do you mean by light? These two questions I intend to try briefly to answer. And here let me observe that in answering these fundamental questions, I do not necessarily assume a fundamental ignorance on your part of these two agents, but rather the contrary; and must beg you to remember that if I repeat well-known and simple experiments before you, it is for the purpose of directing attention to their real meaning and significance, not to their obvious and superficial characteristics; in the same way that I might repeat the exceedingly familiar experiment of dropping a stone to the earth if we were going to define what we meant by gravitation.
Now, then, we will ask first, What is electricity? and the simple answer must be, We don't know. Well, but this need not necessarily be depressing. If the same question were asked about matter, or about energy, we should have likewise to reply, No one knows.
But then the term Matter is a very general one, and so is the term Energy. They are heads, in fact, under which we classify more special phenomena.
Thus, if we were asked, What is sulphur? or what is selenium? we should at least be able to reply, A form of matter; and then proceed to describe its properties, i. e., how it affected our bodies and other bodies.
Again, to the question, What is heat? we can reply, A form of energy; and proceed to describe the peculiarities which distinguish it from other forms of energy.
But to the question. What is electricity? we have no answer pat like this. We can not assert that it is a form of matter, neither can we deny it; on the other hand, we certainly can not assert that it is a form of energy, and I should be disposed to deny it. It may be that electricity is an entity per se, just as matter is an entity per se.
Nevertheless, I can tell you what I mean by electricity by appealing to its known behavior.
Here is a battery, that is, an electricity pump; it will drive electricity along. Prof. Ayrtou is going, I am afraid, to tell you, on the 20th of January next, that it produces electricity; but if he does, I hope you will remember that that is exactly what neither it nor anything else can do. It is as impossible to generate electricity in the sense I am trying to give the word, as it is to produce matter. Of course I need hardly say that Prof. Ayrton knows this perfectly well; it is merely a question of words, i. e., of what you understand by the word electricity.
I want you, then, to regard this battery and all electrical machines and batteries as kinds of electricity pumps, which drive the electricity along through the wire very much as a water-pump can drive water along pipes. While this is going on the wire manifests a whole series of properties, which are called the properties of the current.
[Here were shown an ignited platinum wire, the electric arc between two carbons, an electric machine spark, an induction coil spark, and a vacuum tube glow. Also a large nail was magnetized by being wrapped in the current, and two helices were suspended and seen to direct and attract each other.]
To make a magnet, then, we only need a current of electricity flowing round and round in a whirl. A vortex or whirlpool of electricity is in fact a magnet; and vice versa. And these whirls have the power of directing and attracting other previously existing whirls according to certain laws, called the laws of magnetism. And, moreover, they have the power of exciting fresh whirls in neighboring conductors, and of repelling them according to the laws of diamagnetism. The theory of the actions is known, though the nature of the whirls, as of the simple stream of electricity, is at present unknown.
[Here was shown a large electro-magnet and an induction-coil vacuum discharge spinning round and round when placed in its field.]
So much for what happens when electricity is made to travel along conductors, i. e., when it travels along like a stream of water in a pipe, or spins round and round like a whirlpool.
But there is another set of phenomena, usually regarded as distinct and of another order, but which are not so distinct as they appear, which manifest themselves when you join the pump to a piece of glass, or any non-conductor, and try to force the electricity through that. You succeed in driving some through, but the flow is no longer like that of water in an open pipe; it is as if the pipe were completely obstructed by a number of elastic partitions or diaphragms. The water can not move without straining and bending these diaphragms, and if you allow it, these strained partitions will recover themselves, and drive the water back again. [Here was explained the process of charging a Leyden jar.] The essential thing to remember is that we may have electrical energy in two forms, the static and the kinetic; and it is, therefore, also possible to have the rapid alternation from one of these forms to the other, called vibration.
Now we will pass to the second question: What do you mean by light? And the first and obvious answer is, Everybody knows. And everybody that is not blind does know to a certain extent. We have a special sense organ for appreciating light, whereas we have none for electricity. Nevertheless, we must admit that we really know very little about the intimate nature of light--very little more than about electricity. But we do know this, that light is a form of energy, and, moreover, that it is energy rapidly alternating between the static and the kinetic forms--that it is, in fact, a special kind of energy of vibration. We are absolutely certain that light is a periodic disturbance in some medium, periodic both in space and time; that is to say, the same appearances regularly recur at certain equal intervals of distance at the same time, and also present themselves at equal intervals of time at the same place; that in fact it belongs to the class of motions called by mathematicians undulatory or wave motions. The wave motion in this model (Powell's wave apparatus) results from the simple up and down motion popularly associated with the term wave. But when a mathematician calls a thing a wave he means that the disturbance is represented by a certain general type of formula, not that it is an up-and-down motion, or that it looks at all like those things on the top of the sea. The motion of the surface of the sea falls within that formula, and hence is a special variety of wave motion, and the term wave has acquired in popular use this signification and nothing else. So that when one speaks ordinarily of a wave or undulatory motion, one immediately thinks of something heaving up and down, or even perhaps of something breaking on the shore. But when we assert that the form of energy called light is undulatory, we by no means intend to assert that anything whatever is moving up and down, or that the motion, if we could see it, would be anything at all like what we are accustomed to in the ocean. The kind of motion is unknown; we are not even sure that there is anything like motion in the ordinary sense of the word at all.