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Electricity in the nineteenth century.

Elihu Thomson

(q. v.), the celebrated inventor and electrician, writes as follows:

The latter half of the nineteenth century must ever remain memorable, not only for the great advances in nearly all the useful arts, but for the peculiarly rapid electric progress, and the profound effect which it has had upon the lives and business of the people. In the preceding century we find no evidences of the [206] application of electricity to any useful purpose. Few of the more important principles of the science were then known. Franklin's invention of the lightning-rod was not intended to utilize electric force, but to guard life and property from the perils of the thunder-storm. Franklin's kite experiment confirmed the long-suspected identity of lightning and electric sparks. It was not, however, until the discovery by Alexander Volta, in 1799, of his pile, or battery, that electricity could take its place as an agent of practical value. Volta, when he made this great discovery, was following the work of Galvani, begun in 1786. But Galvani in his experiments mistook the effect for the cause, and so missed making the unique demonstration that two different metals immersed in a solution could set up an electric current. Volta brought to the notice of the world the first means for obtaining a steady flow of electricity.

The simplest facts of electro-magnetism, upon which much of the later electrical developments depend, remained entirely unknown until the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Davy first showed the electric arc or “arch” on a small scale between pieces of carbon. He also laid the foundation for future electrochemical work by decomposing by the battery current potash and soda, and thus isolating the alkali metals, potassium and sodium, for the first time. A fund was soon subscribed by “a few zealous cultivators and patrons of science,” interested in the discovery of Davy, and he had at his service no less than 2,000 cells of voltaic battery. With the intense currents obtained from it he again demonstrated the wonderful and brilliant phenomenon of the electric arc, by first closing the circuit of the battery through terminals of hardwood charcoal and then separating them for a short distance. A magnificent arch of flame was maintained between the separated ends, and the light from the charcoal pieces was of dazzling splendor. Thus was born into the world the electric are light, of which there are now many hundreds of thousands burning nightly in our own country alone.

As early as 1774 attempts were made by Le Sage, of Geneva, to apply frictional electricity to telegraphy. It was easy enough to stop and start a current in a line of wire connecting two points, but something more than that was requisite. A good receiver, or means for recognizing the presence or absence of current in the wire or circuit, did not exist. The art had to wait for the discovery of the effects of electric current upon magnets and the production of magnetism by such currents. Curiously, even in 1802 the fact that a wire conveying a current would deflect a compass needle was observed by Romagnosi, of Trente, but it was afterwards forgotten, and not until 1819 was any real advance made.

It was then that Oersted, of Copenhagen, showed that a magnet tends to set itself at right angles to the wire conveying current and that the direction of turning depends on the direction of the current. The study of the magnetic effects of electric currents by Arago, Ampere, and the production of the electro-magnet by Sturgeon, together with the very valuable work of Henry and others, made possible the completion of the electric telegraph. This was done by Morse and Vail in America, and almost simultaneously by workers abroad, but, before Morse had entered the field, Prof. Joseph Henry had exemplified by experiments the working of electric signalling by electromagnets over a short line. It was Henry, in fact, who first made a practically useful electro-magnet of soft iron. The history of the electric telegraph teaches us that to no single individual is the invention due. The Morse system had been demonstrated in 1837, but not until 1844 was the first telegraph line built. It connected Baltimore and Washington, and the funds for defraying its cost were only obtained from Congress after a severe struggle. The success of the Morse telegraph was soon followed by the establishment of telegraph lines as a means of communication between all the large cities and populous districts. Scarcely ten years elapsed before the possibility of a transatlantic telegraph was mooted. The cable laid in 1858 was a failure. A few words passed, and then the cable broke down completely. A renewed effort to lay a cable was made in 1866, but disappointment again followed: the cable broke in mid-ocean. The great task was [207] successfully accomplished in the following year. Even the lost cable of 1866 was found spliced to a new cable, and completed soon after as a second working line. The delicate instruments for the working of these long cables were due to the genius of Sir William Thomson, now Lord Kelvin. The number of cables joining the Eastern and Western hemispheres has been increased from time to time, and the opening of a new cable is now an ordinary occurrence, calling for little or no especial note.

The introduction of the electric telegraph was followed by the invention of various signalling systems, the most important being the fire-alarm telegraph, automatic clock systems, automatic electric fire signals, burglar alarms, telegraphs which print words and characters, as in the stock “ticker,” the telautograph, in which writing is reproduced at the receiving end of the line, the duplex, quadruplex, and multiplex systems of telegraphy, automatic transmitting machines and rapid recorders, etc.

The first example of a working type of an arc lamp was that of W. E. Staite, in 1847, and his description of the lamp and the conditions under which it could be worked is a remarkably exact and full statement, considering the time of its appearance. But it was a long time before the electric arc acquired any importance as a practical illuminant; the expense was too great, and the batteries soon became exhausted. Michael Faraday, a most worthy successor of Davy, made the exceedingly important observation that a wire, if moved in the field of a magnet, would yield a current of electricity. Simple as the discovery was, its effect has been stupendous. The fundamental principle of the future dynamo electric machine was discovered by him. This was in 1831. Both the electric motor and the dynamo generator were now potentially present with us. Here, then, was the embryo dynamo. The century closed with single dynamo machines of over 5,000 horse-power capacity, and with single power stations in which the total electric generation by such machines is 75,000 to 100,000 horse-power. So perfect is the modern dynamo that out of 1,000 horsepower expended in driving it, 950 or more may be delivered to the electric line as electric energy. The electric motor, now so common, is a machine like the dynamo, in which the principle of action is simply reversed; electric energy delivered from the lines becomes again mechanical motion or power.

The decade between 1860 and 1870 opened a new era in the construction and working of dynamo machines and motors. Gramme, in 1870, first succeeded in producing a highly efficient, compact, and durable continuous-current dynamo. It was in a sense the culmination of many years of development, beginning with the early attempts immediately following Faraday's discovery, already referred to. In 1872 Von Hefner Alteneck, in Berlin, modified the ring winding of Gramme and produced the “drum winding,” which avoided the necessity for threading wire through the centre of the iron ring as in the Gramme construction.

At the Centennial Exhibition, held at Philadelphia in 1876, but two exhibits of electric-lighting apparatus were to be found. Of these one was the Gramme and the other the Wallace-Farmer exhibit. The Wallace exhibit contained other examples reflecting great credit on this American pioneer in dynamo work. Some of these machines were very similar in construction to later forms which went into very extensive use. The large search-lights occasionally used in night illumination during the exhibitions were operated by the current from Wallace-Farmer machines.

The Centennial Exhibition also marks the beginning—the very birth, it may be said—of an electric invention destined to become, before the close of the century, a most potent factor in human affairs. The speaking telephone of Alexander Graham Bell was there exhibited for the first time to the savants, among whom was the distinguished electrician and scientist Sir William Thomson. For the first time in the history of the world a structure of copper wire and iron spoke to a listening ear. The instruments were, moreover, the acme of simplicity. Within a year many a boy had constructed a pair of telephones at an expenditure for material of only a few pennies. The transmitter was only suited for use on short lines, and was soon afterwards replaced by various forms of [208] carbon microphone transmitters, to the production of which many inventors had turned their attention, notably Edison, Hughes, Blake, and Hunnings.

Few of those who talk between Boston and Chicago know that in doing so they have for the exclusive use of their voices a total of over 1,000,000 lbs. of copper wire in the single line. There probably now exist in the United States alone between 75,000 and 100,000 miles of harddrawn copper wire for long-distance telephone service, and over 150,000 miles of wire in underground conduits. There are upward of 750,000 telephones in the United States, and, including both overhead and underground lines, a total of more than 500,000 miles of wire.

The display of electric light during the Paris Exposition of 1878 was the first memorable use of the electric light on a large scale. The source of light was the “electric candle” of Paul Jablochkoff, a Russian engineer. It was a strikingly original and simple arc lamp. Instead of placing the two carbons point to point, as had been done in nearly all previous lamps, he placed them side by side, with a strip of baked kaolin between them. Owing to unforeseen difficulties it was gradually abandoned, after having served a great purpose in directing the attention of the world to the possibilities of the electric arc in lighting.

Inventors in America were not idle. By the close of 1878, Brush, of Cleveland, had brought out his series system of arc lights, including special dynamos, lamps, etc., and by the middle of 1879 had in operation machines each capable of maintaining sixteen arc lamps on one wire. Weston, of Newark, had also in operation circuits of arc lamps, and the Thomson-Houston system had just started in commercial work with eight arc lamps in series from a single dynamo. Maxim and Fuller, in New York, were working arc lamps from their machines.

Almost simultaneously with the beginning of the commercial work of arc lighting, Edison, in a successful effort to provide a small electric lamp for general distribution in place of gas, brought to public notice his carbon filament incandescent lamp. Edison worked for nearly two years on a lamp based upon the old idea of incandescent platinum strips or wires, but without success. The announcement of his lamp caused a heavy drop in gas shares, long before the problem was really solved by a masterly stroke in his carbon filament lamp. Curiously, the nearest approach to the carbon filament lamp had been made in 1845, by Starr, an American, who described in a British patent specification a lamp in which electric current passed through a thin strip of carbon kept it heated while surrounded by a glass bulb in which a vacuum was maintained. Starr had exhibited his lamps to Faraday, in England, and was preparing to construct dynamos to furnish electric current for them in place of batteries, but sudden death put an end to his labors.

The Edison lamp differed from those which preceded it in the extremely small section of the carbon strip rendered hot by the current, and in the perfection of the vacuum in which it was mounted. Edison first exhibited his lamp in his laboratory at Menlo Park, in December, 1879; but before it could be properly utilized an enormous amount of work had to be done. His task was not merely the improvement of an art already existing; it was the creation of a new art. The details of all parts of the system were made more perfect, and in the hands of Edison and others the incandescent lamps, originally of high cost, were much cheapened and the quality of the production was greatly improved.

In spite of the fact that it was well known that a good dynamo when reversed could be made a source of power, few electric motors were in use until a considerable time after the establishment of the first lighting stations. Even in 1884, at the Philadelphia Electrical Exhibition, only a few electric motors were shown.

Twenty years ago an electric motor was a curiosity; fifty years ago crude examples run by batteries were only to be occasionally found in cabinets of scientific apparatus. Machinery Hall, at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, typified the mill of the past, never again to be reproduced, with its huge engine and lines of heavy shafting and belts conveying power. The wilderness of belts and pulleys is gradually being cleared away, and electric distribution of power substituted. [209] Moreover, the lighting of the modern mill or factory is done from the same electric plant which distributes power.

The electric motor has already partly revolutionized the distribution of power for stationary machinery, but as applied to railways in place of animal power the revolution is complete. The period which has elapsed since the first introduction of electric railways is barely a dozen years. It is true that a few tentative experiments in electric traction were made some time in advance of 1888, notably by Siemens, in Berlin, in 1879 and 1880, by Stephen D. Field, by T. A. Edison, at Menlo Park, by J. C. Henry, by Charles A. Van Depoele, and others. Farmer, in 1847, tried to propel railway cars by electric motors driven by currents from batteries carried on the cars. These efforts were, of course, doomed to failure, for economical reasons. The plan survives, however, in the electric automobile, best adapted to cities, where facilities for charging and caring for the batteries can be had.

The modern overhead trolley, or underrunning trolley, as it is called, seems to have been first invented by Van Depoele, and used by him in practical electric railway work about 1886 and thereafter. The year 1888 may be said to mark the beginning of this work, and in that year Frank J. Sprague put into operation the electric line at Richmond, Va., using the under-running trolley. The Richmond line was the first large undertaking. It had about 13 miles of track, numerous curves, and grades of from 3 to 10 per cent. The Richmond installation, kept in operation as it was in spite of all difficulties, convinced Mr. Henry M. Whitney and the directors of the West End Street Railway, of Boston, of the feasibility of equipping the entire railway system of Boston electrically.

The West End Company, with 200 miles of track in and around Boston, began to equip its lines in 1888 with the Thomson-Houston plant. The success of this great undertaking left no doubt of the future of electric traction. The difficulties which had seriously threatened future success were gradually removed.

The electric railway progress was so great in the United States that about Jan. 1, 1891, there were more than 240 lines in operation. About 30,000 horses and mules were replaced by electric power in the single year of 1891. In 1892 the Thomson-Houston interests and those of the Edison General Electric Company were merged in the General Electric Company, an event of unusual importance, as it brought together the two great competitors in electric traction at that date. Other electric manufacturers, chief among which was the Westinghouse Company, also entered the field and became prominent factors in railway extension. In a few years horse traction in the United States on tramway lines virtually disappeared. While the United States and Canada have been and still are the theatre of the enormous advance in electric traction, as in other electric work, many electric car lines have in recent years been established in Great Britain and on the continent of Europe. Countries like Japan, Australia, South Africa, and South America have also in operation many electric trolley lines, and the work is rapidly extending. Most of this work, even in Europe, has been carried out either by importation of equipment from America, or by apparatus manufactured there, but following American practice closely.

In Chicago the application of motorcars in trains upon the elevated railway followed directly upon the practical demonstration at the World's Fair of the capabilities of third-rail electric traction on the Intramural Elevated Railway, and the system is rapidly extending so as to include all elevated city roads. A few years will doubtless see the great change accomplished.

The motor-car, or car propelled by its own motors, has also been introduced upon standard steam roads to a limited extent as a supplement to steam traction. The earliest of these installations are the one at Nantasket, Mass., and that between Hartford and New Britain, in Connecticut. A number of special high-speed lines, using similar plans, have gone into operation in recent years.

The three largest and most powerful electric locomotives ever put into service are those which are employed to take trains through the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad tunnel at Baltimore. They have been in service about seven or eight years, [210] and are fully equal in power to the large steam locomotives used on steam roads. There was opened, in London, in 1900, the Central Underground, equipped with twenty-six electric locomotives for drawing its trains. The electric and power equipment was manufactured in America to suit the needs of the road.

The alternating current transformer not only greatly extended the radius of supply from a single station, but also enabled the station to be conveniently located where water and coal could be had without difficulty. It also permitted the distant water-powers to become sources of electric energy for lighting, power, or for other service. For example, a water-power located at a distance of 50 to 100 miles or more from a city, or from a large manufacturing centre where cost of fuel is high, may be utilized.

A gigantic power-station has lately been established at Niagara. Ten water-wheels, located in an immense wheel-pit about 200 feet deep, each wheel of a capacity of 5,000 horse-power, drive large vertical shafts, at the upper end of which are located the large two-phase dynamos, each of 5,000 horse-power. The electric energy from these machines is in part raised in pressure by huge transformers for transmission to distant points, such as the city of Buffalo, and a large portion is delivered to the numerous manufacturing plants located at moderate distances from the power-station. Besides the supply of energy for lighting, and for motors, including railways, other recent uses of electricity to which we have not yet alluded are splendidly exemplified at Niagara. The arts of electro-plating of metals, such as electro-gilding, silverplating, nickel-plating, and copper deposition as in electrotyping, are now practised on a very large scale. Moreover, since the introduction of dynamo current, electrolysis has come to be employed in huge plants, not only for separating metals from each other, as in refining them, but in addition for separating them from their ores, for the manufacture of chemical compounds before unknown, and for the cheap production of numerous substances of use in the various arts on a large scale. Vast quantities of copper are refined, and silver and gold often obtained from residues in sufficient amount to pay well for the process.

At Niagara also are works for the production of the metal aluminum from its ores. This metal, which competes in price with brass, bulk for bulk, was only obtainable before its electric reduction at $25 to $30 per pound. The metal sodium is also extracted from soda. A large plant at Niagara also uses the electric current for the manufacture of chlorine for bleach, and caustic soda, both from common salt. Chlorine of potassium is also made at Niagara by electrolysis. The field of electro-chemisty is, indeed, full of great future possibilities. Large furnaces heated by electricity, a single one of which will consume more than 1,000 horse-power, exist at Niagara. In these furnaces is manufactured from coke and sand, by the Acheson process, an abrasive material called carborundum, which is almost as hard as diamond, but quite low in cost. It is made into slabs and into wheels for grinding hard substances. The electric furnace furnishes also the means for producing artificial plumbago, or graphite, almost perfectly pure, the raw material being coke powder.

A large amount of power from Niagara is also consumed for the production in special electric arc furnaces of carbide of calcium from coke and lime. This is the source of acetylene gas, the new illuminant, which is generated when water is brought into contact with the carbide.

While it is not likely that electricity will soon be used for general heating, special instances, such as the warming of electric cars in winter by electric heaters, the operation of cooking appliances by electric current, the heating of sad-irons and the like, give evidence of the possibilities should there ever be found means for the generation of electric energy from fuel with such high efficiency as 80 per cent. or more. Present methods give, under most favorable conditions, barely 10 per cent., 90 per cent. of the energy value of the fuel being unavoidably wasted.

The electric current is used for welding together the joints of steel car-rails, for welding teeth in saws, for making many parts of bicycles, and in tool making. An instance of its peculiar adaptability to [211] unusual conditions is the welding of the iron bands embedded within the body of a rubber vehicle tire for holding the tire in place. For this purpose the electric weld has been found almost essential.

Another branch of electric development concerns the storage of electricity. The storage battery is based upon principles discovered by Gaston Plante, and applied, since 1881, by Brush, by Faure, and others. Some of the larger lighting stations employ as reservoirs of electric energy large batteries charged by surplus dynamo current. This is afterwards drawn upon when the consumer's load is heavy, as during the evening. The storage battery is, however, a heavy, cumbrous apparatus, of limited life, easily destroyed unless guarded with skill. If a form not possessing these faults be ever found, the field of possible application is almost limitless.

The wonderful X-rays, and the rich scientific harvest which has followed the discovery by Rontgen of invisible radiation from a vacuum tube, was preceded by much investigation of the effects of electric discharges in vacuum tubes, and Hittorf, followed by Crookes, has given special study to these effects in very high or nearly perfect vacua. It was as late as 1896 that Rontgen announced his discovery. Since that time several other sources of invisible radiation have been discovered, more or less similar in effect to the radiations from a vacuum tube, but emitted, singular as the fact is, from rare substances extracted from certain minerals. Leaving out of consideration the great value of the X-ray to physicians and surgeons, its effect in stimulating scientific inquiry has almost been incalculable. It is, as unlikely that the mystery of the material universe will ever be completely solved as it is that we can gain an adequate conception of infinite space or time. But we can at least extend the range of our mental vision of the processes of nature as we do our real vision into space depths by the telescope and spectroscope.

The nineteenth century closed with many important problems in electrical science unsolved. What great or farreaching discoveries are yet in store, who can tell? What valuable practical developments are to come, who can predict? The electrical progress has been great— very great—but after all only a part of that grander advance in so many other fields. Man still spends his best effort, and has always done so, in the construction and equipment of his engines of destruction, and now exhausts the mines of the world of valuable metals, for ships of war, whose ultimate goal is the bottom of the sea. Perhaps all this is necessary now, and, if so, well. But if a fraction of the vast expenditure entailed were turned to the encouragement of advance in the arts and employments of peace, can it be doubted that, at the close of the twentieth century, the nineteenth century might come to be regarded, in spite of its achievements, as a rather wasteful, semibarbarous transition period?

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