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what is electricity? part 4: history, hysteria and a shameful sense of stupidity

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to be explored next time

Canto: So we’re still trying to explore various ‘electricity for dummies’ sites to comprehend the basics, but they all seem to be riddled with assumptions of knowledge we just don’t have, so we’ll keep on trying, as we must.

Jacinta: Yes, we’re still on basic electrostatics, but perhaps we should move on, and see if things somehow fall into place. Individuals noted that you could accumulate this energy, called charge, I think, in materials which didn’t actually conduct this charge, because they were insulators, in which electrons were trapped and couldn’t flow (though they knew nothing about electrons, they presumably thought the ‘fluid’ was kind of stuck, but was polarised. I presume, though, that they didn’t use the term ‘polarised’ either.

Canto: So when did they stop thinking of electricity as a fluid?

Jacinta: Well, a French guy called du Fay postulated that there were two fluids which somehow interacted to cause ‘electricity’. I’m writing this, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. Anyway this was back in 1733, and Franklin was still working under this view when he did his experiments in the 1740s, but he proposed an improvement – that there was only one fluid, which could somehow exist in excess or in its opposite – insufficiency, I suppose. And he called one ‘state’ positive and the other negative.

Canto: Just looking at the Wikipedia article on the fluid theory, which reminds me that in the 17th and early 18th century the idea of ‘ether’, this explain-all fluid or ‘stuff’ that permeated the atmosphere somehow, was predominant among the cognoscenti – or not-so-cognoscenti as it turned out.

Jacinta: Yes, and to answer your question, there’s no date for when they stopped thinking about ether or electrical fluid, the combined work of the likes of Coulomb, Ørsted and Ampère, and the gradual melding of theories of magnetism and electricity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to its fading away.

Canto: So to summarise where we’re at now, Franklin played around with Leyden jars, arranging them in sets to increase the stored static charge, and he called this a battery but it was really a capacitor.

Jacinta: Yes, and he set up a system of eleven panes of glass covered on each side by thin lead plates, a kind of ‘electrostatic’ battery, which accumulates and quickly discharges electric – what?

Canto: Electrical static? Certainly it wasn’t capable of creating electrical flow, which is what a battery does.

Jacinta: Flow implies a fluid doesn’t it?

Canto: Oh shit. Anyway, there were a lot of people experimenting with and reflecting on this powerful effect, or stuff, which was known to kill people if they weren’t careful. And they were starting to connect it with magnetism. For example, Franz Aepinus, a German intellectual who worked in Russia under Catherine the Great, published a treatise in 1759 with translates as An Attempt at a Theory of Electricity and Magnetism, which not only combined these forces for the first time but was the first attempt to treat the phenomena in mathematical terms. Henry Cavendish apparently worked on very similar lines in England in the 1770s, but his work wasn’t discovered until Maxwell published it a century later.

Jacinta: Yes, but what were these connections, and what was the mathematics?

Canto: Fuck knows. Who d’you think I am, Einshtein? I suppose we’re working towards Maxwell’s breakthrough work on electromagnetism, but whether we manage to get our heads around the mathematics of it all, that’s a question.

Jacinta: To which I know the answer.

Canto: So let’s look at Galvani, Volta and Coulomb. Galvani’s work with twitching dead frogs pioneered the field of bioelectricity – singing the body electric.

Jacinta: Brainwaves and shit. Neurotransmitters – we were electrical long before we knew it. Interestingly, Galvani’s wife Lucia was heavily involved in his experimental and scientific work. She was the daughter of one of Galvani’s teachers and was clearly a bright spark, but of course wasn’t fully credited until much later, and wouldn’t have been formally educated in those Talibanish days. She died of asthma in her mid-forties. I wish I’d met her.

Canto: So what exactly did they do?

Jacinta: Well they discovered, essentially, that the energy in muscular activity was electrical. We now recognise it as ionic flow. Fluids again. They also recognised that this energy was carried by the nerves. It was Alessandro Volta, a friend and sometime rival of the Galvanis, who coined the term galvanism in their honour – or rather in Luigi’s honour. Nowadays they’re considered pioneers in electrophysiology, the study of the electrical properties of living cells and tissues.

Canto: So now to Volta. He began to wonder about Galvani’s findings, suspecting that the metals used in Galvani’s experiments played a much more significant role in the activity. The Galvanis’ work had created the idea that electricity was a ‘living’ thing, and this of course has some truth to it, as living things have harnessed this force in many ways throughout their evolution, but Volta was also on the right track with his skepticism.

Jacinta: Volta was for decades a professor of experimental physics – which sounds so modern – at the University of Pavia. But he was also an experimenter in chemistry – all this in his early days when he did all his practical work in physics and chemistry. He was the first person to isolate and describe methane. But here’s a paragraph from Wikipedia we need to dwell on.

Volta also studied what we now call electrical capacitance, developing separate means to study both electrical potential (V) and charge (Q), and discovering that for a given object, they are proportional. This is called Volta’s Law of Capacitance, and for this work the unit of electrical potential has been named the volt.

Canto: Oh dear. I think we may need to do the Brilliant course on everyday electricity, or whatever it’s called. But, to begin – everyday light bulbs are designated as being 30 amps, 60 amps and so forth, and our domestic circuits apparently run on 240 volts. That latter is the electric potential and the amps are a measure of electrical output? Am I anywhere close?

Jacinta: I can’t pretend to know about that, but I was watching a video on neuroanatomy this morning…

Canto: As you do

Jacinta: And the lecturer informed us that the brain runs on only 20 watts. She was trying to impress her class with how energy-efficient the human brain is, but all I got from it was yet another electrical measure I need to get my head around.

Canto: Don’t forget ohms.

Jacinta: So let’s try to get these basics clear. Light bulbs are measured in watts, not amps, sorry. The HowStuffWorks website tells us that electricity is measured in voltage, current and resistance. Their symbols are V, I and R. They’re measured in volts, amps and ohms. So far, so very little. They use a neat analogy, especially as I’ve just done brilliant.org’s section on the science of toilets. Think of voltage as water pressure, current as flow rate, and resistance as the pipe system through which the water (and effluent etc) flows. Now, Ohm’s Law gives us a mathematical relationship between these three – I = V/R. That’s to say, the current is the voltage divided by the resistance.

Canto: So comparing this to water and plumbing, a hose is attached to a tank of water, near the bottom. The more water in the tank, the more pressure, the more water comes out of the hose, but the rate of flow depends on the dimensions of the hose, which provides resistance. Change the diameter of the hose and the outlet connected to the hose and you increase or reduce the resistance, which will have an inverse effect on the flow.

Jacinta: Now, to watts. This is, apparently, a measure of electrical power (P). It’s calculated by multiplying the voltage and the current (P = VI). Think of this again in watery terms. If you increase the water pressure (the ‘voltage’) while maintaining the ‘resistance’ aspects, you’ll produce more power. Or if you maintain the same pressure but reduce the resistance, you’ll also produce more power.

Canto: Right, so now we’re adding a bit of maths. Exhilarating. So using Ohm’s Law we can do some calculations. I’ll try to remember that watts are a measure of the energy a device uses. So, using the equation I = P/V we can calculate the current required for a certain power of light bulb with a particular voltage – but using the analogy of voltage as water pressure doesn’t really help me here. I’m not getting it. So let me quote:

In an electrical system, increasing either the current or the voltage will result in higher power. Let’s say you have a system with a 6-volt light bulb hooked up to a 6-volt battery. The power output of the light bulb is 100 watts. Using the equation I = P/V, we can calculate how much current in amps would be required to get 100 watts out of this 6-volt bulb.

You know that P = 100 W, and V = 6 V. So, you can rearrange the equation to solve for I and substitute in the numbers.

I = 100 W/6 V = 16.67 amps

I’m having no trouble with these calculations, but I’ve been thrown by the idea of a 6-volt light bulb. I thought they were measured in watts.

Jacinta: Okay, so now we’re moving away from all the historical stuff, which is more of our comfort zone, into the hard stuff about electrickery. Watts and Volts. Next time.

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Francois-de-Cisternay-Du-Fay

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluid_theory_of_electricity

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leyden_jar

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Aepinus

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Cavendish

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Galvani

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucia_Galeazzi_Galvani

https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/question501.htm

https://byjus.com/physics/difference-between-watts-and-volts/

Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2021 at 8:33 pm