# an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

## What is electricity? part 1 – static electricity, mostly

Canto: So it seems we’ve been here before but we’re back at the beginning again, because we’re still largely ignorant. And sadly, even if we finally get a handle on this complex phenomenon, we’ll be likely to forget it again through disuse, and then we’ll die.

Jacinta: So let me begin as naively as possible. Electricity is this energy source, or comes from this energy source, which travels through a wire by some kind of force that excites the electrons in the wire, which then oscillate and create an energy transfer along the wire, to a connector to a light bulb or a toaster, and when a switch connects the wire to the toaster it heats up your bread. But electricity doesn’t have to travel though a wire because I think lightning is electricity, but it needs a conducting material, which in the case of lightning is probably water vapour. I’ve heard somewhere that water is quite a good conductor of electricity.

Canto: Well, all that may or may not be true but what is voltage, what is current and why are certain materials conductors, and superconductors, electrically speaking, and what is an electric field? And I’ve heard that electrons really do flow in a wire, rather than just oscillating, though I’ve no idea what to make of that.

Jacinta: My next step is to look for experts, and to try to put their explanations into my own words, for ownership purposes. So I went to the ‘expert site’, Quora, and found quite a few contradictory or confusing responses, but assuming that the response that comes up first is some kind of popularly selected ‘best’ response, I’ll focus on Anthony Yeh’s answer. Oh by the way, the question is something like ‘what do electrons actually do in an electrical circuit?’ – though even that requires prior knowledge of what an electrical circuit actually is.

Canto: So let’s see if we can bed down the concept of an electrical circuit. So a website called ‘all about circuits’ gives us the basics, starting with static electricity. This was probably woman’s first discovery relating to the electrickery thing. Two different materials rubbed together – glass and silk, wax and wool – created this stickiness, this attraction to each other. And then it was noticed that, after the rubbing, the identical materials, such as two glass rods, exerted a force against each other. And another observation was that the wax, after rubbing with the wool, and the rod after rubbing with the silk, attracted each other.

Jacinta: Yes, this must’ve seemed quite bizarre to first discoverers. And they found that it worked as a sort of law. If the item was attracted by glass it would be repelled by wax – that’s to say, two rubbed wax cloths would always repel each other, as would the two rubbed glass rods. Which led to speculation about what was going on. The materials didn’t appear to be altered in any way. But they behaved differently after rubbing. Seemed like some invisible, quasi-magic force was in operation.

Canto: One of the earliest speculators that we know about was Charles du Fay (1698-1739). Note the dates – we’re really into the period inspired by Galileo, Newton and Huygens, the early days of theoretical and experimental physics. He separated the force involved into two, which he called vitreous and resinous. They were at first thought to be caused by invisible attractive and repulsive fluids. They later came to be known as positive and negative charges.

Jacinta: But when Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) came to experiment with what became known as electricity, it was still thought of as a fluid…

Canto: But hang on – this static electricity stuff must go back way earlier. Sparks fly, and you feel the energy on your skin when you remove, say, a piece of nylon clothing. And you see the sparks in the dark. I get it from metal door-handles quite regularly, and you can actually see it – it ain’t no fluid. Surely they noticed this way more than a couple of hundred years ago.

Jacinta: Okay let’s go back thousands of years, to Thales of Miletus, about 600 BCE. I’m using Quora again here. He noticed that rubbed amber was able to attract stuff, like leaves and other ground debris. Theophrastus, a student of Plato and Aristotle, who took over Aristotle’s Lyceum, also left some notes on this phenomenon, but this didn’t get any further than observation. William Gilbert (1544-1603), a much under-rated genius whom I read about in Thomas Crump’s  A brief history of science, wrote a treatise, On the magnet, which compared the attractive, magnetic properties of lodestones with the properties of rubbed amber. He called this property ‘electric’, after elektron, the Greek word for amber. He also built the first electroscope, a simple needle that pivots toward an electrically charged body. Gilbert was able to distinguish between a magnet, which always remained a magnet, that’s to say, an attracter of metals, and an electrically charged material, which could easily lose its charge. So we’re now into the 17th century, and very far from understanding the phenomenon. The first electrical machine was constructed by Otto von Guericke (1602-86), another interesting polymath, in 1660. It was a rotating globe of sulphur, which attracted light material, creating sparks. Nothing new of course, but a useful public demonstration model.

Canto: So we’re now getting to a period when a few enlightened folks were set to wondering. And this was when they must’ve noted the phenomenon’s small-scale similarity to lightning.

Jacinta: Yes, and so experiments with lightning were undertaken in the eighteenth century, generally with disastrous results. The fact is, though Ben Franklin did do some experimentation with kites and lightning, he mainly focused on glass and amber rods. He noted, as before, that there were two different forces, or charges, attractive and repulsive. When a rubbed amber rod was brought toward another rubbed amber rod they repulsed each other. When the same amber rod was brought toward a glass rod, they were attracted. He considered there were two opposite aspects of the same fluid (for some reason investigators – at least some of them – was still thinking in terms of fluids). The identical aspects of the fluid repelled, while the opposite aspects attracted. He decided, apparently quite arbitrarily, to name one (glass) positive, the other (amber) negative. And we’ve been stuck with this designation ever since..

Canto: Yes, I’ve heard that it would have been much better to name them the other way round, but I’ve no idea why. And also, why is all this called static electricity? Obviously that name came later, but what does it mean? We hear people saying ‘I’m getting a lot of static’, which seems to mean some kind of interference with a signal, but I’ve no idea why it’s called that.

Jacinta: Oh shite, we’ll never get to the bottom of all this. Here’s a Wikipedia definition, which might help:

Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a material. The charge remains until it is able to move away by means of an electric current or electrical discharge. Static electricity is named in contrast with current electricity, which flows through wires or other conductors and transmits energy

Canto: Okay, that helps. Static electricity ‘remains’ – it has to be discharged. So lightning is a discharge of static electricity?

Jacinta: I believe so, and that spark you get from the car doorhandle is a discharge of the static electricity built up in your body. Now let’s return to the online textbook ‘All about Circuits’. It points out that Ben Franklin did have a reason for his positive-negative designation. Here’s a quote:

Following Franklin’s speculation of the wool rubbing something off of the wax, the type of charge that was associated with rubbed wax became known as “negative” (because it was supposed to have a deficiency of fluid) while the type of charge associated with the rubbing wool became known as “positive” (because it was supposed to have an excess of fluid). Little did he know that his innocent conjecture would cause much confusion for students of electricity in the future!

Canto: Okay, I’m not sure whether this is a headfuck. When wax is rubbed with wool they attract each other. Franklin thought in terms of fluids, and he conjectured that, in the rubbing, the wool removed fluid from the wax – so wool had an excess of the fluid, and wax had a deficiency. The deficiency, which of course wasn’t really a deficiency, he termed ‘negative’ and the excess was ‘positive’. Sort of makes sense. Though why people since have felt this is the wrong way round, I don’t get at this stage.

Jacinta: So now we come to Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736-1806), and I suspect we’ll be dwelling on him for a while, because ‘All about circuits’ deals with him rather cursorily, methinks. It tells us that Coulomb experimented with electricity in the 1780s using a ‘torsional balance’ (wtf?) to measure the force generated between two electrically charged objects.

Canto: Exquisitely meaningless at this stage. Anyway, onward and downward…

References

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

https://www.quora.com/What-were-static-electricity-shocks-believe-to-be-during-antiquity-and-the-Middle-Ages

Thomas Crump, A brief history of science, 2001

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

Written by stewart henderson

November 28, 2021 at 8:52 pm

Posted in electricity, electrons

## towards James Clerk Maxwell 3 – Benjamin Franklin and Coulomb’s Law

Canto: So we’ve been looking at electricity and magnetism historically, as researchers, scientists, thinkers, experimenters and so on have managed to piece these processes together and combine them into the one thing, electromagnetism, culminating in J C Maxwell’s equations…

Jacinta: Or going beyond those equations into the implications. But of course we’re novices regarding the science and maths of it all, so we should recommend that real students of this stuff should go to the Khan academy lectures, or Matt Anderson’s lectures for the real expert low-down. As will we. But we need to point out, if only to ourselves, that what we’re trying to get our heads around is really fundamental stuff about existence. Light, which is obviously fundamental to our existence, is an electromagnetic wave. So, think magnetism, think electricity, and think light.

Canto: Right, so we’re going back to the eighteenth century, and whatever happens after Hauksbee and Polinière.

Jacinta: Well, scientists – or shall we say physical scientists, the predecessors of modern physicists – were much influenced throughout the eighteenth century by Newton, in particular his inverse square law of gravity:

Newton saw gravity as a force (F), and formulated the theory that this force acted between any two objects (m1 and m2 – indicating their masses) in a direct line between their respective centres of mass (r being the length of that line, or the distance between those centres of mass). This force is directly proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the distance. As to G, the gravitational constant, that’s something I don’t get, as yet. Anyway, the success of Newton’s theory, especially the central insight that a force diminishes, in a precise way, with distance, affected the thinking of a number of early physical scientists. Could a similar theory, or law (they didn’t think in terms of theory then) apply to electrical forces? Among those who suspected as much were the mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, who made major contributions to fluid dynamics and probability, and Alessandro Volta, who worked on electrical capacitance and storage, the earliest batteries.

Canto: And Joseph Priestley actually proposed an inverse square law for electricity, but didn’t work out the details. Franz Aepinus and Benjamin Franklin were also important 18th century figures in trying to nut out how this force worked. All of this post-Newtonian activity was putting physical science on a more rigorous and mathematical footing. But before we get to Coulomb and his law, what was a Leyden Jar?

Jacinta: Leyden jars were the first capacitors. They were made of glass. This takes us back to the days of Matthias Bose earlier in the 18th century, and even back to Hauksbee. Bose, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Wittenberg, worked with and improved Hauksbee’s revolving glass-globe machine to experiment with static electricity. He added a metal ‘prime conductor’ which accumulated a higher level of static charge, and gave spectacular public demonstrations of the sparks he created, using them to set alcohol alight and to create ‘beatification’ effects on a woman wearing a metal helmet. All great japes, but it promoted interest in electricity on the continent. The trick with alcohol inspired another experimenter, Jurgen von Kleist, to invent his Leyden jar, named for Kleist’s university. It was a glass container filled with alcohol (or water) into which was suspended a metal rod or wire, connected to a prime conductor. The fluid collected a great deal of electric charge, which turned out to be very shocking to anyone who touched the metal rod. Later Leyden jars used metal foil instead of liquid. These early capacitors could store many thousands of volts of electricity.

Canto: At this time, in the mid-eighteenth century, nobody was thinking much about a use for electricity, though I suppose the powerful shocks experienced by the tinkerers with Leyden jars might’ve been light-bulb moments, so to speak.

Jacinta: Well, take Ben Franklin. He wasn’t of course the first to notice that electrostatic sparks were like lightning, but he was possibly the first to conduct experiments to prove the connection. And of course he knew the power of lightning, how it could burn down houses. Franklin invented the lightning rod – his proudest invention – to minimise this damage.

Canto: They’re made of metal aren’t they? How do they work? How did Franklin know they would work?

Jacinta: Although the details weren’t well understood, it was known in Franklin’s time that some materials, particularly metals (copper and aluminium are among the best), were conductors of electricity, while others, such as glass, were insulators. He speculated that a pointed metal rod, fixed on top of buildings, would provide a focal point for the electrical charge in the clouds. As he wrote: “The electrical fire would, I think, be drawn out of a cloud silently, before it could come near enough to strike….” He also had at least an inkling of what we now call ‘grounding’, as per this quote about the design, which should use “upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground”. He was also, apparently the inventor of the terms negative and positive for different kinds of charge.

Canto: There are different kinds of charge? I didn’t know that.

Jacinta: Well you know of course that a molecule is positively charged if it has more protons than electrons, and vice versa for negative charge, but this molecular understanding came much later. In the eighteenth century electricity was generally considered in terms of the flow of a fluid. Franklin posited that objects with an excess of fluid (though he called it ‘electrical fire’) were positively charged, and those with a deficit were negatively charged. And those terms have stuck.

Canto: As have other other electrical terms first used by Franklin, such as battery, conductor, charge and discharge.

Jacinta: So let’s move on to Charles-Augustin De Coulomb (1736-1806), who was of course one of many scientists and engineers of the late eighteenth century who were progressing our understanding and application of electricity, but the most important one in leading to the theories of Maxwell. Coulomb was both brilliant and rich, at least initially, so that he was afforded the best education available, particularly in mathematics…

Canto: Let me write down Coulomb’s Law before you go on, because of its interesting similarity to Newton’s inverse-square gravity law. It even has one of those mysterious ‘constants’:

where F is the electrostatic force, the qs are particular magnitudes of charges, and r is the distance between those charges.

Jacinta: Yes, the Coulomb constant, ke, or k, is a constant of proportionality, as is the gravitational constant. Hopefully we’ll get to that. Coulomb had a varied, peripatetic existence, including a period of wise retirement to his country estate during the French revolution. Much of his work involved applied engineering and mechanics, but in the 1780s he wrote a number of breakthrough papers, including three ‘reports on electricity and magnetism’. He was interested in the effect that distance might have on electrostatic force or charge, but it’s interesting that these papers placed electricity and magnetism together. His experiments led him to conclude that an inverse square law applied to both.

Canto: I imagine that these constants required a lot of experimentation and calculation to work out?

Jacinta: This is where I really get lost, but I don’t think Coulomb worked out the constant of proportionality, he simply found by experimentation that there was a general law, which he more or less stated as follows:

The magnitude of the electrostatic force of attraction or repulsion between two point charges is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
The force is along the straight line joining them. If the two charges have the same sign, the electrostatic force between them is repulsive; if they have different signs, the force between them is attractive.

It seems the constants of proportionality are just about units of measurement, which of course were different in the days of Coulomb and Newton. So it’s just about measuring stuff in modern SI units using these laws. It’s about conventions used in everyday engineering, basically. I think.

Canto: Equations like these have scalar and vector forms. What does that mean?

Jacinta: Basically, vector quantities have both magnitude and direction, while scalar quantities have magnitude only. The usual example is speed v velocity. Velocity has magnitude and direction, speed only has magnitude. Or more generally, a scalar quantity has only one ‘dimension’ or feature to it in an equation – say, mass, or temperature. A vector quantity has more than one.

Canto: So are we ready to tackle Maxwell now?

Jacinta: Hell, no. We have a long way to go, with names like Gauss, Cavendish and Faraday to hopefully help us along the path to semi-enlightenment. And I think we need to pursue a few of these excellent online courses before we go much further.

References

Matt Anderson physics (191 lectures)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_law_of_universal_gravitation

https://www.britannica.com/technology/Leyden-jar

http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/franklinb/aa_franklinb_electric_1.html

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/benjamin-franklin-and-electricity-letters.html

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

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Augustin-de-Coulomb

https://www.britannica.com/science/Coulombs-law

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coulomb%27s_law

Written by stewart henderson

May 18, 2019 at 6:04 pm