The Story of Great Inventions Part 4

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Having dissected a frog, he laid it on a table on which stood an electrical machine. When one of his a.s.sistants touched lightly the nerve of the thigh with the point of a knife while a spark was drawn from the electrical machine, the muscles contracted violently, as if they were attacked by a cramp. When he held the knife by the bone handle, there was no convulsion as there was when he held it by the steel blade.

He next thought it important to find out if lightning would excite contraction of the muscles. He stretched and insulated a long iron wire in the open air on the housetop and, as a storm drew near, hung on it a dissected frog. To the feet he fastened another long iron wire, which was allowed to dip in the water in the well. "The result," he said, "came about as we wished. As often as the lightning broke forth, the muscles were thrown into repeated violent convulsions, so that always, as the lightning lightened the sky, the muscle contractions and movements preceded the thunder and, as it were, announced its coming. It was best, however, when the lightning was strong, or the clouds from which it broke forth were near the place of the experiment."

He describes his greatest experiment as follows: "After we had investigated the power of atmospheric electricity in storms, our hearts burned with the desire to investigate the daily quiet electricity of the atmosphere. Therefore, as the prepared frogs, hung on an iron railing which surrounded a hanging garden on our house, with bra.s.s hooks inserted in the spinal cord, fell into convulsions not only when it lightened, but when the sky was calm and clear, I thought that the cause of these contractions was the changes in the electricity of the atmosphere. Then for hours, yes, even days, I observed the animals, but almost never a movement of the muscles could be seen. At last, tired with such fruitless waiting, I began to press the bra.s.s hooks, which were fastened in the spinal cord, against the iron railing to see if such a trick would cause the muscles to contract, and if instead of changes in the atmospheric electricity any other changes would have any influence. I observed, indeed, vigorous contractions, but none which could be caused by the condition of the atmosphere."

It was pressing the bra.s.s hook against the iron railing, thus forming an electric battery, that caused electricity to pa.s.s through the muscles of the frog. Galvani did not know that he had discovered a new source of electricity. He never arrived at a correct explanation of his results, and never knew the value of his discovery.

Volta and the Electric Battery

It was left for Alexander Volta to show that, in Galvani's experiment, the muscles of the frog, together with the bra.s.s hook and the iron railing, formed an electric battery. Volta showed that an electric charge can be produced merely by bringing two different metals into contact. He found that, if he placed copper and zinc in sulphuric acid, or a solution of common salt, he could, produce a continuous flow of electricity (Fig. 18).

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 18--VOLTA EXPLAINING HIS ELECTRIC BATTERY TO NAPOLEON BONAPARTE From a painting. Photo by Dubray.]

In the beginning of the year 1800 Volta made the first electric battery (Fig. 19). It was made of copper and zinc disks placed alternately, with a piece of wet cloth above each pair of disks. With his column of disks he could obtain a strong shock; indeed, many shocks, one after the other. This first battery of Volta's was a form of "dry battery." Later Volta devised his "crown of cups," a form of wet battery similar to some batteries in use to-day. Each cup contained a strip of copper and a strip of zinc in dilute sulphuric acid.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 19--THE FIRST ELECTRIC BATTERY No. 1--A battery of one hundred pairs of copper and zinc disks.

No. 2--Two such batteries connected.

By permission of the Italian Inst.i.tute of Graphic Arts, Bergamo.]

Volta did not know the real use of the liquid in his battery, nor that the strength of the current depends on the rate at which the metal is dissolved by the acid; but he had discovered the electric current, and with this discovery began a new era in electrical invention.

Chapter IV


Michael Faraday, a London newsboy, the son of a blacksmith, became the inventor of the dynamo, and prepared the way for the wonderful electrical inventions of the nineteenth century. He began his career as a book-binder's apprentice, employing his spare moments in reading the books he was binding. One of these books led him to make some simple experiments in chemistry. He also made an electrical machine, first with a gla.s.s bottle, and afterward with a gla.s.s cylinder.

While an apprentice he wrote to his young friend, Benjamin Abbott: "I have lately made a few simple galvanic experiments, merely to ill.u.s.trate to myself the first principles of the science. I was going to Knight's to obtain some nickel, and bethought me that they had malleable zinc. I inquired, and bought some--have you seen any yet? The first portion I obtained was in the thinnest pieces possible. It was, they informed me, thin enough for the electric stick. I obtained it for the purpose of forming disks with which and copper to make a little battery. The first I completed contained the immense number of seven pairs of plates!!! and of the immense size of halfpence each!!!!!! I, sir, I my own self, cut out seven disks of the size of half pennies each! I, sir, covered them with seven halfpence, and I interposed between them seven, or rather six, pieces of paper soaked in a solution of muriate of soda (common salt). But laugh no longer, dear A., rather wonder at the effects this trivial power produced."

This tiny battery made of half pennies with zinc disks and salt solution would decompose a certain solution which Faraday tested. A larger battery made of copper and zinc disks with salt solution would decompose water from the cistern. When the wires from the larger battery were put in the cistern-water he saw a dense white cloud descending from the positive wire, and bubbles rising from the negative wire. This action continued until all the white substance was taken out of the water.

Because of his interest in science, young Faraday attracted the attention of a Mr. Dance, a member of the Royal Inst.i.tution and a customer of his master, Mr. Riebau. Through the kindness of Mr. Dance he heard four lectures by Sir Humphry Davy. He took notes on the lectures, wrote them out carefully, and added drawings of the apparatus. These notes he sent to Davy with a letter expressing the wish that he might secure employment at the Royal Inst.i.tution. In a short time, after a warning from Sir Humphry that he had better stick to his business of book-binding, that "Science is a harsh mistress," his wish was granted, and we find him cleaning and caring for apparatus in the Royal Inst.i.tution and a.s.sisting Davy in preparing for his lectures.

Count Rumford

Our story now takes us back to the time of the American Revolution. In America, we find a young man of nineteen, Benjamin Thompson by name, serving as major in the Second Regiment of New Hamps.h.i.+re. The appointment of so young a man as major, and his evident hold on the governor's favor, aroused the jealousy of the older officers. He was accused of being unfriendly to the cause of liberty. He denied the charge, and was acquitted by the committee of the people of Concord. A mob gathered round his house, but he escaped. Driven from his refuge in his mother's home, he fled to England, leaving his wife and child.

Appointed lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, he returned to America and fought against his former friends.

The war having ended, he returned to England, thence to the Continent, intending to take part in an expected war between Austria and Turkey. A chance meeting with a Bavarian prince, Maximilian, changed the course of his life. This prince, while commanding on parade, saw Thompson among the spectators mounted on a fine English horse, and addressed him.

Thompson informed him that he came from serving in the American war. The prince, pointing to a number of his officers, said: "These gentlemen were in the same war, but against you. They belonged to the Royal Regiment of Deux Ponts, that acted in America under the orders of Count Rochambeau." Thompson dined with the prince and French officers. They conversed of war and the battles in which they met. The prince, attracted to the colonel, induced him to pa.s.s through Munich, and gave him a letter to his uncle, the Elector of Bavaria.

It was in Bavaria, the country to which such unexpected turns of fortune led him, that his greatest work was done. He entered the service of the Duke of Bavaria as aide-de-camp. It was his aim while in the service of the Bavarian Government to better the condition of the people. He introduced reforms in the army, used the soldiers to rid the country of beggars and robbers, and took steps to provide for the infirm and find employment for the strong, his motto being that people can best be made virtuous when first made happy.

A Military Workhouse was opened for the beggars, and a House of Industry for the poor. A Military Academy was formed with a view to the free education of young people of talent for the public service. He became absorbed in the one aim of helping the poor. So thorough was his devotion to the people, and so deeply did he win their affection, that when he was dangerously ill a mult.i.tude of hundreds went in procession to the church to make public prayers for his recovery.

He saw that the poor may be helped by teaching them to save, and in nothing is there greater need of saving than in fuel and heat. In the kitchens of the Military Academy and the House of Industry he carried out a series of experiments on the economy of fuel, and succeeded in greatly reducing the amount of fuel needed for cooking the food. He did this by using a "closed fireplace," the forerunner of the stove. The closed fireplace was in reality a brick stove, and was a great improvement over the open chimney fireplaces then in common use. He made the covers of the cooking utensils double, to save the heat, for he had found that heat cannot escape through confined air.

Benjamin Thompson was knighted by George III., and in 1791 he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and is known to the world of science as Count Rumford.

Count Rumford's Experiment with the Cannon

While in the service of the Duke of Bavaria, it became his duty to organize the field artillery. To provide cannon for this purpose, he erected a foundry and machine-shops. Being alert for any unusual fact relating to heat, he observed the very high temperature produced by the boring of the cannon. He was eager to learn how so much heat could be produced. For this purpose he took a cannon in the rough, as it came from the foundry, fixed it in the machine used for boring, and caused the cannon to be turned by horses while a blunt borer was forced against the end of the cannon. He first tested the temperature of the metal itself as it turned. Then he surrounded the end of the cannon with water in an oblong box fitted water-tight (Fig. 20).

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 20--COUNT RUMFORD'S EXPERIMENT WITH THE CANNON, MAKING WATER BOIL WITHOUT FIRE The horses make the water boil by walking around the track; the work the horses do is changed into heat by the friction of the drill.]

The cannon had been turning but a short time when he found by putting his hand in the water that heat had been produced. In two hours and thirty minutes the water actually boiled. Astonishment was expressed in the faces of the bystanders on seeing so large a quant.i.ty of water heated and actually made to boil without any fire.

"Heat," Count Rumford said; "may thus be produced merely by the strength of a horse, and, in case of necessity, this heat might be used in cooking victuals. But no circ.u.mstance can be imagined in which there is any advantage in this method of procuring heat, for more heat might be obtained by burning the fodder which the horse would eat." The meaning of this last remark was not understood until the time of Robert Mayer, about fifty years later. Rumford had found that the work of a horse can produce heat, and heat, in a steam-engine, can do the work of a horse.

Thus surely, though slowly, men were learning of the forces that move the world and do man's bidding.

Count Rumford, true to his adopted land, returned to London and became the founder of the Royal Inst.i.tution in which Faraday and his successors have achieved such marvellous results. He believed that the poor can be helped in no better way than by giving them knowledge, so that they can better their own condition. For this purpose he founded the Royal Inst.i.tution. Here he intended that men skilled in discovery should gain new knowledge that would add to the comfort and happiness of the people.


In the English coal-fields many accidents due to the burning of fire-damp had occurred. Fire-damp is caused by gas issuing from the coal. On the approach of a flame this gas catches fire, and as it burns it produces a violent wind, driving the flame before it through the mine. Miners were scorched to death, suffocated, or buried under ruins from the roof. Hundreds of miners had been killed. No means of lighting the mines in safety had been devised. Sir Humphry Davy, Professor of Chemistry in the Royal Inst.i.tution, was appealed to. After many experiments he devised a "safe lamp," which was a common miner's lamp enclosed in a wire gauze. This proved a perfect protection from fire-damp, and the Davy safety lamp has been used by miners the world over for more than a century.

But Davy's best work was with the electric battery. Some of the facts most familiar to us were discovered by him. Volta had contended that the contact of the metals in a battery produces a current, that the liquid merely carries the electricity from one metal plate to the other. But Davy proved that there can be no current without chemical action.

Whenever we put two metals in an acid or other solution that will dissolve one metal faster than the other, and connect the metals with a wire, an electric current is produced. If we use water with silver and gold, there is no current, because water will not dissolve either the silver or the gold.

Davy discovered the metal, pota.s.sium, by means of his electric battery.

Pota.s.sium is found in common potash and saltpetre, and, when separated, is a very soft metal. The newly discovered metal aroused great interest in other countries. When Napoleon heard of it, he inquired impetuously how it happened the discovery had not been made in France. On being told that in France there had not been made an electric battery of sufficient power, he exclaimed: "Then let one be instantly made without regard to cost or labor." His command was obeyed, and he was called to witness the action of the new battery. Before any one could interfere he placed the ends of the wires under his tongue and received a shock that nearly deprived him of sensation. On recovering he left the laboratory without a word, and was never afterward heard to refer to the subject.

Davy made many great discoveries, but the greatest was his discovery of Faraday.

A journey on the Continent with Davy was an event in the life of Faraday, who up to that time had never to his own recollection travelled twelve miles from London. On this journey he met Volta, whom he describes as "an hale elderly man, very free in conversation." He visited the Academy del Cimento, in Florence, and wrote: "Here was much to excite interest; in one place was Galileo's first telescope, that with which he discovered Jupiter's satellites. It was a simple tube of wood and paper, about three and a half feet long, with a lens at each end. There was also the first lens which Galileo made. It was set in a very pretty frame of bra.s.s, with an inscription in Latin on it."

Faraday crossed the Alps and the Apennines, climbed Vesuvius, visited Rome, and _saw a glow-worm_. The last he thought as wonderful as the first.

Shortly after his return to London he fell in love. Now, Faraday had determined that he would not be conquered by the master pa.s.sion. In fact, he had written various aspersions on love, of which the following is a sample:

"What is the pest and plague of human life?

And what the curse that often brings a wife?

'Tis Love.

What is't directs the madman's hot intent, For which a dunce is fully competent?

What's that the wise man always strives to shun, Though still it ever o'er the world has run.

'Tis Love."

But he reckoned not with his own heart. It is not long until we find him writing to Miss Sarah Barnard, a bright girl of twenty-one: "You have converted me from one erroneous way, let me hope you will attempt to correct what others are wrong.... Again and again I attempt to say what I feel, but I cannot. Let me, however, claim not to be the selfish being that wishes to bend your affections for his own sake only. In whatever way I can minister to your happiness, either by close attention or by absence, it shall be done. Do not injure me by withdrawing your friends.h.i.+p or punish me for aiming to be more than a friend by making me less."

They were married and lived in rooms at the Royal Inst.i.tution. No poet ever loved more tenderly than Faraday. Truly, science does not dry up the heart's blood. At the age of seventy-one he wrote to his wife while absent from home for a few days: "Remember me; I think as much of you as is good for either you or me. We cannot well do without each other. But we love with a strong hope of love continuing ever."

The Story of Great Inventions Part 4

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