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19 septembre 2018 3 19 /09 /septembre /2018 15:08

In 1731, in the "Philosophical Transactions", the publication of the "Royal Society", appeared a text that was to make a giant leap forward for the young electrical science. Its author, Stephen Gray, is not a character in sight. Considered an "amateur", he had to suffer the contempt of scientists in place. He will rise, however, at the level of his compatriot Gilbert in the esteem of European "electricians".


Stephen Gray ( 1670-1736).


Stephen Gray is the son of a Canterbury dyer and is a dyer himself. He made serious studies that led him to focus more specifically on astronomy. As such, he is invited to participate in the work of the Royal Astronomer John Flamsteed at Greenwich, the author of the first modern catalog of the celestial world giving the exact position of nearly 3000 stars. In 1707 he was again called to Cambridge, also for astronomical work.


This experience is disappointing. His relations with academics are difficult. He notes with bitterness that his communications are refused for publication, which does not prevent them from being regularly looted. He returned to his Canterbury business in 1708. Too tired to continue his business, he applied for admission to a retirement home known as "the Charterhouse". This institution, located in a former convent of Chartreux, was created to be both a day school for poor children and a pension for the elderly. His boarders were usually distinguished men with serious references. Gray had to wait eight years before being admitted, in 1719, on the recommendation of the Prince of Wales.


Freed from his financial worries, he intended to occupy this retreat to cultivate his interest in the various branches of science. He had, in particular, provided himself with various glass tubes and small equipment useful for electric demonstrations.


Already in, 1708, he had sent a memoir to the Royal Society concerning "new experiments on light and electricity". He was amazed at how easily he could reproduce Guericke's experiments using a simple glass tube. The "expulsive" virtue, in particular, manifested itself spectaculary. An  feather close of the tube was first attrected and then pushed back. It could stay a long time "hovering" above the tube and even go up and down at the rate of friction.


It seemed to him, however, that "expulsive" virtue, far from being a new property of sulfur or the earth, as Guericke had estimated, was, more simply, as well as attraction, a property of electric virtue.


Another observation merited attention : if the feather, once pushed back, reached a body outside the tube, it was attracted by this body . It then fell back on the tube to be repelled again. The carousel could last from 10 to 15 round trips before stopping. These observations led Gray to suppose that the pen, placed near the rubbed tube, must itself acquire an electric virtue.


Such facts should have attracted the attention of his contemporaries, but Hauksbee, to whom he addresses his memoir, does not consider it useful to publish it. Fortunately, they will continue to obsess Gray and allow him a brilliant revenge.


Late and fabulous discoveries.

In February 1729, having already been at Charterhouse for 10 years, he began experimenting with the electrification of metals. Having found that it was impossible to electrify them by friction, he proposes to achieve this by placing them, as he has already done with a feather, in the "electric vapour" surrounding a glass tube rubbed.

See : 

IV. A letter from Mr. Stephen Gray to Dr. Mortimer, Secr. R. S. Containing a farther account of his experiments concerning electricityPhil. Trans. 1731

I. Two letters from Mr. Stephen Gray, F. R. S. to C. Mortimer, M. D. Secr. R. S. con­taining farther accounts of his experiments concerning electricityPhil. Trans. 1731


Before starting, he decides to test his tube. The latter, which he describes with precision, is a lead glass tube three feet five inches (1 meter) long and one inch and 1/5 (3 centimeters) in diameter. This tube is closed at each end by a cork, so that dust does not enter. Gray has, indeed, noticed that this one harms the effectiveness of the tube.


The caps are usually removed when the tube is used. Yet this time, Gray wants to test the effectiveness of the clogged tube. He rubs the extremity of a tube clogged by its plugs and finds that it works just as well.
Suddenly, chance gives him a fabulous gift.
Gray says:

"As I held a down feather over the upper end of the tube, I saw that it wanted to go to the cork, and that it was attracted and repulsed by him, just as by the tube, when it had been excited by friction. I therefore held the down near the flat surface of the cork, which attracted and repulsed it several times in a row, to my great surprise, whence I concluded that the excited tube had certainly communicated to the cork an attraction virtue."


The following experiences have a "surrealist" side:

"Having on me a ball of ivory, about an inch and a third in diameter, pierced from side to side, I fastened it on a piece of fir wood, about four inches long, and I made to enter the other end of the piece of wood into one of the corks. Rubbing the tube, I saw that the ball attracted and repulsed the feather with more force than the cork had done; attractions and repulsions repeating themselves a very large number of times right away. "


Stems of wood of 8, then 24 inches, driven into the cork, are tried with the same success. How far can we reach? After several tries, Gray makes a combination of reeds and fir rods totaling more than 18 feet long, which corresponds to the length of his room. The result is convincing, the attraction is as strong as that obtained with shorter stems.


Then comes the turn of a hemp rope three feet in length. Attached to the tube, it is ballasted by the ivory ball that attracts the copper sheets with just as much ease.


A rope is a convenient fastener. It will soon be ballasted by a ball of lead, a piece of gold, a piece of tin, a shovel, a silver vase, a kettle of copper sometimes empty and sometimes full of water, hot or cold. All these metal bodies attract the copper sheets to the height of several inches when the glass tube is rubbed. Metals, which can not acquire electric "virtue" by simple friction, can therefore receive it from a rubbed glass tube to which they communicate. In the same way pebbles, bricks, a magnet, tiles, chalk, vegetables.


Gray knows that a royal road has just opened before him, he engages there enthusiastically. A question naturally comes to his mind: how far can he transmit electrical virtue?

A first answer was given to him in May 1729 at his friend John Godfrey's home in Norton-Court, Kent. A stem 32 feet long is made from hollow canes and fir stems, all finished by the usual ivory ball: the electric virtue is transmitted at this distance. A string 26 feet long, hung in the air, from a balcony also works. Similarly, a 34-foot rope suspended from an 18-foot stem, a total of 52 feet.


The successes are spectacular, but the first failure occurs!

Wanting to transmit the electric virtue horizontally by means of a string, Gray supports it by ropes fixed to the beams of the room where the experiment is practiced. The result is negative.




Gray is not particularly surprised. The fixing ropes, he thinks, transmit an essential part of the electrical virtue to the beams and there is only a tiny part left that can reach the ball. He will have to imagine another device.

The opportunity is given to him on July 2, 1729. He is then at his friend Granvil Wheler. In order to stretch the string, silk threads are fixed between the side walls of a long gallery. Why silk? It is the thread that combines the best resistance with the greatest finesse. But Gray, alerted by his first failure, is persuaded "that such a thread, expected its small size, could make the experiment succeed, since it would divert less the electrical virtue of the line of communication" constituted by the string.


The hypothesis seams to be true. Electric virtue can thus be worn up to a distance of 147 feet. The gallery becomes too short, one passes in a barn where the distance of 293 feet (nearly 100 meters) is easily reached. At this moment, an incident disrupts this race to the record and brings a new course for the observations.

One can easily imagine the agitation that could accompany such an experiment. One of the silk threads does not resist. Very opportunely, Gray is equipped with a brass wire (alloy of copper and zinc) having the required fineness while being more solid. He replaces the defective silk crossbar with this brass wire. But with this system, Gray must observes his failure: " What ever the vivacity of the rubbing  to the cylinder, the ball did not produce any movement, and did not excite any attraction."


The obviousness imposed then  on both observers:

"We were convinced that we owed the success of our previous experiences to the silk threads, not because they were small, as I had first imagined, but because they were silk"

Thus the string and the brass have a behavior different from the silk. With this new data, Gray and Wheler take back their experiences. They know now that silk threads, even of a respectable diameter, will perfectly isolate the string they will bear. After passing from the gallery to the barn, the experimenters go to the garden and reach a distance of 650 feet, more than 200 meters.


Engaged in this race for the record, Gray discovers a new effect of the "electric virtue": it can be transmitted without contact! Meticulous, he notes that this revelation was made to him on August 5, 1729. That day he had suspended a lead weight of 14 pounds on a rope of Crin. Under the mass of lead, copper sheets were arranged. He approaches the glass tube and, suddenly:

"The pipe having been rubbed and held near the rope, but without touching it, the weight attracted and repelled the leaves several times in succession to the height of three inches, if not four. "


From then the experiments take a new course. We can transmit the electric virtue without having to be encumbered with a cork, a stick or a string. The simple approach of the rubbed tube will suffice. The place is left free to the imagination. His most spectacular demonstration will inspire generations of electricians. Let him speak:

"On the 8th of April, 1730, I did the following experience of an 8 to 9 year old boy, who weighed all dressed 47 pounds 10 ounces. I hung it horizontally on two ropes of horsehair, (similar to those on which the linen is dried) 13 feet long.

These strings suspended from the ceiling, each with two hooks, are presented as two loops close to each other.




"On these two cords the child was laid face down, one of the cords passing under his breast, the other under his thighs. The copper sheets were placed on a small pedestal, round, one foot in diameter, covered with white paper, and supported by a stem one foot high.


As soon as the tube had been rubbed, and presented to the little boy's feet, but without touching them, his face attracted the copper sheets with great force, until the raise to the height of 8 and sometimes 10 inches. "


A human can therefore, without damage, receive and transmit the electric virtue!


Gray has just inaugurated the experimental staging most often repeated in the "physics salons" European. If we were to keep only an image of the 18th century electricity works, it would be that of a damsel richly dressed and lying on a plateau held in the ceiling by silk cords. A young abbot moves near to his feet a glass tube rubbed while young people present to her, on a silver tray, gold leaves she attracts at a distance.

Gray is not short of imagination. He even manages to electrify the soap bubbles Dufay: first ranking. by means of a pipe.

After a last experiment "to see how far the electrical virtue could be carried in a straight line, without the tube touching the string", the record is reached. It is 886 feet, almost 300m!




Dufay: first ranking.


Gray is enthusiastic but untidy. The account of his experiences, however, holds the attention of Charles-François de Cisternay Dufay (1698-1739), a young French physicist who, at age 35, is already a member of the Paris Academy of Sciences.


Using a rigorous method, he first takes up the problem of the electrification of bodies: does the faculty of attraction at a distance exist in all bodies?


The question is not new. Gilbert, the first, had approached it. Dufay, of course, takes up the impressive list of bodies already tested by Gray and his predecessors: amber, resins, precious stones, glasses of all kinds, sulfur, wool, silk, feathers, hair. He added bodies as diverse as marble, granite, sandstone, slate, ivory, bone, tortoiseshell, and animal hair.


These bodies do not always react to a simple friction. Some have to be heated, sometimes even to burn your fingers. All, however, especially if one has them thoroughly dry, can be electrified by friction.


All? Not exactly. There remains a category that resists: that of metals: "whatever pain I have given myself," he says, "and in any way that I took it, I could not succeed to make them electric; I heated them , rubbed, filed, beaten without noticing sensible electricity.


It follows from these observations a first conclusion:


"With the exception of metals and bodies which their fluidity or their softness makes it impossible to be rubbed, all the others which are in the nature are endowed with a property which has been thought for a long time peculiar to the amber and which, until now, had been recognized only in a small number of subjects. "


As Gilbert had already pointed out, electricity is more than a magic virtue confined to amber and precious stones. It is a general property of matter worthy of a systematic study.


There are therefore two classes of bodies: Dufay proposes to designate under the name of "electrical bodies", those which, like glass, can be electrified by friction. Those who, like metals, can not be, will constitute the class of "non-electric" bodies.


"Electrical" and "non-electric" bodies, what differences?


First, the problem of attraction. Are these two types of bodies, the "electrics" and the "non-electrics", different in the way they are attracted?


Dufay moves his glass tube rubbed near to amber powder, shellac, crushed glass, wood sawdust, crushed brick, these bodies being "as much as possible, of the same volume and same weight compared to each other ". He finds that bodies "that are not electric by themselves" such as metals, wood or even brick are more strongly attracted than those that are electrics, such as amber, glass, wax.


In our current experiments, cotton fragments or pieces of paper will be suitable as they are light and "conductive" (as we now call "non-electric" bodies). The ideal body of the 18th century experimentalists to show attractions and repulsions will be the gold leaf both very conductive, very light and offering a large surface to the electric influence.


Franklin: the vocabulary.

Before following Dufay on the path of new discoveries, let us pause for a moment on the concept of electric conductor and insulator. If it is clearly analyzed by Dufay, it is necessary to wait for Franklin (1706-1790) so that the vocabulary agrees with the idea.

We will then detail Franklin's contributions to electrical science. Suffice it for the moment to know that, from his contact with electricity, in 1747, he creates a real break.

Electricity, he says, is not created by friction on "electric bodies". Nor is it a "virtue" proper to these bodies alone. It is a fluid that permeates all bodies and is able to pass from one body to another.

This intuition naturally leads him to dress the old categories in a new vocabulary:

What is the difference between an electric body and a non-electric body The terms electric by itself and non-electric were first used to distinguish the bodies, in the false assumption that the only bodies called electric by themselves The same contained in their substance the electric matter which could be excited by the movement, that it came from and was drawn from it, and communicated to those who were called non-electric, which was supposed to be devoid of this material. I now suspect that it (the electrical matter) is spread fairly evenly throughout the earth's matter.

That being so, the terms "electric by itself" and "non-electric" could be abandoned as improper; and since the whole difference is that some bodies conduct the electric material and the others do not conduct it, we could substitute for them the terms "conductor" and "non-conductor".

One can not perfect science without perfecting language, had later asserted Lavoisier in the introduction to his elementary treatise on chemistry (1789). "Whatever may be the facts, no matter what the ideas they might have produced, they would still transmit only false impressions, if we did not have exact expressions to render them," he added.

Franklin, who will regularly attend his laboratory during his stay in Paris, will have preceded him in this way. The facts have given birth, in his mind, the idea that electricity is a "fluid" that permeates all bodies. The facts, the idea, require a precise vocabulary: the bodies do not share into "electrics" or "non-electrics", but in "conductors" and "non-conductors" (we say today insulators).

Let us stop here on what might seem like a paradox: the first electric conductor known , a string of hemp, is rather considered, today, as an insulator. To understand it, it must be remembered that, if the quantities of electricity used in the electrostatic phenomena are minute, the corresponding voltages are themselves thousands or tens of thousands of volts. Under the effect of such tensions even hemp becomes conductive. Therefore, it is recommended not to play with a kite near a high-voltage line, or to touch an electric cable dropped to the ground by means of a wooden rod. Because in this case the high voltage would be accompanied by high currents and electrocution would be at the rendezvous.

The concepts of electrical fluid, conductor and insulator are born. The idea, of course, had also already sprung up in several English authors, but Franklin is the one who will have taken the step with the most boldness. Those who, on the old continent, will know how to adopt his views will only have to congratulate themselves on it.

see : History of the electricity, from amber to electron. Gérard Borvon

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