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3 juin 2018 7 03 /06 /juin /2018 18:01

The Nature is generous. By endowing sulfur and glass with the property of attraction, it has allowed everyone to seize the electrical phenomenon. The simplest stick of sulfur or the most banal glass tubes already give beautiful effects. But these materials lend themselves especially to the manufacture of "machines" which will complete the "cabinets of curiosities", obligatory attraction of any noble or bourgeois home that respects itself, from the second half of the 17th century.


Otto de Guericke (1602-1686)


Among the builders, a name emerges, that of Otto de Guericke. He is the descendant of a family of notables from the free city of Magdeburg. His father and grandfather served as mayor, helping to make it a prosperous and populous city. He studied first at the University of Leipzig and then joined Leiden to complete his studies in languages as well as in the art of fortifications and war machines.


In 1626, he returned to Magdeburg where his knowledge quickly became useful because, in 1631, the Protestant city was besieged by the armies of the German Emperor in conflict with Sweden whose city is allied.


On May 20, at dawn, the troops of Catholic mercenaries of warlord Tilly, composed of Spaniards, Italians, French, Poles and Germans enter the city. The population resists heroically but fails to repel the attackers. Then begins what has been remembered as the "massacre of Magdeburg": in four days, twenty thousand civilians have been killed by the sword or burned alive in the fire of their house.


Once peace is restored, Otto de Guericke helps raise the city from its ruins and becomes mayor. In this position, he represented Magdeburg at the peace congress which, in 1648, ended this "thirty-year war". Good negotiator, he gets for his city, the recognition of his old privileges. This mission leads him to sit on the Imperial Diet. It was at one of these meetings, in Regensburg, in 1654, that he chose to reveal the capabilities of the vacuum pump he had recently developed.


The so-called "Magdeburg hemispheres" experiment is well known. It follows Torricelli's experiments (1608-1647) on atmospheric pressure.


In 1643, to respond to the problem posed by the Florence fountain-makers who had difficulty pumping water into their wells beyond 32 feet (about 10 meters), Toricelli had spilled a tube full of mercury on a tank containing the same liquid. He could see that the mercury was falling down the tube to stabilize at a height of 28 inches (76cm) above the free surface. He thus demonstrated the existence of the atmospheric pressure but also that of the emptiness which, according to his adversaries, Nature had "horror".


The subject fascinates Otto Guericke who undertakes successfully, the development of a pump capable of evacuating  air from a container full of it. After trying to empty a barrel that did not resist the experiment, Guericke had a copper sphere made up of two contiguous hemispheres and equipped with a tap. In front of a large audience, he is emptying into this imposing sphere of a diameter of 1.19 meters. Twenty-four horses hitched to the hemispheres are unable to break the adhesion between the two parts.


This experience radically inaugurates the practice of "science show" whose popularity will also be decisive in the advancement of electrical science.


The experience of the "Hemispheres of Magdeburg" is a landmark in the history of mechanics. Guericke's place in that of electricity is more modest. His contribution in this area was, moreover, ignored by most of his contemporaries. Yet, nearly a century later, several physicists, and in particular the Frenchman Dufay, note that one would have gained to consider his experiments with more attention.


Guericke, in fact, is not realy interested in electricity. He meets it only through the questions he asks himself about the functioning of the Universe and first of all about that of the earth. Among the "virtues" he attributes to our globe, two seem to him fundamental. First a "conservative" virtue: the earth attracts all the materials that are necessary for its formation, water, rocks ... Then an "expulsive" virtue: it repels everything that can destroy it. Fire, for example, whose flame rises to the sky.


Guericke offers of it a spectacular demonstration. Take, he says, a glass balloon the size of a "child's head", fill it with finely ground sulfur, heat up to the fusion of the sulfur, let cool, break the glass and collect the sulfur globe . Equip the globe with a handle and place it on a wooden support. Rub this ball vigorously with a very dry hand.



The ball will then manifest many of the earthly virtues. "Conservative" virtue first, attracting light objects to her.


More amazing is the observation of the "expulsive" virtue ! The globe sometimes repels what it first attracted. A feather, for example, after touching the globe is repulsed. So suspended in the air, it can be walked around the room. Better: whatever the movement of the globe it seems to always present the same face. Exactly like the moon opposite the earth.


Guericke, who has read Gilbert, can not doubt for a moment that the attraction virtue of the earth is simply electrical in nature. As for repulsive virtue, no one before him seems to have noticed it. He attributes to it a different cause and imagines it only proper to the constituent elements of the earth and among these to sulfur. It passes, thus, beside a truth which will remain long obscure until the French Dufay shows that the electricity also has a "repulsive virtue"!


Guericke's experiments contain other rich intuitions. To prove that the air is not the vehicle of the attraction, it shows that this virtue can be transmitted by means of a linen thread, more than a meter long, stretched from the surface of the globe. This first observation of the electrical "conduction" will also remain without a future. It will be up to the Englishman Gray to rediscover it almost a century later.


Even if its title of glory remains the famous experiment of the hemispheres and if its theoretical contribution in the field of electricity remained limited, the talent of observer and experimenter of Guericke, recognized by his successors, deserves the place which him is reserved in the Pantheon of electricians.


Hauksbee ( ?- 1713)



Electricity and vacuum works together in the machines devised by Francis Hauksbee.
The first years of his life are not well known. Self-taught, he is noticed by Newton. In December 1703, the famous physicist, author of the law of universal gravitation, became president of the Royal Society of London, the largest English Scientific Academy. He hires Hauksbee as his lead experimenter. Until 1705, it animates the sessions of the Academy. In particular by classic vacuum experiments inspired by Guericke.


From this date he moves towards the study of "mercurial" or "barometric" phosphorescence. Since 1675, a fortuitous observation intrigues physicists. When a barometric tube arranged in the conditions of the Toricelli experiment is jostled in the darkness, a phosphorescent glow appears in the emptiness released at the upper part of the tube. When Hauksbee tackles the problem, it is generally accepted that this glow comes from an emanation of mercury. For his part he chooses to use method and study the respective roles of emptiness, glass and mercury.


The vacuum ? Hauksbee partially fills a balloon with mercury in which he creates vacuum. The whole remains dark as long as the liquid remains motionless. It is therefore clear that the vacuum is not sufficient but that, on the other hand, the friction caused by the movement is essential.
Friction on mercury or on glass? From November 1705 Hauksbee uses, to answer this question, a montage which ignores mercury. It is a sphere of glass provided with two diametrically opposed copper pieces serving as its axis. This sphere can be put in rapid motion by placing it on a machine inspired by a carpenter's wheel. But its essential property is to have been conceived so that one can realize the emptiness. Hauksbee took the precaution of keeping a valve in one of the parts of the shaft that can be connected to a vacuum pump.

The Hauksbee electric machine. A tap allows to empty it

(Louis Figuier, Les Merveilles de la Science)

The sphere, emptied of its air, is set in motion and rubbed by the hand of the experimenter. Suddenly, in the darkness, the sphere fills with a strong diffuse glow. A wall ten feet away is illuminated. A book held near the globe can be read. When a finger approaches the sphere, the light is concentrated in filaments that seem attracted by this finger. The light gradually decreases when, little by little, the air is allowed to enter the tube.


Even when the atmospheric pressure is reached, we can still catch some light from the globe. It is external this time, and present themselves in the new form of sparks. Hauksbee still hesitates but for Newton opinion, the light does not come from emptiness, nor from mercury but from glass!


We now know that if it is the glass that is electrified, the light comes from the air. In the "empty" globe, there is still residual gas and it is "ionized" under the effect of the electric field created by the friction of the glass. It becomes, by this fact, bright, like neon in a tube of lighting. Naturally this interpretation was impossible to those who had neither the knowledge of the nature of the air, nor, still less, of the existence and constitution of the atoms.
This "electrical phosphorescence" will continue to obsess generations of physicists. His study will lead to cathode-ray tubes, which for some time still equip our televisions and computers screens. The discovery of X-rays, that of electrons, that of radioactivity, will also be at the end of this adventure that we will discuss later.


For the moment, Hauksbee's spectacular and frightening demonstrations in the darkness of a cabinet are becoming the star experiences of physics shows.


Tube or globe?


One thing is certain: for those who saw glass as a secondary material and with few electrical effects, and who continued to prefer amber, sulfur or wax, Hauksbee opposed them a convincing denial.


Glass is essential, but in what form? Hauksbee himself for his classical demonstrations renounces his spheres and uses only a tube of flint-glass, the flint-glass used for optics and of which the English are the specialists. With a tube one meter long and three centimeters in diameter, it attracts thin sheets of copper several tens of centimeters apart. These sheets of copper, or better of gold, more sensitive than pieces of string or paper, will become the classic material of electrical laboratories. To put them in motion, a glass tube is more than enough.


The globe, mounted on a tower, will be forgotten for thirty years until, around 1733, a German physicist, Bose, takes up the idea.

Bose (1710-1761)


Georg Matthias Bose, born in Leipzig, is interested in new physics and mathematics while pursuing his medical studies. In 1738 he was appointed to a chair of "natural philosophy" at the University of Wittenberg. From this position, he establishes a close relationship with all that Europe counts as well-known people, both scientists and men of letters, religion and politics. The magic aspect of electricity seduces him. When his readings lead him to meet the electrical experiments of Gray and Dufay (two persons of prime importance that we will talk about again), and in particular those on conductors and insulators; when, moreover, he finds the description of Hauksbee's globe, he knows that he has found both his vocation and his public.


It first completes the Hauksbee device with an assembly that will become the standard for all European laboratories. An iron tube, sometimes in the form of a rifle barrel, hangs horizontally from two cords of silk. He grazes, without touching it, the rubbed glass globe. This "first conductor" will then be used to distribute the "electrical fluid" through various chains or conductors to the surrounding experimental devices.


Bose then organizes "electric parties" that are not limited to its student audience. Imagine a meal where you have invited all the prominent notables in your city. The legs of the table have been isolated by wax patties as well as the chair that you have reserved for yourself. From the electric machine you have operated and concealed, a connecting wire is brought near your hand. At the moment your guests want to grab their fork, you just have to do the contact with the table so that an electric shock comes to make them jump on their chair. At dessert you will set a liquor cup on fire simply by the approach of one of your fingers from where only the closest spectators will have seen a spark escape. Your guests will then be ready to follow you in the cabinet of curiosities where you will transport them in a universe at once wonderful and terrifying.


Wonderful! Wafers of thick wax are placed on the floor. Each participant climbs on one of them and reaches out to his neighbors, forming a chain whose first link firmly holds the rifle barrel suspended above the globe of the machine. When the globe is set in motion, the person at the other end of the chain reaches out over gold leaves placed on a plate. Each one then sees the leaves rise from a light flight, as attracted by a magic will, towards the open hand of the experimenter. Let's put out the candles that light up this closed-shuttered salon and reach for the driver of the machine, we will see sparkling sparks. In the form of apotheosis we can propose the demonstration of the "electric beatification". The loveliest person in the assembly is invited to climb on a cake of wax and to seize the driver. When the machine is vigorously activated, its hair unfolds in a halo which illuminates, in the darkness, a thousand gleams of holiness.


Terrifying ! The man who has the courage to run a few drops of his blood sees them glitter like fire beads in the dark as he grabs the electric conductor. Tense fingers of a person connected to the machine can kill the poor flies to which the spark will be directed. Could we not make more serious victims tomorrow? Such manipulations would certainly have condamned their authors to be burned in the times, still close, of the Inquisition!


Terrifying and traitor! As beautiful as the young person haloed by the contact of the machine be, it will not be prudent to approach his lips for a kiss. The "Electrified Venus" will defend its virtue by a vigorous electric shock.


(Louis Figuier, Les merveilles de la science)


L’abbé Nollet (1700-1770)



The news of these wonders reaches France and in particular to the Abbé Nollet who is then one of the most prominent European electricians. He said he could not sleep until he himself had built and perfected a machine.
The globe, one foot in diameter, used by Nollet, is thick glass. The wheel which drives it by means of a belt passing by a pulley fixed on its axis, must be at least four feet in diameter and be provided with a crank which allows two men to activate it. Nollet prefers to rub the globe by hand but many European physicists have chosen to add a leather cushion.



The plate machines.


This voluminous machine will fit most physics cabinets until the Englishman Ramsden (1735-1800) builds the first plate machine in 1768. The plate machine is perfected quickly and will become really effective when the first machines appear. " with electrical influence ", ie requiring no friction. The famous machine invented by the English Wimshurst in 1883, still equips the laboratories of our high schools.


The Van Marum machine built in 1784 is still a notable attraction at the Netherlands pavilion of the Paris International Electrical Exhibition in 1881.


See : 

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

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