The Hertz receiver is the simplest thing in the world - nothing but a bit of wire or a pair of bits of wire adjusted so that when immersed in strong electric radiation they give minute sparks across a microscopic air gap.

The receiver I have here is adapted for the yard-long waves emitted from this small oscillator; but for the far longer waves emitted by a discharging Leyden jar an excellent receiver is a gilt wall paper or other interrupted metallic surface. The waves falling upon the metallic surface are reflected, and in the act of reflection excite electric currents, which cause sparks. Similarly, gigantic solar waves may produce aurorae; and minute waves from a candle do electrically disturb the retina.

The smaller waves are, however, far the most interesting and the most tractable to ordinary optical experiments. From a small oscillator, which may be a couple of small cylinders kept sparking into each other end to end by an induction coil, waves are emitted on which all manner of optical experiments can be performed.

They can be reflected by plain sheets of metal, concentrated by parabolic reflectors, refracted by prisms, concentrated by lenses. I have at the college a large lens of pitch, weighing over three hundredweight, for concentrating them to a focus. They can be made to show the phenomenon of interference, and thus have their wave length accurately measured. They are stopped by all conductors and transmitted by all insulators. Metals are opaque, but even imperfect insulators such as wood or stone are strikingly transparent, and waves may be received in one room from a source in another, the door between the two being shut.

The real nature of metallic opacity and of transparency has long been clear in Maxwell's theory of light, and these electrically produced waves only illustrate and bring home the well known facts. The experiments of Hertz are in fact the apotheosis of that theory.

Thus, then, in every way Maxwell's 1865 brilliant perception of the real nature of light is abundantly justified; and for the first time we have a true theory of light, no longer based upon analogy with sound, nor upon a hypothetical jelly or elastic solid.

Light is an electro-magnetic disturbance of the ether. Optics is a branch of electricity. Outstanding problems in optics are being rapidly solved now that we have the means of definitely exciting light with a full perception of what we are doing and of the precise mode of its vibration.

It remains to find out how to shorten down the waves - to hurry up the vibration until the light becomes visible. Nothing is wanted but quicker modes of vibrations. Smaller oscillators must be used - very much smaller - oscillators not much bigger than molecules. In all probability - one may almost say certainly - ordinary light is the result of electric oscillation in the molecules of hot bodies, or sometimes of bodies not hot - as in the phenomenon of phosphorescence.

The direct generation of visible light by electric means, so soon as we have learnt how to attain the necessary frequency of vibration, will have most important practical consequences.

Speaking in this university, it is happily quite unnecessary for me to bespeak interest in a subject by any reference to possible practical applications. But any practical application of what I have dealt with this evening is apparently so far distant as to be free from any sordid gloss of competition and company promotion, and is interesting in itself as a matter of pure science.

For consider our present methods of making artificial light; they are both wasteful and ineffective.

We want a certain range of oscillation, between 7,000 and 4,000 billion vibrations per second; no other is useful to us, because no other has any effect upon our retina; but we do not know how to produce vibrations of this rate. We can produce a definite vibration of one or two hundred or thousand per second; in other words, we can excite a pure tone of definite pitch; and we can demand any desired range of such tones continuously by means of bellows and a keyboard. We can also (though the fact is less well known) excite momentarily definite ethereal vibrations of some million per second, as I have explained at length; but we do not at present seem to know how to maintain this rate quite continuously. To get much faster rates of vibration than this we have to fall back upon atoms. We know how to make atoms vibrate; it is done by what we call "heating" the substance, and if we could deal with individual atoms unhampered by others, it is possible that we might get a pure and simple mode of vibration from them. It is possible, but unlikely; for atoms, even when isolated, have a multitude of modes of vibration special to themselves, of which only a few are of practical use to us, and we do not know how to excite some without also the others.

However, we do not at present even deal with individual atoms; we treat them crowded together in a compact mass, so that their modes of vibration are really infinite.

We take a lump of matter, say a carbon filament or a piece of quicklime, and by raising its temperature we impress upon its atoms higher and higher modes of vibration, not transmuting the lower into the higher, but superposing the higher upon the lower, until at length we get such rates of vibration as our retina is constructed for, and we are satisfied. But how wasteful and indirect and empirical is the process. We want a small range of rapid vibrations, and we know no better than to make the whole series leading up to them. It is as though, in order to sound some little shrill octave of pipes in an organ, we are obliged to depress every key and every pedal, and to blow a young hurricane.

I have purposely selected as examples the more perfect methods of obtaining artificial light, wherein the waste radiation is only useless and not noxious. But the old-fashioned plan was cruder even than this; it consisted simply in setting something burning; whereby not the fuel but the air was consumed, whereby also a most powerful radiation was produced, in the waste waves of which we were content to sit stewing, for the sake of the minute - almost infinitesimal - fraction of it which enabled us to see.

Every one knows now, however, that combustion is not a pleasant or healthy mode of obtaining light; but every one does not realize that neither is incandescence a satisfactory and unwasteful method which is likely to be practiced for more than a few decades, or perhaps a century.

Look at the furnaces and boilers of a great steam engine driving a group of dynamos, and estimate the energy expended; and then look at the incandescent filaments of the lamps excited by them, and estimate how much of their radiated energy is of real service to the eye. It will be as the energy of a pitch pipe to an entire orchestra.

It is not too much to say that a boy turning a handle could, if his energy were properly directed, produce quite as much real light as is produced by all this mass of mechanism and consumption of material. There might, perhaps, be something contrary to the laws of nature in thus hoping to get and utilize some specific kind of radiation without the rest, but Lord Rayleigh has shown in a short communication to the British Association at York that it is not so, and that, therefore, we have a right to try to do it.

We do not yet know how, it is true, but it is one of the things we have got to learn.

Any one looking at a common glow-worm must be struck with the fact that not by ordinary combustion, nor yet on the steam engine and dynamo principle, is that easy light produced. Very little waste radiation is there from phosphorescent things in general. Light of the kind able to affect the retina is directly emitted; and for this, for even a large supply of this, a modicum of energy suffices.

Solar radiation consists of waves of all sizes, it is true; but then solar radiation has innumerable things to do besides making things visible. The whole of its energy is useful. In artificial lighting nothing but light is desired; when heat is wanted it is best obtained separately by combustion. And so soon as we clearly recognize that light is an electric vibration, so soon shall we begin to beat about for some mode of exciting and maintaining an electrical vibration of any required degree of rapidity. When this has been accomplished the problem of artificial lighting will have been solved.


Being the general substance of a lecture to the Ashmolean Society in the University of Oxford, on Monday, June 3, 1889. [Reprinted from the Liverpool University College Magazine.]


Though, indeed, a century hence it may be premature to offer an opinion on such a point.