Experiments with Alternating Currents of High Frequency


In The Electrical Engineer issue of 11th inst., I find a note of Prof. Elihu Thomson relating to some of my experiments with alternating currents of very high frequency.

Prof. Thomson calls the attention of your readers to the interesting fact that he has performed some experiments in the same line. I was not quite unprepared to hear this, as a letter from him has appeared in the Electrician a few months ago, in which he mentions a small alternate current machine which was capable of giving, I believe, 5,000 alternations per second, from which letter it likewise appears that his investigations on that subject are of a more recent date.

Prof. Thomson describes an experiment with a bulb enclosing a carbon filament which was brought to incandescence by the bombardment of the molecules of the residual gas when the bulb was immersed in water “rendered slightly conducting by salt dissolved therein,” (?) and a potential of 1,000 volts alternating 5,000 time a second applied to the carbon strip. Similar experiments have, of course, been performed by many experimenters, the only distinctive feature in Prof. Thomson’s experiment being the comparatively high rate of alternation. These experiments can also be performed with a steady difference of potential between the water and the carbon strip in which case, of course, conduction through the glass takes place, the difference of potential required being in proportion to the thickness of the glass. With 5,000 alternations per second, conduction still takes place, but the condenser effect is preponderating. It goes, of course, without saying that the healing of the glass in such a case is principally due to the bombardment of the molecules, partly also to leakage or conduction, but it is an undeniable fact that the glass may also be heated merely by the molecular displacement. The interesting feature in ray experiments was that a lamp would light up when brought near to an induction coil, and that it could be held in the hand and the filament brought to incandescence.

Experiments of the kind described I have followed up for a long time with some practical objects in view. In connection with the experiment described by Prof. Thomson, if may be of interest to mention a very pretty phenomenon which may be observed with an incandescent lamp. If a lamp be immersed in water as far as practicable and the filament and the vessel connected to the terminals of an induction coil operated from a machine such as I have used in my experiments, one may see the dull red filament surrounded by a very luminous globe around which there is a less luminous space. The effect is probably due to reflection, as the globe is sharply defined, but may also be due to a “dark space;” at any rate it is so pretty that it must be seen to be appreciated.

Prof. Thomson has misunderstood my statement about the limit of audition. I was perfectly well aware of the fact that opinions differ widely on this point. Nor was I surprised to find that arcs of about 10,000 impulses per second, emit a sound. My statement ” the curious point is,” etc. was only made in deference to an opinion expressed by Sir William Thomson. There was absolutely no stress laid on the precise number. The popular belief was that something like 10,000 to 20,000 per second, or 20,000 to 40,000, at the utmost was the limit. For my argument this was immaterial. I contended that sounds of an incomparably greater number, that is, many times even the highest number, could be heard if they could be produced with sufficient power. My statement was only speculative, but I have devised means which I think may allow me to learn something definite on that point. I have not the least doubt that it is simply a question of power. A very short arc may be silent with 10,000 per second, but just as soon as it is lengthened it begins to emit a sound. The vibrations are the same in number, but more powerful.

Prof. Thomson states that I am taking as the limit of “audition sounds from 5,000 to 10,000 complete waves per second.” There is nothing in my statements from which the above could be inferred, but Prof. Thomson has perhaps not thought that there are two sound vibrations for each complete current wave, the former being independent of the direction of the current.

I am glad to learn that Prof. Thomson agrees with me as to the causes of the persistence of the arc. Theoretical considerations considerable time since have led me to the belief that arcs produced by currents of such high frequency would possess this and other desirable features. One of my objects in this direction has been to produce a practicable small arc. With these, currents, for many reasons, much smaller arcs are practicable.

The interpretation by Prof. Thomson of my statements about the arc system leads me now, he will pardon me for saying so, to believe that what is most essential to the success of an arc system is a good management. Nevertheless I feel confident of the correctness of the views expressed. The conditions in practice are so manifold that it is impossible for any type of machine to prove best in all the different conditions.

In one case, where the circuit is many miles long, it is desirable to employ the most efficient machine with the least internal resistance; in another case such a machine would not be the best to employ. It will certainly be admitted that a machine of any type must have a greater resistance if intended to operate arc lights than if it is designed to supply incandescent lamps in series. When arc lights are operated and the resistance is small, the lamps are unsteady, unless a type of lamp is employed in which the carbons are separated by a mechanism which has no further influence upon the feed, the feeding being effected by an independent mechanism; but even in this case the resistance must be considerably greater to allow a quiet working of the lamps. Now, if the machine be such as to yield a steady current, there is no way of attaining the desired result except by putting the required resistance somewhere either inside or outside of the machine. The latter is hardly practicable, for the customer may stand a hot machine, but he looks with suspicion upon a hot resistance box. A good automatic regulator of course improves the machine and allows us to reduce the internal resistance to some extent, but not as far as would be desirable. Now, since resistance is loss, we can advantageously replace resistance in the machine by an equivalent impedance. But to produce a great impedance with small ohmic resistance, it is necessary to have self-induction and variation of current, and the greater the self-induction and the rate of change of the current, the greater the impedance may be made, while the ohmic resistance may be very small. It may also be remarked that the impedance of the circuit external to the machine is likewise increased. As regards the increase in ohmic resistance in consequence of the variation of the current, the same is, in the commercial machines now in use, very small. Clearly then a great advantage is gained by providing self induction in the machine circuit and undulating the current, for it is possible to replace a machine which has a resistance of, say, 16 ohms by one which has no more than 2 or 3 ohms, and the lights will work even steadier. It seems to me therefore, that my saying that self-induction is essential to the commercial success of an arc system is justified. What is still more important, such a machine will cost considerably less. But to realize fully the benefits, it is preferably to employ an alternate current machine, as in this case a greater rate of change in the current is obtainable. Just what the ratio of resistance to impedance is in the Brush and Thomson machines is nowhere stated, but I think that it is smaller in the Brush machine, judging from its construction.

As regards the better working of clutch lamps with undulating currents, there is, according to my experience, not the least doubt about it. I have proved it on a variety of lamps to the complete satisfaction not only of myself, but of many others. To see the improvement in the feed due to the jar of the clutch at its best it is desirable to employ a lamp in which an independent clutch mechanism effects the feed, and the release of the rod is independent of the up and down movement. In such a lamp the clutch has a small inertia and is very sensitive to vibration, whereas, if the feed is effected by the up and down movement of the lever carrying the rod, the inertia of the system is so great that it is not affected as much by vibration, especially if, as in many cases, a dash pot is employed. During the year 1885 I perfected such a lamp which wan calculated to be operated with undulating currents. With about 1,500 to 1,800 current impulses per minute the feed of this lamp is such that absolutely no movement of the rod can be observed, even if the arc be magnified fifty-fold by means of a lens; whereas, if a steady current is employed, the lamp feeds by small steps. I have, however, demonstrated this feature on other types of lamps, among them being a derived circuit lamp such as Prof. Thomson refers to. I conceived the

idea of such a lamp early in 1884, and when my first company was started, this was the first lamp I perfected. It was not until the lamp was ready for manufacture that, on receiving copies of applications from the Patent Office, I learned for the first time, not having had any knowledge of the state of the art in America, that Prof. Thomson had anticipated me and had obtained many patents on this principle, which, of course, greatly disappointed and embarrassed me at that time. I observed the improvement of the feed with undulating currents on that lamp, but I recognized the advantage of providing a light and independent clutch unhampered in its movements. Circumstances did not allow me to carry out at that time some designs of machines I had in mind, and with the existing machines the lamp has worked at a great disadvantage. I cannot agree with Prof. Thomson that small vibrations would benefit a clockwork lamp as much as a clutch lamp; in fact, I think that they do not at all benefit a clockwork lamp.

It would be interesting to learn the opinion of Mr. Charles F. Brush on these points.

Prof. Thomson states that he has run with perfect success clutch lamps “in circuit with coils of such large self-induction that any but very slight fluctuations were wiped out.” Surely Prof. Thomson does not mean to say that self-induction wiped out the periodical fluctuations of the current. For this, just the opposite quality, namely, capacity, is required. The self-induction of the coils in this case simply augmented the impedance and prevented the great variations occurring at large time intervals, which take place when the resistance in circuit with the lamps is too small, or even with larger resistance in circuit when the dash pots either in the lamps or elsewhere are too loose.

Prof. Thomson further states that in a lamp in which the feed mechanism is under the control of the derived circuit magnet only, the fluctuations pass through the arc without affecting the magnet to a perceptible degree. It is true that the variations of the resistance of the arc, in consequence of the variations in the current strength, are such as to dampen the fluctuation. Nevertheless, the periodical fluctuations are transmitted through the derived circuit, as one may convince himself easily of, by holding a thin plate of iron against the magnet.

In regard to the physiological effects of the currents I may state that upon reading the memorable lecture of Sir William Thomson, in which he advanced his views on the propagation of the alternate currents through conductors, it instantly occurred to me that currents of high frequencies would be less injurious. I have been looking for a proof that the mode of distribution through the body is the cause of the smaller physiological effects. At times I have thought to have been able to locate the pain in the outer portions of the body, but it is very uncertain. It is most certain, however, that the feeling with currents of very high frequencies is somewhat different from that with low frequencies. I have also noted the enormous importance of one being prepared for the shock or not. If one is prepared, the effect upon the nerves is not nearly as great as when unprepared. With alternations as high as 10,000 per second and upwards, one feels but little pain in the central portion of the body. A remarkable feature of such currents of high tension is that one receives a burn instantly he touches the wire, but beyond that the pain is hardly noticeable.

But since the potential difference across the body by a given current through it is very small, the effects can not be very well ascribed to the surface distribution of the current, and the excessively low resistance of the body to such rapidly varying currents speak rather for a condenser action.

In regard to the suggestion of Dr. Tatum, which Prof. Thomson mentions in another article in the same issue, I would state that I have constructed machines up to 480 poles, from which it is possible to obtain about 30,000 alternations per second, and perhaps more. I have also designed types of machines in which the field would revolve in an opposite direction to the armature, by which means it would be possible to obtain from a similar machine 60,000 alternations per second or more.

I highly value the appreciation of Prof. Thomson of my work, but I must confess that in his conclusion he makes a most astounding statement as to the motives of his critical remarks. I have never for a moment thought that his remarks would be dictated by anything but friendly motives. Often we are forced in daily life to represent opposing interests or opinions, but surely in the higher aims the feelings of friendship and mutual consideration should not be affected by such things as these.

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