Saturday, 16 January 2016

A Little Learning…

…is a dangerous thing, or at least a misleading one. Among the odder items in my current reading is a book called ‘The Universe a Vast Electric Organism’ by George Woodward Warder, published in 1903.

One early evening Mr Warder called in his servant to light the gas-lamps. In walking to the lamp the servant deliberately shuffled his way across the thick carpet and then, instead of lighting a match, simply held his finger close to the gas jet, whereupon a spark jumped across the gap and lit the gas. Using his little learning, and no doubt observing other phenomena of what those with a little more learning know as static electricity, Mr Warder set about writing this extraordinary farrago of speculation.

In a way of course Mr Warder was right: the universe is full of electricity, because it is composed of atoms, and round the nuclei of atoms whiz electrons, which can be dislodged by, say, shuffling across the carpet. Being now a touch short of electrons, the servant was in a state of electrical tension; tension that was relieved when he brought his finger to the gas-jet, which, being connected via its pipe to that huge reservoir of electrons the earth, made good the shortage by sending some spare electrons across the gap; their rapid passage heated the space in between sufficiently to light the gas.

Now all this remained most mysterious until various pioneers started making their researches, which with any luck were rather more rigorous and a little bit less fantastic than Mr Warder’s. The trouble is, between about the time of Benjamin Franklin and the time of the great Nikola Tesla, the field was open to all sorts of entertaining loonies whose minds were so open their brains had dropped out.

Never mind; it’s all good harmless fun. And perhaps in fifty years people will laugh about what we currently ‘know’ about electricity: “‘Electrons’ indeed!”

Here’s a more spectacular example of a discharge of static electricity:


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