All Things by Weight.     The Foundation Years  
(1754 – 1837)
All Things by Measure.

Understanding That ...

Nature Obeys Rules ...

Too !

Who Said It ?

"That I can see so far, is because I stand on the shoulders of Giants."   —   "Ditto !!!"

— Tommy C. —


One hundred sixty-nine years after the first Englishmen landed in Chesapeake Bay, 56 sweaty and worn men met on a sultry day in Philadelphia. Their object: to commit open treason against his Britannic Majesty, George III. The document each of those men signed that day proclaimed the independence of men as individuals and drastically changed the history of the world.

One of those affixing his signature had twenty years earlier helped reshape mankind in an entirely different manner. Benjamin Franklin's contributions to science and electricity had far greater significance than just the technological benefits – his findings steered man away from superstition and unfolded the true character of natural forces.

All that was known about electricity in Franklin's time was basically this: When certain substances – like sulfur or glass – were rubbed, they attracted other light substances, like feathers or pieces of cloth. If the feather touched the glass, it was violently repelled. No one really knew why.

Sparks could be made to jump from the rubbed material to the tip of a finger, and the accompanying smell and cracking noise, it was noted, were something like those produced by lightning.

Though many investigators had accumulated a mass of detail, order was lacking. Only two things were clear: the phenomenon was not magnetism, and it was not gravity.

Both magnetism and electricity were first investigated in 600 B.C. by Thales of Miletus, a Greek philosopher. He noted that when amber was rubbed, it would pick up light objects; and he knew of the power of lodestone to attract iron.

The terms "electricity" and "magnetism" are, in fact, derived from the Greek; {ekektpov} (electron) is the Greek word for amber, and the word magnet is thought to have come from Magnesia, a district where lodestones were found.

Magnets: living rocks

Thales apparently connected electricity with magnetism, but it would take another 2400 years before the actual relationship was established. In the meantime, other Greek and Roman writers recorded the properties of amber and lodestone.

Authors, such as Pliny the Elder and Porphyry reflected the general opinion of their time when they endowed magnets with a soul, claiming that "the magnet attracts iron as a bridegroom would his bride."

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Serendipity alters the course of civilization: Oersted accidentally stumbles on electromagnetism during a private lecture to a group of students.

Pliny, before his unlucky encounter with Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., wrote that the Etruscans in 600 B.C. could draw lightning from the sky and turn it aside.

The birth of scientific magnetism waited for Peter Peregrini (Peregrinus), whose experimentation with magnetic poles in 1269 led some scholars to label him the father of magnetism. But Peregrinus' work lay fallow for 300 years, until the arrival of William. Gilbert. Aside from the general use of the magnetic compass – the first practical magnetic device – the intervening years produced little.

Giant minds were at work in other areas, however, and the resulting ideas laid much of the foundations for future thought. Roger Bacon in 1268 was accused of black magic when he insisted that human progress depended upon experimental research and scientific education. Nicholas Copernicus electrified the world of 1508 – and got himself into trouble – when he wrote: "The appearance of daily revolutions belongs to the heavens, but the reality belongs to the earth."

It remained for William Gilbert, personal physician to Queen Elizabeth I, to bring coherence to the study of electricity. It was Gilbert who coined the word "electricity", who distinguished between electrics (conductors) and nonelectrics (insulators or dielectrics), who built the first electroscope–like instrument (the versorium, a pivoted, nonmagnetic needle).

Gilbert saw the earth as a huge magnet, and so explained the operation of the compass.

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The original telegraph receiver wasn't the familiar keyed system but actually printed dots and dashes on paper with a stylus.

Magnetic induction, polarity and the effects of heat on magnets – all were deduced by Gilbert. His volume, De Magnete, published in 1600, thus represented the greatest step forward in electrical and magnetic investigation up to that time. Gilbert is honored today on the pedestal of the lower case – by use of the gilbert as the unit of magnetomotive force.

Giant minds ignored electricity

Men like Galileo, Kepler, and Descartes (who drew the first magnetic lines of force), were influenced by Gilbert, but they focused their genius in other areas – mainly astronomy and mathematics – and contributed little to the study of electricity.

Other giants were at work: Francois Vieta in 1580 substituted letters for unknowns in mathematics; John Napier invented logarithms in 1614; the slide rule was introduced by Richard Delamain in 1630 and, independently, by William Oughtred two years later.

Dr. William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood in the body. The first thermometer was invented, the first microscope, the first telescope. Sir Isaac Newton dazzled the world with the beautiful colors of the spectrum, and Olaus Roemer in Denmark measured the velocity of light.

But it remained for an assorted collection of amateurs, philosophers and other scientists to carry on the exploration of electricity.

Otto von Guericke, burgomaster of Magdeburg, Germany, opened a new chapter in experimental science when he built the first electrical machine in 1660. The machine – a rotating sulfur globe excited by frictional contact with the hands or a cloth – produced quantities of electricity far greater than previously available and led to a host of new experiments.

Improved variations on his machine soon appeared. Sir Isaac Newton built such an apparatus with a glass globe in 1675. With it, he explored attraction, repulsion, sparking and other phenomena. Francis Hauksbee, Newton's assistant, noticed luminous effects when a vessel containing mercury was shaken. (The first fluorescent light?)

Then in 1729, Stephen Gray a pensioner in London found that electricity could be transmitted along or induced into very long lines of thread when these were suitably suspended by filaments. With experimentation, Gray and a coworker, Granville Wheeler, reached the remarkable distance of 765 feet.

Gray was thus led to make the fundamental distinction between insulators and conductors: silk filaments did not permit the electricity to leak away, while equally fine copper wires did. He may have been the first to use wires as conductors.

In Paris, Charles Du Fay repeated and continued Gray's work. He showed that all bodies could be electrified; in the case of conductors, it was necessary that they be insulated. The most important of Du Fay's contributions was his classification of electricity into two kinds: vitreous and resinous. These electricities, Du Fay said, repel similar charges and attract opposite kinds.

The popular pastime of sparks

Events moved quickly after Du Fay. In Germany, E. G. von Kleist built the first apparatus to store electricity. Credit for the Leyden jar actually goes to von Kleist, even though Pieter van Musschenbrock of Leyden, Holland is often cited as the inventor.

In England, Sir William Watson, Henry Cavendish, a Dr. Bevis and others improved the jar and, with it, tried to measure the speed of electricity. They discharged the jar through a circuit 12,276 feet in length. The decision: Transmission was instantaneous.

Watson was the first to use the terms, plus and minus, and so may have shared Ben Franklin's great discovery that electricity was of one kind and not, as was then thought, two different fluids. Watson's book of 1746, the Nature and Properties of Electricity, was said to have first aroused Franklin's interest in the subject.

This, then, was the body of serious knowledge before Franklin. In England and Europe, electricity was a great curiosity, the scientific entertainment of the day.

In France, the Abbè Nollet, a student of Du Fay and later Franklin's rival, delighted King Louis XV with the sight of 700 monks, joined hand and hand, leaping into the air simultaneously, robes flying, at the shock of a Leyden jar.

Another oft–repeated trick was to hang a young boy by silk cords from the ceiling and draw "sparks of fire" from his face and hands after he had been electrified.

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Two early frictional electrostatic machines. Franklin used the one on the right; the other was described by Priestley in his monumental book on electricity.

In the America of 1746, science – or natural philosophy, as it was then called – was practically nonexistent. Americans were forbidden by the British to engage in arts and crafts based on natural phenomena. Men were still cautious about new notions, and the Puritan ethic subsisted.

Into this vacuum stepped Franklin, a man of 40 about to retire from a successful career as a printer. Renaissance man, Rabelaisian figure, vigorous athlete, sexual intriguer, Franklin was totally unlike the dumpy figure depicted in his portraits of later years. And he was completely serious about electricity.

Franklin the demigod

In scarcely 10 years of investigation, Franklin established the positive–negative nature of electricity, proved the connection between lightning and electricity, explained the Leyden jar, in vented the "condenser," and performed other miracles."

Lacking terminology, Franklin invented words as he went along. His was the very lexicon of modern electricity: positive, negative, battery, condenser, charge, discharge, electric shock, electrician, armature, brush and conductor.

Although it was the lightning rod that made Franklin a demigod to his contemporaries (The French thought of him as the reincarnation of Socrates and kept his portrait under their pillows. In 1778, the latest Paris fashion was lightning–rod hats.), it was among the least of his achievements.

Franklin's condenser (or "battery" as he called it) formed an evolutionary link between the short–time sparks of the Leyden jar and the continuous current of the later voltaic cell.

He hinted at the existence of a basic charge, and his single–fluid theory led directly to the concept of electrons moving through conductors. He unified the disorderly body of existing knowledge. These were the bases for all subsequent advances. The theory was not a contraption, it was a thought–one that snapped the encumbranceis of the mind and left mankind free to explore new unknowns.

Other Americans contributed, but none held a candle to Franklin. Ebenezer Kinnersley, a fellow experimenter and neighbor, did some original work and went on to become a famous lecturer. Philip Syng, a local silversmith, built a rotating generator that "did away with the fatigue of rubbing."

The legendary kite experiment did, in fact, take place in June, 1752. Franklin gave a brief and cryptic account in his Autobiography. But it was Joseph Priestly who told the details fifteen years later in his two–volume History and Present State of Electricity –the 18th century's definitive work on the subject.

Actually, Franklin was beaten to the punch. It was in 1749 that he first suggested the "sameness of lightning with electricity." A year later, Franklin communicated to Peter Collinson of the Royal Society the details of how the theory might be experimentally verified. Another two years passed before the paper was published in Paris, but then the experiment was immediately carried out:

Messieurs Jean Dalibard and Delor, carefully following Franklin's instructions, drew sparks to a pointed rod during a thunderstorm in May, 1752 – one month before Franklin's kite flying episode.

In Russia, another experimenter, the Swede George Wilhelm Richmann, failed to ground his apparatus–as Franklin had suggested–and paid the consequences: A spark nearly a foot long leaped from the rod to Richmann's head and made him the first martyr to the new science.

War strikes the Colonies

Franklin's rapid success, starting almost from zero, is an indication of the primitive state of the subject, as well as of his own ability. All his work was done by hand, by trial and error, with simple tools. He made no quantitative efforts; as a schoolboy, he had flunked arithmetic. And it seemed that the more he read on the subject, the less original work he did.

By 1756 Franklin's efforts in electricity had waned, and he turned to other interests. Social storm clouds were gathering. The colonies were in foment, a distinctively "American national" character was developing, and Franklin was a political animal.

While the Crown had its hands full with the discontent in the colonies, others in Europe saw fit to attack Franklin's work. Abbè Nollet, sulking at being outshone by the new star in the west, opposed lightning rods and "kept his confidence in the ringing of church bells."

A controversy arose: Which was the best method to terminate the top of the rod? Some preferred a round knob, forgetting Franklin's reasoning that the rod worked best with a sharp point. Others, like Nollet, objected to the point, claiming it would tend to draw lightning to the location being protected.

In England, the argument was settled at the highest level. In a rage against the "American" revolution, King George III ordered all royal lightning rods to be fitted with rounded ends.

The Colonial pot boiled over in 1775, and the Revolutionary War began. The war for "the rights of Englishmen" became a war for independence. And on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was made. Thomas Paine's rabble–rousing tract, Common Sense, had done its job.

Only one other man of the day approached Franklin in achievement. What Franklin is to electricity, Massachusetts–born Benjamin Thompson (later Count Rumford) is to heat. But the analogy stops abruptly. In contrast to Franklin, Thompson was, among other things, a rogue, scoundrel and extortionist. Luckily for the colonies, Thompson spent most of his days away.

A military genius, Thompson founded the science of modern ballistics and contributed significantly to weapons improvement. Among his scientific and technological achievements: The founding of modern heat theory, the thermos bottle, the enclosed cooking range and the drip coffee pot.

He was the first to discover convection currents, to explain why clothing keeps the body warm. The first photometer is Thompson's, as is the term "candle power." He invented the steam heat radiator and installed the first central heating system.

Thief, conniver and British spy that he was, the world lives better today because of Benjamin Thompson.

The age of measurement arrives

After Franklin, the focus of electrical discovery again shifted to Europe, where it would remain for another 75 years. Continued investigations into inductive effects led to Alessandro Volta's electrophorous–a disc–and–pan arrangement that conveniently produced large quantities of electricity with little effort.

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Franklin proved that a spark generates heat. Discharge of the Leyden jar across the gap (F-G) raised the reading on the thermometer (a).

Quantitative measurements arrived with a series of electrometers and electroscopes made with pith–balls or wire. The Reverend Abraham Bennet gets credit for the gold–leaf electroscope, with subsequent improvements by William Pepys. The device became the most sensitive detector of its day.

The most important device of this kind was the torsion balance invented by John Michell in England about 1770, and independently by Charles Coulomb in France about ten years later. With the instrument, Henry Cavendish determined the mean density of the earth and in 1771 discovered the inverse square law of force between two charged bodies.

It was Coulomb, however, who demonstrated with great accuracy the inverse–square law governing electric and magnetic fields. Others had stated the law, but none had proven it completely. Coulomb's work marked the start of quantitative analysis in electricity and, for his efforts, the unit of electric charge was named after him.

Work continued during the closing years of the 18th century. Electric lines, of force were observed, huge frictional electrical machines and connected Leyden jars were built. The magnetic properties of materials were investigated. Joseph Priestly wrote the first electrical history and prophesied many of the developments to come.

Rationality gains ground

But despite 200 years of progress, despite the long list of investigators and achievements, there was not yet a single practical application of electricity. Electricity had been lifted out of the realm of mystery but it remained for the 19th century to push it into the province of pragmatism.

Other areas of science and technology were making giant strides in the late 1700s: the science of acoustics was founded, Uranus was discovered, the torpedo was invented.

Men began to think more rationally. From Immanuel Kant came the Critique of Pure Reason; from Edward Gibbon, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In the Colonies, the war for independence was won. A new republic was born and, in its infancy, produced two of the greatest documents of all time – the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights.

By the year 1800, the new nation was ripe for a change. It was a year of political upheaval. Washington, Adams and the Federalists had established the government. Now it was the turn of the popular leaders: Jefferson, Hamilton and others.

In Europe, culture flourished. Beethoven's First Symphony appeared in 1799. In Italy, the La Scala Opera opened.

In England, technology manifested itself in the form of the Industrial Revolution–a movement away from cottage industries to factory towns.

In France–birthplace of automation–Joseph Marie Jacquard devised an automatic loom that could weave any design imaginable. Jacquard's secret was a series of cards with holes arranged to "program" the machine to, produce the desired pattern. Thus Jacquard anticipated by 90 years the computer– type punch cards of 19–year–old Herman Hollerith.

Toys and revolution

But the ingenious automations of the French were lavished mostly on clever toys for rich or noble collectors. One such inventor was Pierre Caron, later Count Beaumarchais, who also had a talent for writing.

His play, The Marriage of Figaro, was, in fact, an early warning of the third of the triad of great 18th Century revolutions. When the play was first performed in 1784, it created a scandal throughout Europe. Mozart turned it into an opera, which was produced in Vienna in 1786.

It was the revolutionary spirit of the play that excited Mozart. The Freemasons–a secret society to which Mozalt belonged, and which he glorified in another opera, The Magic Flute–were the antiestablishment group of the time. Attending the Court of King Louis XVI in 1784, when the opera was first performed, was none other than the greatest Freemason of them all, Benjamin Franklin. Five years later a mob marched on the Bastille, and the French Revolution began.

So the year 1800 represents a watershed in the social, political and scientific development of man. Up to then, experiments in electrical science were brief, and resulted from an electrical discharge. But two independent avenues of investigation—those of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta—finally led to the production of steady currents.

As in many other scientific investigations, it was an accident of fate that started Galvani on his now–famous work. An electrical machine was being used at the same time that Galvani, a professor of anatomy, was dissecting a frog. The spark occurring at the instant the scalpel touched the nerve caused the legs of the frog to contract.

Volta and others became interested in this amazing phenomenon, and the subsequent investigations became the source of one of the greatest scientific rivalries of all time.

Galvani was convinced that the muscles or nerves were the source of the electricity. Might not, he thought, the vital principle of life be electricity ?

Volta felt otherwise–it was in the metals, not the muscles, he claimed. But Galvani proved that metals weren't even necessary–contact of the nerve with the muscle was sufficient to cause contractions.

Birth of the battery

The conflict polarized the scientific world. Battle lines were drawn, debate raged, and each camp accused the other of heresy. In the end–though there was truth on both sides–Volta's ideas prevailed. Sadly, Galvani died in 1798, never to know the outcome of the debate.

Then, in 1800, came the breakthrough that pushed electricity into new achievements. Volta discovered that two different metals in contact can generate electricity. His "pile" consisted of a column of stacked, circular discs of zinc and silver, with the dissimilar metals separated by cardboard pieces soaked in salt water or other conducting solutions.

Subsequent work produced bigger and better batteries, and the study of electricity became the study of currents rather than of static charges.

New developments came rapidly. Charging, electroplating, the decomposition of water–all were discovered. In America, Dr. Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania built a battery strong enough to fuse large chunks of metal. Other important electrochemical studies took place.

With a battery, Sir Humphry Davy was able to lay the foundation for ionization theory and to isolate elements: sodium, potassium, strontium, barium, boron, calcium, chlorine, fluorine and iodine. In 1810, Davy unveiled the carbon–arc lamp, using the battery as the electrical source.

Strangely, it was Davy–not Volta–who explained that the electricity of the battery was due to chemical action. But Volta got the honors. From Napoleon came a gold medal, the Legion of Honor and 6000 francs. The scientific world named the unit of electromotive force after Volta.

A gap of 20 years spanned the interval between the discovery of voltaic electricity and the next great development. Again the breakthrough was an accident.

At a private lecture in the spring of 1820 Hans Christian Oersted happened to place a conducting wire over and parallel to a magnetic needle. The resulting swing of the needle startled Oersted, and he made a mental note to pursue the phenomenon.

In just three months of subsequent work, Oersted had resolved the problem. On July 21, 1820, he published his results. 2400 years after Thales, the connection between magnetism and electricity had been fused; electromagnetism was born.

Oersted's tract announced that an electric current in a conductor created a circular magnetic field around the conductor. Furthermore, not only was a compass needle deflected by the electric current, but a wire that carried current could be deflected by a magnet.

Incredibly simple as the relationship seems, two decades of investigation by scores of fine minds failed to make the connection.

In the years from 1820 to 1860, a lineup of brilliant men established practically all of the familiar electric and magnetic laws. The names include: Ampère, Biot, Coulomb, Faraday, Gauss, Green, Helmholtz, Henry, Joule, Kirchoff, Lenz, Kelvin, Maxwell, Ohm, Poisson, Savart and Weber.

The seeds of a giant

Among the discoveries and inventions during the period were the thermoelectric effects of Thomas Seebeck and Jean Peltier; the first crude galvanometers by Schweigger and Poggendorff; and the first electromagnet by William Sturgeon in 1825-16 turns of wire around a soft iron core bent into a horseshoe shape.

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The first battery: Volta's pile as drawn by Volta himself in a letter to the president of the Royal Society. Four variations are shown.

The first forty years of the 19th century brought progress the like of which may never be seen again. It was the time of Chopin and Beethoven, Dickens and Jane Austen. The year 1812 saw President Madison declare war on Great Britain, while Napoleon was beating a hasty retreat from Moscow and, in Germany, Beethoven was putting the finishing touches on both his 7th and 8th Symphonies. In London that year gag lighting was installed on all main streets.

The period also saw the first steam locomotive in the USA and the first steamship crossing of the Atlantic. Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the wilderness and, little by little, the original narrow coastal ribbon of the colonies spread westward. The Monroe Doctrine, the Missouri Compromise, the Indian Wars–all were burnt into the pages of history.

Meanwhile, the seeds of a giant new industry were being planted by the unlikely partnership of an English intellectual and a child mathematical prodigy. Charles Babbage collaborated with Lady Lovelace, daughter and only child of Lord Byron, on the first true binary computer, the "difference" engine. Despite a ten–year effort, from 1823 to 1833, the machine was never completed. But the ground had been plowed–and though it would take another 100 years–progress would have its way.

"Men of great soul, what astonishing things have they arrived unto!" wrote Cotton Mather in The Christian Philosopher, the first American book of science aimed at a popular audience. One hundred years later Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry produced one of the most astonishing discoveries of all.

Ever since Oersted's announcement, a prime goal of investigators was the reciprocal condition—the generation of electricity by a magnetic source. In England, Michael Faraday, Davy's assistant, sought the elusive goal. For ten years he worked, with no success. Then, the breakthrough: The opening and closing of a battery circuit connected to a coil caused a deflection in a galvanometer. The meter was connected to a second coil wound on the same iron bar as the first coil but not connected to it.

Faraday then discarded the battery and moved the bar–and–coil arrangement near a large magnet. As the bar moved toward the magnet, the galvanometer needle spun violently. When Faraday pulled the bar away, the needle zoomed around in the opposite direction. Electromagnetic induction had been discovered.

Induction discovered—twice

In just ten days of work–after ten years of trying–Faraday in 1831 formulated the basic laws of electromagnetic generation. Again, the world was jolted. In terms of its effects on mankind, this was clearly one of the greatest discoveries of all time.

The genius of Faraday touched many other areas, especially the, study of electrochemistry. Like Franklin before him, Faraday's work led him to create new terms. They include: diamagnetic, paramagnetic, dielectric, ion, anion, cation, lines of force, anode, cathode, electrode, electrolyte and others.

Three months after Faraday published his work on induction, an unknown American researcher casually picked up a magazine that carried a report of Faraday's findings. Joseph Henry was devastated by what he read.

Independently–and unknown to Faraday, Henry had a year earlier discovered induction. But Henry was reluctant to publish. His earlier theatrical training had convinced him that every demonstration must be foolproof, so he waited until he could build an overwhelming mass of data. He was to regret the delay for the rest of his life.

Not since Franklin had America seen a man of Henry's caliber, and the country needed such men to offset European criticism of the lack of culture in the New World. But America didn't sympathize with Henry when he finally published. It blamed him, and almost cut short his career.

Luckily, Henry continued. In subsequent work, he invented the relay and used the device to build the first electromagnetic telegraph system. His work on mutual induction is considered definitive on step–up and step–down transformers. And earlier, by the "simple" process of insulating wire by hand with silk, Henry built powerful electromagnets that could lift as much as a ton.

In 1837—six years after Faraday's ascent to fame— a group of scientists in England attempted a simple experiment. The object: to draw sparks from a thermocouple. One end of the couple lay on a red–hot stove; the other was imbedded in ice.

Charles Wheatstone touched the free ends of the wires together. No spark. "No, no," Faraday exclaimed, "you're doing it all wrong." Then Faraday tried. Still no spark. Finally, a third man stepped up, coiled a length of wire around his finger and slipped it around an iron rod. The man added the coil to one of the thermocouple leads, then brushed the ends together. The result: clearly visible sparks.

"Hurrah for the Yankee experiment!" cried Faraday. "What in the world did you do?" And so Joseph Henry had to explain self-induction to the man made famous for the discovery of induction.

Henry had described the phenomenon of self-induction in his paper of 1832. He had observed the effect as early as 1831. But no one in Europe, apparently, had read Henry's paper.

A rabbit changes the course of history

The amazing similarity between the work of Henry and Faraday also extends to their lives. Accidents of history surrounded Henry: If it were not for a pet rabbit, he might never have become the man he did. When Henry was thirteen, the animal ran away. He dug after it and came up under a church, inside a locked room containing a library of romantic novels.

Henry began to read and was so enthralled by the melodraxna, he resolved to study acting. Three years later, too ill to go to the theater for his lessons, Henry picked up a book left behind by a boarder. The opening paragraph read: "You throw a stone or shoot an arrow into the air, why does it not go forward in a line with the direction you give it?" Henry had discovered "natural philosophy."

In one of Henry's last experiments, in 1842, he observed that he could magnetize needles in a basement with an electric spark originating two floors above. Henry compared the effect with the propagation of light. Twenty–five years later, Maxwell quantified Henry's observations in the four equations of electrodynamics.

It was a nervous milieu in which Henry worked in the 1830s. The American West was opening up. Jacksonian democracy was spreading, and there was mounting interest in politics. The total vote in the presidential election of 1824 was only 356,000; by 1836 it rose to 1,500,000. Four years later, the vote was 2,400,000.

Manners were loosening. Foreign observers were shocked at the widespread spitting of tobacco and the recklessness and violence of American society. Human life took a back seat to the progress of a fast developing country, and little attention was paid to safety. Railroad collisions and steamboat explosions were frequent. Hurriedly erected frame houses burned regularly in New York, while in 1836 two of the city's largest business buildings collapsed. Dueling and lynching became common. Law was undependable; Bowie knives and pistols weren't.

If America had little time for manners or culture, the deficiency was more than made up on the other side of the Atlantic. Chopin's Etudes and Mazurkas slipped from the keys to the printed page; Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers; and from the soul of Donizetti came the opera Lucia di Lammermoora. While Chopin worked on the first of his delightful "practice pieces," the packet ship Sully sailed from Europe on its way back across the Atlantic. Aboard was America's most successful portrait painter, Samuel Finley Breese Morse.

"What hath God wrought?"

On ship, Morse was excited. He had seen some European experiments dealing with electromagnetism. Faraday had published just a few months earlier. Morse wondered: Could not the effect be used to send messages over a wire?

During the voyage, Morse made sketches. He spent the next three years trying to build the device he had sketched. But Morse had little money and three small children; his wife had died earlier. Circumstances conspired against him: nothing came of his work. Perhaps a major reason for his trouble was that Morse knew next to nothing about the basic principles of electricity.

But lack of knowledge couldn't stop Morse. He lived in a time when inventors were popular heroes. A legend had taken root: Yankee inventiveness could do anything. Fueling the "American myth" were the almost unbelievable careers of such men as Charles Goodyear, Elias Howe, Eli Whitney, John Stevens, Robert Fulton and others.

So Morse plunged headlong into the search for a practical telegraph, one that could win the $30,000 prize offered by Congress for a thousand–mile system. And in the end, the myth prevailed. American know–how triumphed. But the question remains: Did the know-how belong to Morse?

When Leonard Gale, a colleague at the newly opened University of the City of New York, saw one of Morse's contrivances, he took pity on him. Gale had read Henry's papers. He pointed out to Morse the need for insulation on the windings of his electromagnets, and showed Morse how to arrange the battery circuit.

When Gale left to teach in the South, Morse journeyed to Princeton to seek advice from Henry himself. Henry corrected the errors in Morse's system and explained that a single battery couldn't send a signal over the desired distance. The solution: Henry's relay.

Morse's luck held. A backer, Stephen Vail, agreed to put up $2000 if Morse would take on his son Alfred. Morse agreed and, as it turned out, Alfred Vail was a true inventor. It was he who worked out the final form of Morse's code, he who introduced the key, he who reduced the machine to the final, compact form. And it was Vail who invented the printing telegraph that was patented in Morse's name.

Meanwhile, others struggled to make their names. Goodyear was busy churning raw rubber with cream cheese, soup, salt, pepper and other exotic ingredients. His goal was to create a practical form of rubber that wouldn't melt or harden under temperature extremes. But hard times came in 1837. Morse was broke, without money to eat. McCormick's iron foundry was bankrupted, Goodyear's family was starving.

The panic of 1837 dashed Morse's hopes of financial aid from the government. He rushed to Europe to secure foreign patent protection.

In England, he was told Wheatstone had already invented the electromagnetic telegraph; in Russia, Baron Schilling had beaten Morse to the punch. But the Czar considered distant communication subversive and banned all publicity. On the continent, Morse was told that Steinheil had invented the device–it could be seen at any railroad station.

Morse persisted. In 1840, he received his U.S. patent, in 1843, assistance from the government. By 1850, Morse and his partners were organizing a telegraph company to build a New York–Philadelphia line. At this point, Morse kicked out Vail and most of his early helpers.

In retrospect, the first 40 years of the 1800s marked the turning point from the investigative, foundation years to the era of practical engineering. Dynamos and electric motors were being built, batteries were being improved.

Before 1838 only about 500 patents had been issued. Within three years after the patent law of 1888, over ten thousand patents were granted.

Soon to come were the first transatlantic cable, the telephone, the electric' lamp. Each of these would lead to thousands of by-products and to new major industries.

Thus the decade ended, poised on the brink of a new, dramatic era in "American technology".


Based on the bicentennial issue of

Electronic Design
for engineers and engineering managers

Vol 24, number 4   Feb. 16, 1976
© 1976   Hayden Publishing Company Inc.
50 Essex St.   Rochelle Park, NJ   07662


Historical Time Line — Introduction

The Foundation Years   The Era of Giants   The Communications Era

The Vacuum Tube Era   The Transistor Era   The Integrated Circuit Era

AM Broadcast Basics
The Original Theory for Radio was Presented by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873.
Nikola Tesla was the first to patent a workable system.

Gravity   Site Link List   Crossed-Field AM Antenna  

Magnetism   Maxwell's Equations in Magnetic Media

The Tortoise Shell Life Science Puzzle Box Front Page