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Michael Faraday
(22 Sep 1791 - 25 Aug 1867)

English physicist and chemist who was a great experimentalist. His major contributions included the early understanding of electromagnetism.


Light-House Illumination—The Electric Light.

A Christmas Lecture Delivered Before the Royal Institution on Friday, 9 Mar 1860.

[p.171]  There is no part of my life which gives me more delight than my connection with the Trinity House. The occupation of nations joined together to guide the mariner over the sea, to all a point of great interest, is infinitely more so to those who are concerned in the operations which they carry into effect, and it certainly has astonished me since I have been connected with the Trinity House to see how beautifully and how wonderfully shines forth among nations at large the desire to do good; and you will not regret having come here to-night if you follow me in the various attempts which have been made to carry out the great object of guiding in safety all people across the dark [p.172]  and dreary waste of waters. It is wonderful to think how eagerly efforts at improvement are made by the various public bodies—the Trinity House in this country, and commissions in France and other nations; and, while the improvements progress, we come to the knowledge of such curious difficulties, and such odd modes of getting over those difficulties, as are not easy to be conceived. I must ask you this evening to follow me from the simplest possible method of giving a sign by means of a light to persons at a distance, to the modes at which we have arrived in the present day, and to consider the difficulties which arise when carrying out these improvements to a practical result, and the extraordinary care which those who have to judge on these points must take in order to guard against the too hasty adoption of some fancied improvement, thus, as has happened in some few cases, doing harm instead of good.

If I try to make you understand these things, partly by old models and partly by those which we have here, it is only that I may the better be enabled to illustrate that which I look forward [p.173]  to as the higher mode of lighting, by means of the electric lamp and the lime light.

Fig. 55.
Fig. 55.

There is nothing more simple than a candle being set down in a cottage window to guide a husband to his home, but when we want to make a similar guide on a large scale, not merely over a river or over a moor, but over large expanses of sea, how can we then make the signal, using only a candle? I have shown in this diagram (fig. 55) what we may imagine to be the rays of a candle or any other source of light emanating from the centre of a sphere in all directions round to infinite distances. After this simple kind of light had been used for some time, it being found to be liable to be obscured [p.174]  by fogs, or distance, or other circumstance, there arose the attempt to make larger lights by means of fires; and after that there was introduced a very important refinement in the mode of dealing with the light, namely, the principle of reflection; for understand this (which is not known by all, and not known by many who should know it), that when we take a source of light—a single candle, for instance, giving off any quantity of light, we can by no means increase that light; we can make arrangements around and about the light, as you see here, but we can by no means increase the quantity of light. The utmost I can do is to direct the light which the lamp gives me, by taking a certain portion of the rays going off on one side and reflecting them on to the course of the rays which issue in the opposite direction. First of all, let us consider how we may gather in the rays of light which pass off from this candle. You will easily see that if I could take the half rays on the one side, and could send them, by any contrivance, over to the other side, I should gain an advantage in light on the side to which I directed them. This is effected in a beautiful [p.175]  manner by the parabolic mirror, by means of which. I gather all that portion of the rays which are included in it—upward, downward, sideways, any where within its sphere of action, they are all picked up and sent forward. You thus see what a beautiful and important invention is that of the parabolic reflector for throwing forward the rays of light.

Fig. 56.
Fig. 56.

Before I go farther into the subject of reflection, let me point out a farther mode of dealing with the direction of the light. For instance, here is a candle, and I can employ the principle of refraction to bend and direct the rays of light, and if I want to increase the light in any one direction, I must either take a reflector or use the principle of refraction. I will place this lens (fig. 56) in front of the candle, and you will easily see that by its means I can throw on to that sheet of paper a great light; that is to say, that instead of the [p.176]  light being thrown all about, it is refracted and concentrated on to that paper; so here I have another means of bending the light and sending it in one direction; and you see above a still better arrangement for the same purpose—one which comes up to the maximum, I may say, of the ability of directing light by this means. You are aware that without that arrangement of glass the light would be dispersed in all directions, but the lens being there, all the light which passes through it is thrown into parallel beams and cast horizontally along. There is, consequently, no loss of light; the beam goes forward of the same dimensions, and will consequently continue to go forward for five or ten miles, or so long as the imperfection of the atmosphere does not absorb it. And see! what a glorious power that is, to be able to convert what was just now darkness on that paper into brilliant light!

Fig. 57.
Fig. 57.

Whenever we have refraction of this sort, we are liable to an evil consequent upon the necessary imperfections in the form of the lens; and Dr. Tyndall will take this lens, and will show you, even in this small and perfect apparatus, [p.177]  what is the evil of spherical aberration with which we have to fight. This can be illustrated by means of the electric lamp. If you look at the screen, you will see produced, by means of this lens, a figure of the coal points. This image is produced by the rays which pass through the middle of the lens, a piece of card, with a hole in the centre, being placed in front; but if, keeping the rest of the apparatus in the same position, I change this card for another piece which will only allow the rays to pass through the edge of the lens, you observe how inferior the image will be. In order to get it distinct, I have to bring the screen much nearer the lamp; and so, if I take away the card altogether, and allow the light to pass through all parts of the lens, we can not get a perfect image, because the different parts of the lens are not able to act together. This spherical aberration is, therefore, what we try to avoid by building up compound lenses in the manner here shown (fig. 58). Look at this beautiful apparatus; is it not a most charming piece of workmanship? Buffon first, and Fresnel afterward, built up these kind of lenses, ring [p.177]  within ring, each at its proper adjustment, to compensate for the effects of spherical aberration; the ring round that centre lens is ground so as to obviate what would otherwise give rise to spherical aberration, and, the next ring being corrected in the same manner, you will perceive, if you look at the disc of light thrown by the apparatus up stairs, that there is nothing like the amount of aberration that there would have been if it had been one great bull's-eye. Here is one of Fresnel's lamps of the fourth [p.179]  order so constructed (fig. 57): observe the fine effect obtained by these different lenses as you see them revolve before you, and understand that all this upper part is made to form part of the lens, each prism throwing its rays to increase the effect; and although you may think it is imperfect because, if you happen to sit below or above the horizontal line, you perceive but little, if any of the light, yet you must bear in mind that we want the rays to go in a straight line to the horizon; so that all that building up of rings of glass is for the purpose of producing one fine and glorious lens of a large size to send the rays all in one direction. Here is another apparatus used to pull the rays down to a horizontal sheet of light, so that the mariner may see it as a constant and uniform fixed light; the former lamp is a revolving one, and the light is seen only at certain times as the lenses move round, and these are the points which make them valuable in their application.

There are various orders and sizes of lights in light-houses to shine for twenty or thirty miles over the sea, and to give indications [p.180]  according to the purposes for which they are required; but suppose we want more effect than is produced by these means, how are we to get more light? Here comes the difficulty. We can not get more light, because we are limited by the condition of the burner. In any of these cases, if the spreading of the ray, or divergence, as it is called, is not restrained, it soon fails from weakness; and if it does not diverge at all, it makes the light so small that perhaps only one in a hundred can see it at the same time. The South Foreland light-house is, I think, 300 or 400 feet above the level of the sea, and therefore it is necessary to have a certain divergence of the beam of light in order that it may shine along the sea to the horizon. I have drawn here two wedges: one has an angle of 15°, and shows you the manner in which the light opens out from this reflector, seen at the distance of half a mile or more; the other wedge has an angle of 6°, which is the beautiful angle of Fresnel. When the angle is less than 6°, the mariner is not quite sure that he will see the light —he may be beneath or above it; and in practice it is found that we can not have a larger [p.181]  angle than 15°, or a less one than 6°. In order, therefore, to get more light, we must have more combustion, more cotton, more oil; but already there are in that lamp four wicks, put in concentric rings one within the other, and we can not increase them much more, owing to the divergence which would be caused by an increase in the size of the light; the more the divergence, the more the light is diffused and lost. We are therefore restrained by the condition of the light and the apparatus to a certain sized lamp. At Teignmouth some of the revolving lights have ten lamps and reflectors, all throwing their light forward at once. But even with ten lamps and reflectors we do not get sufficient light; and we want, therefore, a means of getting a light more intense than a candle in the space of a candle—not merely an accumulation of candle upon candle, but a concentration into the space of a candle of a greater amount of light, and it is here that the electric light comes to be of so much value.

Let me now show you what are the properties of that light which make it useful for lighthouse illumination, and which has been brought [p.182]  to a practical condition by the energy and constancy of Professor Holmes. I will first of all show you the image of the charcoal points on the screen, and draw your attention to the spot where the light is produced. There are the coal points. The two carbons are brought within a certain distance; the electricity is being urged across by the voltaic battery, and the coal points are brought into an intense state of ignition. You will observe that the light is essentially given by the carbons; you see that one is much more luminous than the other, and that is the end which principally forms the spark; the other does not shine so much; and there is a space between the two which, although not very luminous, is most important to the production of the light. Dr. Tyndall will help me in showing you that a blast of wind will blow out that light; the electric light can in fact be blown out easier than a candle. We have the power of getting our light where we please. If I cause the electricity to pass between carbon and mercury, I get a most intense and beautiful light, most of it being given off from the portion of the mercury between the liquid and [p.183]  the solid pole. I can show you that the light is sometimes produced by the vapor between the two poles better if I take silver that when I use mercury. Here is the carbon pole, there is the silver, and there is the beautiful green light which comes from the intervening portions. Now that light is more easily blown out than the common lamp, the slightest puff of wind being sufficient to extinguish it, as you will see if Dr. Tyndall breathes upon it.

You see, therefore, how we are able, by using this electric spark, to get, first of all, the light into a very small space. That oil lamp has a burner 3¾ inches in diameter; compare the size of the flame with the space occupied by this electric light. Next compare the intensity of this light with any other; if I take this candle and place it by the side, I actually seem to put out the candle. We are thus able to get a light which, while it surpasses all others in brilliancy, is at the same time not too large, for I might put this light into an apparatus not larger than a hat, and yet I could count upon the rays being useful. Moreover, when such large burners are used in a lantern, we have to [p.184]  consider whether the bars of the window do not interfere to throw a shadow or otherwise; but with this light there will be no difficulty of that sort, as a single small speculum no larger than a hat will send it in any direction we please; and it is wonderful what advantages, by reason of its small bulk, we have in the consideration of the different kinds of apparatus required, reflecting or refracting, irrespective of other reasons for using the electric light. And it is these kind of things which make us decide most earnestly and carefully in favor of the electric light.

Fig. 58.
Fig. 58.

I am going to show you the effect that will take place with that large lens when we throw the oil lamp out of action, and put the electric light into use. It is astonishing to find how little the eye can compare the relative intensities of two lights. Look at that screen, and try to recollect the amount of light thrown upon it from the 3¾ inch lamp of Fresnel, and now, when we shift the lens sideways, look at the glorious light arising from that small carbon point (fig. 58); see how beautifully it shines in the focus of that lens, and throws the rays forward. [p.185]  At present the electric light is put at just the same distance as the oil light, and therefore, being in the focus of the lens, we have parallel rays which are thrown forward in a perfectly straight line, as you will see by comparing the size of the lens with that of the light thrown on the screen. You will now see how far we can affect this beam of light by increasing or diminishing the distance of the lamp. We are able, by a small adjustment, to get a beam of a large or small angle, and observe what power I have now over it; for if I want to increase the degrees of divergence, I am limited by the power of light in the case of the oil lamp, but with the electric light I can make it spread over any width of the horizon by this simple adjustment. These, then, are some of the reasons which make it desirable to employ the electric light.

[p.186]  By means of a magnet, and of motion, we can get the same kind of electricity as I have here from the battery; and under the authority of the Trinity House, Professor Holmes has been occupied in introducing the magneto-electric light in the light-house at the South Foreland; for the voltaic battery has been tried under every conceivable circumstance, and I take the liberty of saying it has hitherto proved a decided failure. Here, however, is an instrument wrought only by mechanical motion. The moment we give motion to this soft iron in front of the magnet, we get a spark. It is true, in this apparatus it is very small, but it is sufficient for you to judge of its character. It is the magneto-electric light, and an instrument has been constructed, as there shown (fig. 59), which represents a number of magnets placed radially upon a wheel—three wheels of magnets and two sets of helices. When the machine, which is worked by a two-horse power engine, is properly set in motion, and the different currents are all brought together, and thrown by Professor Holmes up into the lantern, we have a light equal to the one we have been using this [p.187]  evening. For the last six months the South Foreland has been shining by means of this electric light—beyond all comparison better than its former light. It has shone into France, and has been seen there and taken notice of by the authorities, who work with beautiful accord with us in all these matters. Never for once during six months has it failed in doing its duty; never once—more than was expected by the inventor. It has shone forth with its own peculiar character, and this even with the old [p.188]  apparatus, for as yet no attempt has been made to construct special reflectors or refractors for it, because it is not yet established. I will not tell you that the problem of employing the magneto-electric spark for light-house illumination is quite solved yet, although I desire it should be established most earnestly (for I regard this magnetic spark as one of my own offspring). The thing is not yet decidedly accomplished, and what the considerations of expense and other matters may be I can not tell. I am only here to tell you, as a philosopher, how far the results have been carried; but I do hope that the authorities will find it a proper thing to carryout in full. If it can not be introduced at all the light-houses, if it can only be used at one, why really it will be an honor to the nation which can originate such an improvement as this—one which must of necessity be followed by other nations.

You may ask, What is the use of this bright light? It would not be useful to us were it not for the constant changes which are taking place in the atmosphere, which is never pure. Even when we can see the stars clearly on a [p.189]  bright night it is not a pure atmosphere. The light of a light-house, more than any other, is liable to be dimmed by vapors and fogs, and where we most want this great power is not in the finest condition of the atmosphere, but when the mariner is in danger, when the sleet and rain are falling, and the fogs arise, and the winds are blowing, and he is nearing coasts where the water is shallow and abounds with rocks: then is his time of danger, when he most wants this light. I am going to show you how, by means of a little steam, I can completely obscure this glorious sun, this electric light which you see. The cloud now obscuring the light on the screen is only such a cloud as you see when sitting in a train on a fine summer's day; you may observe that the vapor, passing out of the funnel, casts as deep a shadow on the ground as the black funnel; the very sun itself is extinguished by the steam from the funnel, so that it can not give any light; and the sun itself, if set in the lighthouse, would not be able to penetrate such a vapor.

Now the haze of this cloud of steam is just [p.190] what we have to overcome, and the electric light is as soon, proportionally, extinguished by an obstruction of this kind as any other light. If we take two lights, one four times the intensity of the other, and we extinguish half of one by a vapor, we extinguish half of the other, and that is a fact which can not be set aside by any arrangement. But then we fall back upon the amount of light which the electric spark does give us in aid of the power of penetrating the fog; for the light of the electric spark shines so far at times that, even before it has arisen above the horizon, twenty-five miles off, it can be seen. This intense light has, therefore, that power which we can take advantage of—of bearing a great deal of obstruction before it is entirely obscured by fogs or otherwise.

Taking care that we do not lead our authorities into error by the advice given, we hope that we shall soon be able to recommend the Trinity House, from what has passed, to establish either one or more good electric lights in this country.

Text and images from Michael Faraday, A Course of Six Lectures on the Various Forces of Matter, and Their Relation to Each Other (1860), 171-190. (source)


See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

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