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The Project Physics Course 


Light and Electromagnetism 

The Project Physics Course 



4 Light and Electromagnetism 

A Component of the 
Project Physics Course 

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Directors of Harvard Project Physics 

Gerald Holton, Department of Physics, 

Harvard University 
F. James Rutherford, Capuchino High School, 

San Bruno, California, and Harvard University 
Fletcher G. Watson, Harvard Graduate School 

of Education 

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Picture Credits 

Cover: Current, 1964, by Bridget Riley. Emulsion on 
composition board, 58 3 / 8 x 58 7 / 8 ". Courtesy of 
The Museum of Modern Art, New York City. 

2 « 

5 I 

3 6 

Picture Credits for frontispiece. 

(1) Photograph by Glen J. Pearcy. 

(2) Jeune fille au corsage rouge lisant by Jean 
Baptiste Camille Corot. Painting. Collection 
Biihrle, Zurich. 

(3) Harvard Project Physics staff photo. 

(4) Femme lisant by Georges Seurat. Conte crayon 
drawing. Collection C. F. Stooo. London. 

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Etching. Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.C. 

(6) Lecture au lit by Paul Klee. Drawing. Paul Klee 
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Sources and Acknowledgments 
Project Physics Reader 4 

1. Letter from Thomas Jefferson, June, 1799, from 
Scripta Mathematica, Volume 1, 1932, pages 
88-90. Reprinted with permission from the 
Manuscript Collection of Teachers College 
Library, Columbia University. Also in Science and 
the Common Understanding by J. Robert 
Oppenheimer. Reprinted with permission of 
Simon and Schuster, Inc. 

2. On the Method of Theoretical Physics by Albert 
Einstein from Essays in Science, pages 12-21, 
Philosophical Library, New York, copyright 1934 
by Estate of Albert Einstein. Reprinted with 

3. Systems, Feedback and Cybernetics from 
Introduction to Natural Science by V. Lawrence 
Parsegian, Alan S. Meltzer, Abraham S. Luchins 
and K. Scott Kinerson, copyright © 1968 by 
Academic Press, Inc. Reprinted with permission. 

4. Velocity of Light from Studies In Optics by A. A. 
Michelson, copyright 1927 by The University of 
Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission. 

5. Popular Application of Polarized Light from 
Polarized Light (Momentum #7) by William A. 
Shurcliff and Stanley S. Ballard, copyright © 1964 
by Litton Educational Publishing Inc. Reprinted 
with permission of Van Nostrand Reinhold 

6. Eye and Camera by George Wald from Scientific 
American, August 1950, copyright © 1950 by 
Scientific American, Inc. Reprinted with permis- 
sion. All rights reserved. 

7. The Laser — What It Is and Does from The Story 
of the Laser by John M. Carroll, copyright © 1964 
by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., Reprinted with permis- 
sion of E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., and Souvenir 
Press Ltd. 

8. A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law from The 
New College Physics: A Spiral Approach by 
Albert V. Baez. W. H. Freeman and Company, 
copyright© 1967. Reprinted with permission. 

9. The Electronic Revolution from Voices from the 
Sky by Arthur C. Clarke, Harper & Row, Publishers, 
New York, copyright © 1965. "The Electronic 
Revolution," copyright © 1962 by The New York 
Times Company. Reprinted with permission of the 
author and his agent, Scott Meredith Literary 
Agency, and David Higham Associates. Ltd . 

10. The Invention of the Electric Light by Matthew 
Josephson from Scientific American, November 

1959, copyright © 1959 by Scientific American, 
Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

11. High Fidelity from Reproduction of Sound by 
Edgar Villchur, copyright © 1962 by Acoustic 
Research, Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
Copyright © 1965 by Dover Publications, Inc. 
Reprinted with permission. 

12. The Future of Direct Current Power Transmission 
by N. L. Allen from Endeavor, Volume CCVI, No. 
97, Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, London. 
Reprinted with permission. 

13. James Clerk Maxwell by James R. Newman, 
Part II, from Scientific American, June 1955, 
copyright © 1955 by Scientific American, Inc. 
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

14. On the Induction of Electric Currents from 

A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism by James 
Clerk Maxwell, Volume 2, 1873, The Clarendon 
Press, Oxford. Reprinted with permission. 

15. The Relationship of Electricity and Magnetism 
from Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin, by D. K. C. 
MacDonald, copyright © 1964 by Educational 
Services Incorporated. Reprinted with permission 
of Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Science Study 

16. The Electromagnetic Field from The Evolution of 

Physics by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld. 
Published by Simon and Schuster, copyright© 
1961. Reprinted with permission. 

17. Radiation Belts Around the Earth by James A. 
Van Allen from Scientific American, March 1959. 
Copyright © 1959 by Scientific American, Inc. 
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 
Available separately at 200 each as Offprint No. 
248 from W. H. Freeman and Company, 666 
Market Street, San Francisco, California 94104. 

18. A Mirror for the Brain from The Living Brain by 
W. Grey Walter, copyright 1953, © 1963 by W. W. 
Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission 
of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., and Gerald 
Duckworth & Co. Ltd. 

19. Scientific Imagination from The Feynman Lectures 
on Physics by Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. 
Leighton and Matthew L. Sands, copyright© 
1964 by Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 
Inc. Reprinted with permission. 

20. Lenses and Optical Instruments from PSSC 
Physics, D. C. Heath and Company, Boston. 
Copyright © 1965 by Educational Services 
Incorporated. Reprinted with permission. 

21. Baffled, by Keith Waterhouse from Punch, July 10, 
1968, copyright © 1968 Punch, London. 


This is not a physics textbook. Rather, it is a physics 
reader, a collection of some of the best articles and 
book passages on physics. A few are on historic events 
in science, others contain some particularly memorable 
description of what physicists do; still others deal with 
philosophy of science, or with the impact of scientific 
thought on the imagination of the artist. 

There are old and new classics, and also some little- 
known publications; many have been suggested for in- 
clusion because some teacher or physicist remembered 
an article with particular fondness. The majority of 
articles is not drawn from scientific papers of historic 
importance themselves, because material from many of 
these is readily available, either as quotations in the 
Project Physics text or in special collections. 

This collection is meant for your browsing. If you follow 
your own reading interests, chances are good that you 
will find here many pages that convey the joy these 
authors have in their work and the excitement of their 
ideas. If you want to follow up on interesting excerpts, 
the source list at the end of the reader will guide you 
for further reading. 

Reader 4 
Table of Contents 

1 Letter from Thomas Jefferson 1 

June 1799 

2 On the Method of Theoretical Physics 5 

Albert Einstein 

3 Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 1 5 

V. Lawrence Parsegian, Alan S. Meltzer, Abraham S. Luchins, K. Scott Kinerson 

4 Velocity of Light 51 

A. A. Michelson 

5 Popular Applications of Polarized Light 69 

William A. Shurcliff and Stanley Ballard 

6 Eye and Camera 89 

George Wald 

7 The Laser— What It Is and Does 99 

J. M. Carroll 

8 A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 143 

Albert V. Baez 

9 The Electronic Revolution 155 

Arthur C. Clarke 

1 The Invention of the Electric Light 162 

Matthew Josephson 

11 High Fidelity 175 

Edgar Villchur 

1 2 The Future of Direct Current Power Transmission 191 

N. L. Allen 

13 James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 195 

James R. Newman 


14 On the Induction of Electric Currents 

James Clerk Maxwell 


1 5 The Relationship of Electricity and Magnetism 

D. K. C. MacDonald 


1 6 The Electromagnetic Field 

Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld 


17 Radiation Belts Around the Earth 

James Van Allen 


18 A Mirror for the Brain 

W. Grey Walter 


19 Scientific Imagination 

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands 


20 Lenses and Optical Instruments 

Physical Science Study Committee 


21 Baffled! 

Keith Waterhouse 



A great American writes about the significant role 
of science in the education of the individual and in 
the creation of American society. 

Letter from Thomas Jefferson 

June 1799 

Monticello June 18. 99. 


I have to acknolege the reciept of your favor of 
May 14. in which you mention that you have finished 
the 6. first books of Euclid, plane trigonometry, sur- 
veying and algebra and ask whether I think a further 
pursuit of that branch of science would be useful to 
you. There are some propositions in the latter books 
of Euclid, and some of Archimedes, which are useful, 
and I have no doubt you have been made acquainted 
with them. Trigonometry, so far as this, is most 
valuable to every man, there is scarcely a day in 
which he will not resort to it for some of the purposes 
of common life; the science of calculation also is 
indispensible as far as the extraction of the square and 
cube roots ; Algebra as far as the quadratic equation 
and the use of logarithms are often of value in ordi- 
nary cases ; but all beyond these is but a luxury ; a 
delicious luxury indeed ; but not to be indulged in by 
one who is to have a profession to follow for his sub- 
sistence. In this light I view the conic sections, 

curves of the higher orders, perhaps even spherical 
trigonometry, Algebraical operations beyond the 
2d dimension, and fluxions. There are other 
branches of science however worth the attention of 
every man : Astronomy, botany, chemistry, natural 
philosophy, natural history, anatomy. Not indeed 
to be a proficient in them ; but to possess their general 
principles and outlines, so as that we may be able to 
amuse and inform ourselves further in any of them as 
we proceed through life and have occasion for them. 
Some knowlege of them is necessary for our character 
as well as comfort. The general elements of astro- 
nomy and of natural philosophy are best acquired at 
an academy where we can have the benefit of the 
instruments and apparatus usually provided there: 
but the others may well be acquired from books 
alone as far as our purposes require. I have indulged 
myself in these observations to you, because the 
evidence cannot be unuseful to you of a person who 
has often had occasion to consider which of his 
acquisitions in science have been really useful to him 
in life, and which of them have been merely a matter 
of luxury. 

I am among those who think well of the human 
character generally. I consider man as formed for 
society, and endowed by nature with those disposi- 
tions which fit him for society. I believe also, with 
Condorcet, as mentioned in your letter, that his mind 
is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet 
form any conception. It is impossible for a man who 
takes a survey of what is already known , not to see 
what an immensity in every branch of science yet 
remains to be discovered, and that too of articles to 
which our faculties seem adequate. In geometry and 
calculation we know a great deal. Yet there are 
some desiderata. In anatomy great progress has 
been made; but much is still to be acquired. In 
natural history we possess knowlege; but we want 
a great deal. In chemistry we are not yet sure of 
the first elements. Our natural philosophy is in a 
very infantine state; perhaps for great advances in 
it, a further progress in chemistry is necessary. 
Surgery is well advanced ; but prodigiously short of 
what may be. The state of medecine is worse than 
that of total ignorance. Could we divest ourselves of 

Letter from Thomas Jefferson 

every thing we suppose we know in it, we should start 
from a higher ground and with fairer prospects. 
From Hippocrates to Brown we have had nothing 
but a succession of hypothetical systems each having 
it's day of vogue, like the fashions and fancies of 
caps and gowns, and yielding in turn to the next 
caprice. Yet the human frame, which is to be the 
subject of suffering and torture under these learned 
modes, does not change. We have a few medecines, 
as the bark, opium, mercury, which in a few well 
defined diseases are of unquestionable virtue: but 
the residuary list of the materia medica, long as it is, 
contains but the charlataneries of the art ; and of the 
diseases of doubtful form, physicians have ever had a 
false knowlege, worse than ignorance. Yet surely 
the list of unequivocal diseases and remedies is 
capable of enlargement ; and it is still more certain 
that in the other branches of science, great fields are 
yet to be explored to which our faculties are equal, 
and that to an extent of which we cannot fix the 
limits. I join you therefore in branding as cowardly 
the idea that the human mind is incapable of further 
advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the 
present despots of the earth are inculcating, and 
their friends here re-echoing ; and applying especially 
to religion and politics ; ' that it is not probable that 
any thing better will be discovered than what was 
known to our fathers '. We are to look backwards 
then and not forwards for the improvement of 
science, and to find it amidst feudal barbarisms and 
the fires of Spital-fields. But thank heaven the 
American mind is already too much opened, to listen 
to these impostures ; and while the art of printing is 
left to use, science can never be retrograde; what is 
once acquired of real knowlege can never be lost. 
To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and 
freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to 
devote itself to martyrdom ; for as long as we may 
think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition 
of man will proceed in improvement. The genera- 
tion which is going off the stage has deserved well of 
mankind for the struggles it has made, and for having 
arrested that course of despotism which had over- 
whelmed the world for thousands and thousands of 
years. If there seems to be danger that the ground 

they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes 
from the generation your contemporary. But that 
the enthusiasm which characterises youth should lift 
it's parracide hands against freedom and science 
would be such a monstrous phaenomenon as I can- 
not place among possible things in this age and this 
country. Your college at least has shewn itself 
incapable of it; and if the youth of any other place 
have seemed to rally under other banners it has been 
from delusions which they will soon dissipate. I 
shall be happy to hear from you from time to time, 
and of your progress in study, and to be useful to 
you in whatever is in my power; being with sincere 
esteem Dear Sir 

Your friend & servt 
Th : Jefferson 

Einstein discusses some of the factors that lead to a 
scientific theory. 

On the Method of Theoretical Physics 

Albert Einstein 
An essay— 1934. 

If you want to find out anything from the theoretical 
physicists about the methods they use, I advise you 
to stick closely to one principle : don't listen to their 
words, fix your attention on their deeds. To him 
who is a discoverer in this field the products of his 
imagination appear so necessary and natural that he 
regards them, and would like to have them regarded 
by others, not as creations of thought but as given 

These words sound like an invitation to you to 
walk out of this lecture. You will say to yourselves, 
the fellow's a working physicist himself and ought 
therefore to leave all questions of the structure of 
theoretical science to the epistemologists. 

Against such criticism I can defend myself from 
the personal point of view by assuring you that it 
is not at my own instance but at the kind invitation 
of others that I have mounted this rostrum, which 
serves to commemorate a man who fought hard all 
his life for the unity of knowledge. Objectively, how- 
ever, my enterprise can be justified on the ground 
that it may, after all, be of interest to know how one 
who has spent a life-time in striving with all his 

might to clear up and rectify its fundamentals looks 
upon his own branch of science. The way in which he 
regards its past and present may depend too much 
on what he hopes for the future and aims at in the 
present; but that is the inevitable fate of anybody 
who has occupied himself intensively with a world 
of ideas. The same thing happens to him as to the 
historian, who in the same way, even though perhaps 
unconsciously, groups actual events around ideals 
which he has formed for himself on the subject of 
human society. 

Let us now cast an eye over the development of 
the theoretical system, paying special attention to 
the relations between the content of the theory 
and the totality of empirical fact. We are concerned 
with the eternal antithesis between the two insep- 
arable components of our knowledge, the empirical 
and the rational, in our department. 

We reverence ancient Greece as the cradle of 
western science. Here for the first time the world 
witnessed the miracle of a logical system which pro- 
ceeded from step to step with such precision that 
every single one of its propositions was absolutely 
indubitable — I refer to Euclid's geometry. This ad- 
mirable triumph of reasoning gave the human intel- 
lect the necessary confidence in itself for its subsequent 
achievements. If Euclid failed to kindle your youth- 
ful enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a 
scientific thinker. 

But before mankind could be ripe for a science 
which takes in the whole of reality, a second funda- 

On the Method of Theoretical Physics 

mental truth was needed, which only became common 
property among philosophers with the advent of Kep- 
ler and Galileo. Pure logical thinking cannot yield 
us any knowledge of the empirical world ; all knowl- 
edge of reality starts from experience and ends in 
it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means 
are completely empty as regards reality. Because 
Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed 
it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern 
physics — indeed, of modern science altogether. 

If, then, experience is the alpha and the omega of 
all our knowledge of reality, what is the function of 
pure reason in science? 

A complete system of theoretical physics is made 
up of concepts, fundamental laws which are supposed 
to be valid for those concepts and conclusions to be 
reached by logical deduction. It is these conclusions 
which must correspond with our separate experiences ; 
in any theoretical treatise their logical deduction 
occupies almost the whole book. 

This is exactly what happens in Euclid's geometry, 
except that there the fundamental laws are called 
axioms and there is no question of the conclusions 
having to correspond to any sort of experience. If, 
however, one regard Euclidean geometry as the sci- 
ence of the possible mutual relations of practically 
rigid bodies in space, that is to say, treats it as a 
physical science, without abstracting from its original 
empirical content, the logical homogeneity of geometry 
and theoretical physics becomes complete. 

We have thus assigned to pure reason and ex- 

perience their places in a theoretical system of physics. 
The structure of the system is the work of reason ; the 
empirical contents and their mutual relations must 
find their representation in the conclusions of the 
theory. In the possibility of such a representation lie 
the sole value and justification of the whole system, 
and especially of the concepts and fundamental prin- 
ciples which underlie it. These latter, by the way, are 
free inventions of the human intellect, which cannot 
be justified either by the nature of that intellect or 
in any other fashion a priori. 

These fundamental concepts and postulates, which 
cannot be further reduced logically, form the essential 
part of a theory, which reason cannot touch. It is the 
grand object of all theory to make these irreducible 
elements as simple and as few in number as possible, 
without having to renounce the adequate representa- 
tion of any empirical content whatever. 

The view I have just outlined of the purely fictitious 
character of the fundamentals of scientific theory 
was by no means the prevailing one in the eighteenth 
or even the nineteenth century. But it is steadily 
gaining ground from the fact that the distance in 
thought between the fundamental concepts and laws 
on one side and, on the other, the conclusions which 
have to be brought into relation with our experience 
grows larger and larger, the simpler the logical struc- 
ture becomes — that is to say, the smaller the number 
of logically independent conceptual elements which 
are found necessary to support the structure. 

Newton, the first creator of a comprehensive, 

On the Method of Theoretical Physics 

workable system of theoretical physics, still believed 
that the basic concepts and laws of his system could 
be derived from experience. This is no doubt the 
meaning of his saying, hypotheses non fingo. 

Actually the concepts of time and space appeared 
at that time to present no difficulties. The concepts 
of mass, inertia and force, and the laws connecting 
them seemed to be drawn directly from experience. 
Once this basis is accepted, the expression for the 
force of gravitation appears derivable from experi- 
ence, and it was reasonable to hope for the same in 
regard to other forces. 

We can indeed see from Newton's formulation of 
it that the concept of absolute space, which comprised 
that of absolute rest, made him feel uncomfortable ; 
he realized that there seemed to be nothing in ex- 
perience corresponding to this last concept. He was 
also not quite comfortable about the introduction of 
forces operating at a distance. But the tremendous 
practical success of his doctrines may well have pre- 
vented him and the physicists of the eighteenth and 
nineteenth centuries from recognizing the fictitious 
character of the foundations of his system. 

The natural philosophers of those days were, on 
the contrary, most of them possessed with the idea 
that the fundamental concepts and postulates of 
physics were not in the logical sense free inventions 
of the human mind but could be deduced from ex- 
perience by "abstraction" — that is to say by logical 
means. A clear recognition of the erroneousness of 
this notion really only came with the general theory 

of relativity, which showed that one could take ac- 
count of a wider range of empirical facts, and that 
too in a more satisfactory and complete manner, on 
a foundation quite different from the Newtonian. 
But quite apart from the question of the superiority 
of one or the other, the fictitious character of funda- 
mental principles is perfectly evident from the fact 
that we can point to two essentially different prin- 
ciples, both of which correspond with experience to 
a large extent ; this proves at the same time that 
every attempt at a logical deduction of the basic con- 
cepts and postulates of mechanics from elementary 
experiences is doomed to failure. 

If, then, it is true that this axiomatic basis of theo- 
retical physics cannot be extracted from experience 
but must be freely invented, can we ever hope to 
find the right way? Nay more, has this right way any 
existence outside our illusions? Can we hope to be 
guided in the right way by experience when there 
exist theories (such as classical mechanics) which to 
a large extent do justice to experience, without 
getting to the root of the matter? I answer without 
hesitation that there is, in my opinion, a right way, 
and that we are capable of finding it. Our experience 
hitherto justifies us in believing that nature is the 
realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical 
ideas. I am convinced that we can discover by means 
of purely mathematical constructions the concepts 
and the laws connecting them with each other, which 
furnish the key to the understanding of natural phe- 
nomena. Experience may suggest the appropriate 


On the Method of Theoretical Physics 

mathematical concepts, but they most certainly cannot 
be deduced from it. Experience remains, of course, 
the sole criterion of the physical utility of a mathe- 
matical construction. But the creative principle resides 
in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold 
it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the 
ancients dreamed. 

In order to justify this confidence, I am compelled 
to make use of a mathematical conception. The phys- 
ical world is represented as a four-dimensional con- 
tinuum. If I assume a Riemannian metric in it and 
ask what are the simplest laws which such a metric 
system can satisfy, I arrive at the relativist theory 
of gravitation in empty space. If in that space I 
assume a vector-field or an anti-symmetrical tensor- 
field which can be inferred from it, and ask what 
are the simplest laws which such a field can satisfy, 
I arrive at Clerk Maxwell's equations for empty space. 

At this point we still lack a theory for those parts 
of space in which electrical density does not disappear. 
De Broglie conjectured the existence of a wave field, 
which served to explain certain quantum properties 
of matter. Dirac found in the spinors field-magni- 
tudes of a new sort, whose simplest equations enable 
one to a large extent to deduce the properties of the 
electron. Subsequently I discovered, in conjunction 
with my colleague, that these spinors form a special 
case of a new sort of field, mathematically connected 
with the four-dimensional system, which we called 
"semi vectors." The simplest equations to which such 
semivectors can be reduced furnish a key to the 

understanding of the existence of two sorts of ele- 
mentary particles, of different ponderable mass and 
equal but opposite electrical charge. These semivectors 
are, after ordinary vectors, the simplest mathematical 
fields that are possible in a metrical continuum of 
four dimensions, and it looks as if they described, in 
an easy manner, certain essential properties of elec- 
trical particles. 

The important point for us to observe is that all 
these constructions and the laws connecting them can 
be arrived at by the principle of looking for the mathe- 
matically simplest concepts and the link between 
them. In the limited nature of the mathematically 
existent simple fields and the simple equations pos- 
sible between them, lies the theorist's hope of grasp- 
ing the real in all its depth. 

Meanwhile the great stumbling-block for a field- 
theory of this kind lies in the conception of the 
atomic structure of matter and energy. For the theory 
is fundamentally non-atomic in so far as it operates 
exclusively with continuous functions of space, in 
contrast to classical mechanics, whose most impor- 
tant element, the material point, in itself does justice 
to the atomic structure of matter. 

The modern quantum theory in the form associated 
with the names of de Broglie, Schrodinger, and 
Dirac, which operates with continuous functions, has 
overcome these difficulties by a bold piece of inter- 
pretation which was first given a clear form by Max 
Born. According to this, the spatial functions which 
appear in the equations make no claim to be a mathe- 


On the Method of Theoretical Physics 

matical model of the atomic structure. Those func- 
tions are only supposed to determine the mathematical 
probabilities of the occurrence of such structures if 
measurements were taken at a particular spot or in a 
certain state of motion. This notion is logically un- 
objectionable and has important successes to its 
credit. Unfortunately, however, it compels one to use 
a continuum the number of whose dimensions is not 
that ascribed to space by physics hitherto (four) but 
rises indefinitely with the number of the particles 
constituting the system under consideration. I cannot 
but confess that I attach only a transitory importance 
to this interpretation. I still believe in the possibility 
of a model of reality — that is to say, of a theory which 
represents things themselves and not merely the 
probability of their occurrence. 

On the other hand it seems to me certain that we 
must give up the idea of a complete localization of 
the particles in a theoretical model. This seems to 
me to be the permanent upshot of Heisenberg's 
principle of uncertainty. But an atomic theory in the 
true sense of the word (not merely on the basis of 
an interpretation) without localization of particles 
in a mathematical model, is perfectly thinkable. For 
instance, to account for the atomic character of elec- 
tricity, the field equations need only lead to the 
following conclusions: A portion of space (three- 
dimensional) at whose boundaries electrical density 
disappears everywhere, always contains a total elec- 
trical charge whose size is represented by a whole 
number. In a continuum-theory atomic characteristics 


would be satisfactorily expressed by integral laws 
without localization of the formation entity which 
constitutes the atomic structure. 

Not until the atomic structure has been successfully 
represented in such a manner would I consider the 
quantum-riddle solved. 


One process can cause another; that one in turn, can be 
the cause of a further sequence of events— including the 
modification of the original process itself. This article is a 
primer to basic ideas in applied science, engineering, and 
information theory. 

3 Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

V. Lawrence Parsegian, Alan S. Meltzer, Abraham S. Luchins, 
K. Scott Kinerson 

From the textbook, Introduction to Natural Science, 1 968. 

the READER will recall that following 
the quotation from Teilhard de Chardin 
in Chapter 1, we proposed extending the 
scope of our interests to include analysis 
of relationship and interrelationship of 
natural phenomena to each other. We 
have come to a point that requires a 
more formal development of such inter- 

6.1 Extension of "systems" 

One of the accomplishments of the New- 
tonian period was the strengthening 
of the concept that in material or physical 
situations at least, things do not happen 
without a causing force. A stone does not 
hegin to move or come to a stop of its 
own volition. In this chapter we shall 
utilize that concept, but with three ex- 

The first extension takes into account 
the fact that in most situations surround- 

ing an event (such as the hurling of a 
stone), the immediate event is itself part 
of a larger situation or system that in- 
cludes various other articulating parts 
or related events. (That is, there is a 
person who throws the stone, and the 
throwing has relation to some cause or 

The second extension may perhaps 
be thought of as related to the action- 
reaction principle, namely, that within 
the context of the system involving an 
event (a stone is thrown) there is often a 
feedback effect (for example, the one at 
whom the stone is thrown may hurl it 

The third extension includes in the 
system both material things (stones) and 
human beings along with biological 
processes and the less tangible thought 

What do we mean by the term system? 
We might refer to the weight suspended 


from a spring as a system that executes 
simple harmonic motion. The governor 
that controls the speed of an engine is a 
control system. We also speak of a sys- 
tem of highways, the economic system 
of a nation, a system of thought, and of 
many others. The combination locks that 
protect the vault of a savings bank make 
up a protective system, but this can also 
be said to be only a subsystem of the 
banking institution. The banking institu- 
tion is itself only a subsystem within the 
larger community economics, and the 
latter is a subsystem of national eco- 
nomics. The chain of larger and larger 
subsystems, or the nesting of subsystems 
within larger subsystems, may lead to 
very complex assemblies and relation- 

While an accurate, all-encompassing 
definition for the term is not easy to give, 
we can note a few of the characteristics 
that are usually present in what we call 
a system: 

(1) A system is likely to have two or 
more parts, elements, or aspects, which 
tend to have some functional relation to 
each other (like the bolt and key of the 
lock, or the president and staff of the 

(2) Because systems are usually sub- 
systems of larger units it is usually help- 
ful (and often necessary) to confine one's 
study to the smallest unit that encom- 
passes the particular functional ele- 
ments and interrelationships that are 
under study. (For example, the locksmith 
can quite properly repair a fault in the 
lock system of the bank vaults without 
considering the question of the merits 
of socialism for the nation's banking 

(3) A control system has within itself 
regulatory functions for control of vari- 
ables such as speed of a motor, the tem- 

perature of a room, the price of commod- 
ities, or international trade in narcotics. 

(4) It is usually possible to identify an 
"input" and an "output" portion (or 
aspect) of a system. For example, a key 
placed in a lock and turned (input) will 
cause the bolts to move (output); or an 
order from a president of an industrial 
firm (input) can double the selling price 
of its commercial products (output). We 
shall find, however, that most systems 
have more than one form of input, as well 
as a variety of functional relationships 
that produce quite varied output. 

(5) Usually (nearly always in systems 
that include regulatory functions) there 
is some form of feedback from the output 
to the input, which may greatly modify 
the net output of the system. [For exam- 
ple, when the selling prices of the com- 
mercial products of paragraph (4) were 
doubled, the consumers could have 
initiated strong feedback by refusing to 
buy the products; and the industry's 
board of directors could have exerted 
even stronger feedback by firing the 
president and hiring another who would 
hold the prices at a more acceptable 
level.] The role of feedback will be given 
considerable attention in the discussion 
that follows. 

We shall now turn to a more detailed 
introduction to systems, feedback, and 

6.2 Cyclic character of 
natural phenomena 

In Chapter 5 we learned that a mass sus- 
pended from a spring executes simple 
harmonic motion when displaced slightly 
from its equilibrum position. When the 
motion was recorded on a moving sheet 
of paper (to illustrate the motion as a 
function of time), the oscillations were 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

recorded as sine or cosine waveforms. 
It was shown that the motion was initiated 
when potential energy was added to the 
system of weight and spring (by manually 
raising the weight from its rest position, 
against the pull of gravity, or by pulling 
it down and extending the spring). In 
either case, the pull of gravity or the pull 
of the spring alternately introduced a 
restoring force, which tended to return 
the displaced mass to its original position 
(Fig. 5.24). But since force applied to 
mass accelerates the mass and thereby 
increases its velocity (Eq. 5-1), by the 
time the mass reached the "zero" or initial 
position it had acquired so much velocity 
(because the potential energy we added 
manually had become kinetic energy at 
that point) that the mass moved past the 
zero point to the other extreme. There 
would have been few or no oscillations at 
all, on the other hand, if the weight had 
been subjected to so much frictional drag 
that the added (potential) energy was 
lost as heat.f (This might have been the 
case if the weight moved in a viscous 

What about cyclic behavior in other 
phenomena of nature? A very common 
form can be demonstrated in electric 
circuits in which the electric energy 
rapidly passes back and forth between 
parts of an oscillating circuit until the 
electric energy dissipates as heat or 
radiates away from the circuit (as in the 
transmission of radio waves). 

We shall find that there can be many 
forms of oscillatory behavior when a 

t We shall learn in Chapter 10 that the kinetic 
energy of the system goes into faster, random 
motion of the molecules that make up the parts 
of the system. The increased molecular motion 
raises the temperature of the parts of the sys- 
tem, as though it were heated by a flame. 
There is therefore a correspondence or equiv- 
alence between the energy in a flame and 
mechanical motion of the system. 

"disturbance" changes the energy level 
of a system and introduces a restoring 
force that causes the energy to convert 
to another form rather than completely 
dissipate into the heat energy of the en- 
vironment. The term energy may apply 
not only to mechanical, electrical, or 
chemical characters in physical systems, 
but also to institutional and personal 
pressures in social situations. 

Let us now go to other phenomena that 
show cyclic or periodic variation. (See 
Figs. 6.1(a) through 6.1(d), for graphical 
examples of such cyclic variations.) We 
might utilize various sensing devices to 
record changes in the temperature of an 
air-conditioned room as a function of 
time, the height of the tides of the sea, 
wind velocity, the automobile traffic on 
a road, rainfall, the movements of a tall 
building or of the long span of a bridge, 
or the temperature of the earth. We might 
also look up past statistics on wheat 
production, the stock market, attendance 
at church, tourist travel, populations of 
animals, or the length of women's skirts, 
and plot these in graph form as function 
of time. We would find that many phe- 
nomena in nature and in animal or social 
activity have variations of an oscillating 
character (Fig. 6.1). It can be demon- 
strated that in all these situations which 
show oscillations about some average 
point, there is present a restoring force 
that comes into play whenever there 
is energy change in a system. To be sure, 
the magnitude and shapes of these oscil- 
lations and waves vary considerably from 
the sine waves we observe with a weight 
on a spring. The periods may vary from 
10 -15 sec in the case of light waves, to 
several hours for the period of the tides, 
and to many years in the case of other 
cycles of nature and of some social cus- 
toms. Nevertheless, all are subject to 
some common influence, not the least of 


3rd interglacial 

1st glacial 2nd glacial 
period period 

3rd glacial 4th glacial 
period period 

6 5 4 3 2 10 

Time in hundreds of thousands of years ago 

Fig. 6.1. (a) Cyclic temperature 
variations during the ice ages. 
Current theory attributes these 
long, slow temperature variations 
to relatively minor changes in the 
atmospheric carbon dioxide 
content (see Chapter 15, Sec. 2). 
(Adapted from graph in G. H. 
Drury, The Face of the Earth, 
Penguin (Pelican book), pg. 157.) 


Fig. 6.1. (b) Cyclic varia- 
tions in numbers of species 
of Lepidoptera (butterflies 
and moths) captured in light 
traps at Woking, Surrey in 
1948-49. The number of 
different species of captured 
reveals seasonal cyclic 
variations that are obviously 
related to weather condi- 
tions. Note peaks in 
successive Julys, when 
Lepidoptera conditions are 
ideal, and low values in 
winter when conditions are 
poor. (From C. B. Williams, 
Patterns in the Balance of 
Nature, Academic Press, 
1964, pg. 159.) 


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Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

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Fig. 6.1. (c) Cyclic char- 
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which is the fact that nature is dynamic 
and in a state of continuous change, and 
indeed that static situations represent 
special and almost trivial aspects of nature 
and of man. 

Is the presence of some restoring force 
sufficient assurance that a system will 
experience only moderate oscillations 

without going to extremes? Indeed it is 
not, as we can learn from the dramatic 
example of the failure of the Tacoma 
Narrows suspension bridge of Tacoma, 
Washington. When the bridge was opened 
to traffic on July 1, 1940, there were 
observed, in addition to the ordinary oscil- 
lations of the bridge, some unexpected 


Hand holding 

nitial amplitude 
ot mass 

Motion of hand 

— Opposite motion 
of mass 

Motion of the mass 

becomes reduced in 


Motion of hand 

— "In phase" with 
motion of mass 

Motion of the mass 

builds to destructive 


Fig. 6.2. What happens when the mass of a spring is given some additional energy 
by movement of the hand in two different phase relationships? In the center figure 
the hand is moved upward when the mass is moving downward. At the right, the hand 
is moved upward when the mass is also moving upward, causing the mass to take 
large swings. 

transverse (vertical) modes of vibration. 
On November 7 a wind velocity of 40 to 
45 mph made the vibrations so severe 
that the bridge was closed to traffic, and 
by 11:00 A.M. the main span collapsed, f 

t A 4-minute film produced by the Ohio 
State University and distributed by The Ealing 
Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 
gives the very dramatic story of the final oscil- 
lation of the bridge prior to its collapse. Everv 
reader should see this film and the variation 
it offers of "simple harmonic motion" involving 
the twisting and turning of this huge span of 
steel and concrete. The new bridge that was 
built on the original anchorages and tower 
foundations included deep stiffening trusses 
instead of girders, and has been entirely 

6.3 How oscillations increase 
despite restoring forces 

It is not necessary to resort to the com- 
plex behavior of the original Tacoma 
Narrows bridge to see how a system may 
have within it strong restoring forces 
while yet experiencing oscillations that 
increase in amplitude to the point of 
destruction. The reader can duplicate 
the phenomenon with the simple weight 
on a spring as follows (Fig. 6.2): 

Choose a weight and spring combina- 
tion that gives an oscillatory period be- 
tween i and i sec. Hold the spring firmly 
and steady in your hand, and observe that 
the weight executes the usual simple 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

harmonic motion, eventually coming to 
a stop. Now prepare to move your hold- 
ing hand up or down in synchronism 
with the motion of the weight and with 
two alternative movements. 

First, raise your hand (about a half-inch 
will do) whenever the weight is moving 
downward, and lower it an equal distance 
whenever the weight is moving up. With 
a little analysis you can see that the 
weight tends to reduce amplitude be- 
cause the movements of your hand in- 
crease the restoring force on the weight. 
Note that the movement of your hand is 
180 deg out of phase with the motion of 
the weight. 

Next, repeat the experiment with the 
same up-and-down motion of your hand, 
but now change the timing to be in phase 
with the motion of the weight. That is, 
move your hand upward when the weight 
is moving upward, and downward when 
the weight is moving downward. There 
still is restoring force, and the weight 
continues to oscillate up and down; but 
now the amplitude of oscillations in- 
creases until it becomes dangerous to 
continue the experiment. 

Why did the same amount of motion of 
your hand have such opposite effects, 
depending only on its phase relationship 
to the motion of the weight? The reason 
is that in the second case the increments 
of energy that were introduced by each 
in-phase motion of your hand tended to 
add to and increase the energy of the 
system represented by the spring and 
weight. Conversely, the hand motion that 
was completely out of phase with the 
motion of the weight detracted from the 
energy of the system, t 

t The reader is urged to perform this experi- 
ment and to attempt a careful analysis of the 
various factors (energies and forces) that be- 
come involved in the two cases. For example, 

We can now extend this experiment to 
apply to the early Tacoma Narrows bridge 
experience. Obviously, the energy of the 
wind became converted to energy of 
oscillation of the bridge. Why did the 
wind energy not become absorbed in 
the concrete and steel of the bridge? Un- 
doubtedly much of it did become ab- 
sorbed and changed to heat energy, but 
not all of it. Apparently when the wind 
blew to produce a movement of the span 
at some point along the bridge, the con- 
ditions were just right to cause this move- 
ment to act as a traveling wave, which on 
backward reflection returned to the same 
point in just the right phase to support 
(rather than oppose) a new movement at 
that point, caused by the continued blow- 
ing of the wind. Had the physical struc- 
ture of the bridge been different in length 
or mass, the returning wave could have 
opposed (out of phase with) any new 
movement at A, and thus would have 
added to the stability of the system. 

We see, therefore, that for a system to 
be stable, the relationship of the forces 
and time characteristics must be such that 
the amplitude and energy of the system 
will not increase. This calls for special 
attention with respect to the phase re- 
lationships that obtain between feed- 
back of energy from one part of the sys- 
tem to another part. When the feedback 
opposes the direction of the initial change 
that produced the feedback, the system 
tends to be stable. In contrast, when the 
returning feedback of energy supports 
the direction of initial change, the system 
tends to add to the initial energy gain and 
to be unstable. This means we must 
delve into the theory of system control. 

in the second case the increments of energy are 
added to the spring-weight system. Where 
does the hand energy go in the first case? 


6.4 Modifying cyclic changes: 

While most fluctuations of nature go their 
own way without inviting human concern, 
there are some important cases in which 
it becomes necessary to interfere, that is, 
to modify the natural pattern or to control 
or hold the fluctuations to smaller 
changes. For example, the farmer may 
not want to depend entirely on natural 
rainfall to assure a good crop, so he in- 
tervenes by irrigating the fields when 
there is not enough rainfall. Because in 
the course of the year there are wide 
fluctuations in the temperature of the 
earth, he installs a control system in his 
home to keep the temperature within 
comfortable limits. 

Many types of controls are involved 
in our daily life. We shall learn that the 
human body has a remarkable control 
system to maintain its own temperature 
within very close limits. The body's 
motor functions, by which we move our 
arms and legs in an accurate and deter- 
mined manner, are possible only because 
of the operation of fine control systems. 
Industrial production relies heavily on 
control of temperature, pressure, chemi- 
cal composition, and similar factors. The 
application of control principles extends 
to community and national life. Despite 
their variety, we shall find that there are 
some common characteristics among 
them. Also, within a specific control 
system there can be intermixed a wide 
variety of elements of widely different 
types. Take, for example, the very com- 
mon experience of driving an automobile. 
Here, the steering control allows the 
driver to follow the curvature of the road 
effectively, and many other electrome- 
chanical parts as well in the motor and 
transmission systems affect the driving 

operation. But we shall learn before long 
that nearly every aspect of the driver's 
being — his metabolism, muscle and nerve 
action, his thinking process — and the life 
of his community are all parts of the sys- 
tem that encompasses the simple driving 

6.5 Introduction to on-off control 

We return to the harmonic motion of the 
weight suspended from a spring and note 
that, so far, we have neither tried to re- 
strict the amplitude of the motion nor put 
the movement to some useful application. 
In each assembly the added energy is 
converted and reconverted from kinetic 
energy to potential energy and then back 
again to kinetic energy. (If there were no 
frictional losses, the motion would con- 
tinue forever, since the system would 
then be self-contained, that is, a closed 
or isolated system that neither receives 
energy from nor gives energy to the out- 
side.) Such systems have limited value 
except as one may use them in a clock or 
metronome to tell time from the os- 

If there were no frictional or other loss 
of energy from the system, the motion 
would have a periodicity of T seconds. 
Since friction is present, the oscillations 
become continually smaller in magni- 
tude, and the period of each cycle be- 
comes slightly longer (T + AT) until the 
mechanical energy dissipates as heat 
energy and the movement ceases al- 
together (Fig. 6.3). In general, friction or 
damping is likely to make a system more 

We can design an oscillator to do some- 

f Of course, as any such device requires 
periodic additions ot energy to the driving 
springs, and therefore the person who winds 
the spring becomes part of the system. 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

3 1 


E ' 





\ Time—*- / 



I — 

w. 1 

T + AT sec- 

Fig. 6.3. How the period of 
simple harmonic motion 
changes when there is 
friction in the system. (The 
period of seconds increases 
to T + AT sec, while the 
amplitude of motion 

thing more by adding an electric switch 
so that the dropping weight sends an 
electrical signal to some device. As we 
know from common experience, the 
simple operation of an electric switch 
can initiate (or trigger) many motor or 
relay functions that bring into play the 
vast energy resources of electric power- 
generating stations. Figure 6.4 illustrates 
the relationship between input and out- 
put, with a transform function that relates 
the two along with a source of energy. 

Suppose that we incorporate such an 
electric switch as part of a control system 
for automatically filling a bucket with 
water. Figure 6.5 illustrates how the 
dropping pail signals that the pail is full 
and also turns off the stream of water. 
This becomes a simple on-off control 
system in which the electrical signal 
provides a feedback function as part 
of the control system. (Later we shall 
introduce the idea that the feedback also 
represents information.) 

We examine this process of filling the 
bucket in a little more detail. When the 
water flows into the bucket at a very slow 
rate, the bucket settles slowly and the 
signal switch has time to stop the flow 
of water and bring the bucket to a gentle 
stop. This is shown as curve A of Fig. 6.6, 
which shows very little dropping of the 
bucket below the desired level (that is, 
there is very little overshoot beyond the 
desired control point). The behavior 
becomes quite different when the water 
flows into the bucket at a rapid rate, 
however. The switch operates as it did 
before, but the rapid dropping of the 
bucket develops enough momentum to 
overshoot the desired final position by a 
substantial amount. The bucket will 
oscillate violently above and below the 
desired control height for some time and 
the switch will open and close erratically 
(curve B). In fact, if the response rates 
and delays in the switching and valve 
devices should turn out to be particularly 


Energy source to make 
amplification possible 


A/ = input to system 

This box establishes 
relationship between output 
and input — the transfer 
function /(/) 

bO = output of system 


(For example, position of (For example, automobile motor 
accelerator pedal of an develops large power to correspond 
automobile or position of to accelerator position, or electric 
an electrical switch) circuit brings large electric energy 

into play) 

Fig. 6.4. How a small input change (such as the operation of an electric switch) can 
bring into play sources of energy and thereby produce an output that may be quite 
different inform and magnitude from the input. Each such conversion can be referred 
to as involving a transformation (transfer function or transform function). 

unsuitable, the water would be turned 
on and off in such erratic manner as to 
recall the sad fate of the Tacoma Narrows 
bridge; see curve B, dotted line, Fig. 6.6. 
In the case of room-temperature control, 
the thermostat is likely to be kept at one 
temperature (for comfort), say, around 
72°F. In the case of the baking oven, the 
temperature setting will vary with the 
requirements for baking a cake or roast- 
ing meat. In either case, the temperature 
will vary (or hunt) around the set control 
point. The hunting or oscillations can be 
decreased if the rate of heat input is slow. 
But this would increase the time needed 
to bring the room or oven to the desired 
temperature. With on-off control, the 
heating unit becomes fully hot whenever 
the control switch turns it on. By the time 
the temperature at the thermostat reaches 
the desired temperature to turn off the 
heat, the region of the heater units be- 
comes much hotter than necessary, and 

this excess heat drives the temperature 
well above the desired temperature. A 
similar delay in reactivating the heating 
unit as the temperature drops below the 
desired level causes continual hunting 
above and below the desired temperature. 
We shall appreciate more and more, as 
we examine more cases, that the "control" 
of a variable rarely results in an exact 
holding of the variable to the desired 
control value. Nearly always, the variable 
will hunt or vary about that control 
value. Therefore, the function of a suc- 
cessful control system is to hold the 
variable within acceptable departures 
from the desired control value. 

6.6 Negative versus 
positive feedback 

In all the examples given above, while it 
is clear that control at a point usually ends 
up as hunting around that point, even this 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 


Fig. 6.5. A simple system for controlling the 
filling of a bucket. 


Valve to control water flow by 
electric motor control 

To motor valve 

Electric switch, designed to turn off 
water valve when bucket drops 
down to close switch 

Fig. 6.6. How the bucket of Fig. 6.5 behaves: 
Bucket A is filled slowly and settles gradually to 
its final level after switch cuts off water flow. 
Bucket B (solid line) is filled rapidly and over- 
shoots final position, rebounds, and hunts for an 
equilibrium position that is lower than that for 
bucket A because extra water was added after the 
first rebound above the switch-off level. With a 
different spring tension for bucket B (dotted line), 
the hunting may cause addition of sufficient 
extra water on each cycle so that the amplitude 
steadily increases until the system collapses. 

Excessive hunting results in collision 

with upper support and final collapse 

of controlled aspect of system 



degree of control is achieved only when 
negative feedback is present. Thus, in 
the case of the full bucket, the switch 
turns off the water (since it was the 
"water-on" condition that filled the 
bucket). In the case of room-temperature 
control (which we shall discuss presently 
in detail), the heaters must be turned on 
when the room temperature is too low, 
and off when the temperature is too high. 

The examples of feedback, as well as 
the limitations of on-off (sometimes called 
bang-bang) control can be illustrated 
further by the example of a blind person 
walking down a street with his cane. As 
he progresses along the sidewalk the 
tapping of his cane tells him when he is 
too close to the buildings on the right. 
This information, when processed 
through his brain and muscle system, 
serves as feedback to change his direction. 
Since his movements have taken him too 
far to the right, now he must move to the 
left and therefore the feedback must be 
negative. If the influence of feedback 
were positive, it would support or add 
to the original direction that took him t& 
the right and would take him even farther 
to the right and directly into the wall. He 
now continues to the left until his cane 
warns that he is too close to the curb at 
the left. This information again converts 
to become negative feedback, which will 
oppose the move that carried him too far 
to the left and thereby will restore his 
direction until a new signal calls for new 

Our blind person can negotiate the 
walk fairly well as long as his movements 
are slow enough to give him time to 
receive the signal from his tapping, to 
interpret these, and to translate them into 
suitable feedback influence. But now 
suppose he tries to run down the same 
sidewalk. Very soon his rate of receiving 
and responding to signals would be in- 
adequate, and he would be running in a 
zigzag or colliding with obstacles. 

Such an experience, which the reader 
can himself check rather dramatically, 
illustrates several features of control 
that apply fairly generally, namely: 

(1) Stable control requires the pres- 
ence of negative feedback influences. 

(2) Stable control of a variable to a 
"fixed" point usually means maintain- 
ing the variable so that is does not hunt 
around the point beyond acceptable 

(3) To be effective for the control of 
any variable, the control system must 
be designed to have response rates that 
are suited for the specific application. 

These and other characteristics of 
control systems will be illustrated in the 
following sections. 

6.7 Driving an automobile 

To illustrate further the limitations of 
on-off control, let us apply the technique 
to driving an automobile in a lane of the 
road that is marked with white lines. We 
know from experience that an auto tends 
to go from side to side (to hunt), and 
requires continuous steering control. 
Let us assume an unreal situation in 
which we turn the steering wheel a 
small, fixed amount to make the correc- 
tion, and do this only when a front wheel 
touches a white line. The experiment 
would then be like the walk of a blind 
person. When crawling along at a very 
slow speed we would find that the car 
does not go very much outside the lane, 
but when driving at a moderate speed 
we would find that this type of correction 
(applying a fixed amount of adjustment 
as on-off control) causes the car to weave 
substantially in and out of the lane. If 
we were to drive even faster, the car 
would be likely to leave the road alto- 
gether. The amount of overshoot would 
depend on how slowly we respond to vis- 
ual signals and take action (see Fig. 6.7). 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 




N v %/ X. /") S 




Fig. 6.7. Difficulty of driving an auto by on-off control technique. 

Fortunately not many people drive in 
this manner because control of an auto- 
mobile utilizes a much more sophisticated 
system of elements than is possible with 
on-off control. In fact, not many automatic 
industrial processes can compare with 
the sophistication and effectiveness of 
good auto driving, since human judgment 
enters this operation to a remarkable 
degree. To begin with, as the auto moves 
to a new position or direction, the driver 
is kept continually informed of the nature 
of each new situation through his sense of 
sight and general physical awareness. 
That is, there is continuous feedback, or 
information, reaching him to guide his 
next move. The element of judgment or 
experience also enters. He can vary the 
sharpness of turn of the steering wheel 
to conform to the sharp right turn. This 
is called proportional control. In addition, 
he can see a curve in the road ahead long 
before the auto has reached the curve. 
He can therefore anticipate the move 

(anticipatory control) and thus reduce 
delay in his action (Fig. 6.8). 

The driver of an automobile is aware 
of several elements that make control 
more difficult. If the steering wheel has 
looseness or "play" in the shaft or gear 
system, the steering wheel must be turned 
several degrees of angle before there is 
any effect on the front wheel directions. 
This play, or region of no response, is 
sometimes called the dead zone of the 
system. The driver himself may be a little 
slow in judging the situation and taking 
action. This "lag or slowness of response 
together with looseness in the steering 
system, can make for wider overshoot in 
the movement of the car. If the throttle 
sticks, the motor hesitates, or the brakes 
seize, the driver will not be able to assure 
smooth "feel" and ride. Finally, rough- 
ness of the road can introduce random 
fluctuations that add uncertainty to the 
normal small feedback of information. 
A driver is not likely to give delicate 



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Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

guidance to the auto when his whole 
body is being shaken. This background 
confusion is often called noise or static 
when one is referring to transmission of 
signal or of information. It exists in almost 
every type of control circuit, sometimes 
in the form of vibration of an automobile 
or plant equipment. It occurs in the 
normal radioactivity background of the 
environment, which disturbs radiation 
measurements. In very sensitive elec- 
tronic circuitry it shows up in the random 
movements of the electrons. Similar 
phenomena are present in social situ- 
ations and in biological organisms that 
maintain balance in their internal func- 
tions and with their environment. 

Because cyclic and control aspects of 
nature are exceedingly important, we 
must consider control principles and no- 
menclature in a little more detail before 
looking at the several types of systems 
that are common. 

6.8 Some control principles — 

Before beginning detailed discussion we 
need some convenient terminology and 
symbols for representing the elements 
and functions that make up systems. 
When the driver of an automobile engages 
the gears and steps on the accelerator 
pedal, the motor raeexumd the car moves 
forward with an expenditure of energy 
that is vastly greater than the energy ap- 
plied to the pedal. The power is ampli- 
fied. We may represent this by a diagram 
such as Fig. 6.4. The input, AI in this case, 
appears to be simply the change in posi- 
tion of the pedal and the small energy 
required to make the change. The box in 
Fig. 6.4 represents the change or trans- 
formation (ol function) that the input 
A/ initiates or experiences; in this case 
the function produces motor power at a 
level that is related (and perhaps propor- 
tional) to the position of the throttle or 

accelerator pedal. We can refer to the box 
as representing a transfer function /(/), 
or converter, which produces AO. 

What is the source of the energy that 
makes this conversion possible? In this 
case, the energy source is the chemical 
energy in the tank of gasoline. The pedal, 
therefore, is nothing more than a lever 
device for controlling the use of this 
chemical energy. When one includes the 
tank of gasoline and the driver along with 
the automobile, the system becomes a 
closed (or conservative) system.} With- 
out either one, the system would be in- 
complete. (It is common practice to omit 
the sources of energy from block diagrams 
of control systems and to indicate only 
the energy input and output for a system.) 

The operator has freedom to depress 
the accelerator pedal quickly or slowly, 
as he wishes. A question that is frequently 
important for analyzing the behavior of 
control systems is the following: What is 
the nature of the output response wher 
the input is given a quick change? A 
quick increment of input change, which 
we may represent by A7, is usually called 
an input step function.t Figure 6.9 illu- 
strates what might happen. Usually there 
is some lag in the rise of motor power, as 
shown by the curved rise and fall of the 
output. This lag will not be serious in 
the case of the automobile, since the 
input is not likely to be reversed rapidly 
very often. In general it is desirable to 
have as much lag as one can tolerate, 
consistent with adequate control; other- 
wise the system will be too ready to 
"jump" and probably to overshoot the 

f We neglect the fact that as gasoline is 
used up it must be replaced, bringing the 
entire petroleum industry into our system. 
Likewise, food for the driver is neglected. 

\ The term step function is often associated 
with on-off changes because the change of 
power or direction assumes the form of a sud- 
den change. This is illustrated by the shape 
of the heat input as it is turned on and off in 
Figs. 6.9 and 6.10. 




Sudden increase of input 


Sudden Decrease of input 

Slow increase of output power level 

Slow decrease of output power level 


Fig. 6.9. When the input is given a quick change (step function), the response 
of the output may be designed to be slow or rapid. In general, a slow response 
of output produces less hunting than does rapid response. 

mark and hunt badly before settling down. 
The lower curve of Fig. 6.9 illustrates 
the nature of the "hunting" that results 
when the system is made to respond too 
quickly to change in input. How the out- 
put will respond depends on the charac- 
teristics of the system and on the features 
incorporated in the transform function 
box of Fig. 6.4. 

If the system of moving parts includes 
large, heavy components such as the 
flywheel and other parts of the automobi le 
motor, we can appreciate that quicker 
response is possible only if the motor is 
designed to have adequate extra power 
to give the desired acceleration. But 
excessive power can make control less 
smooth and more "jumpy," not to mention 
excessively costly in gasoline and in the 
complexity of the motor itself. The goal 
for design of most systems is to find a 

happy compromise that makes the system 
adequately responsive and yet stable 
against excessive hunting, and which is 
not too expensive in dollars or in use of 

The system we have been discussing 
has the features of proportional control. 
That is, the accelerator pedal may be 
depressed to give large or small change, 
and the motor power level will respond 
with some proportional relationship. We 
backtrack a little to discuss on-off control 
before proceeding further. 

6.9 More on on-off control 

Earlier we discussed how difficult it 
would be to hold an automobile within 
the lane of the road if we applied on-off 
control principles to adjust the steering. 
Despite certain limitations, on-off control 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

devices are used very commonly in homes 
and in industry because of their sim- 
plicity. It is very easy to design an elec- 
tric iron, an oven, or room-temperature 
control, to operate an electric switch 
to turn on (or off) the electric power 
whenever the temperature falls below 
(or rises above) set values. Figure 6.10 
illustrates how this might apply to the 
thermostat controls for heating a room in 
the winter time. 
As shown in Fig. 6.10(a), 72°F is the 

temperature desired for this room. But 
all thermostats and switching devices 
require a differential zone of temperature 
change in which to go on and off; other- 
wise they would act too frequently and 
probably erratically because of vibration 
conditions and momentary temperature 
fluctuations in the immediate neighbor- 
hood of the thermostat. We start with the 
temperature dropping in the upper curve 
of this figure. When the temperature 
reaches the lower edge of the differential 

B 73 ' 

8. 72 c 


$ 7 r 

Thermostat goes "off" 
to cut off heat 

Max room temperature 

goes on to ca 
for heat 

w "off -on" zone 

Actual range of 
L temperature 
change in room 

Increasing time 

Heater turns "off" 


Heater turns "on" 

Increasing time 



Above desired level 

Thermostat Warm air 

Desired temperature level 


Cool air 


Below desired level 

Fig. 6.10. Relation of room 
temperature and thermostat to 
the power input to a room- 
(b) temperature control system. 


temperature zone (71°F in Fig. 6.10(a)), 
the thermostat switch turns on the heater. 
This assumes that there are no significant 
time delays in the response of the thermo- 
stat or the heater controls. (In actual 
experience there are always some delays.) 
The radiators around the room take much 
more time to heat up, and the temperature 
of the air in the room continues to drop 
until it reaches some point which is well 
below the lower limit of the control 
range (about 70° in Fig. 6.10(a)). 

As the hot radiators heat the air in the 
room, the temperature at the thermostat 
starts to climb again, and at the 73°F 
level the heaters are turned off. But at that 
point the radiators are fully hot, and the 
air in the room continues to receive heat 
and to rise to a maximum temperature 
which is well above 73°F. The net result 
is that the room temperature may vary 
by as much as four or more degrees 
Fahrenheit. In an actual system there will 
be a little time lag between the temper- 
ature at 71°F or 73°F and the response of 
the thermostat and heater controls, which 
can make the overshoot and hunting more 
severe. Nevertheless, the simplicity and 
relatively low cost of on-off systems makes 
them very attractive for use in such oper- 
ations as controlling temperatures, main- 
taining water level in tanks, and many 
other operations. Biological and some 
social systems, as well as many industrial, 
mechanical, and chemical processes, 
usually require the more accurate control 
that can be achieved through propor- 
tional-type systems. 

How much power can an on-off system 
control? It is fairly clear that the switch 
that turns the heater on and off can be 
designed to handle any amount of elec- 
tric or other form of energy. The amount 
depends on the power requirements to 
keep the variable that is being controlled 
as close to the desired value as possible. 

A general rule might be to design the 
power level so that the controller calls 
for heat about half the time, and the heater 
remains off half the total time. Sometimes 
the control is improved by supplying a 
portion of the power continuously at a 
low, fixed level, and allowing the control 
system to add or subtract a smaller in- 
crement of power as needed. 

6.10 Characteristics of 

proportional control 

The on-off type of temperature control, 
in which the power is usually turned 
full-on or full-off, is inadequate for many 
applications that cannot tolerate the wide 
surges around the desired control point 
that often accompany on-off systems. The 
undesirable surges can be reduced if 
the power is moderated in proportion 
to the need. This is exactly what is 
achieved in proportional control systems, 
in which the heat input continues at 
some intermediate level when the tem- 
perature is near the desired control 
point. As the temperature rises somewhat, 
the controller reduces the heat input in 
proportion to the departure from the set 
control point. Similarly, the heat input is 
increased in proportion to a fall in tem- 
perature below the set control point. Of 
course the system becomes more com- 
plicated because now the temperature 
detector must measure the magnitude of 
departure from the control point. (In 
on-off control, all that the detector has to 
do is to note that the temperature is above 
or below the set point.) Also, there must 
be somewhat more complex intercon- 
nection so that the proportionate (or step- 
bv-step) changes in the temperature 
detector can be translated into propor- 
tionate (or step-by-step) action on the 
part of the valve or motor that controls 
the fuel or power input. 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

* 74°- 


Temperature of room near thermostat 

Time *- 

Response of proportional thermostat to room temperature 


<u c 

TO °o 


Heater power level in response to changes in temperature 


Fig. 6.11. In a proportional control system, the response of the thermostat is 
proportional to the departure of room temperature from the desired control point 
and the change in power input to the boiler is proportional to the response of 
the thermostat. 

Let us analyze the action of such a 
system designed to control the temper- 
ature in a room. 

When the door of the room opens and 
lets in a draft of cold air, the thermostat 
responds as shown by the drop in the 
upper curve of Fig. 6.11. As shown by 
the middle curve, at that same time the 
thermostat control calls for a propor- 
tional increase of heat, and the heaters 
respond as shown by the lower curve. As 
the draft of cold air becomes warmed 
somewhat by mixing with the warmer 
air, the proportional thermostat cor- 
respondingly reduces its demand for 
heat. The net result is that the room tem- 
perature is maintained much more closely 
to the desired 72°F than is possible with 
on-off control. But the proportional control 
instruments and equipment tend to be 
more expensive, and for that reason they 

are not used where on-off control is 

A serious limitation develops in pro- 
portional control systems when the load 
demand changes so that a different 
average power level must be applied to 
hold the variable at the desired control 
value. To understand this, we note that 
in proportional control, the output AO 
(Fig. 6.4) has a fixed ratio to the input 
A/. This proportionality ratio, or gain, 
may be represented by G = AO/A/. As- 
sume that the room-temperature control 
we have been discussing is set to control 
at 72°F when the outdoor temperature is 
around 50°F. We may assume that this 
requires an average heat input of 10,000 
Btu per hour. Suppose that the outdoor 
temperature drops to 0°F. Obviously, the 
heater system must provide a great deal 
more heat to hold the temperature at 


72°F, say, 30,000 Btu per hour. We there- 
fore need an additional 30,000 - 10,000 = 
20,000 Btu per hour to hold the temper- 
ature at 72°F. But since in proportional 
control more heat is provided only in pro- 
portion to the temperature drop from the 
control setting, how can the additional 
heat be provided without the actual tem- 
perature remaining well below the de- 
sired control value? 

Let us analyze the situation a little 
more quantitatively. Suppose that the 
gain of our control is set so that, for each 
degree that the temperature drops, 
the controller permits an additional 2000 
Btu per hour to be supplied to the boiler. 
This represents a gain or proportionality 
ratio of 2000 Btu per hour per degree 
fahrenheit. To get the additional 20,000 
Btu would require that the temperature 
of the room go down to 62°F. Or, alter- 
natively, the thermostat setting would 
have to be moved arbitrarily to about 
80°F in order to supply enough heat to 
hold the room temperature at 72°F as long 
as the outdoor temperature remained at 

This discrepancy could be reduced if 
the gain were made higher (that is, 1°F 
could turn on much more than an addi- 
tional 2000 Btu per hour). But making the 
gain higher also makes the system more 
unstable. Other devices can be intro- 
duced to change the responsiveness of 
the controller, such as incorporating into 
the system an outdoor thermostat that 
introduces this equivalent of the arbitrary 
shift of a thermostat setting. of 80°F. We 
need not go into more detail beyond 
recognizing this severe limitation of 
proportional control systems. 

6.11 Feedback 

We must give a little more attention to 
the important feedback function. When 

the thermostat of a temperature-control 
system demands more heat, the addi- 
tional heat energy continues to pour into 
the heater boilers and radiators until 
feedback information (in the form of 
rising air temperature in its neighbor- 
hood) reverses the thermostat demand. 
In the case of the driver of the automobile, 
although his foot on the accelerator finds 
good proportional power response on the 
part of the motor, only feedback in the 
form of vision (and the transformation of 
that ii/ormation into suitable muscle 
action) makes driving successful. Without 
the presence of feedback, the driver 
could not function as part of the system. 

The kind as well as the timing (or 
phase relationship; see Sect. 6.3) of feed- 
back are rather important. In the case of 
the temperature controller, the electrical 
thermostat reactions must become trans- 
formed into heat energy and transfer of 
this energy to the room if there is to be 
control of temperature. In the case of the 
driver, the feedback which arrives in 
the form of sensory information must be- 
come interpreted and converted into 
suitable muscle action on the accelerator 
pedal to be effective. 

In the case of temperature control the 
feedback must always be negative. That 
is, the rising room temperature causes the 
thermostat to demand less heat, while a 
dropping temperature causes it to de- 
mand more heat. In the case of driving 
an automobile, the feedback may be 
negative (say, when the traffic light turns 
red and the driver has to let up on the 
accelerator) or positive (say, when the 
way is clear for higher speed). When a 
politician confronts his voting constitu- 
ents on an important issue, he watches 
their reactions as he talks, to get some 
form of feedback, When the response 
(or feedback) from the audience is "posi- 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

tive," he believes that his statements 
have been received favorably, whereas 
a "negative" feedback is likely to make 
him cautious. 

Feedback may take many forms and 
many types of coupling. Figure 6.12 il- 
lustrates a simple modification of an 
earlier graph. In this illustration some of 
the output energy is fed back to the input. 
The box marked "feedback transfer" 
determines how much of and in what 
form the output will be fed back. The 
input is represented by a long arrow with 
positive increment. The feedback is 
shown as a small arrow with negative 
value. In such a setup the net input is 
reduced by the amount of the negative 
feedback. The effect is to restrain or to 
limit the output. If the sign of the feed- 
back were positive, the input and the 
feedback would add and the output 
would increase continually and build 
up to destruction, or to the limit of the 
energy input. A system with feedback is 
often referred to as a closed-loop system. 
Since such systems incorporate a measure 
of self-correction, the exact value that 
the input is permitted to have becomes 
less critical. This self-correction factor 
also applies to the automobile driver, who 

does not have to have a gauge on the foot 
pedal because the "feedback" of his eyes 
and ears is enough to guide and restrain 
his push on the foot pedal. 

High values for gain in amplifiers or 
control circuits tend to make a system 
unstable, and time lags produce wider 
oscillations. Negative feedback, on the 
other hand, tends to stabilize the systems. 

6.12 The elements of 
control systems 

Now that we have developed some famil- 
iarity with control systems, we can iden- 
tify the functional elements that make up 
most systems. 


First there is the variable that the 
system is expected to cope with or to 
control within prescribed limits. Actually 
it is rare that only one variable is present 
in a system. In the case of room-temper- 
ature control the changes in the outdoor 
temperature constitute an independent 
variable, while the internal temperature 
represents the controlled variable. Other 
independent variables may be intro- 
duced, such as children running in and 

A7 = 

input + -*- 

Converter, amplifier, 
transducer, or transfer 
function /(/) 

+ "*~ A0 = OUtput 


Fig. 6.12. 
Addition of a 
feedback transfer 
function to the 



transfer function 

transform function 
of Fig. 6.4. 


out of open doors, to cause variable 
demands for more or less heating. 

Similarly, the driver of the automobile 
has control devices by which he steers 
and starts and stops the car in relation 
to the road. But all along the way he is 
forced to comply with independent 
demands, such as changing road and 
traffic conditions, stop signs, and traffic 
lights, all of which constitute independent 


Usually there must be some sensor 
device by which the variable can be 
measured or gauged. For example, in the 
case of the temperature measurement we 
shall learn in Chapter 10 that the tem- 
perature of air is actually determined by 
the velocity of the molecules that make 
up air. But we cannot gauge the temper- 
ature by measuring the velocity of mol- 
ecules directly. What we can do is to 
utilize some effect that changes with 
changing molecule velocity. For example: 
At high air temperature, molecules in a 
material become more active and bump 
each other harder and more frequently, 
causing objects such as fluid in a ther- 
mometer or a piece of metal in a thermo- 
stat to warm up. A thermostat usually 
includes a bimetal t that carries an elec- 
trical contact; the bimetal changes its 
position when the air temperature 
changes and thus makes or breaks an 
electric circuit. 

Similarly, while the position and be- 
havior of the automobile are the variables 

t A bimetal strip is made up of two different 
metals bonded together. Because the two 
metals have different temperature expansion 
coefficients, the bimetal will bend when 
heated, thus causing the contact to switch on 
the system. As it cools, it straightens and con- 
tact is terminated. 

to be controlled, we gauge these by the 
use of sensory information (vision, hear- 
ing) and the interpretive processes of 
the brain. The economist also looks for 
meaningful indices by which to gauge 
the larger features of national product, 
industrial trends, and public attitudes. 
The public utilizes quality and creativity 
as gauges to evaluate intrinsic or extrinsic- 
return on investment. 


Whether one deals with a temperature- 
control system, driving an automobile, or 
any other situation that involves variables 
and controls, there must be a source of 
energy by which the job is performed. 


In most instances the sensor function 
must utilize the services of a motor device 
to restore a variable to its proper value. 
To do this the motor device, or motor 
function, utilizes energy from an energy 
source. In the temperature-control sys- 
tem, the blowers and burners (which are 
triggered into action by the thermostat) 
begin to utilize fuel energy to heat the 
boilers. In the automobile a number of 
mechanisms come into play to burn the 
gasoline, to power the steering, and to 
perform other nondriver functions. 


Finally there is a feedback device, or 

feedback function, which in one way or 
another relates the output to the input 
and thus controls the net output. 

The functional elements of a system 
cannot always be identified individually 
or even as subsystems, but they are 
present in one form or another. One 
characteristic that will be evident more 
and more is the wide variety of trans- 
formations (transform functions) that are 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

possible in systems. Molecular speeds 
are transformed into mechanical bending 
of a bimetal, which completes an electric 
circuit and utilizes electric energy. This 
in turn starts a motor and pump device 
to feed and burn oil in a boiler, which 
produces heat that is transported or trans- 
ferred by various means to another area 
by other motor devices. Similarly, all 
the tangible and intangible features of 
human physical energy and human brain 
processes become involved with elec- 
tromechanical and chemical systems in 
driving an automobile. (For each of these 
transformations we can apply the more 
elegant phrase transform function, and 
illustrate the nature of the transformation 
by means of a mathematical equation, a 
graph, a listing of data, or a simple 

6.13 Control concepts: cybernetics 

The art and science of control theory has 
had a long and slow history- In the early 
days it found application in the sailing 
and steering of ships. With the coming of 
the steam engine a mechanical governor 
was needed to keep the speed of the 
engine constant. In more recent decades 
a wide variety of instruments, valves, and 
other equipment have been developed 
to maintain uniformity in chemical pro- 
duction processes. Servomechanisms 
were introduced during World War I for 
control of gunfire. Electric circuitry and 
electromechanical systems were given in- 
tensive study to improve their respon- 
siveness and stability for purposes of 
controlling high-speed operations. By 
the 1940's the pace of automation had 
quickened as the concepts of control 
theory and of feedback received wider 
application in the electrical, mechanical, 
and processing industries. The term 

high-fidelity became a byword in ampli- 
fier design as a result of the introduction 
of negative feedback. 

But the concept of feedback seemed to 
be basic and useful for a much wider 
range of applications. In 1947 the mathe- 
matician Norbert Wiener and Arturo 
Rosenbleuth compared the phenomena 
of control and of feedback, as used in 
technology, to the nervous system and 
muscle behavior of the human body. 
They postulated a close coordination of 
communication relationships between 
the brain, the sensory organs, and the 
muscles, and concluded that this resulted 
from the extensive use of feedback 
principles. It seemed that a feedback 
function is responsible for one's ability 
to reach down and pick up an object and 
to know how much farther the hand must 
move to complete the act. Moreover, they 
found an identity between feedback and 
information and the information content 
of a signal above the noise level. They 
gave the name cybernetics (from the 
Greek kybernes for steersman) to the 
entire field of control and communication 
theory, whether in the machine or in the 
animal, f 

The concepts oi feedback and informa- 
tion encompassed by cybernetics permit 
very extensive applications to the bio- 
logical and social world. Just as the driver 
of the automobile performs functions in 
response to the information he derives 

t The broad concepts that make up the sci- 
ence of cybernetics as developed by Wiener 
and his associates were new. The word itself 
had much older origin, however. It appears 
that Plato often employed the word "cyber- 
netics" to mean "the steermans art." His 
comment in "Cleitophon," "the cybernetics 
of men, as you, Socrates, often call politics," 
suggests a wider implication. In 1834 the 
French physicist Ampere used the word as 
"means of governing" people. 


from seeing and hearing and evaluating 
the driving situation, so his reactions 
under other situations are the result of 
his relationship or interaction with each 
new environment. Information and feed- 
back are essential to his every move, 
every decision, almost every thought and 
learning process. 

We shall have many opportunities to 
refer to the principles that have just 
been introduced. There will be applica- 
tions to strictly technical systems, to 
systems that involve nature's resources, 
to biological systems, and to social 

The importance of the subject suggests 
that we summarize a few of the ideas 
that are most pertinent to our purposes. 

1. Nature's processes are characterized 
by continuous dynamic transformations 
of energy, which may range from the 
vast magnitudes of astrophysics to the 
metabolic adaptation of the smallest 
living organism to its environment. 

2. Much of man's own activities also 
involves the development of processes 
for conversion and utilization of nature's 
energy resources for purposes of assuring 
his survival and comfort. Indeed, the 
design of systems that integrate physical 
and chemical variables into cooperative, 
controlled systems constitutes a main 
interest of science and industry to bring 
about modern civilization and the current 
standard of living of advanced nations. 

3. It is now recognized that the ele- 
ments that make up a controlled system 
have common characteristics, whether 
accomplished by machine components, 
biological elements, thought processes, 
or social situations. 

4. In such systems, the element of 
feedback, or information, which inter- 
relates the output (or behavior) of the 
system and the input variables, con- 

stitutes a major factor for the effective 
operation and stability of systems. 

5. The design of every control system 
requires careful analysis (and usually 
compromise) to meet the needs of the 
process. A prime requisite for most con- 
trol systems is that they be adequately 
responsive to changes, and that they be 
stable. Also needed is an adequate source 
of energy to perform all the functions 
that are required of the system. The input 
to the system may be some variable such 
as temperature, liquid level, or pressure. 
Or it may be information that is itself the 
product of other operations, such as in 
computer systems. 

6. The system performs its function bv 
transforming the input to produce an out- 
put whose energy content is usually 
amplified, the added energy being de- 
rived from the source of energy of the 
system. The character of the transforma- 
tion is designed into the system and is 
identified by its transform function to 
give the change or amplification gain to 
the output. 

7. When a feedback (or information) 
loop permits some of the energy of the 
output to be fed back to the input, there 
can be considerable influence on the 
nature of the net output and on the 
stability of the system. In general, feed- 
back that opposes changes (negative) in 
the input will improve the stability of 
the system, while feedback that arrives 
at the input in a manner that increases 
its changes (positive feedback) tends to 
reduce the stability of a system. 

8. The stability of the system suffers 
and the system "hunts" more violently 
when the amplification or gain between 
output and input is too high or when the 
system responds too quickly to changes 
in the input variable. The design must 
include enough damping to reduce exces- 
sive overshoot (or violent hunting) of 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 


Energy (food) 


Energy losses, work output 


and sensory 



■ ■ 1 1 ■ 


Information feedback 

or other influence 


Fig. 6.13. The 
complex inter- 
relationship of 
man with his 

the system while still providing adequate 
response. On-off controls offer cost ad- 
vantages and simplicity, but the need for 
better control may dictate the use of 
proportional control or of other controls 
that have more sophisticated design. 
There can be more than one input to a 
system, more than one output, and a wide 
variety of interrelated combinations. In 
fact, the input may be the statistical 
output of many interrelated elements or 

6.14 Some examples of systems 

In Fig. 6.13, which illustrates the rela- 
tionship of man to his environment, we 
have identified two aspects of man (his 
brain and sensory motor system as dis- 
tinguished from his physical being) and 
two aspects of his enviornment (the 
physical and social environments). There 
is very intimate and extensive inter- 
change between the two aspects of man 
and between the two aspects of environ- 
ment, as shown by the proximity and 
multiple arrows connecting them. Man 
draws energy and material from the 
physical environment and returns in- 

formation and other materials to both.f 

In the case of the driving of an automo- 
bile, it is difficult to identify all the ele- 
ments that make up the input to this 
system. The desire to drive, the sensory 
activity that provides data to the brain, 
and the muscle behavior that operates 
the controls of the car, each is a complex 
that includes and combines the product 
of some other part of the system. The 
energy involved in the seeing, hearing, 
and judgement operations is negligibly 
small, but these become greatly magni- 
fied by the body's metabolic processes. 
This transform function of the body is 
most complex, and is itself made up of 
innumerable subsystems. 

The specific control principles and 
systems we have discussed thus far are 
given broader significance by the princi- 
ples of cybernetics. Cybernetics deals 

f It is not easy to distinguish work from 
information and learning. Physical acts are 
not readily distinguishable as being separate 
from sensory response and interpretation that 
leads to learning, judgment, and decision. 
Certainly we cannot say that the throwing of 
a ball, intake of food, reading of newsprint, 
and a walk around the block are not so much 
mental processes that lead to future decision 
or action as they are physical acts. 


with elements or variables that are related 
to each other so intimately that a change in 
one variable is likely to affect other vari- 
ables in the system. The elements may 
be parts of a machine or those of a chem- 
ical process. Cybernetics can deal with 
the very specific behavior of a single 
molecule among vast numbers of gas 
molecules or with the behavior of a 
single cell of the vast numbers that make 
up an organism. It can as readily (and in 
general more usefully) consider the 
statistical-behavior character of all the 
gas molecules together, or all the cells 
of the human body. It can provide a 
method for analyzing the economic 
relationship of a grocer and his customer, 
or as readily attack questions pertaining 
to the economics of a whole nation. It 
establishes functional relationships in 
the course of changes, emphasizing their 
coordination, regulation, and control 
within a systems concept. 

From the point of view of cybernetics, 
the aspect of systems behavior that is of 
greatest interest is the system's response 
to a disturbance. This disturbance may be 
a normal change or a momentary depar- 
ture (transient) of the input, say as a result 
of the dropping of temperature of an in- 
dustrial oven below its control setting 
when cold material is poured into it. One 
or more of the input variables or signals 
may experience changes that sum up to 
a signal sufficiently large to initiate a 
major change. For example, many chem- 
ical processes go on within the body, 
such as food intake, digestion, blood cell 
production, and oxygen utilization. They 
are not unrelated and all must be con- 
sidered contributory to whether a person 
feels well or feels ill. Each process experi- 
ences its own daily or hourly variations, 
which nevertheless may constitute 
normal operation and good health. There 
can be occasions, however, when the 

individual variations in the processes 
add up to produce sickness of a sort that 
represents serious imbalance or dis- 
turbance of the total system.! 

In general, systems are designed to 
accept and to cope with very specific 
variables and to effect reasonably quick 
restoration whenever some change in 
those variables upsets equilibrium. The 
system is considered to be responsive 
when it reacts with adequate speed to the 
upset. A system that responds too quickly 
or introduces corrective steps that are 
too large is likely to produce instability 
around the equilibrium point. A system 
may also be too sensitive to small fluctu- 
ations that are of the order of magnitude 
of background "noise," and for that 
reason will be unstable. 

We might consider the design of an 
electrical amplifier system such as that 
used for a quality phonograph system. 
Figure 6.12 represents a fairly simple 
circuit for transforming an input through 
some form of transducer to produce an 
output. The feedback to the input in this 
case was designed to counteract or oppose 
the input, tending to reduce undesirable 
excursions in the output due to variations 
other than the sound signals to be ampli- 
fied. The system constitutes a channel 
for transmitting and transposing signals, 
the input signals being information. To 
be effective, the design must usually 
incorporate suitable capabilities in such 
terms as capacity, watts, voltage, range, 
and frequency. These in turn provide the 
basis for designing suitable constraints 
into the system. 

However, a control system is not likely 

t As a simple example, the experience of 
sitting in an awkward position can introduce 
a combination of neural signals and mental 
process that suggests the need for a new posi- 
tion and thereby requires a complete readjust- 
ment of nerve and muscle systems. 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

to be designed to control every variable 
against every change. For example, the 
body's control of the iris openings of the 
eyes (to permit only adequate light to 
reach the retina) has a very specific, 
limited function and purpose, which 
excludes sensitivity to other variations of 
body conditions. The purpose of con- 
straints is to reduce the response of the 
system to variables that are not con- 
sidered to be part of the information to 
be transmitted. There are also natural 
restraints or constraints on the information 
and on the variety of information that a 
channel may transmit. Among these are 
the limitations and directions imposed 

by the conservation of energy and the 
laws of thermodynamics. When a system 
combines several elements into an inte- 
grated organizational and functional 
interdependence, the interdependence 
automatically imposes constraints, since 
the elements are now no longer inde- 
pendent of each other. An amplifier 
system may have to contend with con- 
straints in the form of costs, against which 
the designer must balance extra quality 
or fidelity or amplification. 

With only minor modifications the dia- 
gram of Fig. 6.12 can represent a quite 
different system for communication of 
information. Figure 6.14 illustrates some 

Government offices 

Editorial and 



Radio and 

"**] Financial support, etc 





Financial support, etc. 

Fig. 6.14. Schematic representation of a system for communicating news to the 


of the elements that enter into a system 
for communicating news to the general 
public. News may be collected from 
many areas and reported; this news 
becomes input (i u i 2 , ■ ■ ■ i„) to the 
editorial offices of a news agency. At 
the editorial offices this information 
undergoes modification and shaping, and 
is put into printed form or given elec- 
trical broadcast. There will be close 
liaison among the several blocks that 
make up the channels for this communi- 
cation. There will be government in- 
fluences as well as government sources 
of information bearing on the editorial 
and management offices, much of it in 
the form of feedback reaction to the com- 
munication. The listening and reading 
public applies "feedback" influence 
through financial support (or lack of 
support) of the broadcast and publishing 
services, through the editorial offices, and 
through government offices to the sources 
of information. The constraints in such a 
system are many. They arise from national 
and local government policies; from elec- 
trical, chemical, mechanical restraints; 
from the cultural habits and educational 
level of communities; and from financial 
considerations. As a total result, such a 
communication system becomes not a 
simple amplifier and distributor of simple 
news information but also a combination 
system for receiving, modifying, trans- 
mitting, and generating of news with 
built-in restraints and objectives. 

One interesting characteristic of a 
system of this sort arises from the fact 
that any one of the multiple input signals 
(h> h, k ■ • ■ i n ) can suddenly introduce 
a major disturbance that overshadows all 
other input signals and that can bring 
about violent response in either the 
forward channels or the feedback chan- 
nels. Such a disturbance might be an 
act of war, a strike, a catastrophe, or an 

event that is especially disliked or espe- 
cially desirable. There may be quite a few 
surges of output beyond the desired 
limits of control before the system set- 
tles down again. 

One may also conceive that the input 
(t, . . . i n ) can be made up of very many 
items and elements so that the overall 
significance of the input is determined 
by the statistical character of the input 
rather than being overly influenced by 
any one item. 

6.15 Functional relationship: 

In its simplest form, a cause-and-effect 
relationship is stated as a simple function 
such as y =f(x) (meaning y is a function 
/ of x, or O =/(/) (meaning output O is 
a function of input /). In diagram form 
this might be written! as representing a 
transition of / into an output O. Relating 

this to our earlier example of the auto- 
mobile, the power of the motor, O, is 
some function of the position of the ac- 
celerator pedal, /. If we include the driver 
as well, we have a more complete system 
with feedback and our equation would 
have to provide a different function for 


In its simplest form the diagram would 
be changed to become 

' " o 

The more interesting examples are not 
likely to be so simple as to comprise 

t The approach in this section is consider- 
ably influenced by the treatment given by 
W. Ross Ashbv. 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

only a single input and single output. 
Within the total system that includes the 
auto and driver, there are innumerable 
smaller systems such as cells, neurons, 
muscles, organs, machine parts, and 
electrical controls. A study of such as- 
semblies must set out clear objectives 
before its approach or results can be 
made significant. For example, are the 
functions to be studied primarily those 
that pertain to keeping the auto on the 
road, or are they functions that deter- 
mine the state of the driver's gall bladder, 
heart beat, or temperature? These sub- 
sidiary systems are certainly part of 
the total system of man and auto, but their 
details are independent of the specific 
functions that go with driving the auto- 
mobile. The situation would be different, 
of course, if part of a study had to do with 
the effect of heart or temperature func- 
tion on the driving, for which purpose a 
new set of elements would be involved 
when making up the system to be studied. 
The situation is illustrated by Ashby 
in the following diagram, in which one 
may trace twenty different! circuits. 

Each subsidiary circuit may have its 
own mode of feedback and control, and 
may be either strongly or weakly linked 
with neighboring circuits. In the case of 
our driver, vision plays the dominant 
role in telling him where the auto is 
going, while his knowledge of the situ- 
ation is helped by the senses of hearing 

t It is suggested that the reader list the 
twenty different ways in which a signal may 
travel through the system, starting at A and 
returning ultimately to A in each case. For 
example, ABCDA or ABCBCDA. 

and by the sensations of his body as the 
car sways. All the input stimuli have 
some relation to each other. One may 
picture a strong relationship (or strong 
coupling) between vision and hearing 
and a weaker coupling between heart- 
beat and vision, as far as driving the car 
is concerned. 

Any study must therefore seek first to 
identify the functionally significant rela- 
tionships that are the subject of the study, 
to identify the elements that bear directly 
on the functions under study, and to elimi- 
nate from consideration those elements 
that are independent of the selected 
functions.! This is not easy to do in most 
cases because there are many varieties 
of influences and "couplings" that come 
into play. Often the study must assume a 
series of situations and obtain results and 
estimates for a wide variety of combina- 
tions of systems. 


Often it becomes necessary to simplify 
a system or make it understandable by 
use of a model or models. This becomes 
imperative for nearly all biological sys- 
tems, which are enormously complex. 
But models can very quickly become 
detrimental to progress when one loses 
sight of the simplifications and limita- 
tions that are inherent to each model. 

6.16 "Black box" approach 

Ashby considers the interesting case of 
an experimenter approaching a "black 
box" that is unknown to him with respect 
to contents and functions. How should 
he proceed to investigate and determine 
the contents and character of the box? 

t The importance of such an approach in the 
study of human behavior is seen in the Gestalt 
psychology view of phenomena. 





7 ig. 6.15. 


lack-box rela 


(The procedure can be especially impor- 
tant if one imagines that the "black box" 
could be an explosive bomb.) There is, 
immediately, a relationship between the 
experimenter and the box, of the type 
shown in Fig. 6.15. The diagram illus- 
trates the nature of exchanges and feed- 
back that take place as the experimenter 
explores the problem by various means. 
The "means" presumably might include 
such things as pushing and pulling of the 
box and levers. For a systematic search, 
each move would be recorded along with 
the "state" of the box that accompanied 
each move. In time the experimenter 
would presumably be able to identify the 
"state" of the box for each type of input, 
and possibly also the function for each 
type of input. Many of the systems with 
which we deal are actually made up of 
"black boxes," and the functional charac- 
teristics of the total assembly may be de- 
termined by the characteristics of each 
box and by the nature of their coupling to- 
gether, f But we may fail to characterize 
the system because a combination of 
black boxes may produce an unexpected 
function that is quite unrelated to the 
characteristics of any one box. An example 
given by Ashbv is that the approximately 
twenty amino acids in a bacterium do not 
individually have the property of being 
self-replicating, but their combination 
does introduce this property. 

Real-life problems tend to have main 
"black boxes," often interconnected in 
such manner as to obscure the specific 
role of each box, each subsystem. One 
may make progress in the analysis of the 
total system and its parts by systematic 
analysis of "responses" or "states" to 
questions and input stimuli. One may 
seek to discover factors that produce 

t The reader may pic tun' the similar situ- 
ation that exists when he first meets a person 

who is to become liis associate on some project. 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 

certain extreme "responses" of "states." 
The use of computers helps handle large 
quantities of data and identify common 
elements or contrasts. But progress in 
attacking complex problems depends 
more often on good use of judgment, 
experience, intuition or insight, per- 
sistence, and some luck. It is not always 
easy to identify and isolate the specific 
functions that are of importance for the 
system's functioning. There may be mul- 
titudinous other elements within the 
total system that do not bear on the spe- 
cific functions under study. 

6.17 The closed-loop amplifier 

It will be helpful to look a little more 
closely at the quantitative aspects of a 
system that has feedback characteristics. 
Figure 6.16 illustrates a system in which 
an input signal E, (which may be in volts 

t The sections printed in color represent 
optional reading material. 

and related to temperature, pressure, 
blood count, or other variable) constitutes 
the control variable. The system may be 
designed to do something that is propor- 
tional to or determined by this control 
variable i. If the system is a servomech- 
anism, input £, may represent the angle 
of rotation of a small motor and output 
E the angle of rotation of a larger motor, 
the objective being to keep the two motors 
in step with each other. Or £, may be 
the input voltage from a measuring circuit 
that has high resistance and low power 
and which is to be converted to an iden- 
tical voltage in a low-resistance circuit 
to operate a loudspeaker or solenoid or 
some other device that requires more 
power than is available at the input end 
of the circuit. (Throughout this discus- 
sion keep in mind that there must be a 
source of energy to make this conversion 
possible, as is illustrated in Fig. 6.16.) 

The signal £, may have a fixed value 
or may vary with time. It feeds into a 
comparator element, where E, is com- 
pared (added) to the signal coming as 
feedback. It both the input signal and 



Input signal which 
serves as fixed or 
variable point for 
control purposes 


Error or 



E f =(FR)xE c 

Energy source 





effector, etc. 

with gain 


Sensor with 

feedback ratio 


Fig. 6.16. A closed-loop amplifying .system. 

GiE.-E f ) 

E o =G(E i -E f ) + E D 




E = E 


+ (FR)G 

) +Ed \1+(FR)g) 

For the above example, 

E ° = l (l+(lxlO)) + ° (l + 1 x lo) 

10 , 

The error or difference voltage therefore 
becomes E, - E, = 1 - (10/11) = 1/11 
volt. The amplifier must be capable of 
acting on this voltage if the system is de- 
signed to work on such magnitudes of 
error. One way to improve this is to in- 
crease the gain G of the amplifier. If, in 
this case, the gain G is increased from 10 
to 100 while keeping the feedback ratio 
and E D the same, the error voltage reduces 
to 1/101 volt from 1/11 volt. It can be seen 
that the gain can change markedly with- 
out introducing serious error in such a 

Finally suppose there develops a dis- 
turbance E D amounting to 0.5 volt, with 
the gain G = 10 and FR = 1. From the 
last term of Eq. (6-2), the effect of the 
disturbance reduces to 




1 + 1 x 10 11 

as a result of the feedback. Figure 6.17 
presents these figures applied directly 
to the diagram of Fig. 6.16 (following the 
example of James E. Randall, Elements of 

The examples thus far apply to static- 
systems. The behavior of systems varies 
considerably when the input voltage 
changes too rapidly for the system to 
follow the changes of E, or E D . The sub- 
ject of controller stability has received a 
great deal of attention in connection with 

servomechanism design (for remote con- 
trol of airplane movements, and similar 
applications) and electric circuit design 
for communication, but we cannot delve 
into that aspect of controller theory. 
However, one related consideration is 
"noise," mentioned briefly in an earlier 
discussion. This also has had considerable 
study because of the important effect 
on the capacity of circuitry • to convey 

6.78 The nature of "living" systems 

In the discussions of control systems thus 
far we have not distinguished between 
systems involving machine components 
and those involving living systems. Nor 
is it our intention to do so now. The fact 
is that, except for varying complexity, 
the very same concepts may be applied 
to living as well as nonliving or machine 
systems. Each of the sensor)' organs 
through which we communicate with the 
much vaster system of nature is itself 
designed, oriented, and functionally 
controlled to achieve certain specific 
goals or "purposes." It does not matter 
whether we discuss a nerve cell or an 
electric wire connection. Both are motor- 
sensors. Information may be transmitted 
through the medium of voice, teletype, 
wireless, visual signals, or the raising of 
an eyebrow. Each may be an element of a 
system, and a composite system may in- 
clude many elements or subsystems. The 
science of information theory must cope 
with vast complications to determine the 
maximum and minimum informational 
content that an actual system can trans- 
mit, even when the role and nature of 
each link of the chain can be fairly under- 

The acts of stretching the bodv or of 
reaching to pick up an object entail the 
function of a fairly complex system of 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 


sensitive to 

change in sensor 


L Sensor 
Na + concentration $ responsive 
142 m-eq/l < to Na + 










• ADP 

\ Intake of 


' /^-— 

NaCI loss through 

sweating; varies 

with activity 

Fig. 6.18. A simplified 
version of control of 
sodium ion concentration 
in the extracellular fluid. 

Controlled loss 
of NaCI 

regulation and control. This has been 
demonstrated by Karl Smith's! experi- 
ments with delayed visual feedback in 
visual motor behavior, which showed that 
what a person sees is delayed in reaching 
him when he is performing various other 
tasks such as writing. 

The intention to stretch or to pick up an 
object is itself a complex function, de- 
veloping in the mind as a product of 
other activities and influences. The 
command signal, in the form of nerve im- 
pulses, originate in the motor cortex of 
the brain and initiates action in the mus- 
cle contractile proteins. There is an 
amplification, G, which may be expressed 
as change in muscle length for a unit 
change in the motor neurons that initiate 
the discharges. The muscle spindle acts 
as a sensor-transducer to produce nerve 
impulses, in proportion to muscle length 
extension, to send back to the brain as 

f See K. V. Smith. 

feedback on the extension. The original 
impulses and the feedback impulses are 
integrated in the spinal cord and give 
indication of the error or difference from 
completion of the intended act. The 
spindle proprioceptors serve to provide 
constant information on the state and tone 
of the muscle system, and assure smooth 
action of the body. When an individual is 
deprived of their help, muscle activity 
tends to be abrupt rather than smooth, 
requiring dependence on visual sense of 
position to the extent that he cannot 
stand when blindfolded. 

A person suffering from Parkinson's 
disease retains some benefit from propri- 
oceptive information, but tends to over- 
shoot when reaching for an object — a 
motion that recalls damped oscillation. 

In later studies of biological systems 
we shall have occasion to study in some 
detail a few of the regulatory systems on 
which life depends. Figure 6.18 illus- 
trates how the sodium ion concentration 


is maintained constant in the fluid that 
surrounds the individual cells. There is 
an elaborate system for maintaining uni- 
form pressure in the circulation of blood. 
Pressure-sensitive transducers, located in 
the aorta and carotid arteries, send infor- 
mation about the magnitude of the pres- 
sure to an integrating center within the 
medullary portion of the brain. This 
results in action that lowers blood pres- 
sure by slowing the heart rate and also by 
producing vascular dilatation. 

For respiration there is needed a mini- 
mal value for blood carbon dioxide and 
an adequate supply of blood oxygen. 
When carbon dioxide concentration in 
the blood increases, the medullary res- 
piratory center stimulates respiration to 
eliminate carbon dioxide. The transit 
time for the flow of blood between the 
lungs and the respiratory center is only a 
few seconds under normal conditions (see 
Randall, p. 108). Body temperature is 
maintained by a delicate balance between 
heat loss (from warm-blooded or homeo- 
thermic animals) and heat production 
within the animal through metabolism. 
The "thermostat" that controls this 
balance is located in the hypothalmus of 
the brain and receives information from 
various temperature transducers of the 
body to guide its own function. 

The regulatory system can extend be- 
yond the body to include the interactions 
involving climate, geography, geology, 
agriculture, theology, government, dis- 
ease, or any other influences. The ele- 
ments of determinate function, distur- 
bances, control variables, amplification, 
feedback, informational content, are all 
three, but they may take the forms of 
imposed law, self-imposed law, self-im- 
posed restraints, religious restraints, 
moral obligations, and many other forms 
that are even less tangible. 

The regulatory principles apply to 

commercial production plants where 
orders for goods become converted to 
products for sale, with often quick and 
direct feedback from consumer to pro- 
ducer. The economist must be aware of 
the relationship of the key elements of 
a nation's economy in terms that are 
identical to those discussed, if he is to 
succeed in regulating the ups.and downs 
of business within manageable propor- 
tions. The problem becomes especially 
severe when each of the elements of the 
system is a result of statistical variations, 
and the statistics lack the assurance of 
experience or of numbers. The difficulties 
too often savor of the uncertainties of 
"black boxes," and yet one must select 
a suitable model, suitably simple to be 
manageable and not too far removed from 
the realities of the situation. 

The student is urged to study carefully 
all the details that have been included in 
this section on controls. In time he will 
find that many of the topics that are to 
come in later chapters will fall more 
easily into place. For nature and man exist 
and continue as a result of a balance of 
forces and utilization of energy, the whole 
constituting a system that is in a state 
of reasonable balance and regulation and 
yet continually changing toward wholly 
new forms. 

In conclusion, we hope that this brief 
introduction to systems and cybernetics 
will encourage each reader to view the 
events of his life with keener appreciation 
for the interrelationship of the factors 
that bear on the events, and especially 
for feedback influences. A word of caution 
is in order, however, with respect to over- 
extended use of the term cybernetics to 
situations wherein the relationships are 
too complex or too obscure, and wherein 
there are not present the control systems 
elements which we have discussed. 


Systems, Feedback, Cybernetics 


The assignments for this chapter are 
intended to give the reader opportunity 
to discover for himself how broadly the 
concepts and techniques involving sys- 
tems, feedback, control, stability-insta- 
bility, and cybernetics apply to phenom- 
ena in nature and to all aspects of human 
social relations. It is suggested that from 
two to four weeks be allowed for comple- 
tion of this work. 

1. For purposes of review, tabulate the 
five elements of control systems (de- 
scribed in Sec. 6.12) that apply in the 
following personal situations. Explain 
also whether the feedback is positive or 
negative in each case. 

(a) The control of temperature of your 

(b) The factors that control your waking 
up on a weekday morning. 

(c) The factors that control your break- 

(d) One situation or experience of your 
day that includes strong positive 

(e) A situation or experience of your 
day that includes strong negative 

2. Select three phenomena or situations, 
taken from any three of the following 
categories, and analyze their "systems" 
aspects in the following terms: 

(a) The dependent and independent 
variables that are involved in each, 
either as "input" to the system or 
as disturbances. 

(b) The sensor devices or transform 
functions required at the input end 
for each variable. 

(c) The energy sources. 

(d) The motor devices or processes, 
and the related transform functions. 

(e) The gain or amplification between 
output and input. 

(f) The nature of feedback influences 
(distinguishing between positive 
and negative feedback and phase 
relationships) related to each input 
and each output. 

(g) The nature of subsystems that are 

(h) The factors that make for stability 
and instability in the total system 
or subsystems. 
(i) The graphical representation of 
the above elements and processes, 
with indication of polarity (direc- 
tion) of feedback between each out- 
put and input. 

The phenomena or situations are to be 
drawn from any three of the following 
seven categories: 

I Electromechanical, pneumatic 
systems, chemical or production 
II Geophysical or meteorological 

III Biological processes (plants, ani- 
mals), ecological relationships 

IV Medical, pathological experiences 
V Economics (international, national, 

or personal), business operations 
VI Behavioral, cultural, ethical, moral, 
theological, and psychological 
aspects of social experiences 

Note: It is suggested that each "case" be 
given adequate discussion and one to 
two pages of graphical representation. 
Because of the importance of the subject 
of "systems," it is suggested that these 
analyses be given time for class discus- 
sion. Group effort on the part of the stu- 
dents is encouraged, although each must 
present his own final case study. 


The author, the first American Nobel Prize physicist, 
traces the determinations of the velocity of light, one 
of the handful of constants of nature. 

Velocity of Light 

A. A. Michelson 

A chapter from his book, Studies in Optics, published in 1927. 

The velocity of light is one of the most important of 
the fundamental constants of Nature. Its measurement 
by Foucault and Fizeau gave as the result a speed greater 
in air than in water, thus deciding in favor of the undu- 
latory and against the corpuscular theory. Again, the 
comparison of the electrostatic and the electromagnetic 
units gives as an experimental result a value remarkably 
close to the velocity of light — a result which justified 
Maxwell in concluding that light is the propagation of an 
electromagnetic disturbance. Finally, the principle of 
relativity gives the velocity of light a still greater im- 
portance, since one of its fundamental postulates is the 
constancy of this velocity under all possible condi- 

The first attempt at measurement was due to Galileo. 
Two observers, placed at a distance of several kilometers, 
are provided with lanterns which can be covered or un- 
covered by a movable screen. The first observer uncovers 
his light, and the second observer answers by uncovering 
his at the instant of perceiving the light from the first. 
If there is an interval between the uncovering of the 
lantern by the first observer and his perception of the 
return signal from the second (due allowance being made 
for the delay between perception and motion), the dis- 
tance divided by the time interval should give the velocity 
of propagation. 


Needless to say, the time interval was far too small 
to be appreciated by such imperfect appliances. It is 
nevertheless worthy of note that the principle of the 
method is sound, and, with improvements that are almost 
intuitive, leads to the well-known method of Fizeau. The 
first improvement would clearly be the substitution of a 
mirror instead of the second observer. The second would 
consist in the substitution of a series of equidistant aper- 
tures in a rapidly revolving screen instead of the single 
screen which covers and uncovers the light. 

The first actual determination of the velocity of light 
was made in 1675 by Romer as a result of his observation 
of the eclipses of the first satellite of Jupiter. These 
eclipses, recurring at very nearly equal intervals, could be 
calculated, and Romer found that the observed and the 
calculated values showed an annual discrepancy. The 
eclipses were later by an interval of sixteen minutes and 
twenty-six seconds 1 when the earth is farthest from 
Jupiter than when nearest to it. Romer correctly attrib- 
uted this difference to the time required by light to trav- 
erse the earth's orbit. If this be taken as 300,000,000 kilo- 
meters and the time interval as one thousand seconds, 
the resulting value for the velocity of light is 300,000 
kilometers per second. 

Another method for the determination of the velocity 
of light is due to Bradley, who in 1728 announced an 
apparent annual deviation in the direction of the fixed 
stars from their mean position, to which he gave the name 
"aberration." A star whose direction is at right angles to 
the earth's orbital motion appears displaced in the direc- 
tion of motion by an angle of 20T445. This displacement 
Bradley attributed to the finite velocity of light. 

With a telescope pointing in the true direction of such 
a star, during the time of passage of the light from ob- 

1 The value originally given by Romer, twenty-two minutes, is clearly 
too great. 


Velocity of Light 

jective to focus the telescope will have been displaced in 
consequence of the orbital motion of the earth so that the 
image of the star falls behind the crosshairs. In order to 
produce coincidence, the telescope must be inclined for- 
ward at such an angle a that the tangent is equal to the 
ratio of the velocity v of the earth to the velocity of light, 

tan a=y , 

or, since v = tD/T, where D is the diameter of the earth's 
orbit and T the number of seconds in the year, 

tan o-=yf , 

from which the velocity of light may be found; but, as is 
also the case with the method of Romer, only to the de- 
gree of accuracy with which the sun's distance, §Z>, is 
known; that is, with an order of accuracy of about i per 
cent. 1 

In 1849 Fizeau announced the result of the first ex- 
perimental measurement of the velocity of light. Two 
astronomical telescope objectives L z and L 2 (Fig. 73) are 
placed facing each other at the two stations. At the focus 
of the first is an intense but minute image a of the source 
of light (arc) by reflection from a plane-parallel plate N. 
The light from this image is rendered approximately 
parallel by the first objective. These parallel rays, falling 
on the distant objective, are brought to a focus at the sur- 
face of a mirror, whence the path is retraced and an 
image formed which coincides with the original image a, 
where it is observed by the ocular E. An accurately 
divided toothed wheel W is given a uniform rotation, 

1 The value of the velocity of light has been obtained, by experimental 
methods immediately to be described, with an order of accuracy of one in 
one hundred thousand, so that now the process is inverted, and this re- 
sult is employed to find the sun's distance. 




Fig. 73 

thus interrupting the passage of the light at a. If, on 
returning, the light is blocked by a tooth, it is eclipsed, to 
reappear at a velocity such that the next succeeding 
interval occupies the place of the former, and so on. 

If n is the number of teeth and N the number of turns 
per second, K the number of teeth which pass during the 
double journey of the light over the distance D, 

V = 


It is easier to mark the minima than the maxima of in- 
tensity, and accordingly 


if p is the order of the eclipse. Let bK be the error com- 
mitted in the estimate of K (practically the error in esti- 
mation of equality of intensities on the descending and 
the ascending branches of the intensity curve). Then 

dV = dK 
V K ' 

Hence it is desirable to make K as great as possible. In 
Fizeau's experiments this number was 5 to 7, and should 


Velocity of Light 

have given a result correct to about one three-hundredth. 
It was, in fact, about 5 per cent too large. 

A much more accurate determination was undertaken 
by Cornu in 1872 in which K varied from 3 to 21, the re- 
sult as given by Cornu being 300,400, with a probable er- 
ror of one-tenth of 1 per cent. In discussing Cornu's re- 
sults, however, Listing showed that these tended toward a 
smaller value as the speed increased, and he assigns this 
limit as the correct value, namely, 299,950. Perrotin, 
with the same apparatus, found 299,900. 

Before Fizeau had concluded his experiments, another 
project was proposed by Arago, namely, the utilization 
of the revolving mirror by means of which Wheatstone 
had measured the speed of propagation of an electric 
current. Arago's chief interest in the problem lay in the 
possibility of deciding the question of the relative veloci- 
ties in air and water as a crucial test between the undula- 
tory and the corpuscular theories. He pointed out, 
however, the possibility of measuring the absolute ve- 

The plan was to compare the deviations of the light 
from an electric spark reflected directly from the revolving 
mirror with that which was reflected after traversing a 
considerable distance in air (or in water). The difficulty 
in executing such an experiment lay in the uncertainty in 
the direction in which the two reflected images of the 
spark were to appear (which might be anywhere in 360 ). 
This difficulty was solved by Foucault in 1862 by the 
following ingenious device whereby the return light is 
always reflected in the same direction (apart from the 
deviation due to the retardation which it is required to 
measure), notwithstanding the rotation of the mirror. 

Following is the actual arrangement of apparatus by 
which this is effected. Light from a source S falls upon 
an objective L, whence it proceeds to the revolving mir- 
ror R, and is thence reflected to the concave mirror C 


Fig. 74 

(whose center is at R), where it forms a real image of the 
source. It then retraces its path, forming a real image 
which coincides with the source even when the revolving 
mirror is in slow motion. Part of the light is reflected from 
the plane-parallel glass M , forming an image at a where 
it is observed by the micrometer eyepiece E. 

If now the revolving mirror is turning rapidly, the 
return image, instead of coinciding with its original posi- 
tion, will be deviated in the direction of rotation through 
an angle double that through which the mirror turns while 
the light makes its double transit. If this angle is a and 
the distance between mirrors is D, and the revolving 
mirror makes N turns per second, 

a = 27riv-^- i 


V = 


In principle there is no essential difference between 
the two methods. In the method of the toothed wheel the 
angle a corresponds to the passage of K teeth, and is 
therefore a = 2irK/n, so that the formula previously found, 

V = 


j now becomes V = 


the same as for the 


Velocity of Light 

revolving mirror. The latter method has, however, the 
same advantage over the former that the method of mir- 
ror and scale has over the direct reading of the needle of 
a galvanometer. 

On the other hand, an important advantage for the 
method of the toothed wheel lies in the circumstance 
that the intensity of the return image is one-half of that 
which would appear if there were no toothed wheel, 

whereas with the revolving mirror this fraction is — 


if the mirror has n facets) , where /3 is the angular aperture 

of the concave mirror, and / is the focal length of the 

mirror, r is the distance from slit to revolving mirror, 

and D is the distance between stations. 

In the actual experiments of Foucault, the greatest 
distance D was only 20 m (obtained by five reflections 
from concave mirrors), which, with a speed of five hun- 
dred turns per second, gives only 160" for the angle 2a 
which is to be measured. The limit of accuracy of the 
method is about one second, so that under these condi- 
tions the results of Foucault's measurements can hardly 
be expected to be accurate to one part in one hundred and 
sixty. Foucault's result, 298,000, is in fact too small by 
this amount. 1 

In order to obtain a deflection 2a sufficiently large to 
measure with precision it is necessary to work with a 
much larger distance. The following plan renders this 
possible, and in a series of experiments (1878) the dis- 
tance D was about 700 m and could have been made much 

1 Apart from the mere matter of convenience in limiting the distance 
D to the insignificant 20 m (on account of the dimensions of the labora- 
tory), it may be that this was in fact limited by the relative intensity of 
the return image as compared with that of the streak of light caused by 
the direct reflection from the revolving mirror, which in Foucault's 
experiments was doubtless superposed on the former. The intensity of 
the return image varies inversely as the cube of the distance, while 
that of the streak remains constant. 


The image-forming lens in the new arrangement is 
placed between the two mirrors, and (for maximum in- 
tensity of the return image) at a distance from the re- 
volving mirror equal to the focal length of the lens. This 
necessitates a lens of long focus; for the radius of meas- 
urement r (from which a is determined by the relation 
8 = r tan a, in which 8 is the measured displacement of the 

image) is given by r = -= , if / is the focal length of the lens ; 

whence r is proportional to/ 2 . In the actual experiment, 
a non-achromatic lens of 2 5-m focus and 20-cm diameter 
was employed, and with this it was found that the in- 
tensity of the return light was quite sufficient even when 
the revolving mirror was far removed from the principal 

With so large a displacement, the inclined plane-paral- 
lel plate in the Foucault arrangement may be suppressed, 
the direct (real) image being observed. With 250 to 300 
turns per second, a displacement of 100 to 150 mm was 
obtained which could be measured with an error of less 
than one ten-thousandth. 

The measurement of D presents no serious difficulty. 
This was accomplished by means of a steel tape whose 
coefficient of stretch and of dilatation was carefully deter- 
mined, and whose length under standard conditions was 
compared with a copy of the standard meter. The esti- 
mated probable error was of the order of 1 : 200,000. 

The measurement of the speed of rotation presents 
some points of interest. The optical "beats" between the 
revolving mirror and an electrically maintained tuning 
fork were observed at the same time that the coincidence 
of the deflected image with the crosshairs of the eyepiece 
was maintained by hand regulation of an air blast which 
actuated the turbine attached to the revolving mirror. 
The number of vibrations of the fork plus the number of 
beats per second gives the number of revolutions per 


Velocity of Light 

second in terms of the rate of the fork. This, however, 
cannot be relied upon except for a short interval, and 
it was compared before and after every measurement 
with a standard fork. This fork, whose temperature co- 
efficient is well determined, is then compared, as follows, 
directly with a free pendulum. 

For this purpose the pendulum is connected in series 
with a battery and the primary of an induction coil whose 
circuit is interrupted by means of a platinum knife edge 
attached to the pendulum passing through a globule of 
mercury. The secondary of the induction coil sends a 
flash through a vacuum tube, thus illuminating the edge 
of the fork and the crosshair of the observing microscope. 
If the fork makes an exact whole number (256) of vibra- 
tions during one swing of the pendulum, it appears at 
rest; but if there is a slight excess, the edge of the fork 
appears to execute a cycle of displacement at the rate of n 
per second. The rate of the fork is then N±n per second 
of the free pendulum. This last is finally compared with 
a standard astronomical clock. 1 The order of accuracy 
is estimated as 1 : 200,000. 

The final result of the mean of two such determina- 
tions of the velocity of light made under somewhat similar 
conditions but at a different time and locality is 299,895. 

A determination of the velocity of light by a modifica- 
tion of the Foucault arrangement was completed by 
Newcomb in 1882. One of the essential improvements 
consisted in the use of a revolving steel prism with square 
section twice as long as wide. This permits the sending 
and receiving of the light on different parts of the mirror, 
thus eliminating the effect of direct reflection. It should 
also be mentioned that very accurate means were pro- 
vided for measuring the deflection, and finally that the 

1 The average beat of such a clock may be extremely constant al- 
though the individual "seconds" vary considerably. 


speed of the mirror was registered on a chronograph 
through a system of gears connected with the revolving 
mirror. Newcomb's result is 299,860. 

The original purpose of the Foucault arrangement was 
the testing of the question of the relative velocities of light 
in air and in water. For this purpose a tube filled with 
water and closed with plane-parallel glasses is interposed. 
There are then two return images of the source which 
would be superposed if the velocities were the same. By 
appropriately placed diaphragms these two images may 
be separated, and if there is any difference in velocities 
this is revealed by a relative displacement in the direction 
of rotation. This was found greater for the beam which 
had passed through the water column, and in which, 
therefore, the velocity must have been less. This result 
is in accordance with the undulatory theory and opposed 
to the corpuscular theory of light. 

The experiments of Foucault do not appear to have 
shown more than qualitative results, and it should be of 
interest, not only to show that the velocity of light is less 
in water than in air, but that the ratio of the velocities 
is equal to the index of refraction of the liquid. Experi- 
ments were accordingly undertaken with water, the result 
obtained agreeing very nearly with the index of refrac- 
tion. But on replacing the water by carbon disulphide, 
the ratio of velocities obtained was 1.75 instead of 1.64, 
the index of refraction. The difference is much too great 
to be attributed to errors of experiment. 

Lord Rayleigh found the following explanation of the 
discrepancy. In the method of the toothed wheel the dis- 
turbances are propagated in the form of isolated groups 
of wave-trains. Rayleigh finds that the velocity of a 
group is not the same as that of the separate waves ex- 
cept in a medium without dispersion. The simplest form 
of group analytically considered is that produced by two 


Velocity of Light 

simple harmonic wave-trains of slightly different fre- 
quencies and wave-lengths. Thus, let 

y=cos (nt— mx)+cos (nj—nhx) , 

in which n = 2ir/T, and m = 2ir/\, T being the period and 
X the wave-length. Let n—n z = dn, and m—mi=dm. 

y=2 cos %(dnt— dmx) cos (nt—tnx) . 

This represents a series of groups of waves such as illus- 
trated in Figure 75. 

Fig. 75 

The velocity of the waves is the ratio V = n/m, but 
the velocity of the group (e.g., the velocity of propagation 
of the maximum or the minimum) will be 

V' = dn/dm, 
or, since n = mV, 

or, since w = 27r/X, 

\ vd\J 

The demonstration is true, not only of this particular 
form of group, but (by the Fourier theorem) can be ap- 
plied to a group of any form. 

It is not quite so clear that this expression applies to 
the measurements made with the revolving mirror. Lord 
Rayleigh shows that in consequence of the Doppler effect 
there is a shortening of the waves at one edge of the 


beam of light reflected from the revolving mirror and a 
lengthening at the opposite edge, and since the velocity 
of propagation depends on the wave-length in a dispersive 
medium, there will be a rotation of the individual wave- 

If to is the angular velocity of the mirror, and w x that 
of the dispersional rotation, 

= dV = dVd\ 
dy d\ dy ' 

where y is the distance from the axis of rotation. But 

d\ X X dV 


The deflection actually observed is therefore 

r(2w+a>i) , 

where T is the time required to travel distance 2D; or 

/ ,\dV\ 
\ 1+ Vdk)> 

hence the velocity measured is 


or, to small quantities of the second order, 
V" =V' = group velocity - 1 

The value of ( H — -tt ) for carbon disulphide for 
the mean wave-length of the visible spectrum is 0.93-. 

V V 0.93 0.93 ' ' 
which agrees with the value found by experiment. 

' J. W. Gibbs {Nature, 1886) shows that the measurement is in reality 
exactly that of groups and not merely an approximation. 



Velocity of Light 


In the expression for V, the velocity of light as de- 
termined by the revolving mirror, V = 4tND/cl, there are 
three quantities to be measured, namely, N, the speed of 
the mirror; D, the distance between stations; and a, the 
angular displacement of the mirror. As has already been 
mentioned, the values of N and D may be obtained to 
one part in one hundred thousand or less. But a cannot 
be measured to this order of accuracy. It has been pointed 
out by Newcomb 1 that this difficulty may be avoided by 
giving the revolving mirror a prismatic form and making 
the distance between the two stations so great that the 
return light is reflected at the same angle by the next fol- 
lowing face of the prism. 

The following is an outline of a proposed attempt to 
realize such a project between Mount Wilson and Mount 
San Antonio near Pasadena, the distance being about 
35 km. For this, given a speed of rotation of 1,060 turns 
per second, the angular displacement of the mirror during 
the double journey would be 90 ; or, if the speed were 
half as great, an angle of 45 would suffice. 2 Accordingly, 
the revolving mirror may have the form of an octagon. 
It is, of course, very important that the angles should be 

equal, at least to the order 
of accuracy desired. 

This has already been 
attained as follows. The 
octagon, with faces pol- 
ished and angles approxi- 
mately correct, is applied 
to the test angle a V made 
up of a 45 prism ce- 
mented to a true plane. 
The faces b t b are made 
parallel by the interfer- 
ence fringes observed in 

Fig. 76 

1 Measures of the Velocity of Light. Nautical Almanac Office, 1882. 

2 It may be noted that with eight surfaces the resulting intensity will 
be four times as great as with the revolving plane-parallel disk. 


monochromatic light. In general, the faces a L a will not be 
parallel, and the angle between them is measured by the 
distance and inclination of the interference bands. The 
same process is repeated for each of the eight angles, and 
these are corrected by repolishing until the distance and 
inclination are the same for all, when the corresponding 
angles will also be equal. It has been found possible in 
this way to produce an octagon in which the average 
error was of the order of one-millionth, that is, about 
one-tenth to one-twentieth of a second. 1 

Another difficulty arises from the direct reflection and 
the scattered light from the revolving mirror. The former 
may be eliminated, as already mentioned, by slightly 
inclining the revolving mirror, but to avoid the scattered 
b'ght it is essential that the return ray be received on a 
different surface from the outgoing. 

zee 3 

Fig. 77.— Light path a, b, c, d, e, e u f u U, e,f, g, h, i,j 

1 It may be noted that while a distortion may be expected when the 
mirror is in such rapid rotation, if the substance of the mirror (glass, in 
the present instance) is uniform, such distortion could only produce a very 
slight curvature and hence merely a minute change of focus. 


Velocity of Light 

Again, in order to avoid the difficulty in maintaining 
the distant mirror perpendicular to the incident light, the 
return of the ray to the home station may be accom- 
plished exactly as in the Fizeau experiment, the only pre- 
caution required being the very accurate focusing of the 
beam on the small plane (better, concave) mirror at the 
focus of the distant collimator. 

Finally, it is far less expensive to make both sending 
and receiving collimators silvered mirrors instead of 

In Figure 77 is shown the arrangement of apparatus 
which fulfilled all these requirements. 

Three determinations were undertaken between the 
home station at the Mount Wilson Observatory and 
Mount San Antonio 22 miles distant. The rate of the 
electric tuning fork was 132.25 vibrations per second, 
giving four stationary images of the revolving mirror 
when this was rotating at the rate of 529 turns per second. 
The fork was compared before and after every set of the 
observations with a free pendulum whose rate was found 
by comparison with an invar pendulum furnished and 
rated by the Coast and Geodetic Survey. 

The result of eight measurements in 1924 gave 

V a = 299,735 . 

Another series of observations with a direct compari- 
son of the same electric fork with the Coast and Geodetic 
Survey pendulum 1 was completed in the summer of 1925 
with a resulting value 

V a = 299,690 . 

A third series of measurements was made in which the 
electric fork was replaced by a free fork making 528 vibra- 

1 This comparison was made by allowing the light from a very narrow 
slit to fall on a mirror attached to the pendulum. An image of the slit was 
formed by means of a good achromatic lens, in the plane of one edge of the 
fork, where it was observed by an ordinary eyepiece. 


tions per second maintained by an "auction circuit," thus 
insuring a much more nearly constant rate. The result 
of this measurement gave 

V a = 299,704 . 

Giving these determinations the weights 1, 2, and 4, 
respectively, the result for the velocity in air is 

V a = 299,704 . 

Applying the correction of 67 km for the reduction 
to vacuo gives finally 7=299,771 . 

This result should be considered as provisional, and 
depends on the value of D, the distance between the two 
stations which was furnished by the Coast and Geodetic 
Survey, and which it is hoped may be verified by a repeti- 
tion of the work. 

It was also found that a trial with a much larger 
revolving mirror gave better definition, more light, and 
steadier speed of rotation; so that it seems probable that 
results of much greater accuracy may be obtained in a 
future investigation. 


Observations with the same layout were resumed in 
the summer of 1926, but with an assortment of revolving 

The first of these was the same small octagonal glass 
mirror used in the preceding work. The result obtained 
this year was V— 299,813. Giving this a weight 2 and 
the result of preceding work weight 1 gives 299,799 for 
the weighted mean. 

The other mirrors were a steel octagon, a glass 12- 
sider, a steel 12-sider, and a glass 16-sider. 


Velocity of Light 

The final results are summarized in Table VII. 

Turns per Second 


Number of 

Vel. of Light 
in Vacuo 


Glass oct. 
Steel oct. 
Glass 12 
Steel 12 
Glass 16 








Weighted mean, 299,796 + 1 

Table VIII shows the more reliable results of measure- 
ments of V with distance between stations, method used 
and the weight assigned to each. 








23 km 



Toothed wheel 
Toothed wheel 
Rev. mirror 
Rev. mirror 
Rev. mirror 



299 , 900 


M r and M 2 


M 3 

* Newcomb's value omitting all discordant observations was 298,860. 


Bees, water fleas, and horseshoe crabs navigate by 
polarized light. Sunglasses, camera filters, and 
glare-free auto headlights are among other applica- 

Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

William A. Shurcliff and Stanley S. Ballard 

A chapter from the book Polarized Light published in 1964. 

If there is a logical order in which the various applications of 
polarizers and polarized light should be considered, the authors 
have never discovered it. The policy adopted here is to consider 
the most popular and "humanistic" applications first, and the 
more scientific and esoteric applications last. 


The most humanistic fact about polarization of light is that 
it can be detected directly by the naked eye. Nearly anyone, if 
told carefully what to look for, can succeed in this. Sometimes he 
can even determine the form and azimuth of polarization. 

What the observer actually "sees" is a certain faint pattern 
known as Haidinger's brush and illustrated in Fig. 10-1. The 
brush is so faint and ill-defined that it will escape notice unless 
the field of view is highly uniform: a clear blue sky makes an 
ideal background, and a brightly illuminated sheet of white 
paper is nearly as good. The best procedure for a beginner is to 
hold a linear polarizer in front of his eye, stare fixedly through 
it toward a clear blue sky, and, after five or ten seconds, sud- 
denly turn the polarizer through 90°. Immediately the brush is 
seen. It fades away in two or three seconds, but reappears if the 
polarizer is again turned through 90°. The brush itself is sym- 



, '. YELL 9 w J§ffl| ^Syellow .* •* • , 

• • BLUE •- - 


FIG. 10-1 Approximate appearance of Haidinger's brush when the 
vibration direction of the beam is vertical. 

metric, double-ended, and yellow in color; it is small, subtending 
an angle of only about 2° or 3°. The adjacent areas appear blue, 
perhaps merely by contrast. The long axis of the brush is approx- 
imately perpendicular to the direction of electric vibration in the 
linearly polarized beam, i.e., perpendicular to the transmission 
axis of the polarizer used. 

Circular polarization, too, can be detected directly by eye, and 
even the handedness can be determined. When an observer fac- 
ing a clear blue sky places a right circular polarizer in front of 
his eye, he sees the yellow brush and finds that its long axis has 
an upward-to-the-right, downward-to-the-left direction, i.e., an 
azimuth of about +45°. This is true, of course, irrespective of the 
orientation of the polarizer, since a circle has no top or bottom. 
If he employs a left circular polarizer, he finds the brush to have 
a —45° orientation. In each case the pattern fades away rapidly, 
but can be restored to full vigor by switching to a polarizer of 
opposite handedness. Instead of using a circular polarizer the 
observer can use a single linear polarizer in series with a 90° re- 
tarder, the latter being held nearer to the eye. Turning the 
retarder through 90° reverses the handedness of the circular 

Some people see the brush easily; others have difficulty. A few 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

see the brush when looking innocently at the partially polarized 
blue sky, i.e., without using any polarizer at all, and even with- 
out meaning to see the brush. Some people see the brush more 
distinctly by linearly polarized light than by circularly polarized 
light, and for others the reverse is true. An observer may find 
the brush to have a slightly different orientation depending on 
which eye is used. 

The spectral energy distribution of the light is important. If 
the light is rich in short-wavelength (blue) radiation, the brush 
is very noticeable, but if the short-wavelength radiation is elimi- 
nated by means of a yellow filter, the brush fails to appear. Use 
of a blue filter tends to accentuate the brush. 

Although the phenomenon was discovered in 1844, by the 
Austrian mineralogist Haidinger, the cause is not yet fully under- 
stood. Presumably the thousands of tiny blue-light-absorbing 
bodies in the central (foveal) portion of the retina are dichroic 
and are oriented in a radial pattern, for example, a pattern such 
that the absorption axis of each body lies approximately along 
a radius from the center of the fovea. Incident linearly polarized 
light will then be absorbed more strongly in some parts of the 
pattern than in other parts and consequently some parts will 
fatigue more than others. When the vibration direction of the 
light is suddenly changed, the varying degrees of fatigue are 
revealed as a subjective radial pattern. Presumably no such 
dichroism or orientation pattern applies to longer wavelength 
(yellow and red) light; consequently a yellow sensation domi- 
nates in those regions where fatigue-to-blue has occurred. 

The fact that circular polarization, also, may be detected per- 
haps implies that some transparent portion of the eye is weakly 
birefringent and acts like a retarder, converting circularly polar- 
ized light to linearly or elliptically polarized light. The direc- 
tion of the major axis of the ellipse depends only on the direc- 
tion of the fast axis of the retarding layer and hence remains 
fixed — unless the observer tips his head. 

Perhaps physicists will some day write matrices to describe the 
retarding layers and dichroic areas of the eye. Poets were the first 
to see magic fire and jewels in the human eye; physicists will be 
the first to see matricesl 


Bees, too, can detect the vibration direction of linearly polar- 
ized light. The experiments of the biologist K. von Frisch during 
World War II showed that bees "navigate" back and forth be- 
tween hive and source of honey by using the sun as a guide. 
More interesting, when the sun is obscured by a large area of 
clouds the bees can still navigate successfully if they can see a 
bit of blue sky: they can detect the azimuth of linear polariza- 
tion of the blue light and navigate with respect to it. One way of 
demonstrating the bee's ability to detect the azimuth of polariza- 
tion is to place the bee in a large box the top of which consists 
of a huge sheet of linear polarizer, such as H-sheet. Each time the 
experimenter turns the polarizer to a different azimuth, the bee 
changes his direction of attempted travel correspondingly. 

Certain other animals also can detect the polarization of sky- 
light and navigate by it. This includes ants, beetles, and the 
fruit fly Drosophila. Probably many other examples will be dis- 


Blue-sky light traveling in a direction roughly at right angles 
to the sun's rays is partially polarized. When an observer holds 
a linear polarizer in front of his eye and gazes in a direction 
perpendicular to the direction of the sun, he finds that rotating 
the polarizer slowly causes the sky to change from bright to dark 
successively. The degree of polarization of sky light may reach 
70 or 80 percent when the air is clear and dust-free, the sun is 
moderately low in the sky, and the observation direction is near 
the zenith. 

The polarization is a result of the scattering of the sun's rays 
by the molecules in the air. Rayleigh's well-known inverse-fourth- 
power law relating scattering intensity to wavelength accounts 
for the blue color of the scattered light, and the asymmetry as- 
sociated with the 90° viewing angle accounts for the polarization, 
as explained in Chapter 5. Some multiple scattering occurs, and 
this reduces the degree of polarization somewhat; when the 
observer ascends to a higher altitude, the amount of air involved 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

is reduced, multiple scattering is reduced, and the degree of 
polarization is increased. A further increase results when a 
yellow or red filter is used to block the short-wavelength com- 
ponent of the light and transmit the long-wavelength component 
— the latter component is less subject to multiple scattering. (The 
situation is very different for infrared radiation of wavelength 
exceeding 2 microns: much of this radiation is produced by 
emission from the air itself, rather than by scattering, and this 
exhibits little or no polarization.) 

Some persons are capable of detecting the polarization of sky 
light directly by eye, by virtue of the Haidinger brush phe- 
nomenon discussed in a preceding section; a few individuals 
find the brush noticeable enough to be a nuisance. Ordinarily, 
of course, it escapes notice and plays little part in the affairs of 
man. Its practical use by bees, ants, etc., has been indicated, and 
the importance to photographers is discussed in a later section. 


A surprising fact about the polarization found in light present 
beneath the surface of the ocean (or of a pond) is that the pre- 
dominant direction of electric vibration is horizontal. The oppo- 
site might be expected, since most of the light that enters the 
water enters obliquely from above, and the most strongly re- 
flected component of obliquely incident light is the horizontally 
vibrating component. But oceanographers and biologists, work- 
ing at depths of 5 to 30 feet in waters off Bermuda and in the 
Mediterranean Sea, have found the main cause of submarine 
polarization to be the scattering of the light by microscopic 
particles suspended in the water. Sunlight and sky light enter 
the water from above, and the average direction of illumination 
is roughly vertical; consequently the polarization form of the 
scattered light that travels horizontally toward an underwater 
observer is partially polarized with the electric vibration direc- 
tion horizontal. The situation is much the same as that discussed 
in Chapter 5, except that the incident light has a more steeply 
downward direction and the asymmetric scattering is by micro- 
scopic particles instead of molecules. 

Typically, the degree of polarization is 5 to 30 percent, an 


amount found to be important to a variety of underwater life. 
The water flea Daphnia tends to swim in a direction perpendicu- 
lar to the electric vibration direction, for reasons not yet known. 
When tests are conducted in a tank filled with water that is free 
of suspended particles, so that the submarine illumination is 
practically unpolarized, Daphnia ceases to favor any one direc- 
tion. But if suspended matter is added, thus restoring the polar- 
ization, Daphnia resumes the custom of traveling perpendicular 
to the vibration direction. 

The arthropod Limulus (horse shoe crab) easily detects the 
polarization of the underwater light and is presumed to navigate 
with respect to the electric vibration direction. The same is true 
of the crustacean Mysidium gracile and various other forms of 
marine life. Most tend to swim perpendicularly to the vibration 
direction; some swim parallel to it; a few swim at different rela- 
tive orientations depending on the time of day. For all of these 
animals, polarization is a compass that works even under water! 


The lenses of ordinary sunglasses employ absorbing materials 
that are isotropic, and accordingly the incident light is attenuated 
by a fixed factor irrespective of polarization form. This is un- 
fortunate. The fact is that "glare" consists predominantly of 
light having a horizontal vibration direction. Why? For these 

(a) The main source of light (sun and sky) is overhead, and 
consequently the main flux of light is downward. 

(b) The surfaces that are most strongly illuminated by the 
downward flux are horizontal surfaces. 

(c) Such surfaces are usually viewed obliquely, since a person 
seldom looks straight down. 

(d) Most outdoor objects are of dielectric material. 

(e) Light reflected obliquely from a horizontal dielectric sur- 
face is partially linearly polarized with the dominant vibration 
direction horizontal, as explained in Chapter 4. 

Polarizing sunglasses take full advantage of this fact. The 
lenses are made of dichroic material (H-sheet, usually) oriented 
with the transmission axis vertical, as indicated in Fig. 10-2a, so 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 




FIG. 10-2 Three types of polarizing spectacles. In (a) the transmission 
axis is vertical, for eliminating glare reflected from horizontal surfaces. 
In (b) the axis is horizontal, for eliminating reflections from vertical 
windows of trains, store-fronts (show-windows), etc. In (c) the axis di- 
rections are 45* and —45°, a standard arrangement used in viewing 
polarization-coded stereoscopic pictures. 

that almost all of the horizontal vibrations are absorbed. The 
component having vertical vibration direction is transmitted. 
Usually some isotropic absorber is included in the lenses to 
absorb ultraviolet light strongly and blue and red light to a 
moderate extent; the sunglasses then have a greenish hue which 
has nothing to do with the polarization. 

Motorists and vacationists find that polarizing sunglasses are 
helpful not only in reducing the brightness of the field of view 
as a whole, but also in enhancing the beauty of the scene. Be- 
cause specularly reflected light is absorbed preferentially, roads, 
trees, grassy fields, etc., appear softer and more deeply colored 
through polarizers. Specularly reflected light tends to veil nature's 
inherent beauty; polarizing sunglasses remove the veil. 

Fishermen and boatsmen enjoy another benefit from wearing 
polarizing sunglasses. They want to be able to see fish, rocks, etc., 
beneath the surface of the water, yet the light from such objects 
is dim and is usually lost in the "noise" of the sky light reflected 
obliquely from the surface. Since the reflected light is highly 
polarized with horizontal vibration direction, the polarizing 
sunglasses absorb this component strongly, and the visibility of 


the underwater objects is greatly increased. The increase is great- 
est when the viewing direction corresponds to the polarizing 
angle, which, for water, is about 53° from the normal. When the 
viewing direction is along the normal, i.e., straight down, there 
is no increase at all. 

There is one interesting situation in which polarizing sun- 
glasses produce little increase in visibility of underwater objects 
even when the angle of viewing is the polarizing angle. This situ- 
ation occurs when the sky is clear and blue, the sun is low in 
the sky, and the pertinent portion of the sky is at 90° from the 
direction of the sun. Under these circumstances the light striking 
the water is already linearly polarized at such an azimuth that 
almost none of it is reflected. There is no task left for the sun- 
glasses to perform — there is no reflected glare to suppress. The 
underwater objects are seen with great clarity. Persons unfamiliar 
with the polarization of sky light and with the dependence of 
oblique reflection on polarization form are likely to ascribe the 
remarkable clarity to "especially clear water" rather than to 
absence of reflection. 


Photographers often wish to enhance the contrast between blue 
sky and white clouds. Thirty years ago they did this by employing 
a yellow filter, which absorbed most of the blue light from the 
clear sky but transmitted most of the white light from the clouds. 
Using ordinary black-and-white film, they obtained excellent 
contrast by this method. Today, photographers are using color 
film increasingly, and the use of yellow filters is no longer per- 
missible since it would eliminate all blue colors from the finished 

The only known solution is to exploit the difference in polari- 
zation between blue sky and white clouds. Light from most por- 
tions of the blue sky is partially linearly polarized, as explained 
in a preceding section, and light from clouds is unpolarized. 
Therefore a neutral-color, linear polarizer mounted at the opti- 
mum azimuth in front of the lens will absorb a large fraction 
(e.g., 80 percent) of the sky light while transmitting a large frac- 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

tion (nearly half) of the light from the clouds; thus the contrast 
is increased by a factor of two or three. The factor is less if the 
air is hazy, and more if the air is extremely clear (as in Arizona) 
and if the camera is aimed about 90° from the direction of the 

The usual way of choosing the azimuth of the polarizer is 
crude, but perhaps adequate. The photographer holds the polar- 
izer in front of his eye, finds by trial and error which azimuth 
maximizes the contrast of the clouds in question, and then at- 
tempts to mount the polarizer on the camera without changing 
the azimuth of the polarizer. One type of polarizing filter for 
cameras is equipped with a small "satellite" polarizer mounted 
at the end of a short arm and aligned permanently with the main 
polarizer. The photographer installs the main polarizer in front 
of the lens, looks through the small polarizer and turns the arm 
to whatever azimuth maximizes the contrast. Both polarizers 
then have this optimum orientation. The satisfactoriness of the 
azimuth can be checked visually at any time. Instead of using 
these empirical methods, a scientifically minded photographer 
can proceed by dead reckoning, i.e., by following this well-known 
rule: Mount the polarizer so that its transmission axis lies in the 
plane determined by camera, sun, and object photographed. (So 
oriented, the polarizer performs a valuable additional service: it 
eliminates most of the specularly reflected light from trees, roads, 
etc., and enhances the softness and depth of color of the scene.) 

When a photographer standing on a sidewalk tries to photo- 
graph objects situated behind a store window, the reflection of 
the street scene from the window may threaten to spoil the 
photograph. An excellent solution is to place the camera off to 
one side so that the window is seen obliquely at about the polar- 
izing angle, and mount a linear polarizer in front of the lens; 
the polarizer is turned so that its transmission axis is horizontal, 
and the polarized light reflected from the window is absorbed. 
The authors have a friend who has applied this same principle 
to a pair of special spectacles he wears while touring the country 
by railroad. The lenses consist of polarizers oriented with the 
transmission axis horizontal, as indicated in Fig. 10-2b; thus 
when he gazes out of the train window in oblique forward direc- 


tion, the reflected images of passengers and newspapers are wiped 
out, and the scenery appears in its pristine glory. 


Eliminating perpendicularly reflected lights is a different prob- 
lem from that of eliminating obliquely reflected light. The proc- 
ess of oblique reflection at Brewster's angle causes the reflected 
beam to be linearly polarized, and accordingly a linear polarizer 
can eliminate the reflected beam entirely. But the process of 
normal reflection, i.e., with incident and reflected beams perpen- 
dicular to the smooth glossy surface in question, produces no 
polarization at all. How, then, can the specularly reflected light 
be eliminated while light originating behind the surface is trans- 
mitted freely? 

The question is an important one to radar operators scanning 
the cathode-ray-oscilloscope screens on which dim greenish spots 
representing airborne objects appear. The screen proper is situ- 
ated in a large evacuated tube, and the greenish light emerges 
through a curved glass window at the front end of the tube. 
(Sometimes the window is flat; sometimes a safety plate of glass 
or plastic is mounted close in front of it.) Often the operator 
has difficulty in seeing the greenish spots, not only because they 
are faint, but also because they may be masked by various ex- 
traneous images reflected by the front surface of the window, e.g., 
reflections of room lights and of people, clothing, papers, etc., 
situated near the operator. Extinguishing the room lights would 
eliminate these reflections, but would make it impossible for 
the operator to read instructions or make notes. What he needs 
is some kind of filter that will transmit the light originating be- 
hind the window and absorb the light reflected approximately 
perpendicularly from it. 

This need is filled by the circular polarizer. Such a device, if 
mounted close in front of the window, will transmit nearly half 
of the light that originates behind the window, yet will eliminate 
about 99 percent of the room light that is reflected perpen- 
dicularly from it. The circular polarizer acts on the room light 
twice: it circularly polarizes room light that is approaching the 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

window, then absorbs the reflected component. The logic behind 
this requires explanation. Two key facts must be kept in mind: 

(1) A beam that is reflected perpendicularly and specularly by 
a smooth glossy surface has the same degree of polarization as 
the incident beam, since the reflection process does not intro- 
duce randomness of any kind. 

(2) The reflection process reverses the handedness of polariza- 
tion, because handedness is defined with respect to the propaga- 
tion direction and the reflection process reverses the propagation 

If the polarizer is of right-circular type, as in the arrangement 
shown in Fig. 10-3, room light that passes through and ap- 








FIG. 10-3 Use of a circular polarizer in absorbing light reflected by a 
surface approximately perpendicular to the incident beam. Note that 
the reflection process reverses the handedness of circular polarization. 

proaches the window is right-circularly polarized; the reflected 
light is /e/f-circularly polarized and hence is totally absorbed by 
the polarizer. In effect, the circular polarizer "codes" the light, 
the window reverses the coding, and the polarizer then annihi- 
lates the reverse-coded beam. If both faces of the window are 
ideally flat and smooth, if the light is incident exactly along 
the normal, and if the polarizer is truly of circular type, the 

reflected light is totally absorbed. Usually the conditions are 
less ideal: the rear surface of the window usually serves as sup- 
port for the luminescent screen and has a matte appearance; the 
window is usually curved and much of the troublesome room 
light incident on the window makes an angle of 10° or 20° or 
more with the normal; and the polarizer, although circular with 
respect to some wavelengths, is elliptical with respect to others. 
Nevertheless, the improvement provided by the polarizer is large, 
and the amount of faint detail that the operator can see on the 
screen is greatly increased. 

One precaution must be mentioned: reflections from the polar- 
izer itself must be avoided. This is usually accomplished by tilt- 
ing the polarizer forward so that the only reflected images the 
observer sees are images of a dark-colored floor or other dark 

Television sets, also, have been equipped successfully with cir- 
cular polarizers. If the set is used in a brightly lit room, or is used 
outdoors, the circular polarizer performs a valuable service in 
trapping the specularly reflected glare and thus increasing the 
picture-vs-glare ratio by a factor of the order of 10. 


A pair of linear polarizers arranged in series is an almost ideal 
device for controlling the transmitted intensity of light. Rotating 
one polarizer through an angle 6 with respect to the other causes 
the intensity of the transmitted light to vary approximately as 
cos 2 6. Because the transmittance is easily varied and easily calcu- 
lated, the pair of polarizers has found much favor in the eyes of 
designers of spectrophotometers and other devices for controlling 
and measuring light intensity. 

Specially designed sunglasses employing pairs of linear polar- 
izers in place of lenses have been used successfully by aviators 
and others. One polarizer of each pair can be rotated through 
an angle as large as 90°, and a linkage connecting the two pairs 
insures that the attenuation is the same for both eyes. By moving 
one small lever, the wearer can vary the transmittance through- 
out a range of about 10,000 to 1. 

Controllable pairs of very-large-diameter polarizers have been 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

used as windows of railroad cars and ocean liners. A person 
sitting near such a window turns a small knob to rotate one 
polarizer with respect to the other and thus reduce the intensity 
of the transmitted light to any extent desired. 

One of the authors has experimented with a variable-density 
filter employing three linear polarizers in series, in order that a 
transmittance range of 10 8 to 1 could be achieved. The device 
worked well and, as expected, obeyed a cosine-fourth, rather than 
a cosine-square law. 


Millions of polarizers found their way into the motion picture 
theaters of North America in 1952 and 1953 when stereoscopic 
(three-dimensional, or 3-D) movies achieved brief prominence. 
Each spectator wore a pair of polarizing spectacles called view- 
ers, and polarizers were mounted in front of the projectors. 

A photographer who enjoys looking at 3-D still pictures in his 
living room needs no polarizers. Usually he employs a small view- 
ing box containing a light source and two lenses, one for each 
eye; a black partition, or septum, divides the box into right and 
left halves. The picture, consisting of two small transparencies 
mounted about two inches apart in a side-by-side arrangement on 
a cardboard frame, is inserted in the box so that the right-eye 
transparency lines up with the right lens and the left-eye trans- 
parency lines up with the left lens. (The two transparencies are, 
of course, slightly different because they were taken by cameras 
situated about two or three inches apart; the spacing used ap- 
proximates the spacing of the two eyes.) The side-by-side arrange- 
ment of the two transparencies and the presence of the septum 
insure that the observer's right eye sees only the right trans- 
parency and the left eye sees only the left transparency. No 
cross-communication, or "cross-talk," can occur. Consequently 
the observer enjoys an impressively realistic stereoscopic illusion. 

When 3-D motion-picture films are projected in a theater, 
many complications arise. Separate projectors must be provided 
for the right-eye and left-eye movie films, and the two projectors 
must be synchronized within about 0.01 second. Since there is 


just one large screen and this is to be viewed by hundreds of 
spectators, there can be no septum. Indeed, no practical geometri- 
cal method of preventing cross-talk is known. 

Before the advent of mass-produced polarizers in the 1930's, an 
analglyph system of preventing cross-talk was invented. It applied 
wavelength coding to the two projected beams. The right-eye 
picture was projected through a long-wavelength (red) filter, and 
the left-eye picture was projected through a shorter-wavelength 
(green) filter. The spectator's viewers contained right and left 
lenses of red and green plastic, respectively, and accordingly each 
lens transmitted light from the appropriate projector and ab- 
sorbed light from the other. Thus each eye received just the 
light intended for it. The system succeeded as a short-term 
novelty: stereoscopic illusions were created. But the system had 
two major defects: chromatic "retinal rivalry" between the two 
eyes, and incompatibility with the showing of colored motion 

In the 1930's the problem was solved with £clat by a polariza- 
tion-coding system, demonstrated with great impact at the New 
York World's Fair of 1939 and improved in later years. As indi- 
cated in Fig. 10-4, a linear polarizer oriented with its transmis- 
sion axis at —45° is placed in front of the projector used for the 
right-eye pictures, and a polarizer at +45° is placed in front of 
the projector used for the left-eye pictures. Thus the two beams 
striking the movie screen are orthogonally coded. The lenses 
of the spectator's viewers consist of correspondingly oriented 
linear polarizers, and so each eye receives only light that origi- 
nates in the appropriate projector. Superb stereoscopic illusions 
result. Since the polarizers perform well at all wavelengths in the 
visual range, color movies can be presented as easily and faith- 
fully as can black-and-white movies. 

The polarizers placed in front of the projectors consist, ordi- 
narily, of K-sheet; as explained in Chapter 3, K-sheet is highly 
resistant to heat, and any polarizing filter placed close in front 
of a powerful projector is bound to heat up considerably since it 
necessarily absorbs about half the light. The lenses of the 3-D 
viewers are usually of HN-38 sheet; it has high major trans- 
mittance k x and small minor transmittance k 2 , and it is inex- 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

FIG. 10-4 Arrangement for projecting polarization-coded stereoscopic 
motion-picture films by means of two side-by-side projectors. Films F R 
and F L containing the "right-eye pictures" and "left-eye pictures" are 
mounted in the right and left projectors, which are equipped with 
linear polarizers P R and P L oriented at —45° and +45* respectively. 
The viewer contains correspondingly oriented polarizers, and accord- 
ingly each eye sees only the images intended for it. 

pensive. The viewers are cheap enough (about 10^ each) that 
they can be discarded after a single use. 

The polarization-coding scheme has one limitation: if the 
spectator tilts his head to one side, the polarizers in his viewers 
no longer line up accurately with the respective polarizers on the 
projectors. Thus cross-talk occurs: the right eye sees faintly the 
image meant for the left eye, and vice versa: each eye sees a 
faint ghost image in addition to the main image. The spectator 
does not enjoy this. The difficulty could be avoided if the linear 
polarizers were replaced by high-quality, achromatic circular 
polarizers, but unfortunately no method is known for producing 
achromatic circular polarizers economically. 

The effectiveness of any polarization-coding projection system 
is destroyed if the screen depolarizes the light appreciably. 
Screens that have a smooth aluminum coating usually conserve 


polarization to the extent of about 99 percent, but those having 
a matte white surface or a rough metallic coating produce much 
depolarization and hence much cross-talk between the two 
images. Many of the screens used in the innocent days of 1952 
and 1953 were of the wrong type, and the resulting ghost images 
were a major annoyance. For that reason, and because of fre- 
quent lack of care in maintaining synchronism between the two 
projectors, movie-goers socn turned back to conventional 2-D 
pictures. Some nostalgia remains, however. Persons who were 
lucky enough to see a full-color, 3-D movie showing attractive 
actors filmed against a background of gorgeous scenery look for- 
ward to the time when well-made, well-presented 3-D movies, 
with their almost miraculous realism and intimacy, will animate 
the theaters once again. 


The type of three-dimensional photography discussed in the 
preceding section is parallel-projected 3-D photography. The 
two motion-picture films are situated side-by-side, and two pro- 
jectors are operated in parallel. During the late 1930's a radically 
new approach, called vcctography, was developed by E. H. Land, 
J. Mahler, and others. In this system, the two films are arranged 
in series, bonded together. Because of the permanent series ar- 
rangement, many problems disappear. Only one projector is 
needed, and perfect synchronism is "guaranteed at the factory." 
Each pair of pictures (each vectograph) is projected as a single 
unit, in the same projector aperture and at the same time, and 
onto the same area of the same screen. If the film breaks, it can 
be spliced with no concern as to preservation of synchronism. 

The method can succeed only if means are provided for pre- 
serving the identity of the two coincident projected beams. 
Again, polarization-coding is the answer. However, because the 
two images are bonded together in series, the coding must occur 
within the images themselves. In the system used by Land and 
Mahler each image consists of varying quantities of linearly 
dichroic molecules aligned in a common direction, and the direc- 
tions employed in the two images are mutually at right angles. 
Dark areas in any one image contain a high concentration of 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

dichroic molecules; light areas contain little or no dichroic 
material; but irrespective of concentration, the alignment direc- 
tion is always the same. For the other image, the alignment direc- 
tion is always orthogonal to the first. It is to be noted that the 
images contain no silver and no other isotropic absorber. Only 
aligned absorbers having high dichroic ratio are used. 

A communications engineer would describe the vectograph by 
saying that it provides two distinct channels. Each is assigned to 
one image. Each is independent of the other. Since the vecto- 
graph images themselves perform the polarization coding, no 
polarizer is used in front of the projector; indeed, the interpo- 
sition of such a filter would play havoc with the system. As be- 
fore, the screen must preserve the polarization and the spectator's 
viewers must perform the appropriate decoding, or discrimi- 
nating, act. Excellent stereoscopic effects are achieved. However, 
the production of vectograph film is a costly undertaking involv- 
ing very specialized equipment, and constant attention is needed 
to maintain high enough dichroic ratio so that the channels are 
truly independent and ghost images are avoided. 

Vectograph pictures of the "still" type are easier and cheaper 
to make than vectograph movies. Stereo pairs of aerial photo- 
graphs of mountainous country, if presented in vectograph form, 
give a navigator (wearing an appropriate viewer) a very realistic 
impression of the terrain, and a map maker can prepare an accu- 
rate contour map from the vectograph with ease. 


It is ironic that the main goal of Land and others in develop- 
ing high-quality, large-area, low-cost polarizers has never been 
achieved. The polarizers are used with great success in dozens 
of applications, but not the application that was uppermost in 
the minds of the inventors. 

Their goal was to eliminate glare from automobile headlights. 
In an era when dual-lane highways, circumferential bypasses, 
and other safety engineering advances were virtually unknown 
and the aim and focus of automobile headlights were highly 
erratic, the glare that confronted motorists at night was almost 


unbearable, and was an important cause of accidents. As early 
as 1920 several illumination engineers recognized that the glare 
could be eliminated by means of polarizers — if large-area polar- 
izers could somehow be produced. If every headlight lens were 
covered by a linear polarizer oriented with the transmission 
axis horizontal and every windshield were covered with a linear 
polarizer oriented with its axis vertical, no direct light from the 
headlights of Car A could pass through the windshield of on- 
coming Car B. Drivers in both cars could see road-markings, 
pedestrians, and so forth, but neither would experience any 
glare from the other's headlights. Moreover, it would be per- 
missible for each driver to use his high beam continuously, and 
accordingly his ability to see pedestrians, etc., would be greater 
than before, despite the fact that each polarizer would transmit 
only about half of the light incident on it. 

It was soon recognized that the analyzing polarizer should not 
be made a permanent part of the windshield, but should be in- 
corporated in a small visor situated just in front of the driver's 
eyes. During the day, when headlights were not in use, the visor 
could be swung out of the way. It was also recognized that care 
should be taken to make sure the headlight polarizers had suffi- 
cient light-leak, i.e., sufficiently large k 2 value, that the head- 
lights of oncoming cars would not disappear entirely! 

Land and his colleagues moved rapidly. They invented a 
whole series of polarizers, each superior to its predecessor. The 
first successful type, J-sheet, employed aligned, microscopic crys- 
tals of the dichroic mineral herapathite; the method of manu- 
facture is described in Chapter 3. Then came H-sheet, which 
was better in nearly every respect and in addition was easier to 
make. Finally, K-sheet appeared; it had most of the superb 
qualities of the earlier materials and the added virtue of being 
unaffected by fairly high temperature, such as 215°F. To per- 
sons seeking polarizers for use in headlights, K-sheet appeared 
to be the pot of gold at the end of a polarized rainbow. 

Concurrently, several better ways of orienting the polarizers 
were proposed. One attractive scheme was to orient the head- 
light polarizers and the visor polarizer at the identical azimuth, 
namely —45°, as indicated in Fig. 10-5. Then, even a polariza- 
tion-conserving object in the path of the headlights would appear 


Popular Applications of Polarized Light 

FIG. 10-5 Automobile equipped with headlight polarizers and a visor 
polarizer oriented at —45°. When two such cars approach one another, 
each driver is protected from the glare from the headlights of the other. 

to the driver to be brightly illuminated. (This would not be the 
case if his visor polarizer were crossed with his headlight polar- 
izers.) The —45° system disposed of the headlight glare problem 
adequately: if two cars A and B both equipped in this manner 
approached one another at night, each driver's visor would be 
crossed with the other car's headlight polarizers, and neither 
driver would experience any glare. 

Using the Mueller calculus, Billings and Land compared a 
wide variety of polarizer orientation schemes, and found several 
to be particularly attractive. Perhaps the best system was one 
called " — 55°, —35°." The transmission axes of the headlight 
polarizers and visor polarizer are at 55° and 35° from the vertical, 
respectively, an arrangement that minimizes complications stem- 
ming from the obliquity of the portion of the windshield situated 
just in front of the driver. 

Despite the successes on all technical fronts, the project bogged 
down. To this day no one knows just why. Probably many little 
reasons were responsible. Among these were the following: 

(1) The polarizers absorbed slightly more than half of the 
light incident on them, and accordingly the automobile manu- 
facturers felt that they would have to increase the power of the 
lamps themselves and perhaps use larger generators and batteries 

(2) Some windshields were moderately birefringent; therefore 


they would act like retarders, alter the polarization form of the 
incident light, and allow some glare to leak through. 

(3) Nearly every year the automobile manufacturers increased 
the backward tilt of the windshields; such tilt tends to alter the 
polarization form of light having an oblique vibration direction, 
and hence leads to glare-leak. 

(4) Passengers, as well as drivers, would require visors, since 
passengers also dislike glare. 

(5) Pedestrians might find that the glare was worse than ever, 
unless they too employed polarizing visors or spectacles. 

(6) The system would succeed only if adopted by all car manu- 
facturers, and therefore no one manufacturer would gain any 
promotional advantage from it. 

(7) The first few drivers to put the system to use would get 
little benefit from it for at least a year or two, i.e., until millions 
of other cars were similarly equipped. 

(8) It was difficult to decide when and how to force the owners 
of old cars to install the necessary polarizers on their cars. 

(9) The patents on the only fully satisfactory polarizers were 
held by a single company. 

(10) To introduce the system would require formal, coordi- 
nated action by all States. 

(11) Improvements in headlight design and aiming, the in- 
creasing numbers of dual-lane highways, and the brighter street 
lamps used in cities and suburbs led some people to believe that 
the need for a polarization-type of glare control was no longer 

However, persons who have actually experienced the polariza- 
tion method of glare removal are convinced that the drawbacks 
are trivial compared to the benefits. 

Perhaps some day the system will be tried out on a pilot scale 
in a small, isolated community, where all the cars could be 
equipped with polarizers in a few weeks. Perhaps an island of 
moderate size would make a good test ground. If the system is 
found to be highly successful there, it will presumably spread 
throughout every country that teems with automobiles. 


An explanation of how the eye works, by the 

biologist who won a Nobel Prize for contributions to this field. 

Eye and Camera 

George Wald 

A Scientific American article, 1950 

OF all the instruments made by man, 
none resembles a part of his body 
more than a camera does the eye. 
Yet this is not by design. A camera is 
no more a copy of an eye than the wing 
of a bird is a copy of that of an insect. 
Each is the product of an independent 
evolution; and if this has brought the 
camera and the eye together, it is not 
because one has mimicked the other, but 
because both have had to meet the same 
problems, and frequently have done so 
in much the same way. This is the type 
of phenomenon that biologists call con- 
vergent evolution, yet peculiar in that 
the one evolution is organic, the other 

Over the centuries much has been 
learned about vision from the camera, 
but little about photography from the 
eye. The camera made its first appear- 
ance not as an instrument for making 
pictures but as the camera obscura or 
dark chamber, a device that attempted 
no more than to project an inverted 
image upon a screen. Long after the 
optics of the camera obscura was well 
understood, the workings of the eye re- 
mained mysterious. 

In part this was because men found 
it difficult to think in simple terms about 
the eye. It is possible for contempt to 
breed familiarity, but awe does not help 
one to understand anything. Men have 
often approached light and the eye in a 
spirit close to awe, probably because 
they were always aware that vision pro- 
vides their closest link with the external 

world. Stubborn misconceptions held 
back their understanding of the eye for 
many centuries. Two notions were par- 
ticularly troublesome. One was that ra- 
diation shines out of the eye; the other, 
that an inverted image on the retina is 
somehow incompatible with seeing right 
side up. 

I am sure that many people are still 
not clear on either matter. I note, for 
example, that the X-ray vision of the 
comic-strip hero Superman, while re- 
garded with skepticism by many adults, 
is not rejected on the ground that there 
are no X-rays about us with which to 
see. Clearly Superman's eyes supply the 
X-rays, and by directing them here and 
there he not only can see through opaque 
objects, but can on occasion shatter a 
brick wall or melt gold. As for the in- 
verted image on the retina, most people 
who learn of it concede that it presents 
a problem, but comfort themselves with 
the thought that the brain somehow 
compensates for it. But of course there 
is no problem, and hence no compensa- 
tion. We learn early in infancy to asso- 
ciate certain spatial relations in the 
outside world with certain patterns of 
nervous activity stimulated through the 
eyes. The spatial arrangements of the 
nervous activity itself are altogether 

It was not until the 17th century that 
the gross optics of image formation in 
the eye was clearly expressed. This was 
accomplished by Johannes Kepler in 
1611, and again by Rene Descartes in 

1664. By the end of the century the first 
treatise on optics in English, written by 
William Molyneux of Dublin, contained 
several clear and simple diagrams com- 
paring the projection of a real inverted 
image in a "pinhole" camera, in a cam- 
era obscura equipped with a lens and 
in an eye. 

Today every schoolboy knows that the 
eye is like a camera. In both instruments 
a lens projects an inverted image of the 
surroundings upon a light-sensitive sur- 
face: the film in the camera and the 
retina in the eye. In both the opening 
of the lens is regulated by an iris. In 
both the inside of the chamber is lined 
with a coating of black material which 
absorbs stray light that would otherwise 
be reflected back and forth and obscure 
the image. Almost every schoolboy also 
knows a difference between the camera 
and the eye. A camera is focused by mov- 
ing the lens toward or away from the 
film; in the eye the distance between the 
lens and the retina is fixed, and focusing 
is accomplished by changing the thick- 
ness of the lens. 

The usual fate of such comparisons is 
that on closer examination they are ex- 
posed as trivial. In this case, however, 
just the opposite has occurred. The more 
we have come to know about the mech- 
anism of vision, the more pointed and 
fruitful has become its comparison with 
photography. By now it is clear that the 
relationship between the eye and the 
camera goes far beyond simple optics, 
and has come to involve much of the 







''>"/ /ti\\\\\\\\\ 

OPTICAL SIMILARITIES of eye and camera are ap- 
|iurent in their cross sections. Both utilize ;i lens to 
funis an inverted image on a light-sensitive surface. 

Botli posses* .in iris to adjust to various intensities of 

liplit. The single lens of the eye, however, cannot bring 
li^lit of all colors to a focus at the same point. The 
compound lens of the camera is better corrected for 
color because it is composed of two kinds of glass. 



FORMATION OF AN* IMAGE on the retina of the human eye was diagrammed 
hy Rene Descartes in 1664. This diagram is from Descartes' Dioptrics. 

Eye and Camera 

essential physics and chemistry of both 

Bright and Dim Light 

A photographer making an exposure 
in dim light opens the iris of his camera. 
The pupil of the eye also opens in dim 
light, to an extent governed by the activ- 
ity of the retina. Both adjustments have 
the obvious effect of admitting more 
light through the lens. This is accom- 
plished at some cost to the quality of 
the image, for the open lens usually de- 
fines the image less sharply, and has less 
depth of focus. 

When further pressed for light, the 
photographer changes to a more sensi- 
tive film. This ordinarily involves a fur- 
ther loss in the sharpness of the picture. 
With any single type of emulsion the 
more sensitive film is coarser in grain, 
and thus the image cast upon it is re- 
solved less accurately. 

The retina of the eye is grainy just as 
is photographic film. In film the grain is 
composed of crystals of silver bromide 
embedded in gelatin. In the retina it is 
made up of the receptor cells, lying side 
by side to form a mosaic of light-sensitive 

There are two kinds of receptors in the 
retinas of man and most vertebrates: 
rods and cones. Each is composed of an 
inner segment much like an ordinarv 
nerve cell, and a rod- or cone-shaped 
outer segment, the special portion of the 
cell that is sensitive to light. The cones 
are the organs of vision in bright light, 
and also of color vision. The rods provide 
a special apparatus for vision in dim 
light, and their excitation yields only 
neutral gray sensations. This is why at 
night all cats are gray. 

The change from cone to rod vision, 
like that from slow to fast film, involves 
a change from a fine- to a coarse-grained 
mosaic. It is not that the cones are 
smaller than the rods, but that the cones 
act individually while the rods act in 
large clumps. Each cone is usually con- 
nected with the brain by a single fiber 
of the optic nerve. In contrast large 
clusters of rods are connected by single 
optic nerve fibers. The capacity of rods 
for image vision is correspondingly 
coarse. It is not only true that at night 
all cats are gray, but it is difficult to be 
sure that they are cats. 

Vision in very dim light, such as star- 
light or most moonlight, involves only 
the rods. The relatively insensitive cones 
are not stimulated at all. At moderately 
low intensities of light, about 1,000 times 
greater than the lowest intensity to 
which the eye responds, the cones begin 
to function. Their entrance is marked bv 
dilute sensations of color. Over an inter- 
mediate range of intensities rods and 
cones function together, but as the 
brightness increases, the cones come to 
dominate vision. We do not know that 



GRAIN of the photographic emulsion, magnified 2,500 
times, is made up of silver-bromide crystals in gelatin. 

"GRAIN" of the human retina is made up of cones and 
rods (dots at far right). Semicircle indicates fovea. 

the rods actually stop functioning at 
even the highest intensities, but in bright 
light their relative contribution to vision 
falls to so low a level as to be almost 

To this general transfer of vision from 
rods to cones certain cold-blooded ani- 
mals add a special anatomical device. 
The light-sensitive outer segments of the 
rods and cones are carried at the ends of 
fine stalks called myoids, which can 
shorten and lengthen. In dim light the 
rod myoids contract while the cone my- 
oids relax. The entire field of rods is thus 
pulled forward toward the light, while 
the cones are pushed into the back- 
ground. In bright light the reverse oc- 
curs: the cones are pulled forward and 
the rods pushed back. One could scarce- 
ly imagine a closer approach to the 
change from fast to slow film in a camera. 

The rods and cones share with the 
grains of the photographic plate another 
deeply significant property. It has long 
been known that in a film exposed to 
light each grain of silver bromide given 
enough developer blackens either com- 
pletely or not at all, and that a grain is 
made susceptible to development by the 
absorption of one or at most a few quanta 
of light. It appears to be equally true 
that a cone or rod is excited by light to 
yield either its maximal response or none 
at all. This is certainly true of the nerve 
fibers to which the rods and cones are 
connected, and we now know that to 
produce this effect in a rod— and possibly 
also in a cone— only one quantum of light 
need be absorbed. 

It is a basic tenet of photochemistry 
that one quantum of light is absorbed by, 
and in general can activate, only one 
molecule or atom. We must attempt to 
understand how such a small beginning 
can bring about such a large result as the 
development of a photographic grain 
or the discharge of a retinal receptor. 
In the photographic process the answer 
to this question seems to be that the ab- 

sorption of a quantum of light causes the 
oxidation of a silver ion to an atom of 
metallic silver, which then serves as a 
catalytic center for the development of 
the entire grain. It is possible that a 
similar mechanism operates in a rod or a 
cone. The absorption of a quantum of 
light by a light-sensitive molecule in 
either structure might convert it into a 
biological catalyst, or an enzyme, which 
could then promote the further reactions 
that discharge the receptor cell. One 
wonders whether such a mechanism 
could possibly be rapid enough. A rod 
or a cone responds to light within a 
small fraction of a second; the mecha- 
nism would therefore have to complete 
its work within this small interval. 

One of the strangest characteristics of 
the eye in dim light follows from some 
of these various phenomena. In focusing 
the eye is guided by its evaluation of the 
sharpness of the image on the retina. As 
the image deteriorates with the opening 
of the pupil in dim light, and as the 
retinal capacity to resolve the image falls 
with the shift from cones to rods, the 
ability to focus declines also. In very 
dim light the eye virtually ceases to ad- 
just its focus at all. It has come to resem- 
ble a very cheap camera, a fixed-focus 

In all that concerns its function, there- 
fore, the eye is one device in bright light 
and another in dim. At low intensities all 
its resources are concentrated upon sen- 
sitivity, at whatever sacrifice of form; it 
is predominantly an instrument for see- 
ing light, not pattern. In bright light all 
this changes. By narrowing the pupil, 
shifting from rods to cones, and other 
stratagems still to be described, the eye 
sacrifices light in order to achieve the 
utmost in pattern vision. 


In the course of evolution animals 
have used almost everv known device 

for forming or evaluating an image. 
There is one notable exception: no ani- 
mal has yet developed an eye based 
upon the use of a concave mirror. An 
eye made like a pinhole camera, how- 
ever, is found in Nautilus, a cephalopod 
mollusk related to the octopus and squid. 
The compound eye of insects and crabs 
forms an image which is an upright 
patchwork of responses of individual 
"eyes" or ommatidia, each of which 
records only a spot of light or shade. 
The eye of the tiny arthropod Copilia 
possesses a large and beautiful lens but 
only one light receptor attached to a thin 
strand of muscle. It is said that the mus- 
cle moves the receptor rapidly back and 
forth in the focal plane of the lens, scan- 
ning the image in much the same way as 
it is scanned by the light-sensitive tube 
of a television camera. 

Each of these eyes, like the lens eye 
of vertebrates, represents some close 
compromise of advantages and limita- 
tions. The pinhole eye is in focus at all 
distances, yet to form clear images it 
must use a small hole admitting very 
little light. The compound eye works 
well at distances of a few millimeters, 
yet it is relatively coarse in pattern reso- 
lution. The vertebrate eye is a long- 
range, high-acuitv instrument useless in 
the short distances at which the insect 
eye resolves the greatest detail. 

These properties of the vertebrate eye 
are of course shared by the camera. The 
use of a lens to project an image, how- 
ever, has created for both devices a spe- 
cial group of problems. All simple lenses 
are subject to serious errors in image 
formation: the lens aberrations. 

Spherical aberration is found in all 
lenses bounded by spherical surfaces. 
The marginal portions of the lens bring 
rays of light to a shorter focus than the 
central region. The image of a point in 
space is therefore not a point, but a little 
"blur circle." The cost of a camera is 
largely determined by the extent to 


CONES of the catfish Ameiurus are 
pulled toward the surface of the ret- 
ina (top) in bright light. The rods 
remain in a layer below the surface. 

RODS advance and cones retreat in 
dim light. This retinal feature is not 
possessed by mammals. It is peculiar 
to some of the cold-blooded animals. 

which this aberration is corrected by 
modifying the lens. 

The human eye is astonishingly well 
corrected— often slightly overcorrected— 
for spherical aberration. This is accom- 
plished in two ways. The cornea, which 
is the principal refracting surface of the 
eye, has a flatter curvature at its margin 
than at its center. This compensates in 
part for the tendency of a spherical sur- 
face to refract light more strongly at its 
margin. More important still, the lens is 
denser and hence refracts light more 
strongly at its core than in its outer 

A second major lens error, however, 
remains almost uncorrected in the hu- 
man eye. This is chromatic aberration, 
or color error. All single lenses made of 
one material refract rays of short wave- 
length more strongly than those of longer 
wavelength, and so bring blue light to a 
shorter focus than red. The result is that 
the image of a point of white light is not 
a white point, but a blur circle fringed 
with color. Since this seriously disturbs 
the image, even the lenses of inexpensive 
cameras are corrected for chromatic 

It has been known since the time of 
Isaac Newton, however, that the human 
eye has a large chromatic aberration. Its 
lens system seems to be entirely uncor- 
rected for this defect. Indeed, living or- 
ganisms are probably unable to manu- 
facture two transparent materials of such 
widely different refraction and disper- 
sion as the crown and flint glasses from 
which color-corrected lenses are con- 

The large color error of the human eye 
could make serious difficulties for image 
vision. Actually the error is moderate 
between the red end of the spectrum and 
the blue-green, but it increases rapidly 
at shorter wavelengths: the blue, violet 
and ultraviolet. These latter parts of the 
spectrum present the most serious prob- 
lem. It is a problem for both the eye and 
the camera, but one for which the eye 
must find a special solution. 

The first device that opposes the color 
error of the human eye is the yellow lens. 
The human lens is not only a lens but a 
color filter. It passes what we ordinarily 
consider to be the visible spectrum, but 
sharply cuts off the far edge of the violet, 
in the region of wavelength 400 milli- 
microns. It is this action of the lens, and 
not any intrinsic lack of sensitivity of 
the rods and cones, that keeps us from 
seeing in the near ultraviolet. Indeed, 
persons who have lost their lenses in the 
operation for cataract and have had 
them replaced by clear glass lenses, have 
excellent vision in the ultraviolet. They 
are able to read an optician's chart from 
top to bottom in ultraviolet light which 
leaves ordinary people in complete 

The lens therefore solves the problem 
of the near ultraviolet, the region of the 

Eye and Camera 

spectrum in which the color error is 
greatest, simply by eliminating the re- 
gion from human vision. This boon is 
distributed over one's lifetime, for the 
lens becomes a deeper yellow and makes 
more of the ordinary violet and blue in- 
visible as one grows older. I have heard 
it said that for this reason aging artists 
tend to use less blue and violet in their 

The lens filters out the ultraviolet for 
the eye as a whole. The remaining de- 
vices which counteract chromatic aber- 
ration are concentrated upon vision in 
bright light, upon cone vision. This is 
good economy, for the rods provide such 
a coarse-grained receptive surface that 
they would be unable in any case to 
evaluate a sharp image on the retina. 

As one goes from dim to bright light, 
from rod to cone vision, the sensitivity 
of the eye shifts toward the red end of 
the spectrum. This phenomenon was de- 
scribed in 1825 by the Czech physiolo- 
gist Johannes Purkinje. He had noticed 
that with the first light of dawn blue ob- 
jects tend to look relatively bright com- 
pared with red, but that they come to 
look relatively dim as the morning ad- 
vances. The basis of this change is a 
large difference in spectral sensitivity 
between rods and cones. Rods have their 
maximal sensitivity in the blue-green at 
about 500 millimicrons; the entire spec- 
tral sensitivity of the cones is transposed 
toward the red, the maximum lying in 
the yellow-green at about 562 millimi- 
crons. The point of this difference for 
our present argument is that as one goes 
from dim light, in which pattern vision 
is poor in any case, to bright light, in 
which it becomes acute, the sensitivity 
of the eye moves away from the region 
of the spectrum in which the chromatic 
aberration is large toward the part of the 
spectrum in which it is least. 

The color correction of the eye is com- 
pleted by a third dispensation. Toward 
the center of the human retina there is a 
small, shallow depression called the fo- 
vea, which contains only cones. While 
the retina as a whole sweeps through a 
visual angle of some 240 degrees, the 
fovea subtends an angle of only about 
1.7 degrees. The fovea is considerably 
smaller than the head of a pin, yet with 
this tiny patch of retina the eye accom- 
plishes all its most detailed vision. 

The fovea also includes the fixation 
point of the eye. To look directly at 
something is to turn one's eye so that 
its image falls upon the fovea. Beyond 
the boundary of the fovea rods appear, 
and they become more and more nu- 
merous as the distance from the fovea 
increases. The apparatus for vision in 
bright light is thus concentrated toward 
the center of the retina, that for dim 
light toward its periphery. In very dim 
light, too dim to excite the cones, the 
fovea is blind. One can see objects then 
only by looking at them slightly askance 


to catch their images on areas rich in 

In man, apes and monkeys, alone of 
all known mammals, the fovea and the 
region of retina just around it is colored 
yellow. This area is called the yellow 
patch, or macula lutca. Its pigmentation 
lies as a yellow screen over the light re- 
ceptors of the central retina, subtending 
a visual angle some five to 10 degrees in 

Several years ago in our laboratory at 
Harvard University we measured the 
color transmission of this pigment in the 
living human eye by comparing the spec- 
tral sensitivities of cones in the yellow 
patch with those in a colorless peripheral 
area. The yellow pigment was also ex- 
tracted from a small number of human 
maculae, and was found to be xaniho- 
phyll, a carotenoid pigment that occurs 
also in all green leaves. This pigment in 
the yellow patch takes up the absorption 
of light in the violet and blue regions of 
the spectrum just where absorption by 
the lens falls to very low values. In this 
way the yellow patch removes for the 
central retina the remaining regions of 
the spectrum for which the color error is 

So the human eye, unable to correct 
its color error otherwise, throws away 
those portions of the spectrum that 
would make the most trouble. The yel- 
low lens removes the near ultraviolet for 
the eye as a whole, the macular pigment 
eliminates most of the violet and blue 
for the central retina, and the shift from 
rods to cones displaces vision in bright 
light bodily toward the red. By these 
three devices the apparatus of most 
acute vision avoids the entire range of 
the spectrum in which the chromatic 
aberration is large. 

Photography with Living Eyes 

In 1876 Franz Boll of the University 
of Rome discovered in the rods of the 
frog retina a brilliant red pigment. This 
bleached in the light and was resynthe- 
sized in the dark, and so fulfilled the 
elementary requirements of a visual pig- 
ment. He called this substance visual 
red; later it was renamed visual purple 
or rhodopsin. This pigment marks the 
point of attack by light on the rods: the 
absorption of light by rhodopsin initiates 
the train of reactions that end in- rod 

Boll had scarcely announced his dis- 
covery when Willy Kiihne, professor of 
physiology at Heidelberg, took up the 
.study of rhodopsin, and in one extraor- 
dinary year learned almost everything 
about it that was known until recently. 
In his first paper on retinal chemistry 
Kiihne said: "Bound together with the 
pigment epithelium, the retina behaves 
not merely like a photographic plate, but 
like an entire photographic workshop, in 
which the workman continually renews 

PINHOLE-CAMERA EYE is found in Nautilus, the spiral-shelled mollusk 
which is related to the octopus and the squid. This eye has the advantage 
of being in focus at all distances from the object that is viewed. It has the 
serious disadvantage, however, of admitting very little light to the retina. 

COMPOUND EYE is found in insects. Each element contributes only a small 
patch of light or shade to make up the whole mosaic image. This double 
compound eye is found in the mayfly Chloeon. The segment at the top 
provides detailed vision; the segment at the right, coarse, wide-angled vision. 

SCANNING EYE is found in the arthropod Copilia. It possesses a large lens 
I right I but only one receptor element (left). Attached to the receptor 
are the optic nerve and a strand of muscle. The latter is reported to move 
the receptor back and forth so that it scans the image formed by the len9. 


Eye and Camera 

SPHERICAL ABERRATION occurs when light is refracted hy a lens with 
spherical surfaces. The light which passes through the edge of the lens is 
brought to a shorter focus than that which passes through the center. The 
result of this is that the image of a point is not a point but a "blur circle." 

CHROMATIC ABERRATION occurs when light of various colors is re- 
fracted by a lens made of one material. The light of shorter wavelength is 
refracted more than that of longer wavelength, i.e., violet is brought to a 
shorter focus than red. The image of a white point is a colored blur circle. 

350 400 450 500 550 600 650 

B G Y O R 



CHROMATIC ABERRATION of the human eye is corrected by various 
stratagems which withdraw the cones from the region of maximum aberra- 
tion, i.e., the shorter wavelengths. The horizontal coordinate of this diagram 
is wavelength in millimicrons; the colors are indicated by initial letters. 

the plate by laying on new light-sensitive 
material, while simultaneously erasing 
the old image." 

Kiihne saw at once that with this pig- 
ment which was bleached by hght it 
might be possible to take a picture with 
the living eye. He set about devising 
methods for carrying out such a process, 
and succeeded after many discouraging 
failures. He called the process optogra- 
phy and its products optograms. 

One of Kiihne's early optograms was 
made as follows. An albino rabbit was 
fastened with its head facing a barred 
window. From this position the rabbit 
could see only a gray and clouded sky. 
The animal's head was covered for sev- 
eral minutes with a cloth to adapt its eyes 
to the dark, that is to let rhodopsin ac- 
cumulate in its rods. Then the animal 
was exposed for three minutes to the 
light. It was immediately decapitated, 
the eye removed and cut open along the 
equator, and the rear half of the eyeball 
containing the retina laid in a solution 
of alum for fixation. The next day Kiihne 
saw, printed upon the retina in bleached 
and unaltered rhodopsin, a picture of the 
window with the clear pattern of its bars. 

I remember reading as a boy a detec- 
tive story in which at one point the de- 
tective enters a dimly lighted room, on 
the floor of which a corpse is lying. 
Working carefully in the semidarkness, 
the detective raises one eyelid of the 
victim and snaps a picture of the open 
eye. Upon developing this in his dark- 
room he finds that he has an optogram 
of the last scene viewed by the victim, 
including of course an excellent likeness 
of the murderer. So far as I know 
Kiihne's optograms mark the closest ap- 
proach to fulfilling this legend. 

The legend itself has nonetheless 
flourished for more than 60 years, and 
all of my readers have probably seen or 
heard some version of it. It began with 
Kiihne's first intimation that the eye re- 
sembles a photographic workshop, even 
before he had succeeded in producing 
his first primitive optogram, and it 
spread rapidly over the entire world. In 
the paper that announces his first suc- 
cess in optography, Kiihne refers to thi: 
story with some bitterness. He says: "1 
disregard all the journalistic potentiali- 
ties of this subject, and willingly sur- 
render it in advance to all the claims of 
fancy-free coroners on both sides of the 
ocean, for it certainly is not pleasant to 
deal with a serious problem in such com- 
pany. Much that I could say about this 
had better be suppressed, and turned 
rather to the hope that no one will expect 
from me any corroboration of announce- 
ments that have not been authorized 
with my name." 

Despite these admirable sentiments 
we find Kiihne shortly afterward en- 
gaged in a curious adventure. In the 
nearby town of Bruchsal on November 
16, 1880, a young man was beheaded by 


guillotine. Kiihne had made arrange- 
ments to receive the corpse. He had 
prepared a dimly lighted room screened 
with red and yellow glass to keep any 
rhodopsin left in the eyes from bleach- 
ing further. Ten minutes after the knife 
had fallen he obtained the whole retina 
from the left eye, and had the satisfac- 
tion of seeing and showing to several 
colleagues a sharply demarcated opto- 
gram printed upon its surface. Kiihne's 
drawing of it is reproduced at the bot- 
tom of the next page. To my knowledge 
it is the only human optogram on record. 
Kiihne went to great pains to deter- 
mine what this optogram represented. 
He says: "A search for the object which 
served as source for this optogram re- 
mained fruitless, in spite of a thorough 
inventory of all the surroundings and 
reports from many witnesses. The delin- 
quent had spent the night awake by the 
light of a tallow candle; he had slept 

human eye as did the original subject of 
the picture. 

How the human eye resolves colors is 
not known. Normal human color vision 
seems to be compounded of three kinds 
of responses; we therefore speak of it as 
trichromatic or three-color vision. The 
three kinds of response call for at least 
three kinds of cone differing from one 
another in their sensitivity to the various 
regions of the spectrum. We can only 
guess at what regulates these differences. 
The simplest assumption is that the hu- 
man cones contain three different light- 
sensitive pigments, but this is still a 
matter of surmise. 

There exist retinas, however, in which 
one can approach the problem of color 
vision more directly. The eyes of certain 
turtles and of certain birds such as chick- 
ens and pigeons contain a great predomi- 
nance of cones. Since cones are the or- 
gans of vision in bright light as well as 

RETINAL PHOTOGRAPH, or an optogram, was drawn in 1878 by the 
German investigator Willy Kiihne. He had exposed the eye of a living rabbit 
to a barred window, killed the rabbit, removed its retina and fixed it in alum. 

from four to five o'clock in the morn- 
ing; and had read and written, first by 
candlelight until dawn, then by feeble 
daylight until eight o'clock. When he 
emerged in the open, the sun came out 
for an instant, according to a reliable 
observer, and the sky became somewhat 
brighter during the seven minutes prior 
to the bandaging of his eyes and his exe- 
cution, which followed immediately. 
The delinquent, however, raised his eyes 
only rarely." 


One of the triumphs of modern pho- 
tography is its success in recording color. 
For this it is necessary not only to graft 
some system of color differentiation and 
rendition upon the photographic proc- 
ess; the finished product must then ful- 
fill the very exacting requirement that it 
excite the same sensations of color in the 

of color vision, these animals necessarily 
function only at high light intensities. 
They are permanently night-blind, due 
to a poverty or complete absence of rods. 
It is for this reason that chickens must 
roost at sundown. 

In the cones of these animals we find 
a system of brilliantly colored oil glob- 
ules, one in each cone. The globule is 
situated at the joint between the inner 
and outer segments of the cone, so that 
light must pass through it just before en- 
tering the light-sensitive element. The 
globules therefore lie in the cones in the 
position of little individual color filters. 

One has only to remove the retina 
from a chicken or a turtle and spread it 
on the stage of a microscope to tee that 
the globules are of three colors: red, 
orange and greenish yellow. It was sug- 
gested many years ago that they provide 
the basis of color differentiation in the 
animals that possess them. 

In a paper published in 1907 the Ger- 
man ophthalmologist Siegfried Garten 
remarked that he was led by such retinal 
color filters to invent a system of color 
photography based upon the same prin- 
ciple. This might have been the first in- 
stance in which an eye had directly in- 
spired a development in photography. 
Unfortunately, however, in 1906 the 
French chemist Louis Lumiere, appar- 
ently without benefit of chicken retinas, 
had brought out his autochrome process 
for color photography based upon ex- 
actly this principle. 

To make his autochrome plates Lu- 
miere used suspensions of starch grains 
from rice, which he dyed red, green and 
blue. These were mixed in roughly equal 
proportions, and the mixture was strewn 
over the surface of an ordinary photo- 
graphic plate. The granules were then 
squashed flat and the interstices were 
filled with particles of carbon. Each dyed 
granule served as a color filter for the 
patch of silver-bromide emulsion that lay 
just under it. 

Just as the autochrome plate can ac- 
complish color photography with a single 
light-sensitive substance, so the cones of 
the chicken retina should require no 
more than one light-sensitive pigment. 
We extracted such a pigment from the 
chicken retina in 1937. It is violet in 
color, and has therefore been named 
iodopsin from ion, the Greek word for 
violet. All three pigments of the colored 
oil globules have also been isolated and 
crystallized. Like the pigment of the hu- 
man macula, they are all carotenoids: a 
greenish-yellow carotene; the golden 
mixture of xanthophylls found in chicken 
egg yolk; and red astaxanthin, the pig- 
ment of the boiled lobster. 

Controversy thrives on ignorance, and 
we have had many years of disputation 
regarding the number of kinds of cone 
concerned in human color vision. Manv 
investigators prefer three, some four, and 
at least one of my English colleagues 
seven. I myself incline toward three. It 
is a good number, and sufficient unto the 

The appearance of three colors of oil 
globule in the cones of birds and turtles 
might be thought to provide strong sup- 
port for trichromatic theories of color 
vision. The trouble is that these retinas 
do in fact contain a fourth class of glob- 
ule which is colorless. Colorless globules 
have all the effect of a fourth color; there 
is no doubt that if we include them, bird 
and turtle retinas possess the basis for 
four-color vision. 

Latent Images 

Recent experiments have exposed a 
wholly unexpected parallel between vi- 
sion and photography. Many years ago 
Kiihne showed that rhodopsin can be ex- 
tracted from the retinal rods into clear 
water solution. When such solutions are 


Eye and Camera 







?rr ■•" 





i 1 ' 

'n i 



FROG OPTOGRAM showing a 
haired pattern was made hy the Gei- 
nian ophthalmologist Siegfried Gar- 
ten. The retina is mounted on a rod. 

hy Kiiluie after he had removed the 
retina of a beheaded criminal. Kit line 
could not determine what it showed. 

exposed to light, the rhodopsin bleaches 
just as it does in the retina. 

It has been known for some time that 
the bleaching of rhodopsin in solution is 
not entirely accomplished by light. It is 
started bv light, but then goes on in 
the dark for as long as an hour at room 
temperature. Bleaching is therefore a 
composite process. It is ushered in by a 
light reaction that converts rhodopsin to 
a highly unstable product; this then 
decomposes by ordinary chemical reac- 
tions— "dark" reactions in the sense that 
they do not require light. 

Since great interest attaches to the 
initial unstable product of the light re- 
action, many attempts were made in our 
laboratory and at other laboratories to 
seize upon this substance and learn its 
properties. It has such a fleeting exist- 
ence, however, that for some time noth- 
ing satisfactory was achieved. 

In 1941, however, two English work- 
ers, E. E. Broda and C. F. Goodeve, suc- 
ceeded in isolating the light reaction by 
irradiating rhodopsin solutions at about 
—73 degrees Celsius, roughly the tem- 
perature of dry ice. In such extreme cold, 
light reactions are unhindered, but or- 
dinary dark processes cannot occur. 
Broda and Goodeve found that an ex- 
haustive exposure of rhodopsin to light 
under these conditions produced only a 
very small change in its color, so small 
that though it could be measured one 
might not have been certain merely by 
looking at these solutions that any 
change had occurred at all. Yet the light 
reaction had been completed, and when 
such solutions were allowed to warm up 
to room temperature they bleached in 
the dark. We have recently repeated 
such experiments in our laboratory. With 
some differences which need not be dis- 
cussed, the results were qualitatively as 
the English workers had described them. 

These observations led us to re-exam- 
ine certain early experiments of Kiihne's. 
Kiihne had found that if the retina of a 
frog or rabbit was thoroughly dried over 
sulfuric acid, it could be exposed even to 
brilliant sunlight for long periods with- 
out bleaching. Kiihne concluded that dry 
rhodopsin is not affected by light, and 
this has been the common understanding 
of workers in the field of vision ever 

It occurred to us, however, that dry 
rhodopsin, like extremely cold rhodop- 
sin. might undergo the light reaction, 
though with such small change in color 
as to have escaped notice. To test this 
possibility we prepared films of rhodop- 
sin in gelatin, which could be dried 
thoroughly and were of a quality that 
permitted making accurate measure- 
ments of their color transmission through- 
out the spectrum. 

We found that when dry gelatin films 

of rhodopsin are exposed to light, the 
same change occurs as in very cold rho- 
dopsin. The color is altered, but so 
slightly as easily to escape visual obser- 
vation. In any case the change cannot 
be described as bleaching; if anything 
the color is a little intensified. Yet the 
light reaction is complete; if such ex- 
posed films are merely wetted with wa- 
ter, they bleach in the dark. 

We have therefore two procedures- 
cooling to very low temperatures and 
removal of water— that clearly separate 
the light from the dark reactions in the 
bleaching of rhodopsin. Which of these 
reactions is responsible for stimulating 
rod vision? One cannot yet be certain, 
yet the response of the rods to light oc- 
curs so rapidly that only the light reac- 
tion seems fast enough to account for it. 

What has been said, however, has a 
further consequence that brings it into 
direct relation with photography. Every- 
one knows that the photographic process 
also is divided into light and dark com- 
ponents. The result of exposing a film 
to light is usually invisible, a so-called 
"latent image." It is what later occurs in 
the darkroom, the dark reaction of de- 
velopment, that brings out the picture. 

This now appears to be exactly what 
happens in vision. Here as in photog- 
raphy light produces an almost invisible 
result, a latent image, and this indeed is 
probably the process upon which retinal 
excitation depends. The visible loss of 
rhodopsin's color, its bleaching, is the re- 
sult of subsequent dark reactions, of 

One can scarcely have notions like 
this without wanting to make a picture 
with a rhodopsin film; and we have been 
tempted into making one very crude 
rhodopsin photograph. Its subject is not 
exciting— only a row of black and white 
stripes— but we show it at the right for 
what interest it may have as the first 
such photograph. What is important is 
that it was made in typically photo- 
graphic stages. The dry rhodopsin film 
was first exposed to light, producing a 
latent image. It was then developed in 
the dark by wetting. It then had to be 
fixed; and, though better ways are 
known, we fixed this photograph simply 
by redrying it. Since irradiated rhodop- 
sin bleaches rather than blackens on de- 
velopment, the immediate result is a 

Photography with rhodopsin is onlv 
in its first crude stages, perhaps at the 
level that photography with silver 
bromide reached almost a century ago. 
I doubt that it has a future as a practi- 
cal process. For us its primary interest 
is to pose certain problems in visual 
chemistry in a provocative form. It does, 
however, also add another chapter to the 
mingled histories of eye and camera. 


RHODOPSIN PHOTOGRAPH was made by the author 
and his associates Paul K. Brown and Oscar Starobin. 
Rhodopsin, the light-sensitive red pigment of rod vision, 
had been extracted from cattle retinas, mixed with 

gelatin and spread on celluloid. This was then dried and 
exposed to a pattern made up of black and white stripes. 
When the film was wetted in the dark with hydroxyhv 
mine, the rhodopsin bleached in the same pattern. 


A device that operates on the principles of optics and 
molecular physics— and that has an astonishing range 
of applications. 

The Laser — What it is and Does 

J. M. Carroll 

A chapter from a popular book, 1964. 

In i960, electronics scientists and engineers began to see 
things in a different light. 

It was a rich ruby light: not "kindled in the vine," as 
the Persian poet Omar Khayyam said, but emitted by the 
atoms of a synthetic gem stone. 

The light came from the laser, a new device with wide 
potential application in science, medicine, industry, and 
national defense. 

what's in a name? 

The word laser is an acronym, or a word made up of the 
first letters of several other words. Laser stands for Light 
Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It was 
coined by analogy with another acronym: maser. Maser 
stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emis- 
sion of Radiation. 

The maser works on the same basic principle as the laser 
but, of course, emits microwave energy rather than light. 
Masers are used as input amplifiers ( preamplifiers ) of radio 
telescopes and space-tracking receivers that magnify fee- 
ble signals gleaned from outer space. 

No one is completely satisfied with the name "laser" 
because lasers do not really amplify light in a strict sense; 


instead they generate light with particular characteristics 
that engineers and scientists find useful. In electronics 
terminology a device that generates radiation is called 
an oscillator, not an amplifier. 

Furthermore, most lasers do not emit visible light at all 
but rather infrared, or invisible, light. It is conceivable 
that devices working on the same principle as the laser and 
maser may someday emit ultraviolet or so-called black 
light, X rays, or even gamma rays. 

Scientists who moved from maser research into laser 
research insist on calling the laser an optical maser. But 
it can be argued that it is ridiculous to talk of "optical 
microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radia- 
tion" since "optical" means one thing and "microwave" 
quite another. 

Proponents of the term "optical maser" counter by say- 
ing that "maser" doesn't stand for microwave amplification 
by stimulated emission of radiation at all, but rather for 
molecular amplification by stimulated emission of radia- 

To the comment that masers do not amplify molecules 
comes the answer that they depend for their action on the 
behavior of the molecules of the substance. 

Well, some masers and lasers do depend on molecular 
effects. But more depend on the behavior of submolecular 
particles: atoms, ions (atoms that have lost one or more 
electrons), perhaps even electrons themselves. 

Recently the term quantum device has been applied 
to both masers and lasers, and this seems to make sense, 
since the action of both the laser and the maser can be 
explained by the science of quantum mechanics. In fact, 
some scientists and engineers interested in lasers and 
masers are attempting to form within the Institute of Elec- 
trical and Electronics Engineers a professional group on 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

quantum electronics. And though for the present the term 
"laser" seems deeply ingrained in the scientific vocabulary, 
let's remember that the science we call electronics was 
once known as thermionic engineering! 

what's special about a laser? 

The important thing about laser light is that it is co- 
herent. The individual light rays are all of the same wave- 
length or color, and are all in step. A laser beam differs 
from a beam of ordinary light in both character and ef- 
fectiveness in the same way that a platoon of well-drilled 
soldiers differs from a ragtag, disorganized mob. 

When light waves from a laser march in step, they can 
perform amazing feats. The reason is that their energy is 
not dissipated as the beam spreads out. This makes for an 
intense concentration of energy at a very sharply defined 
point. It also greatly extends the range of a light source. 

Three of the many spectacular achievements of the laser 
demonstrate how the properties of coherent light can be 
put to work: 

• Because its light does not spread out even at great 
distances, a laser can illuminate the surface of the moon 
with a two-mile- wide circle of light. 

Laser beam on moon (black dot) 
compared with area of radar 
beam (shaded area) (Raytheon) 


• Because its energy is concentrated at a fine point, it 
can send a short, searing pinpoint of light into the human 
eyeball to weld a detached retina back into place and re- 
store sight. 

• And since its radiation is so intense, it can burn holes 
in a steel plate Ys inch thick at a distance of several feet. 

These abilities have given rise to a whole range of ap- 
plications. Laser range finders are used both by artillery 
officers to sight their guns and by surveyors. In outer space, 
where there is no atmosphere to absorb the light, the 
laser will supplement conventional radar and radio for 
space-vehicle navigation and communications. 

Lasers can cut metal and other materials. But it is highly 
unlikely that a laser will ever replace an engine lathe or 
an oxyacetelene torch in most machining and metal-cut- 
ting operations. Lasers are being used in the precision 
machining of metals and in machining brittle materials 
such as diamonds. 

A laser can weld metals as well as retinas. But here, too, 
its use is for precise work, as in making microelectronic 
circuits. Nevertheless, large lasers mounted atop high 
mountain peaks are being developed to provide a defense 
against intercontinental-ballistic-missile warheads. 

To the scientist, the laser is already a valuable tool in 
absorption spectroscopy or the identification of compounds 
by the particular wavelengths of light that they absorb. 

Radiant Energy 

How can a beam of light burn a hole in a steel plate? 
It can do so because light is a form of radiant energy, and a 
laser concentrates much radiant energy in a very tiny 
spot. Radiant energy exists in many forms besides visible 
light. It exists as radio waves, ultraviolet and infrared 
light, X rays, gamma rays, and even cosmic rays. 


The Laser — What it is and Does 


It is sometimes convenient to think of radiant energy 
as waves, that is, electromagnetic waves. Then the differ- 
ent forms of radiant energy can be classified by their 
wavelengths and arranged according to wavelength in a 
spectrum. We have all seen the waves made by a pebble 
thrown into a quiet pond. They are a series of alternating 
crests and troughs. The wavelength is defined as the dis- 
tance between two adjacent crests or two adjacent troughs. 

Now, when a wave goes from crest to trough and back 
to crest again, it is said to have gone through one cycle, 
or alternation. The number of cycles that a wave executes 
in one second is known as the frequency of the wave. 

Light waves and all other electromagnetic waves travel 
at the same speed, which is 186,000 miles, or 300,000,000 
meters, a second. All scientific measurements are made in 
metric system. In the metric system the basic unit of length 
is the meter— a little over three feet. 


The alternating current supplied by the power com- 
pany is an electromagnetic wave that executes 60 cycles a 
second; thus, in 1/60 of a second, or the time of one alter- 
nation, the wave will travel 300,000,000/60, or 5,000,000 
meters— roughly the distance from New York to Los An- 
geles. The electromagnetic spectrum arranges the differ- 
ent kinds of electromagnetic energy according to decreas- 
ing wavelength. 

Everyone is familiar with the red, orange, yellow, green, 
blue, and violet spectrum of the rainbow after a spring 
shower. The same separation of white light into its color 
components occurs when we pass light through a glass 
prism. A spectrum arranges the frequency components of 
white light according to decreasing wavelengths. Similar 







( ) l ipS^ 


Electromagnetic spectrum from radio frequencies to X rays (Hughes) 

spectra exist in the infrared and ultraviolet regions, but we 
can't see them. They can, however, be photographed by 
using special film. Radio waves also form part of the 
electromagnetic spectrum. 

A radio broadcasting station with a frequency of 1,000 
kilocycles per second (or cycles per second times 1,000) 
has a wave 300 meters long. A radar set used for naviga- 
tion at sea has a wavelength of about 10 centimeters (one 
centimeter equals 1/100 meter), or approximately 4 inches. 


Radiant energy is invisible to the human eye only until 
we get to a wavelength of 0.00000075 meter, which we 
see as red light. Since the meter is an ungainly unit for 
measuring wavelengths of light, physicists use what is 
called the angstrom unit, abbreviated A. One angstrom 
equals 1/10,000,000,000 meter. Therefore we can say the 
visible spectrum extends from 7,500 A ( deep red ) to 4,000 
A, or blue. In between are regions of orange (about 6,000 
A), yellow (about 5,900 A), and green (about 5,300 

The visible spectrum is bounded by longer waves of 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

infrared that we sense as heat. For example, a jet engine 
exhaust has a wavelength of 40,000 A, while the heat of 
the human body has a wavelength of about 99,000 A. 


The short wavelength, or blue end of the spectrum, is 
bounded by the ultraviolet region. Sun-tanning ultraviolet 
rays have a wavelength of about 3,000 A. Still shorter 
are X rays ( 150 to 10 A) and gamma rays (1.4 to 0.1 A). 
Gamma rays are associated with nuclear reactions, and 
account for some of the deadly effects of atomic and hy- 
drogen bombs and of radioactive waste materials. At the 
high end of the spectrum are cosmic rays (0.01 to 0.001 
A), those weird visitors from outer space whose effects 
(they can cause biological mutations) are awesome in- 
deed but about which very little is understood. 

Scientists have known for a long time that the energy 
of radiation is proportional to its frequency. We cannot 
sense the presence of radio waves even though we stand 
close by the antenna of a powerful broadcasting station. 
Yet if we put a hand in front of a radar antenna, we may 
feel a slight sensation of warmth. The energy of ultraviolet 
waves will become painfully evident to some who sun 
bathe not wisely but too well. The penetrating power of 
X rays and gamma rays makes them useful for making 
shadowgraphs of the human skeleton and internal organs 
for medical diagnosis and for inspecting manufactured 
parts for hidden flaws. Indeed, hard, or short, X rays and 
gamma rays are used to destroy malignant tissue in the 
treatment of cancer and related diseases. 

The energy of each wavelet of radiation is called a 
"quantum." It is measured by the frequency of the radia- 
tion multiplied by Planck's constant (this is equal to 
6.625 X 10 ~ 27 er g seconds— 26 zeros in front of the first 


6). The intensity of a source of radiation depends upon 
the number of quanta emitted from it that pass a desig- 
nated boundary at a given time. 


The action of the laser is allied to another, more familiar, 
phenomenon, that of fluorescence. Fluorescence is said 
to occur when radiant energy hits the atoms or molecules 
of some particular material and in turn causes that sub- 
stance to emit further radiant energy. Fluorescence has 
this important property: the emitted radiation is always at 
a lower frequency (longer wavelength) than the initial 

Here's how scientists explain fluorescence: Every atom 
and molecule has certain energy states that it can occupy. 
When the atoms absorb energy, they move to higher en- 
ergy states. Conversely, when they return to lower energy 
states, they give up energy, or emit radiation. 

Imagine an atom to be a coil spring. When there is no 
compression on the spring, it is in its ground, or rest, state. 
When you compress the spring, you add potential energy 
to the system. When you release the spring, it bounces 
back and vibrates, giving up what is called its kinetic 

In the picture tube of your television set, electrons 
bombard a phosphor screen on the back of the faceplate. 
The kinetic energy, or energy of motion of the rapidly 
moving electrons, excites the atoms of the phosphor. As 
these atoms relax, the faceplate of the picture tube glows, 
and you see the television program because of fluorescence. 

When a radiologist examines you with a fluoroscope, X 
rays penetrate your body and excite the atoms of a phos- 
phor screen. As the atoms of the phosphor coating relax, 
the fluoroscope screen glows green, producing a shadow- 
graph of the part of the body being visualized. 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

In a neon sign, an alternating current creates an elec- 
tromagnetic field that agitates the molecules of neon gas 
filling the tube. Because collisions of rapidly moving neon 
molecules raise these molecules to higher energy levels, 
they relax, emitting the orange-red glow characteristic of 
a neon sign. 

Of course, the common fluorescent lamp works on the 
same principle of energy exchange. The inner walls of the 
lamp tube are coated with beryllium oxide. Inside the 
tube, there is an intense arc discharge between electrodes 
at either end of the lamp tube. This arc discharge is rich 
in ultraviolet light that energizes the phosphor molecules. 
As these molecules relax, the lamp emits a blue-white light 
similar to natural daylight. 

We now have seen several examples of quantum energy 
exchanges, but no one ever burned a hole in a steel plate 
or illuminated the moon with a neon sign or with a fluores- 
cent lamp. What, then, does the laser have that its less 
powerful cousins lack? 

Frequency Coherence 

The answer is: the laser's coherence. In all the previous 
examples of the phenomenon of fluorescence, the emitted 
radiation had a broad spectrum. Because it was emitted 
in random fashion, some wavelets added together while 
others opposed each other. 

Frequency coherence makes a big difference. It means 
that all the emitted energy has the same wavelength. When 
this happens, you can have a useful output indeed. Take 
the babble of voices at a cocktail party as an example 
of incoherent sound. The sound doesn't carry very far and 
it is not especially meaningful. But if you were to concen- 
trate all that sound energy into the blast of a police whistle 
or siren, you could awaken half a city. 





Frequency coherent radiation, top, and frequency incoherent radia- 
tion, bottom (Raytheon) 

Engineers learned many years ago that they could com- 
municate more efficiently and more meaningfully when 
they concentrated all the output of a radio transmitter at 
a single frequency. But frequency coherence has other ad- 
vantages besides efficiency. A beam of coherent light can 
be modulated much as a radio signal can be. Modulation 
is a process by which intelligence such as music or speech 
is impressed upon a so-called carrier signal such as a radio 

An incoherent light beam can be modulated in only the 
most elementary manner— such as by switching it on and 
off, as with the visual blinker lights used to send Morse 
code between ships. But the frequency-coherent laser 
beam can be modulated by such complex signals as speech, 
music, or even a television picture. 

Frequency-coherent light also lends itself to frequency 
multiplication, the technique whereby a closely controlled 
but relatively low radio frequency can be raised to a 
higher output frequency. The output of a rubv laser at 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

6,943 A has been doubled to 3,472 A. The input was deep 
red and the output blue-violet, almost ultraviolet. The 
reason the wavelengths of laser light are given so pre- 
cisely is that the emission of laser light depends on the 
shifting of electrons between atomic orbits, and each 
wavelength is characteristic of one particular orbital shift, 
or so-called quantum jump. 

Laser beams can also be mixed. For example, a ruby 
laser operates in two slightly different modes. These modes 
can be mixed in a microwave phototube. The frequency 
difference between the modes yields a microwave signal 
that can be handled by conventional radio or television 
techniques. This property has permitted some engineers 
to modulate laser beams with television pictures and to 
recover the television signal after transmission for several 

Scientists find the frequency coherence of the laser 
especially gratifying. Before the discovery of the laser, 
only signals in the lower, or radio, end of the spectrum 
could be produced coherently. Radio techniques were 
limited to producing signals whose wavelength was on the 
order of a millimeter or so. 

If monochromatic (or single-frequency) signals were 
desired anywhere else in the spectrum, they had to be 
produced by placing an appropriate filter in front of an 
incoherent source. This method was unsatisfactory for 
two reasons: it was very inefficient, since the source had to 
produce many times the energy that could be usefully 
employed; and, second, since no filtered output is ever 
truly coherent, modulation, frequency multiplication, and 
mixing were always unsatisfactory. But now a whole new 
section of the spectrum, ranging from the "near" (to 
visible light, that is) infrared to near ultraviolet, is open 
to investigation, and there is evidence that the existing 


gaps at the high and low ends of this laser operating range 
can be filled by using related techniques. 


Frequency coherence is only part of the picture. The 
output of a laser is also spatially coherent. This means that 
all wavelets start in step with each other. Spatial coher- 
ence also adds to the efficiency of a device. The difference 

Spatially coherent radiation, top, and spatially incoherent radiation, 
bottom (Raytheon) 

between spatial incoherence and spatial coherence is like 
the difference between a disorganized group of castaways 
of a raft each paddling in his own way and the smooth, 
efficient performance of a well-trained crew rowing an 
eight-oared racing shell. 

Ruby Lasers 

The ruby laser was the first device to generate coherent 
light successfully. The rubies used in lasers are synthetic 
gem stones. They are made by fusing aluminum and 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

chromium oxides to produce large crystals. The amount 
of chromium in a synthetic ruby is small— about five hun- 
dredths of 1 percent. But it is that chromium upon which 
laser action depends. 

The ruby crystal is cylindrical, about )i inch in diameter 
and i/2 to 2 inches long. It appears pink to the eye. That 
is because there are two absorption bands in a ruby— one 
at 5,600 A and the other at 4,100 A— which means that 
when you hold a ruby up to the light, yellow-green light 
and blue light are absorbed. This subtraction of yellow, 
green, and blue from white light (which is a mixture of 
all colors) gives the remaining light transmitted to the 
eye its distinctive pink hue. Actually, there is also some 
natural fluorescence in a ruby, but it is all but imper- 
ceptible to the eye. 

A laser crystal must be polished to optical flatness on 
both ends. Both ends are also silvered, one with a heavy 
coat while the other, or output end, is lightly silvered 
with a coat that permits it to reflect only about 92 percent 
of light incident on it. 

Exploded view of ruby laser showing ruby, mirrors, and helical 
flashtube (Hughes) 





The ruby rod is now placed within a helical-shaped 
xenon flashtube, the kind of tube widely used in elec- 
tronic flash attachments for cameras. The process of ir- 
radiating the ruby rod with a xenon flashtube is called 
optical pumping. The output of the flash lamp is rich 
in the yellow-green region. 

The energy level of an atom ( an ion is just an atom that 
has lost one or more electrons) depends upon the condi- 
tion of its electrons. Now, an atom is like a miniature solar 
system. It has a positive nucleus at its center in place of 
the sun, and a specific number of planet-like electrons. 
These electrons revolve around the nucleus and spin on 
their own axes. Unlike the planets of the solar system, 
however, each electron can occupy not just one but sev- 
eral orbits. Moreover, the electrons can revolve around the 
nucleus with different azimuthal momenta (speed) and 
even change their direction of spin. Each change in orbit, 
momentum, or spin corresponds to a discrete energy 

For example, when energy is imparted to an atom, an 
electron may move to an orbit more remote from the 
nucleus. The atom is said to absorb energy and to have 
been raised to a higher or more excited energy state or 
level. If the electron then returns to its original orbit, the 
atom gives up energy; it may now emit light of a certain 
precise wavelength. The atom is said to relax to a lower 
or less excited energy state or level. When light wavelets, 
or photons, at 5,600 A from the flashtube irradiate the 
ruby rod, they raise the energy of some of the chromium 
ions dissolved in the ruby from ground state (1) to various 
levels lying within the absorption band. Then the chromium 
ions immediately begin to drop from these higher energy 
levels. Some drop right back to the ground state— level (T) 
—as they do in natural fluorescence. But others drop to 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

20 r 

5 15 


? 10 


uj 5 

■- "A 




.1 I I I I I I I I I 1 1 

6,925 R 2 



6,925 R 2 

Hi i ■ i i ■ I 






Energy level transitions in a ruby laser as described in text (A); low- 
level pumping (B) and high-level pumping (C) showing how latter 
mode concentrates energy at one wavelength (Electronics) 

an intermediate or so-called metastable state ©. If left 
alone, the latter chromium ions would continue their drop 
to level ©, and the result would just be natural fluores- 
cence. But these ions dally for a short but measurable 
time in level ©, and this is what makes laser action 

While the chromium ions are trying to get back to level 
©, the flashtube keeps on irradiating more chromium ions. 


In fact, the two-step movement from state (T) to state @ 
and down to state (2) is much faster than the movement 
from state (2) to state (7). Thus there develops a chromium- 
ion traffic jam at energy level (2). 


As the pile-up of chromium ions in level (2) continues, 
another situation develops: soon there are more chromium 
ions in level (2) than in level (1). This is called population 
inversion, and is essential for laser action. 

When you have inversion of the chromium ion popula- 
tion, the laser resembles a spring that is wound up and 
cocked. It needs a key to release it. This is what is meant 
by stimulated emission of radiation: the stimulus is the 
key that releases the cocked spring. 

The key is a photon of light of exactly the wavelength 
to be emitted (6,943 A). Emission begins when a random 
chromium ion spontaneously falls from level (2) to level 
(1) emitting a photon at 6,943 A. The photon strikes 
neighboring metastable (level (2)) ions, causing them to 
emit additional photons, and these in turn trigger other 
metastable ions. 

As the photons travel along the rod, some emerge from 
the sides of the cylinder and are lost. Others hit the sil- 
vered ends of the cylinder and are reflected back into 
the rod. The reflections tend to favor those photons that 
are traveling parallel to the long axis of the cylinder. And 
so, there is now a stream of photons bouncing back and 
forth between the silvered ends of the cylinder. The pho- 

Two following pages: How a ruby laser works. Pumping light ir- 
radiates ruby rod (A) raising some atoms to their metastable state 
(B). One atom spontaneously emits coherent radiation (C) triggering 
other nearby atoms (D). Photons emitted parallel to sides bounce 
back and forth between mirrors triggering other atoms (E) until 
light pulse (F) bursts from slightly transparent end (Electronics) 


The Laser — What it is and Does 



V_J / /\ \ I / \ 

° I 








• o 







? 5 ■ 



• o 




•* — #-o ■* — *• # < — * o *— 
•* — »■ o •* — *• • < — *■ o *- 


— • — 

-► o *- 

— O — 


— > 
— ► 

« — » o « * *__* o «- 

-* • *- 

^ O — 


— *• 


400 800 




The Laser — What it is and Does 

tons become more numerous, and consequently the light 
beam grows more intense as the photons already in the 
stream trigger still more metastable chromium ions into 
emitting their radiation. 

Eventually the photon stream builds up sufficient in- 
tensity so that it bursts from the partially silvered end of 
the ruby as a single pulse of monochromatic ( single color 
or frequency), spatially coherent light. 


The light beams coming out of the partially silvered 
end of the ruby rod are almost exactly parallel, and it is 
this factor that makes it possible for a laser beam to reach 
the moon. Conventional light sources such as an in- 
candescent lamp are point sources: their light rays are 
emitted in a spherical pattern. Conventional rays can be 
made parallel by use of focusing mirrors and lenses, but 
such optical systems are far from efficient: the light beam 
diverges, and consequently loses its intensity at great dis- 
tances. But since the beams coming from a laser are 
parallel to begin with, they remain essentially parallel 
even at exceedingly great distances. 

Liquid and Plastic Lasers 

The ruby laser was the first laser, but today it is only 
one member of the class of optically pumped lasers. 
Furthermore, there are many varieties of ruby lasers. The 
original ruby lasers worked at room temperature. Later 
devices have been designed to work at cryogenic tempera- 
tures, or temperatures close to absolute zero ( — 273 de- 
grees centigrade). Cryogenic temperatures are usually 
achieved by immersing the laser in liquid nitrogen or 
liquid helium. Lasers cooled this way can put out a con- 
tinuous beam of coherent light instead of a series of flashes. 


Other optically pumped lasers include many different 
crystalline materials, most of which are doped: made im- 
pure by the infusion of small quantities of some other 
material— either a rare-earth element, such as europium 
or neodymium, or an actinide element— a class of heavy 
metals that includes uranium. Some optically pumped 
lasers have been made of doped glass ( glass to which im- 
purities have been added), of liquid or gas in a quartz 
cavity or of bundles of plastic fibers. 

Gaseous Lasers 

The gaseous laser represents a second general class of 
laser. The working medium is a mixture of helium and 
neon gas at very low pressure (o.i millimeter of mercurv 

Helium-neon gas laser (Raytheon) 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

of neon and 1.0 millimeter of mercury of helium). The gas 
is contained in a cylindrical Pyrex tube about one meter 
long and 17 millimeters in diameter. At each end of the 
tube is a quartz plate ground optically flat and with a 
13-layer dielectric (or electrically nonconductive ) coat- 
ing on its inner face: this coating produces the same effect 
as the lightly silvered end of the ruby rod. The spacing of 
the quartz-plate mirrors can be changed with precision 
for optimum internal reflection, thanks to an arrangement 
known as a Fabrtj-Perot interferometer. The laser beam is 
emitted from both ends of the apparatus. 


The gas laser is not optically pumped, nor is it pulsed 
at the rate of three or four times a second as is the ruby 
laser. Instead it operates in a continuous-wave mode, its 
excitation supplied by a radio-frequency field— though in 
some gas lasers, direct current has been used to produce 
the required discharge. In a typical gas laser the source 
is a 50-watt transmitter operating on a carrier frequency 
of 29 megacycles per second. This frequency was selected 
simply because it lies within a band provided by the Fed- 
eral Communications Commission for industrial, scientific, 
and medical use; another frequency would do equally well. 
The transmitter is coupled to the gas tube by three metal 

The radio-frequency generator produces an electrical 
discharge through the gas that raises the helium gas atoms 
to an excited state designated as the 2 3 S state. This is a 
metastable state that the helium atoms retain for a finite 
period of time. 

When the helium metastables collide with neon atoms 
in the ground state, the helium atoms transfer their energy 
to the neon atoms and drop immediately to the ground 







g '6 




2 3 S 

Ne + 



Energy levels in a helium-neon laser (Electronics) 

state. Simultaneously, the neon atoms are raised to the 
so-called 2S state because the energy level of the 2s state 
in neon is nearly equal to the energy level of the 2 3 S 
state in helium. 

There are three excited states in neon that are involved 
in this reaction: the 2S, 2p, and is states. We are primarily 
interested in the transition between the 2S (higher) and 
2p (lower) states. The 2s state is a metastable state. Ac- 
tually, there are four substates in the 2S band and ten 
substates in the 2p band. Theoretically there are 30 possi- 
ble transitions, or downward changes in energy level, that 
could occur, with each giving off radiation at its character- 
istic wavelength. Actually, only five of these transitions 
have as yet figured importantly in stimulated emissions; 
all correspond to wavelengths in the near-infrared region. 
The strongest of these emissions is one at 11,530 A. 

As in the case of the ruby laser, neon atoms tend to pile 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

up in the 2s state, and the threshold energy is the amount 
of input energy that makes the population of neon atoms 
in the 2S state equal to that in the 2p state. When some 
random neon atom spontaneously makes the transition 
from the 2s state to the 2p state, radiation at 11,530 A 
stimulates coherent emission. 

The photon at 11,530 A stimulates nearby metastable 
neon atoms, and they, too, go down the chute and emit 
their photons at the same wavelength. Photons emitted 
perpendicular to the Fabry-Perot mirrors bounce back 
and forth between the mirrors until they acquire sufficient 
intensity to break out. Photons emitted in other direc- 
tions are lost through the walls of the tube and do not 
participate in coherent emission. 

When in operation, a gas laser is bathed in an orange- 
red glow, but this light has nothing to do with its laser 
action. Most of the coherent output of the gas laser is in 
the infrared region and is invisible to the eye. The visible 
glow results from spontaneous transitions of excited neon 
atoms that do not enter into the stimulated emission of 
radiation. In fact, the glow is identical to that of any neon 

Injection Lasers 

The third basic type of laser is the injection laser. An 
injection laser consists of a semiconductor diode made of 
gallium arsenide or of gallium arsenide-phosphide. 

A diode is an electronic part that has the property of 
conducting current easily in one direction but almost not 
at all in the opposite or reverse direction. The injection 
laser is a forward-biased semiconductor diode. It conducts 
current in its easy direction. 

A semiconductor is a material that does not conduct 
electricity so well as something like copper does, but does 


so better than an insulator such as sulphur. The most com- 
mon semiconductors are the metals silicon and germanium, 
but some compounds can also be used, and, for the injec- 
tion laser, gallium arsenide has proved useful. Because 
gallium is a little better conductor than silicon, and arsenic 
a little poorer, when mixed together they give roughly 
the same effect as silicon. 

Now, to make a diode out of a block of semiconductor 
material, it is necessary to dope it. This is done by allow- 
ing the two impurities— tellurium and zinc— to diffuse into 
the block at high temperature. Because the tellurium atom 
has one more valence (combining) electron than does 
arsenic, when tellurium atoms replace some of the arsenic 
atoms in the gallium-arsenic block, there are a few free 
electrons left over. Since the electron has a negative 
charge, tellurium-doped gallium arsenide is called N-type, 
or negative, gallium arsenide. 

Because zinc, on the other hand, has one less valence 
electron than gallium, when some zinc atoms replace a 
few of the gallium atoms, there are several holes, or elec- 
tron deficiencies, left over. Therefore, zinc-doped gallium 
arsenide is called P-type, or positive, gallium arsenide. 

The boundary where the regions of N-type and P-type 
gallium arsenide meet is called the semiconductor junc- 
tion. If you connect the positive terminal of a battery or 
electronic power supply to the P-type region of a semi- 
conductor diode and connect the negative terminal to the 
N-type region, the diode will be biased in the forward 
direction, and current will flow easily across the semi- 
conductor junction. If the power supply is connected with 
its negative terminal going to the P-region and its positive 
terminal going to the N-region, the diode will be biased 
in its reverse direction, and little, if any, current will flow 
across the semiconductor junction. 


The Laser — What it is and Does 


Scientists are not yet sure just what energy transitions 
occur in the injection laser. But laser action seems to be 
most pronounced on the P-side of the junction. This might 
indicate that some energetic electrons making up the cur- 
rent flowing across the junction recombine with holes and 
give up energy in the recombination process. 

The injection laser emits coherent light by passing ex- 
tremely high current between the terminals of the semi- 
conductor diode, so that light is emitted along the line 
that defines the semiconductor junction. The light comes 
out incoherently at first, but as the intensity of the current 
is increased, the emission becomes coherent. Of course, all 

Semiconductor injection laser design as developed by IBM (Elec- 





n TYPE GaAs 


8.13 AMPS 50 


70 60 50 40 30 20 10 


this electrical current passing through the relatively small 
diode makes the diode heat up rapidly. Since such extreme 
heating could destroy the semiconductor junction, before 
the diode is operated it is usually immersed in a cryostat, 
or double bottle, the inner bottle filled with liquid helium 
and the outer one with liquid nitrogen. Furthermore, the 
current is usually pulsed rather than passed continuously. 

A typical injection laser is a rectangular parallelopiped 
(six-sided solid block whose opposite faces are parallel) 
about ten times as long as it is wide. Dimensions of a 
typical unit are 1/10 by 1/10 by lM millimeters. The sides 
are finely polished and tend to reflect light back into the 
laser so that the emission of coherent light comes out in 
parallel rays from the square sides of the block. Silvering 
is not required because the block itself is metallic, and 
when its sides are polished they will reflect the light rays 
generated within the block. 

Current is applied to opposite rectangular sides of the 
block. The current flow is perpendicular to the semicon- 
ductor junction, which is a narrow plane or region cutting 
the block along its long axis. 

The reflection of waves at the polished sides of the diode 
tends to favor the waves coming out of the square ends 
parallel to the junction. Furthermore, since the recom- 
bination process takes place all along the semiconductor 
junction plane, coherent-light waves traveling along the 
junction stimulate radiation from other hole-electron pairs, 
and the wave grows in intensity before it bursts from the 
square sides of the laser. 

A gallium-arsenide laser emits coherent light at 8,400 A 
in the near-infrared region. This light is invisible to the 
human eye. Gallium arsenide-phosphide lasers have emit- 
ted coherent light at 7,000 A, in the deep-red region. 
Furthermore, by varying the amount of phosphorus in the 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

laser, the color can be changed throughout the near- 
infrared and deep-red regions of the spectrum. Several 
other intermetallic compounds involving indium and anti- 
mony as well as gallium, arsenic, and phosphorus show 
promise of producing laser action. A silicon-carbide diode 
was reported to have emitted blue-violet light, but proof 
of this accomplishment is as yet inconclusive. 

The current passed through the particular laser we have 
described may vary from 10 to 25 amperes or more. At 
lower currents, the emission is incoherent and involves 
only a small part of the junction area. As current is in- 
creased, the area of incoherent sparkling or sporadic emis- 
sion of light spreads out along the junction, and coherent 
emission can be noticed near the center of the junction. 


Thus there are three main types of lasers: optically 
pumped lasers, which may be crystalline, glass, liquid, 
gaseous, or plastic; radio-frequency or direct-current- 
pumped gas lasers; and semiconductor diode lasers 
pumped by injection of high current. 


The gas laser emits coherent light, usually in the infra- 
red region. Gas lasers are used mostly in scientific investi- 
gations, such as spectroscopy, and for experiments in space 
and time, such as verification of some of the consequences 
of the theory of relativity. The gas laser is useful in these 
investigations because its output is the most nearly co- 
herent of all lasers and because continuous output is 
conveniently available from gas lasers even at room tem- 

Because gaseous lasers operate in the continuous wave 
mode rather than through pulsation, they have proved 


better than optically pumped lasers for many communi- 
cations experiments, such as the transmission of speech 
and music or television pictures. 

Furthermore, since gas lasers produce the most nearly 
coherent output of any laser— the only thing that can cause 
a helium-neon gas laser to deviate from its 11,530 A center 
frequency is mechanical vibration of the apparatus— they 
have been used for scientific studies, such as checking the 
experimental evidence of Einstein's theory of relativity 
and for constructing a precise gyroscope. 


Optically pumped lasers are used when high energy is 
required, such as for burning metal, performing delicate 
eye operations, precision welding or machining. The most 
used optically pumped laser is still the ruby laser. It is 
one of the few lasers that can give visible output. Nearly 
all gas lasers, and most types of optically pumped lasers, 
work in the infrared region. Most optically pumped lasers 
emit pulses at a relatively low repetition rate. Continuous 
output can be achieved only by putting the laser in a 
cryostat, or double bottle of liquid helium and nitrogen. 
Although the physical form of a ruby laser is simpler than 
that of a gas laser, its excitation system is somewhat more 
complex. The gas laser needs only a simple radio trans- 
mitter, while the ruby laser requires an electronic flashgun 
and either a special xenon flashtube or a carefully designed 
system of reflectors. 


The injection laser is physically simpler than either the 
ruby or gas laser. For excitation, it actually needs only a 
rudimentary direct-current power supply, but it is usually 
operated in a cryostat. Injection lasers can produce a 
whole range of coherent output frequencies within the red 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

and infrared regions of the spectrum. They deliver con- 
tinuous or nearly continuous output, and they, too, have 
been found useful in communications experiments in 
which speech, music, or even television pictures have been 
transmitted. Gallium-arsenide diodes operated at lower 
current and at room temperature are already being used 
in portable communications systems. Although the infra- 
red output of these devices is not coherent, they have 
permitted communications over a range of thirty miles. 

Universal Coherence 

Sciences have long dreamed of generating coherent 
emission at all frequencies of the electromagnetic spec- 
trum. Quantum devices have made important contribu- 
tions toward this end, but a great deal remains to be done. 
It has been suggested that variations of the word "maser" 
be coined for all the new devices, including the ones yet 
to come. There might be rasers ( radio-frequency ) , masers 
(microwave), irasers (infrared), lasers (Zight), uuasers 
( ultraviolet ) , xasers (X ray), and gasers (gamma-ray). 
One prominent scientist jocularly suggested the name 
"daser," standing for "darkness amplification by stimu- 
lated emission of radiation." 

All this points up the advantage of talking about quan- 
tum devices (and specifying whether they are oscillators, 
amplifiers, or harmonic generators) and designating the 
wavelength of interest rather than playing with acronyms. 
It does, nevertheless, seem to be a fact of life that the term 
"maser" will continue to be used both for amplifiers and 
for oscillators not only in the microwave region (roughly 
1,000 megacycles per second) but perhaps for devices 
operating at even lower frequencies, when and if such de- 
vices are developed. 

Likewise, it seems that the term "laser" will continue to 


be used to refer both to amplifiers and to oscillators that 
operate in the near-infrared, visible, and near-ultraviolet 
portions of the spectrum. Neither extension of laser action 
into the far-infrared ( near microwaves ) nor into the far- 
ultraviolet (near X rays) will result in a change in termi- 

But possibly, when we can successfully generate co- 
herent X rays and gamma rays, another term will be used, 
for already, as mentioned above, the word "gaser" is being 
bandied about. 


Masers are usually true amplifiers instead of the gen- 
erators that lasers are. This means that they receive a 
weak signal and pass it on at a higher power level. Masers 
operate between 300 megacycles per second ( 100 centi- 
meters or 1 meter wavelength) and 100,000 megacycles 
per second (3 millimeters). 

We might remark parenthetically that there is other 
millimeter-wave research going on that does not involve 
masers. One special microwave tube, the Tornadotron, 
has been reported to have an output of 500,000 mega- 
cycles per second, or a wavelength of 0.6 millimeter. 

A typical maser consists of a crystal containing chro- 
mium that is pumped by the output of a microwave tube 
operating at a frequency much higher than the one to be 
received. The microwave signal pumps the chromium ions 
to an elevated energy level that is metastable. 

Incoming signals at a certain lower microwave fre- 
quency stimulate the chromium ions to fall from their ele- 
vated energy level to an intermediate level before the 
ground state. In so doing, they emit radiation at the fre- 
quency of the incoming signal and thus amplify it. 

To avoid the introduction of noise or unwanted signals, 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

maser amplifiers are placed between the pole pieces of a 
powerful magnet, and are operated in a double bottle with 
liquid helium on the inside and liquid nitrogen on the 

About a dozen radio astronomical observatories 
throughout the world use maser amplifiers to pick up 
radio-frequency emissions from distant planets, stars, and 
nebulae. Several stations use maser amplifiers for tracking 
satellites and space probes. So do some of the stations that 
receive radio and television signals from orbiting com- 
munications satellites such as Telstar and Relay. It is 
possible that maser amplifiers are used in special military 
radar and communications applications, but if so, the 
Department of Defense isn't saying! 


Various kinds of lasers cover the near-infrared spectrum 
from nearly 13,000 A right up to visible light. This leaves 
a gap in the spectrum from 3 millimeters wavelength to 
0.013 millimeter. This gap includes the millimeter and 
submillimeter-wave regions of the radio spectrum and the 
far-infrared band that encompasses radiation from warm 
and lukewarm objects. 


Progress has not been so good in the visible region. 
Only a few lasers produce visible light, and most of that, 
as we have noted, is deep red. There is, of course, the ruby 
laser. Red light has been produced by several other meth- 
ods as well: by a laser consisting of a crystal of calcium 
fluoride with the rare-earth samarium dissolved in it; from 
europium chelate (rhymes with "tea late") embedded in 
a plastic tube (a chelate is a complex organic or hydro- 
carbon molecule containing a metal atom, in this case an 
atom of the rare-earth europium); with the gallium ar- 


senide-phosphide laser; and with some helium-neon gas 

There is a demand for lasers to produce other colors 
besides red. The Navy would like to have a blue-green 
laser because blue-green light is best for penetrating sea- 
water and because a blue-green laser could be used as 
part of an underwater television system to help navigators 
of nuclear submarines detect the presence of friendly or 
hostile submarines or other underwater objects. 

So far, the only progress in that direction has been the 
development of "blue-violet lasers," produced by doubling 
the output frequency of a deep-red laser. (Doubling the 
output frequency is the same thing as dividing the wave- 
length by two.) Likewise, there are "green lasers," 
achieved by doubling the output frequency of lasers op- 
erating in the near-infrared region. 

But when you double the output frequency of a laser, 
you lose 8/10 or more of its energy, and what's left will 
hardly perform the job the Navy has in mind. Therefore 
the search for different colored lasers continues, with 
scientists now studying not only rare-earth and actinide 
metals but even various organic compounds. They feel 
that, given the right conditions, any substance that will 
fluoresce can be made to lase. This leaves them with thou- 
sands of compounds to investigate. 


So far the story of the ultraviolet laser is short and 
sweet. One optically pumped laser, using a glass rod in 
which a small quantity of the rare-earth gadolinium has 
been dissolved, lases at 3,125 A in the near ultraviolet. 


Nothing has been announced officially about X-ray 
lasers, but certain work is going on with gamma-ray lasers 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

under Navy auspices, though the work has not progressed 
very far as yet. The Russians have also announced work 
in this field. 

The approach is to use a gamma-ray-emitting isotope 
of ruthenium to raise a radioactive isotope of rhodium to 
a higher energy state that is metastable. After a half-life 
of some 40 days, the level of energy emitted by the 
ruthenium will drop to that of the metastable state of the 
rhodium isotope, and trigger emission at roughly 0.3 A. 

There are many problems in the way, however. First, 
one has to find a way to make a crystal containing the 
appropriate isotopes without changing their essential 
characteristics. Next comes the problem of containing the 
gamma rays (they will penetrate just about anything) so 
as to achieve spatial coherence. If achieved, a gamma-ray 
laser would be a death ray in every sense of the word. 
Gamma rays have several times the burning power of 
X rays, which are, of course, harmful when improperly 

The Future of the Laser 

As we have seen, the laser has the advantage of provid- 
ing a monochromatic or single-color light source. Further- 
more, its beam is so collimated that all its energy can be 
focused on a very small spot. It is also highly directive, 
with little or no tendency for the beam to bend or spread 
out even over the astronomical distances of outer space. 
These properties have suggested a great many uses in na- 
tional defense, industry, medicine, and science. 

Lasers may be developed into devastating antiperson- 
nel weapons for use on the battlefield. They may be sent 
into space on special platforms to fight intercontinental 
ballistic missiles or to destroy hostile space stations or 
satellites. The laser may also be used to modify chemical 


compounds or even to change the genetic characteristics 
of the protein molecules of living organisms. 

Someday special fiber-optic light pipes or other optical 
wave guides, such as evacuated tubes with an internal 
mirror system, may carry laser signals much as coaxial 
cables now carry telephone conversations and network 
television programs between cities. A fiber-optic light pipe 
is a very fine glass, plastic, or arsenic-trisulfide rod pol- 
ished on the outside; its walls reflect light back inside so 
that it can bend around corners and still carry a light 

One way to put a TV signal on a laser beam is first to 
impress the complete TV picture and sound (the video 
signal) on a microwave carrier. The microwave carrier is 
then used to excite a special crystal situated in a micro- 
wave cavity or special metal box. When the laser beam 
traverses the crystal, entering and leaving the cavity 
through small side windows, the beam is modulated or 
made to vary in accordance with the modulated micro- 
wave signal. At the receiver, the beam of a microwave 
traveling-wave amplifier phototube is similarly made to 
vary in accordance with the variations of the laser light 
striking the traveling wave tube's photocathode. We now 
have again the microwave carrier with the video signal 
riding on it. This signal is demodulated, using conven- 
tional electronic circuits to give the original TV picture 
and sound. 

A wideband video channel can be divided into many 
subchannels, actually some 600, each of which can carry 
a telephone conversation. Electronic circuits called filters 
slice up the video channel into so-called voice channels. 
Each voice channel is about o to 2,000 cycles per second 
wide. Each incoming telephone signal is heterodyned, or 
moved up, in frequency to fit a specific voice channel at 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

the transmitting end, then moved down in frequency and 
routed out on its proper telephone line at the receiving 

A laser communications system would greatly expand 
the capabilities of our nationwide telecommunications 
network. Tiny lasers may also function as parts of the 
memory system of a computer. Such a computer would 
literally work with the speed of light. 

Who knows? You may even one day have a laser igni- 
tion system in your automobile! 


One of the first uses that occurs to most people is to 
build a big, superpower laser and use it to shoot down 
ballistic missile nose cones. This would, they reason, make 
our nation secure from the terrors of thermonuclear war. 

But it isn't as easy as all that. Even the most powerful 
lasers can at present penetrate only /8-inch of high-carbon 
( easily burnable ) steel. And the holes they make are mere 
pinpricks. Furthermore, burning requires that the laser be 
only a distance of a few feet from the steel. At longer 
ranges, the water vapor and dust in the atmosphere se- 
verely reduce the effective power of the light ray. 

Nevertheless, the Air Force is hard at work trying to 
develop big lasers and figuring out how to deploy them 
effectively outside the earth's atmosphere: atop mountain 
peaks, aboard orbiting satellites, or even on antimissile 

Meanwhile, the military and space agencies have other, 
more prosaic, but none the less vital uses for the laser. 
When the Apollo lunar capsule carries the first Americans 
to the vicinity of the moon, the two-man crew aboard the 
Lunar Excursion Module that will make the actual land- 
ing on the moon will probably use a laser altimeter to feel 


their way onto the lunar surface. Before that, astronauts 
in Project Gemini will use laser radar to practice rendez- 
vous and docking of satellites in space. Already a large 
laser at Wallops Island, Virginia, has tracked an orbiting 
satellite 1,000 miles up. Incidentally, at that range the 
laser beam was only 200 feet in diameter. 

The Army has ordered several laser range finders for 
use on the battlefield. They will be able to measure the 
distance to targets far more accurately than their optical 
or radar counterparts. 

During World War II the Army made effective use of 
sniperscopes and snooperscopes, infrared devices that lo- 
cated targets even at night. But for such devices to be 
effective, the target had to be a good deal warmer than 
the background. Now, with an infrared laser, it would be 
possible to scan the target and get a picture regardless of 
its temperature. 

During World War II the Navy used infrared "Nancy" 
equipment (usually Nerst tubes or hot filaments enclosed 
by a black metal hood and placed behind a deep ruby 
lens) for short-range communications between ships. But 
the laser affords a much more efficient and less easily de- 
tectable source of infrared. 

The Armed Forces have a project under way to see just 
how fast a computer can operate. Some people think that 
the result will be a new high-speed giant brain for our 
ballistic missile early-warning system. But a better guess 
is that such a computer will be used to crack secret enemv 
codes and ciphers. Anyway, one part of this project is a 
laser computer, sponsored by the Air Force, in which light 
pulses would do the counting instead of electrical signals. 
Such a computer would be faster by several orders of 
magnitude than any computer now available, since light 
travels faster than electrical current, which is slowed 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

down by the action of reactive elements, such as capacitors 
and inductors in the circuit. 


Industry is already using lasers to perform delicate 
machining and welding operations in the manufacture of 
microelectronic circuits. 

A microelectronic circuit is fabricated on a thin wafer 
of silicon. Sometimes forty circuits are made at one time 
on a wafer only an inch in diameter. Each circuit can do 
the work of, say, a five-tube radio or perhaps a computer 

The circuits are made by allowing certain selected im- 
purities to diffuse into the silicon wafer in prescribed pat- 
terns. These patterns are formed by first allowing a film 
of silicon dioxide ( glass ) to grow over the silicon wafer— 
usually by applying steam to the surface— then selectively 
etching away portions of the film. 

Selective removal of the oxide is accomplished by first 
coating the oxide with so-called photoresist— a film that 
becomes tough and acid-resistant when exposed to light- 
then masking the wafer with a diffusion mask and expos- 
ing the unprotected photoresist to light. The wafer is next 
etched with strong acid, and its silicon-dioxide coat is 
eaten away except where it is protected by light-hardened 

Preparation of the diffusion mask is a critical operation, 
and laser machining of metallic foil is expected to allow 
making sharper and more precise pattern outlines. Possibly 
lasers may be used to remove the oxide itself, thus saving 
several steps in the process of manufacturing micro- 

Laser light sources could be valuable in high-speed 
photography where chromatic aberration or the unequal 


bending of light of different wavelengths through the 
camera lens can cause a blurred image. 

Since different components of the atmosphere absorb 
different wavelengths of light to a greater or lesser extent, 
a bank of lasers used at an airport as a transmissometer 
could disclose not only the visibility at the end of the 
runway— as the optical devices already in use do— but also 
the makeup of the atmosphere at any particular time. Such 
a laser device could also be useful in air-pollution studies. 
( Transmissometers are used even though the end of the 
runway may indeed be visible from the control tower; the 
view from the tower is not what an approaching pilot sees; 
besides, the instrument, unlike a human observer, remains 
on duty around the clock. ) 

In a chemical process, a laser might be created so that 
its beam is absorbed to a great extent by the desired prod- 
uct. The laser could be focused permanently through the 
output pipe, and automatic control equipment could be 
adjusted so that the product absorbs maximum light from 
the beam. This would assure that the product in the output 
pipe has precisely the desired chemical composition. 

The ability of a laser beam to carry an almost infinite 
amount of information has set communications engineers 
to speculating about its possible use for trunkline or inter- 
city communications. Today, these are handled by coaxial 
cables or microwave links. One microwave link can earn 1 
four television programs simultaneously or replace any 
one of the television channels with up to 600 telephone 
conversations. But a laser beam could carry many times 
this amount of information. 

Nevertheless, since dust and water vapor in the atmos- 
phere severely reduce the effective power of a laser beam, 
a serious problem still remains before lasers can be used 
for practical communications. Of course, short-distance 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

communications would indeed be possible, as would com- 
munications to and from communications satellites. In the 
latter case, the beam travels in the earth's atmosphere for 
only a relatively short distance, although the total trip 
might be 1,000 miles or even more. 

One answer to abetting laser communications would be 
to use light pipes or evacuated tubes with mirrors arranged 
to conduct the beam around corners where necessary. 

A laser telephone exchange has been contemplated. 
Here the light pulses would be conducted by fiber optic 
strands. These strands carry light around comers just as 
copper wires carry electrical current. Though a fiber-optic 
strand severely cuts down the power of the light being 
transmitted, in a telephone exchange the length of the 
interconnecting strands can be kept short by design. The 
big advantage of a laser telephone exchange would be 
that there would be no crossed wires or unwanted pickup 
between adjacent optical fibers so that you would not 
occasionally hear fragments of another conversation on 
your line. 


Lasers have been regarded as a major boon to medi- 
cine. Thousands of Americans suffer each year from a de- 
tached retina. In this condition the retina, the light or 
sensitive area at the rear of the eye, comes loose from the 
inner surface or choroid coating of the eyeball. The fluid, 
or humor, with which the eye is filled works in behind 
the retina and aggravates the condition. Initially, the con- 
dition causes distorted vision, but if the retina becomes 
completely loose from the optic nerve, blindness results. 
A laser beam can be focused through the lens of the eye 
so that it makes small scars around the periphery of the 
retina and thus welds it back into place. 


A laser can also burn out small tumors in the eye. In 
fact, a laser beam can be made as narrow in diameter as 
the diameter of a single human cell. Some surgeons see 
the laser, therefore, as a device that can burn out tumors 
with minimum risk of damage to surrounding healthy tis- 
sue. Lasers have also been considered for suturing wounds 
through heat. The laser would cauterize the wound as it 
sutured it. It could also be used to disinfect small areas 
quickly. Dentists have experimented recently with laser 
drills; they are fast, sure, and painless. 

It is conceivable that laser beams can be made even 
narrower in diameter than a single protein molecule. Such 
a laser beam might be used to alter the genetic properties 
of living organisms. 

A team of medical scientists has reported that irradia- 
tion by a laser beam has altered the electrical conductiv- 
ity of whole human blood. Just what this means or how 
it occurs has not yet been made apparent. 


Perhaps some of the most far-reaching effects of the 
laser will be in the fields of pure and applied science. The 
laser may profoundly affect man's understanding of his 
natural environment. 

Our most basic quantities of measurement are length, 
mass, and time. Two of these, length and time, are related 
by a constant, the velocity of light in a vacuum, and yet 
the value of this constant is only imperfectly known. 

Our national standard of frequency is calibrated from 
the same astronomical observations that give us our meas- 
ure of time, since the frequency of cycles per second that 
a wave executes is intimately related to time. 

When dealing with radiation in the visible region, scien- 
tists measure wavelength instead of frequency. But if the 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

standard radio frequencies could be doubled, redoubled, 
and then redoubled again as many times as necessary to 
reach the visible-light region, then length and time would 
be one and the same thing irrespective of our uncertainty 
as to the exact speed of light in a vacuum. 

Another basic scientific problem is the question of 
whether ether exists or not. You recall that we explained 
electromagnetic waves by comparing them to waves in a 
pond. Many scientists have found it equally hard to con- 
ceive of waves without postulating some substance or 
medium in which the waves could move or propagate. 

Accordingly, they postulated ether— a colorless, odorless 
substance filling all space— in which electromagnetic 
waves could propagate just as waves propagate in a pond. 
For years now, scientists have been trying to relegate ether 
to the same never-never land as phlogiston and other 
weird substances once postulated by alchemists to explain 
physical phenomena they could not understand. 

The first experiment to disprove the existence of ether 
was the Michaelson-Morley experiment: If the earth is 
rotating in a stationary sea of ether, the ether will drift 
by the earth in a direction counter to the earth's rotation. 
Now, suppose two light beams are transmitted at right 
angles to each other in such a way that the ether drift will 
add to the speed of one beam while the other beam will 
travel perpendicular to the ether drift and therefore be 
unaffected by it. Then any difference in velocity caused by 
ether drift could be detected by measuring the difference 
in frequency of the two beams. To make the measurement 
more precise, the apparatus emitting the light beam is 
next turned around so that the ether drift will oppose the 
speed of the beam instead of adding to it; the frequency 
difference (if any) can again be measured. If the sum 
of the two frequency differences were significant, an ether 


drift could be said to exist. This experiment has been car- 
ried out with the use of gas lasers, but no significant 
frequency difference has been noticed that could substan- 
tiate the existence of an ether. 

In the realm of applied science, the laser shows greatest 
promise in spectroscopy. We have referred at many times 
to absorption of infrared, light, and ultraviolet frequencies 
by certain substances. The exact frequencies absorbed de- 
pend upon the chemical composition of the substance and 
the structure of its molecules. The totality of frequencies 
absorbed or the absorption spectrum of a substance is as 
individual as your fingerprints. Therefore spectroscopy is 
a basic tool for physicists and chemists studying the prop- 
erties of matter. But better discrimination in spectroscopy 
is needed, and to get it, scientists must know the exact 
frequencies with which a substance is irradiated. As the 
number of laser materials increases, and consequently the 
number of available coherent light frequencies increases, 
spectroscopists can look forward to more efficient tools 
that will enable them to gain greater and greater insight 
into the basic makeup of matter. 


In this chapter we have explained the continuum of 
the electromagnetic spectrum in terms of both frequency 
and wavelength. We have come to grips with some of the 
basic concepts of quantum mechanics and have seen how 
they explain the action of the three basic types of lasers: 
optically pumped, gaseous electrically pumped, and injec- 
tion. We have discussed the phenomenon of fluorescence 
and have seen how laser action is related to fluorescence 
but differs from it because of ( a ) its frequency coherence 
or monochromaticity and ( b ) its spatial coherence, or the 
fact that all wavelets keep in step. 


The Laser — What it is and Does 

(Incidentally, this last gem of knowledge now makes 
you smarter than a certain covey of investors with more 
spare cash than technical knowledge. They lost several 
kilobucks supporting a glib physicist with a lab full of 
bottles of fluorescent material that he passed off as lasers 
completely covering the visible spectrum! Of course, they 
weren't lasers at all. ) 

Finally, we have looked at the whole electromagnetic 
spectrum in terms of how coherent radiation is or might 
be produced by quantum devices, and have placed a 
special emphasis on a possible gamma-ray laser. And we 
have seen the impact of lasers on national defense, indus- 
try, medicine, and science. 

Now we shall look backward and see how the laser 
actually came into being. 


One basic law rules the operation of all devices that use 
electric currents. A fine introduction to the study of electricity. 

8 A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 

Albert V. Baez 

A chapter from the textbook The New College Physics, a Spiral Approach. 

WE BEGIN this chapter by considering the 
operational steps we might take, in an elementary 
laboratory, in order to learn more about electric 
current. We shall then try to build up a theory 
that accounts for our observations. 

40.1. A Simple Series Circuit: Measurement 
of Potential Difference 

Figure 40.1 shows what our apparatus looks 
like: A, a six-volt storage battery; B, a lamp in a 
socket; C, a knife switch; D, a voltmeter; £, an 
ammeter; F, some connecting wires. From now on 

we shall, as much as possible, use the shorthand 
of conventional diagrams, as in Figure 40.2, which 
shows battery A, lamp B (the zigzag line is actu- 
ally the symbol for an element with resistance), 
and switch C connected in series. When the switch 
is closed, the lamp lights up. We say that there 
is an electric current or that there is a flow of 
electric charge, but we don't, of course, see any- 
thing flowing. The fact that the bulb lights up 
when the switch is closed is the only outward 
sign that anything flows. 

It is not uncommon to begin such an experiment 
with little or no knowledge of what is inside the 
magic boxes A, B, D, and E (Fig. 40.1). All we 

r --— ~ 


ft o & 





40.1. Apparatus needed for a simple experiment with electric circuits: A, ^^f^f'j^^uS 

C, a knife switch; D, a voltmeter; E, an ammeter; F, typical connecting wires, two oj the clips on winch 

are called alligator clips. 


fig. 40.2. Schematic diagram of a series circuit includ- 
ing a battery, A, connected to a lamp, B (shown here 
as a resistor), through a switch, C. 

know is that D measures potential difference and 
that E measures current. In this chapter we shall 
look inside B, D, and E. The battery, A, however, 
will have to remain just an electron pump; I 
shall leave its inner details out of the discussion 
because they involve the complicated molecular 
mechanism by which chemical energy is converted 
into electrical energy. 

We want to understand why the voltmeter read- 
ings of Figure 40.3 are what they are at different 
places. We are going to limit ourselves in this 
chapter to an understanding of the simple circuit 
of Figure 40.2. We shall move more slowly than 
is customary in a chapter on electric circuits, and 
only when we peek inside the voltmeter and the 
ammeter shall we see slightly more complicated 
circuits in series and in parallel. Our immediate 
objective is limited ; but, if you understand all the 
details of this discussion, you will have a firm 
grasp of fundamentals. 

We first notice, as we consider the reading of 
the voltmeter in different parts of Figure 40.3, 
that we do not need to disturb the circuit when we 
take a voltmeter reading. We simply connect the 
voltmeter to two points of the circuit. 

Next we observe and record the data, and then 
we try to explain them by theory. When the volt- 
meter (Fig. 40.3) is connected across the bat- 
tery (A), it reads 6 volts if the switch is open; 
with the switch closed (B) it reads 5.45 volts. 
Connected across the lamp, it reads if the switch 
is open (C) and 5.45 volts if the switch is closed 
(D). Connected across one of the connecting wires, 
it reads whether the switch is open (E) or 
closed (F). 

If the voltmeter is telling the truth, the potential 


difference across the terminals of the battery is 
6 volts when there is no current in the circuit (A). 
The potential difference across the battery drops 
when there is current (B). There is no potential 
difference across the terminals of the lamp (C) 
until the switch is closed (D), and there is never 
a measurable potential difference across one of 
the connecting wires. Our theory of what is going 
on must account for all these readings (and a lot 

Let's begin our description of what we think 
is going on. We have already encountered a mo- i 
mentary flow of charge in electrostatic experi- 
ments, but something different is obviously hap- 
pening here, for this current can flow for a long 
time. Something replenishes the charge; something ' 
maintains a potential difference that produces a 
steady flow of charge. This something, in our 
experiment, is the battery. The terminals of the 
battery are charged in the very sense in which we 
used the word in electrostatics. If our battery has 
only two terminals, an electric field surrounds 

6 V (almost) 

5.45 V 

Zero volts 


fig. 40.3. Readings on a voltmeter as it is connected to 
different parts of a series circuit that is sometimes 
open and sometimes closed. 

A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 

fig. 40.4. (A) The electric field lines in air surrounding the terminals of a battery. (B) The electric field lines 
within a wire connecting the two terminals of a battery through a lamp. 

them as if they constituted an electric dipole. 
Figure 40.4.A shows the electric field between the 
two battery terminals. It looks very much like the 
electric field between two charged metal balls on 
insulating stands; but there is a difference in 
what happens to these fields if the terminals are 
connected with a wire. A wire connecting one 
charged ball to the other would carry current 
only for an instant, for the potential difference 
between them would soon be zero, and the field 
would vanish. If the terminals of the battery are 
connected, a large current can exist in the wire 
for a much longer time, and the field between the 
terminals will still be like that of Figure 40.4.A 
after the wire is removed. In Figure 40.4. B we 
see the electric field lines (E) that come into exist- 
ence within the wire that runs from one terminal 
through the lamp to the other terminal. I said 
earlier that there can be no electric field within a 
conductor, but that is true only in the electro- 
static case. Charges move in the wire of Figure 
40.4.B because there is an electric field within it. 

Since the lamp gets hot, it is obvious that energy 
is involved. It looks very much as if something 
were playing the role that friction plays in me- 
chanics. Something is playing that role; it is 
called resistance (defined in § 40.3), and we shall 
soon consider it in some detail. 

Let us now recall the definition of electric field, 
E, as F/q, the force per unit charge (§ 4.4). An 

electron finding itself in electric field E experi- 
ences the force F = — eE. It should experience 
the acceleration a = F/m, and it does, but it 
cannot pick up much speed, for it collides with 
other electrons. The average behavior of many 
electrons, starting and stopping, is, nevertheless, 
a general drift in the direction of — eE. Statis- 
tically, the free electrons drift at an average speed 
determined by the magnitude of the force — eE. 

The idea of motion at a constant speed under 
the action of balanced forces can be perfectly il- 
lustrated by the falling of small spheres (such as 
marbles) through a tall glass beaker containing 
glycerin (Fig. 40.5.A); balls of the right weight 
and dimensions achieve a terminal velocity. The 
force of gravity, mg, pulls them downward, but a 
viscous frictional force, f, pushes them upward. 
When wg = f, the acceleration is zero (see § 5.2). 

A positive charge, q, in electric field E feels the 
force qE (Fig. 40.5. B). If it also feels an equal 
retarding force, f, it can move at a constant 
speed. What happens in a wire is somewhat like 
this. For two reasons, however, you must not 
take any such picture literally. First, no electron 
travels for long without hitting another, and the 
concept of drift velocity is therefore purely statis- 
tical. (It takes a lot of kinetic energy to carry an 
electron into contact with another, even when the 
other is anchored to an atom. What I have called 
hitting just means being decelerated by a force 


fig. 40.5. (A) The gravitational field lines running 
through a tall glass beaker containing glycerin; little 
spheres fall through it at a constant speed. (B) The 
electric field lines in a wire; electric charges move 
with a constant average speed within the wire. 

field. Here it would pay you to re-read § 3.7, 
dealing with the concept of contact.) Second, 
electrons have a negative charge and move op- 
posite to E, but this does not damage the model 
of Figure 40.5. 

Traditionally, the direction of current in a wire 
has been taken as from the positive to the negative 
pole (in the part of the circuit outside the battery). 
In this book, since it is now known that in a wire 
the electrons do the moving, I have broken with 
tradition by assigning to / the direction of elec- 
tron flow. But I shall use the symbol /(= -/) for 
the conventional direction (from positive to nega- 
tive) whenever it can simplify the wording of 
statements. All the left-hand rules I gave in the 
study of magnetism relate to /. If we associate 
the right hand with /, similar rules apply. In 
other words, / is the direction in which positive 
charges would move in a wire. Since positive 
charges tend to move from a region of high elec- 
tric potential to one of low potential, it is con- 

venient to use the traditional symbol for current, j 
/, in these cases. (We simply need to remember 
that the electrons in metallic conductors move in 
the opposite direction; in liquids, however, posi- 
tive as well as negative charged bodies move.) 
Whenever we use the symbol q without any further 
specification, it will represent a positive charge. 
The electronic charge will, of course, be written as 
— e. 

There are two ways of expressing the reason 
why a ball moves downward through the beaker 
of glycerin. One is to say that it moves down 
because wg points downward; the other is to say 
that it has a tendency to move from a region of 
high potential to one of low potential. The same 
language applies to positive charges in an electric 
field: they move from A to B in Figure 40. 5. B 
because qE points that way, or (since an applied 
force would do work in moving a positive charge 
from B to A) they move from a region of high 
potential to one of low potential. 

Potential difference, V, is measured in volts, 
which we identified earlier (§ 37.2) with joules per 
coulomb. The work that will move charge Iq 
through distance x from B to A is (by the formula 
"work equals force times distance") MJ = (Aq)Ex. 
The work per unit charge is AU Aq = Ex. The left- 
hand side has the units joules per coulomb, or i 
volts. The right-hand side has newtons per cou- 
lomb times meters for units. This equivalence is 
worth remembering. We may write 


V = Ex 
E = V/x 



Now we are getting somewhere. The quantities 
on the right-hand side of the second equation 
are measurable, V with a voltmeter (we'd better 
find out how it works), x with a meter stick. 

If we connected a voltmeter across points A 
and B of Figure 40.5. B, would it show a reading? 
I said earlier (Fig. 40.3. F) that there is no de- 
tectable reading across a wire carrying current. 
You will have to take my word for it that a cer- 
tain very sensitive kind of voltmeter would indi- 
cate a small potential difference between points 
A and B if there were a current in the wire. 


A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 

EXAMPLE 40.1. A sensitive voltmeter indicates a 
potential difference of 10 -6 V between points A and 
B of Fig. 40.5. B. The distance between the points 
is x = 2 m. We wish to know (1) what force, in 
newtons, an electron feels within the wire; (2) what 
acceleration it experiences; (3) what the increment 
in its speed is if it travels for 10 -7 sec. 
1. The force on a charge, q, is F = Eq. Since, by 
equation 40.2, E = V/x, we know that F = Vq/x. 
We are given that 

V = 10~ 6 V 

q = -e = -1.60Xl0- 19 coul 
x = 2m 
Therefore, if we drop the minus sign, 
10~ 6 X 1.60X10" 19 

F = 


= 8Xl0- 26 nt 
2. The acceleration is a = F/m. We know that 
F = 8xl0" 26 nt 
m = 9.11Xl0- 31 kg 


8Xl0~ 26 n t 
" 9.11XlO" 31 kg 

= 8.78xl0 4 m/sec 2 

3. We know that 

Av/At = a 

Av = a(At) 

- 8.78 XlO 4 m/sec 2 X lO" 7 sec 
= 8.78X10- 3 m/sec 

There are experimental reasons for believing that 
this is of the right order of magnitude for the aver- 
age speed of electrons in a wire. 

40.2. Electromotive Force 

We can extend the analogy of balls falling 
through glycerin to a simple electric circuit. 

In Figure 40. 6. A we see balls rolling and falling 
under the action of the earth's gravitational field, 
g. If the balls are to keep moving at a constant 
rate, work has to be done against gravitational 
force as each ball is lifted from D to A. The energy 
is supplied by the man, who acquires it by the 
complicated chemical process that transforms food 
energy into mechanical energy. Notice that there 
is a small difference in gravitational potential, 
g(Ahi), between points A and B, a large differ- 




I Ah, 

— < 


fig. 40.6. Analogy between the effect of the earth's gravitational field and that of an electric field. 


■*"" — 5"*" 


2. 73 amp 

2. 73 amp 

FIG. 40.7. How an ammeter will read when connected 
in different parts of a circuit. 

ence, g(Ah 2 ), between points B and C, and a small 
difference again, g(Ah 3 ), between points C and D. 
In this arrangement a "potential-difference meter" 
(analogous to a voltmeter) could consist of an 
ordinary meter stick. 

The frictional force on each ball as it falls in 
the glycerin from B to C is equal to its weight. 
This makes the resultant force zero, which is 
what is required for descent at a constant speed. 
The frictional force on each ball in AB and CD 
is much smaller than its weight. This is suggested 
by the small slope of the inclined planes in these 
regions. The man has to do work mgh (/; = 
A/?i + A/z 2 + A/7 3 ) on each ball to move it from 
D back to A so that it can start the cycle again. 

In Figure 40.6. B we have the electrical counter- 
part of Figure 40.6. A, a complete electric circuit, 
ABCD. Electric charges are moving under the 
influence of the electric field, E. The potential 
difference between points A and B is very small 
because the charges encounter only a slight re- 
sistance to their motion in this region. The poten- 
tial difference between points B and C is great 
because the resistance there is great; the letter R 
signifies, in fact, that this portion of the circuit, 
like the lamp in Figure 40.2, is a resistor (a con- 
ductor with relatively large resistance). There is 
only a small potential difference between C and D. 
The charges have a low potential at D, and it 
takes energy, which is supplied by the battery, 
to lift them to a high potential at A. The battery 
transforms chemical into electrical energy by a 
complicated process, which I shall not analyze 

any more than I analyzed the internal workings 
of the man of Figure 40. 6. A. 

The ability of the battery to raise positive 
charges from a low potential at D to a high po- 
tential at A is measured by the number of joules 
per coulomb, AW/Aq, it needs in order to do this. 
(It is actually electrons, with negative charges, 
that are moving — and the other way round; but 
this poses only semantic problems. We could talk 
the whole thing out by using different words, but 
we are here adhering to the classical idea that 
current consists of positive charges whose poten- 
tial is raised in going from D to A.) The ratic 
AW/Aq is called the electromotive force (abbrevi- 
ated as emf) of the battery and is symbolizec 
as 8. It is the work per unit charge done by the 
battery in moving positive charges against the 
electric field within the battery. It is not, ot 
course, a force in the Newtonian sense; it i< 
measured in joules per coulomb, or volts, not ir 
newtons; but the word "force" has become firmh 
established in the vocabulary of electricity. Since 
AW/Aq is measured in volts, you might ask wh\ 
we do not simply say that 8 is the difference ir 
potential between points D and A. The answei 
is that the battery itself may have internal re 
sistance, and that the potential difference betweer 
points D and A may therefore be somewhat les: 
than 8, depending on how much internal re 
sistance there is. Ideally, with no internal resist 
ance, 8, measured in volts, would be equal t( 
the difference in potential between points D and A 
Let us return, for illustration, to Figure 40.3 
The voltmeter showed (B) a potential different 
of 5.45 volts between D and A when there wa. 
electric current in the circuit. This was not, how 
ever, the emf of the battery. The potential differ 
ence across the terminals of a battery is neve 
exactly equal to its emf when there is curren 
through the battery. When the switch is open (A) 
the potential difference is almost 6 volts. We hav 
to hedge here because some charges flow evei 
when the voltmeter alone is connected across th 
battery; the potential difference is not quite equa 
to the emf unless the resistance of the voltmete 
is infinite — that is, unless the voltmeter draw> n 
current. A good voltmeter, obviously, has a ver 
high resistance. 


A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 

I have been using the term "resistance" in a 
qualitative way. In order to define it precisely, I 
have to measure current. Notice that the argu- 
ment so far has not depended upon current. I 
have talked only of potential difference ("volt- 
age" in the vernacular of the electrician). But 
perhaps our rolling-ball analogy (Fig. 40.6) has 
shown why the reading of the voltmeter in Fig- 
ure 40.3. F was zero. (It corresponded to a van- 
ishingly small Ahi.) The potential rise (8 = ArV/Aq) 
within the battery — that is, the emf — must equal 
the sum of the potential drops (AV) in the complete 
circuit or loop. We let V AB mean "the potential 
difference between points A and 5." Since V AD 
and V C d (Fig. 40.6. B) are both practically zero, 
the voltmeter readings of Figure 40.3.B,D are 
practically identical. We now imagine (Fig. 40.6) 
connecting one terminal of the voltmeter to point 
A. We then touch points B, C, and D with a wire 
connected to the other terminal of the voltmeter. 
We read that V AB = 0, that V AC = 5.45 volts, 
and that V AD = 5.45 volts. The reason for this is 

V AD = V AB + V BC + V CD 

= + 5.45 V + = 5.45 V 

Before we can proceed, we need to define resist- 
ance in terms of potential difference and current. 

40.3. Ohm's Law 

We shall now use the ammeter in the circuit of 
Figure 40.3. To use an ammeter, you must break 
into the circuit at some point and allow the current 
to pass through the ammeter.^ Figure 40.7 shows 
that the ammeter reads 2.73 amperes in each of 
four different positions. This simply means that 
charges are conserved. The number of charges 
flowing per second past any point in the circuit 
must be the same as the number flowing per sec- 
ond past any other point; otherwise charges would 
be either accumulating or leaking away. If, for 

t Two interesting exceptions to this statement are: (1) a 
special alternating-current ammeter that just clamps its 
coil round the current-carrying wire; (2) a special direct- 
current meter, used by automobile electricians, that works 
essentially like Oersted's experiment; it is simply clipped 
onto the battery-charging line. 

fig. 40.8. The sum of inward currents at a junction is 
equal to the sum of outward currents. 

fig. 40.9. One way to connect an ammeter and a volt- 
meter to measure the resistance of a resistor. 

example (Fig. 40.8), we have a junction, O, where 
the currents are T, /->, h, and / 4 , it must be true 
that 2/ = 0— that is, that h + 7 2 + h + h = 0— 
if we consider "coming into O" as positive and 
"leaving 0" as negative. 

So far Figure 40.7 simply confirms the fact that 
the current in a single loop is the same every- 
where, including the battery. Outside the battery, 
positive charges tend to flow from regions of high 
to regions of low potential; inside the battery, 
the energy supplied by the battery makes it pos- 
sible for positive charges to flow against the 
electric field that is naturally there (compare DA 
in the rolling-ball analogy, Figure 40.6. A). 

We now need an experimental fact about metal- 
lic conductors. If such a conductor (labeled BC) 
is connected as in Figure 40.9, the ammeter will 
show the current in it, and the voltmeter will 
show the voltage across it. If different currents, I, 
are made to flow through it, different voltages, 
V, will appear across it. A plot of V agaiust / is 
a straight line going through the origin (Fig. 
40.10); that is, the ratio of V to I is constant. 
(This is not true of all kinds of conductors; it is 


not true, for example, of vacuum tubes or of 
certain types of crystals.) I shall now define, by 
the following equation, the quantity called the 
resistance, R, of the conductor BC: 

R = 


For some materials (for many different kinds 
of metallic wires, for example) and under certain 
conditions (at constant temperature, for exam- 
ple) the resistance defined in this way is a con- 
stant, independent of /. For other kinds of 
conductors (vacuum tubes, for example) the R 
defined in this way is not independent of /. In 
all cases the resistance defined by equation 40.3 
is measured in ohms. Obviously, "volts divided 
by amperes" is equivalent to ohms. Equation 40.3 
is known as Ohm's law after Georg Simon Ohm, 
a German physicist (1787-1854). 

If the current is / and the cross-sectional area 

■ MMMiinim maw — ummmw i asMmmmnsi 

fig. 40.10. A plot of voltage against current in an olvnie 

— — 7^\ % *i 

fig. 40.1 1. Illustrating the definition of current density. 


fig. 40.12. The voltage drop between V v and P : is sc 
small that the bird feels no shock. 

of the wire is A, the current density, j, has the 


J = 


and is measured in amperes per square meter. 
For the class of conductors I have been talking 
about (called ohmic conductors) it is an experi- 
mental fact that the electric field intensity, E^ 
established inside the wire (Fig. 40.1 1) is prop 
tional to the current density in the wire. In ot 
words, experiments show that 


Eoc j 

[40 J 

(I have written j as a vector because E is a vector.) 
There must be a constant of proportionality, p,. 
such that 

E = pj [40.6\ 

Remembering that E is measured in volts per 
meter (equation 40.2), let us find the potential 
difference, V, across a length, /, of wire as follows. 
Dropping the vector notation, we have 

El = pjl [40./ 1 

Using equation 40.4, we get 


£/ = „-/ 


But, according to equation 40.2, El = V. There- 



A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 


fig. 40.13. The voltage drop between Qi and Q 2 might be great enough to kill the bird. 




But this is the ratio that defines resistance, R 
; (equation 40.3). Hence 

R- pl 
R ~A 


That is, the resistance of a wire is directly propor- 
tional to its length and inversely proportional to 
its cross-sectional area. [I could have introduced 
p by means of equation 40.11, but I wanted to 
emphasize, once again (equation 40.6), the exist- 
ence of an electric field within a wire carrying a 
current.] The constant of proportionality, p, is 

' called the resistivity of the material. Resistivity is 
the inverse of conductivity. Table 37.2 lists the 

; resistivities of some common substances. 

EXAMPLE 40.2. We wish to find the resistance of a 
piece of copper wire 1 km long and 1 mm in di- 
We know that 

p = 0.172 X10- 7 ohm-meter 
/ = 10 3 m 
d = 10- 3 m 


A = ?$- = 7.85 X 10- 7 m 2 

and (equation 40.11) 

0. 1 72 Xl0~ 7 ohm-meter X 10 3 m 

R = 

= 21.9 ohms 


(The filament of an ordinary 100-W light bulb 
has a resistance of about 100 ohms.) 

We can now consider the voltage drop in wires 
carrying current. You have seen birds perched on 
such wires without being killed and apparently 
without feeling any shock. Now, one of the harm- 
ful things in electric shock, to birds or to people, 
is the current through the body. This current 
obeys, approximately, Ohm's law, which implies 
that we get big currents through the body if we 
touch points with large potential differences. 

There is a voltage drop, V = IR (see equation 
40.3), in a wire, but the potential difference (Fig. 
40.12) between points Pi and P 2 , where the bird's 
feet rest on the wire, is exceedingly small. In 
Example 40.2 we saw that the resistance of 1,000 
meters of a certain copper wire was 21.9 ohms. 
The resistance of 10 centimeters would be only 
21.9X 10~ 4 ohm. Even if the wire carried a current 
of 100 amperes (very unlikely), the potential drop 
from Pi to P 2 would be only 0.219 volt. Such a 
small potential difference could not send enough 
current through the bird to do much harm. 

A great potential drop might occur (Fig. 40.13) 
across some distant load — a motor, M, perhaps. 


Hence the potential difference between points Q x 
and Qi on wires carrying the same current might 
be very great indeed. If the bird could put one 
foot at Q\ and the other at Q 2 , it might be killed. 
We can now consider our original circuit sym- 
bolically. In Figure 40.14 the battery, B, with its 
internal resistance, r, is enclosed in a dashed 
line; the lamp, L, has resistance R. The current, 
/, is the same in both B and L. The potential 
drop in L is IR (equation 40.3); the potential drop 
in B is Ir. The charges leave point P at the same 
potential at which they arrive there. The work per 
unit charge done by the battery, 8 = AW/Aq, 
must therefore exactly equal the drop in potential, 
IR + Ir. Hence 


Ir = IR 


Now Figure 40.3 indicates (D) that IR = 5.45 
volts and (B) that 8 — Ir = 5.45 volts. From 
Figure 40.7 we see that / = 2.73 amperes. There- 

5 45 V 

R = z^ = 2 ohms [40.13 

2.73 amp L 

From Figure 40.3. A we know that S is almost 
6 volts. Therefore, using the equation 

8 - Ir - 5.45 V [40.14 

we get 

Ir = (6 - 5.45) V 

- 0.55 V [40.15 

But / = 2.73 amperes. Therefore 

= 0.55 V 
2.73 amp 

= 0.2 ohm 

We have now accounted for the voltage readings 
of Figure 40.3, and we have learned something 
about electric circuits in the process. 

40.4. How the Ammeter and the Voltmeter 

I have already told how a galvanometer works; 
it is a coil, mounted between the poles of a mag- 
net, whose dipole moment experiences a torque 
when it carries current (§ 38.4). If (Fig. 40. 15.A,C) 
a low-resistance conductor, S (called a shunt), is 
connected across the coil, C, in parallel with it, 
most of the current flows through S, and we have 

fig. 40.14. Our original series circuit treated symboli- 
cally. The internal resistance of the battery is shown 
as r. // 8 is the emf of the battery, 8 — Ir = IR. 

an ammeter. The combination, which has a low 
resistance, can be designed to measure even a 
large current, for very little of the current flows 
through the coil. 

The same galvanometer can be converted into 
a voltmeter (Fig. 40.15.B,D). If the coil, C, is 
connected in series with a resistor, M, of high 
resistance (called a multiplier), even a large poten- 
tial difference, V, across the terminals A and B 
will produce only a small current through the 
coil, C, since / = V/R and R here includes the 
resistance of both M and C. The whole device 
has, as a good voltmeter must have, a high resist- 
ance. The details may be clarified by reference to 
Problems 40.15, 40.16, and 40.17. 

It is also left for Problem 40.14 to prove that, 
when two resistors are connected in series, the 
resistance of the combination is simply the sum 
of the two resistances, but that, when they are 
connected in parallel, the reciprocal of the combi- 
nation is the sum of the reciprocals of the indi- 
vidual resistors. For resistors in series (as in 
Fig. 40.15.B.D) 

R = Ri + /?- [40.16 

For resistors in parallel (as in Fig. 40. 15. A, C) 

R /?, R 2 


40.5. Electric Power Dissipated as Heat 

The analogy of balls falling through glycerin 
(Fig. 40.6.A) is useful, for we see immediately 
that the loss in potential energy must appear as 
heat. Similarly, the loss in potential energy of 
charges moving in the resistor, R, of Figure 40.6.B 
can appear in the form of heat. The work re- 


A Simple Electric Circuit: Ohm's Law 

quired to lift a bail in Figure 40.6. A is W = mgh. 
The work per unit mass is W/m = gh. Similarly, 
the work required to move the positive charge 
Aq from B to A is 

AW = (Aq)V B A = coulombs X volts 

coulombs X 



The rate of doing work, P (for power), is 

At At BA 

But Aq/At is the current, /, in amperes. Hence 
P = IV B a- This must be in joules per second, or 
watts. If all this power goes into heating the 
resistor, we may write 

Pj = IV [40.19 

The subscript J is for "joule," to remind us that 
heat is being generated. Thus "amperes times 
volts" is equivalent to "watts." Since 4.184 
joules = 1 calorie, we may use the expression 
IV/4AS4 to compute the calories per second gen- 
erated in a resistor. 

From Ohm's law (equation 40.3) we know that 
V = IR ; so we may write 

Pj = i(iR) = pr [40.20 

Since, if several resistors are connected in series, 
they all carry the same /, this form of the equation 
(Pj = PR) is useful. 

On the other hand, since / = V/R, we may 

V V 2 

P< = -V = — 

J R R 





■ — >■ 



A 9 


! nfooo<n i 


FIG. 40.15. Symbolic representation of the components (A, C) of an ammeter and (B, D) of a voltmeter. 


Since, if several resistors are connected in parallel, 
each has the same potential drop as the others, 
this form (Pj = V 2 /R) is applicable to such com- 

40.6. Summary 

A battery has the ability to raise positive charges 
from a low potential to a high potential. Positive 
charges in an external electric circuit connected 
to this battery tend to flow from the region of 
high potential to that of low potential. This flow 
is called current. Actually, in wires, negative 
charges (electrons) flow in the opposite direction, 
but the logic is not affected. 

The work per unit charge done by the battery 
is called its electromotive force, 8; it is the ratio 
AW/Aq, measured in joules per coulomb, or volts. 

The potential rise in the battery must equal the 
sum of all the potential drops, AV, in the whole 
circuit. The potential drop across an ohmic re- 
sistor of resistance R in which there is current / 
is V — IR (Ohm's law). The resistance of a wire is 
directly proportional to the product of its length 
and its resistivity and is inversely proportional to 
its cross-sectional area. 

The flow of charges in a wire is very similar to 
the flow of a liquid in a pipe. When several wires 
meet at a point, for example, the sum of the in- 
ward currents is equal to the sum of the outward 

In both pipes and wires energy can be dissipated 
in the form of heat. If the potential drop in a wire 
is V, the work it takes to move charge q across 
it is qV, and the rate of doing work, or power, is 
P = IV. The power that goes into heating a 
resistor may be written as PR or as V 2 /R. 


A brief, informal review of the electronic age, past 
and present. 

The Electronic Revolution 

Arthur C. Clarke 

An excerpt from his book, Voices from the Sky, originally published 
in the New York Times in 1962. 

The electron is the smallest thing in the universe; it would 
take thirty thousand million, million, million, million of them 
to make a single ounce. Yet this utterly invisible, all but 
weightless object has given us powers over nature of which 
our ancestors never dreamed. The electron is our most ubiqui- 
tous slave; without its aid, our civilization would collapse in a 
moment, and humanity would revert to scattered bands ol 
starving, isolated savages. 

We started to use the electron fifty years before we dis- 
covered it. The first practical application of electricity (which 
is nothing more than the ordered movement of electrons) 
began with the introduction of the telegraph in the 1840's. 
With really astonishing speed, a copper cobweb of wires and 
cables spread across the face of the world, and the abolition of 
distance had begun. For over a century we have taken the 
instantaneous transfer of news completely for granted; it is 
very hard to believe that when Lincoln was born, communi- 
cations were little faster than in the days of Julius Caesar. 

Although the beginning of "electronics" is usually dated 
around the 1920^, this represents a myopic view of tech- 
nology. With the hindsight of historical perspective, we can 
now see that the telegraph and the telephone are the first two 
landmarks of the electronic age. After Alexander Graham Bell 
had sent his voice from one room to another in 1876, society 
could never be the same again. For the telephone was the first 


electronic device to enter the home and to affect directly the 
lives of ordinary men and women, giving them the almost 
godlike power of projecting their personalities and thoughts 
from point to point with the speed of lightning. 

Until the closing years of the nineteenth century, men used 
and handled electricity without knowing what it was, but in 
the 1890's they began to investigate its fundamental nature, 
by observing what happened when an electric current was 
passed through gases at very low pressures. One of the first, 
and most dramatic, results of this work was the invention of 
the X-ray tube, which may be regarded as the ancestor of all 
the millions of vacuum tubes which followed it. A cynic 
might also argue that it is the only electronic device wholly 
beneficial to mankind— though when it was invented many 
terrified spinsters, misunderstanding its powers, denounced 
poor Rontgen as a violator of privacy. 

There is an important lesson to be learned from the X-ray 
tube. If a scientist of the late Victorian era had been asked 
"In what way could money best be spent to further the 
progress of medicine?" he would never by any stretch of the 
imagination have replied: "By encouraging research on the 
conduction of electricity through rarefied gases." Yet that is 
what would have been the right answer, for until the dis- 
covery of X rays doctors and surgeons were like blind men, 
groping in the dark. One can never predict the outcome of 
fundamental scientific research, or guess what remote and 
unexpected fields of knowledge it will illuminate. 

X rays were discovered in 1895— the electron itself just one 
year later. It was then realized that an electric current consists 
of myriads of these submicroscopic particles, each carrying a 
minute negative charge. When a current flows through a solid 
conductor such as a piece of copper wire, we may imagine the 
electrons creeping like grains of sand through the interstices 
between the (relatively) boulder-sized copper atoms. Any 
individual electron does not move very far, or very fast, but it 
jostles its neighbor and so the impulse travels down the line at 


The Electronic Revolution 

speeds of thousands of miles a second. Thus when we switch 
on a light, or send a Morse dash across a transatlantic cable, 
the response at the other end is virtually instantaneous. 

But electrons can also travel without wires to guide them, 
when they shoot across the empty space of a vacuum tube like 
a hail of machine-gun bullets. Under these conditions, no 
longer entangled in solid matter, they are very sensitive to the 
pull and tug of electric fields, and as a result can be used to 
amplify faint signals. You demonstrate the principle involved 
every time you hold a hose-pipe in your hand; the slightest 
movement of your wrist produces a much greater effect at the 
far end of the jet. Something rather similar happens to the 
beam of electrons crossing the space in a vacuum tube; they 
can thus multiply a millionfold the feeble impulses picked up 
by a radio antenna, or paint a fluorescent picture on the end 
of a television screen. 

Until 1948, electronics was almost synonymous with the 
vacuum tube. The entire development of radio, talkies, radar, 
television, long-distance telephony, up to that date depended 
upon little glass bottles containing intricate structures of wire 
and mica. By the late logo's the vacuum tube had shrunk 
from an object as large as (and sometimes almost as luminous 
as) an electric light bulb, to a cylinder not much bigger than a 
man's thumb. Then three scientists at the Bell Telephone 
Laboratories invented the transistor and we moved from the 
Paleoelectronic to the Neoelectronic Age. 

Though the transistor is so small-its heart is a piece of 
crystal about the size of a rice grain-it does everything that a 
radio tube can do. However, it requires only a fraction of the 
power and space, and is potentially much more reliable. In- 
deed, it is hard to see how a properly designed transistor can 
ever wear out; think of little Vanguard I, still beeping away 
up there in space, and liable to continue indefinitely until 
some exasperated astronaut scoops it up with a butterfly net. 
The transistor is of such overwhelming importance because 
it (and its still smaller successors) makes practical hundreds 


of electronic devices which were previously too bulky, too ex- 
pensive or too unreliable for everyday use. The pocket radio is 
a notorious example; whether we like it or not, it points the 
way inevitably to a day when person-to-person communica- 
tion is universal. Then everyone in the world will have his 
individual telephone number, perhaps given to him at birth 
and serving all the other needs of an increasingly complex 
society (driving license, social security, credit card, permit to 
have additional children, etc. ) . You may not know where on 
Earth your friend Joe Smith may be at any particular mo- 
ment; but you will be able to dial him instantly— if only you 
can remember whether his number is 8296765043 or 

Obviously, there are both advantages and disadvantages in 
such a "personalized" communication system; the solitude 
which we all need at some time in our lives will join the 
vanished silences of the pre-jet age. Against this, there is no 
other way in which a really well-informed and fast-reacting 
democratic society can be achieved on the original Greek 
plan— with direct participation of every citizen in the affairs 
of the state. The organization of such a society, with feedback 
in both directions from the humblest citizen to the President 
of the World, is a fascinating exercise in political planning. As 
usual, it is an exercise that will not be completed by the time 
we need the answers. 

A really efficient and universal communications system, 
giving high-quality reception on all bands between all points 
on the Earth, can be achieved only with the aid of satellites. 
As they come into general use, providing enormous informa- 
tion-handling capacity on a global basis, today's patterns of 
business, education, entertainment, international affairs will 
change out of all recognition. Men will be able to meet face 
to face (individually, or in groups) without ever leaving their 
homes, by means of closed circuit television. As a result of 
this, the enormous amount of commuting and traveling that 
now takes place from home to office, from ministry to United 


The Electronic Revolution 

Nations, from university to conference hall will steadily de- 
crease. There are administrators, scientists and businessmen 
today who spend about a third of their working lives either 
traveling or preparing to travel. Much of this is stimulating, 
but most of it is unnecessary and exhausting. 

The improvement of communications will also render obso- 
lete the city's historic role as a meeting place for minds and a 
center of social intercourse. This is just as well anyway, since 
within another generation most of our cities will be strangled 
to death by their own traffic. 

But though electronics will ultimately separate men from 
their jobs, so that (thanks to remote manipulation devices) 
not even a brain surgeon need be within five thousand miles 
of his patient, it must also be recognized that few of today's 
jobs will survive long into the electronic age. It is now a cliche 
that we are entering the Second Industrial Revolution, which 
involves the mechanization not of energy, but of thought. 
Like all cliches this is so true that we seldom stop to analyze 
what it means. 

It means nothing less than this: There are no routine, non- 
creative activities of the human mind which cannot be carried 
out by suitably designed machines. The development of com- 
puters to supervise industrial processes, commercial transac- 
tions and even military operations has demonstrated this 
beyond doubt. Yet today's computers are morons compared to 
those that they themselves are now helping to design. 

I would not care to predict how many of today's professions 
will survive a hundred years from now. What happened to the 
buggywhip makers, the crossing sweepers, the scriveners, the 
stonebreakers of yesteryear? (I mention the last because I can 
just remember them, hammering away at piles of rock in the 
country lanes of my childhood. ) Most of our present occupa- 
tions will follow these into oblivion, as the transistor inherits 
the earth. 

For as computers become smaller, cheaper and more re- 
liable they will move into every field of human activity. Today 


they are in the office; tomorrow they will be in the home. 
Indeed, some very simple-minded computers already do our 
household chores; the device that programs a washing ma- 
chine to perform a certain sequence of operations is a special- 
ized mechanical brain. Less specialized ones would be able to 
carry out almost all the routine operations in a suitably de- 
signed house. 

Because we have so many more pressing problems on our 
hands, only the science-fiction writers— those trail-blazers of 
the future— have given much thought to the social life of the 
later electronic age. How will our descendants be educated for 
leisure, when the working week is only a few hours? We have 
already seen, on a worldwide scale, the cancerous growths 
resulting from idleness and lack of usable skills. At every 
street corner in a great city you will find lounging groups of 
leather-jacketed, general-purpose bioelectric computers of a 
performance it will take us centuries and trillions of dollars to 
match. What is their future— and ours? 

More than half a century ago H. G. Wells described, in 
The Time Machine, a world of decadent pleasure lovers, 
bereft of goals and ambitions, sustained by subterranean ma- 
chines. He set his fantasy eight hundred thousand years in the 
future, but we may reach a similar state of affairs within a 
dozen generations. No one who contemplates the rising curve 
of technology from the Pilgrim fathers to the Apollo Project 
dare deny that this is not merely possible, but probable. 

For most of history, men have been producers; in a very few 
centuries, they will have to switch to the role of consumers, 
devoting their energies 100 per cent to absorbing the astro- 
nomical output of the automated mines, farms and factories. 

Does this really matter, since only a tiny fraction of the 
human race has ever contributed to artistic creation, scientific 
discovery or philosophical thought, which in the long run are 
the only significant activities of mankind? Archimedes and 
Aristotle, one cannot help thinking, would still have left their 
marks on history even if they had lived in a society based on 


The Electronic Revolution 

robots instead of human slaves. In any culture, they would be 
consumers of goods, but producers of thought. 

We should not take too much comfort from this. The elec- 
tronic computers of today are like the subhuman primates of 
ten million years ago, who could have given any visiting 
Martians only the faintest hints of their potentialities, which 
included the above mentioned Archimedes and Aristotle. 
Evolution is swifter now; electronic intelligence is only dec- 
ades, not millions of years, ahead. 

And that— not transistor radios, automatic homes, global 
TV— is the ultimate goal of the Electronic Revolution. 
Whether we like it or not, we are on a road where there is no 
turning back; and waiting at its end are our successors. 


No. 223,898. 


Patented Jan. 27, 1880. 




h 4 


3llC/fU^ (I. SdtdCTV 

/" ^^^Tfro^i^O 


EDISON'S PATENT on the incandescent lamp was accompanied thickened ends of filament (c), platinum wires Id), clamp, In), 

by this drawing. The labeled parte are the carbon filament (o), leading wire, (x), copper wire, (e), tube to vacuum pump (m). 


Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp, generally as- 
sumed to be the product of inspired tinkering, was 
actually only one element in a more far-reaching in- 
vention: an entire system of lighting. 

The Invention of the Electric Light 

Matthew Josephson 

An article trom Scientific American, 1959. 


can hire mathematicians, but 
mathematicians can't hire me!" 
By such declarations in the time 
of his success and world-wide fame 
Thomas Alva Edison helped to paint his 
own portrait as an authentic American 
folk hero: the unlettered tinkerer and 
trial-and-error inventor who achieved 
his results by persistence and a na- 
tive knack for things. He is said, for ex- 
ample, to have tried more than 1,600 
lcinds of material ("paper and cloth, 
thread, fishline, fiber, celluloid, box- 
wood, coconut-shells, spruce, hickory, 
hay, maple shavings, rosewood, punk, 
cork, flax, bamboo and the hair out of a 
red-headed Scotchman's beard") until 
he hit upon the loop of carbonized cot- 
ton thread that glowed in a vacuum for 
more than half a day on October 21, 
1879. Today, in a world that relies for 
its artificial illumination largely on his 
incandescent lamp, this invention is not 
regarded as an especially profound con- 
tribution to technology. It rates rather as 
a lucky contrivance of Edison's cut-and- 
try methods— of a piece with his stock 
ticker, mimeograph machine, phono- 
graph and alkaline storage-battery— in 
the esteem of a public that has come to 
appreciate the enormous practical signif- 
icance of higher mathematics and ab- 
struse physical theory. 

If Edison's contribution to the light 
of the world consisted solely in the se- 
lection of a filament, this estimate of his 
person and achievements might be al- 
lowed to stand. But the history that is 
so obscured by legend tells quite an- 
other story. Edison's electric light was 
not merely a lamp but a system of elec- 
tric lighting. His invention was an idea 
rather than a thing. It involved not only 
technology but also sociology and eco- 
nomics. Edison was indisputably the 
first to recognize that electric lighting 

would require that electricity be gen- 
erated and distributed at high voltage 
in order to subdivide it among a great 
many high-resistance "burners," each 
converting current at low amperage 
(that is, in small volume) with great 
efficiency into light. 

In the 15 months between the time 
he conceived his invention and the date 
on which he demonstrated it to the pub- 
lic, Edison and his associates designed 
and built a new type of electric genera- 
tor, successfully adapted the then much- 
scorned parallel or "multiple-arc" circuit 
that would permit individual lights to 
be turned on or off separately and, last 
of all, fashioned a lamp to meet the 
specifications of his system. The labora- 
tory notebooks of those months of fran- 
tic labor show the Wizard of Menlo Park 
endowed with all the prodigious capaci- 
ties attributed to him by contemporary 
legend. They show in addition that this 
self-taught technologist was possessed of 
a profound grasp of the nature of elec- 
tricity and an intuitive command of its 
logic and power. 

It was on September 8, 1878, that 
Edison was inspired to devote his talents 
full time to the challenge of electric 
lighting. On that day he went to An- 
sonia, Conn., to visit the brass-manufac- 
turing plant of William Wallace, co- 
inventor with Moses G. Farmer of the 
first practical electric dynamo in the 
U. S. Wallace showed Edison eight bril- 
liant carbon-arc lights of 500 candle- 
power each, powered by a dynamo of 
eight horsepower. It was with such a 
system that Wallace and Farmer, as well 
as Charles Brush of Cleveland, were 
then beginning to introduce the electric 
light on a commercial scale, for street- 
lighting and for illuminating factories 
and shops. Farmer had made the first 
demonstration of arc-lighting in this 

country two years earlier, at the Cen- 
tennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and 
John Wanamaker's store in that city was 
already illuminated with arc lights. 

Carbon arcs are still employed in 
searchlights and in theater floodlights 
and projectors to produce light of high 
intensity. The current crossing a small 
gap between the electrodes creates an 
arc. Ionization and oxidation of the car- 
bon in the heat of the arc generate a 
brilliant blue-white light. 

In the 1870's Europe was a decade 
ahead of the U. S. in the technology of 
arc-lighting. Stores, railway stations, 
streets and lighthouses in Britain and 
France were equipped with arc lights. 
Shedding an almost blinding glare, they 
bumed in open globes that emitted nox- 
ious gases, and they could be employed 
only high overhead on streets or in pub- 
lic buildings. Since they consumed large 
amounts of current, they had to be wired 
in series, that is, connected one to an- 
other in a single continuous circuit so 
that all had to be turned on or off to- 
gether. The multiple-arc circuit, with the 
lights connected as in the rungs of a lad- 
der between the main leads of the cir- 
cuit, was not adapted to such systems 
and was considered prohibitive in cost. 

Edison himself had experimented 
with arc lights, using carbon strips as 
burners. He had also investigated the 

Editor's Note 

The author has based this article 
on material in his biography Edi- 
son, just published by the McGraw- 
Hill Book Company. Copyright © 
1959 by Matthew Josephson. 


incandescent light, as had many inven- 
tors before him. But the slender rod or 
pencil of carbon or metal would always 
burn up, sooner rather than later, upon 
being heated to incandescence by the 
current. It would do so though substan- 
tially all of the air had been pumped out 
of the glass envelope in which it was 
contained. Edison had abandoned the 
effort to devote himself to a more prom- 
ising invention: the phonograph. 

Now at Wallace's establishment, con- 
fronted with the achievements of others 
in the field, he regained his earlier en- 
thusiasm. As an eyewitness recalled, 
"Edison was enraptured. ... He fairly 
gloated. He ran from the instruments 
[the dynamos] to the lights, and then 
again from the lights back to the electric 
instruments. He sprawled over a table 
and made all sorts of calculations. He cal- 
culated the power of the instruments 
and the lights, the probable loss of power 
in transmission, the amount of coal the 
instrument would use in a day, a week, 
a month, a year." 

To William Wallace he said challeng- 
ingly: "I believe I can beat you making 
the electric light. I do not think you are 
working in the right direction." They 
shook hands in friendly fashion, and 
with a diamond-pointed stylus Edison 
signed his name and the date on a goblet 
provided by his host at dinner. 

From Edison's own complete and ex- 
plicit notebooks and from the buoyant 
interviews that he gave to the press at 
this time we know what made him feel 
in such fine fettle as he left Wallace's 
plant. "I saw for the first time everything 
in practical operation," he said. "I saw 
the thing had not gone so far but that I 
had a chance. The intense light had not 
been subdivided so that it could be 
brought into private houses. In all elec- 
tric lights theretofore obtained the light 
was very great, and the quantity [of 
lights] very low. I came home and made 
experiments two nights in succession. I 
discovered the necessary secret, so sim- 
ple that a bootblack might understand 
it. . . . The subdivision of light is all 

The Subdivision of Light 

At this time there flashed into Edison's 
mind the image of the urban gas-lighting 
system, with its central gashouse and gas 
mains running to smaller branch pipes 
and leading into many dwelling places at 
last to gas jets that could be turned on 
or off at will. During the past half-cen- 
tury gas-lighting had reached the stature 
of a major industry in the U. S. It was 

restricted, of course, to the cities; three 
fourths of the U. S. population still lived 
in rural areas by the dim glow of kero- 
sene lamps or candles. Ruminating in 
solitude, Edison sought to give a clear 
statement to his objective. In his note- 
book, under the title "Electricity versus 
Cas as a General Illuminant," he wrote: 

"Object: E. ... to effect exact imita- 
tion of all done by gas, to replace light- 
ing by gas by lighting by electricity. To 
improve the illumination to such an ex- 
tent as to meet all requirements of nat- 
ural, artificial and commercial condi- 
tions. . . . Edison's great effort— not to 
make a large light or a blinding light, 
but a small light having the mildness of 

To a reporter for one of the leading 
New York dailies who had shadowed 
him to Ansonia, Edison described a vi- 
sion of a central station for electric light- 
ing that he would create for all of New 
York City. A network of electric wire 
would deliver current for a myriad of 
small household lights, unlike the daz- 
zling arc lights made by Farmer and 
Brush. In some way electric current 
would be metered and sold. Edison said 
he hoped to have his electric-light in- 
vention ready in six weeks! At Menlo 
Park, N.J., where his already famous 
workshop was located, he would wire all 
the residences for light and hold a "grand 

Thus from the beginning Edison riv- 
eted his attention not so much upon the 
search for an improved type of incan- 
descent filament as upon the analysis of 
the social and economic conditions for 
which his invention was intended. As he 
turned with immense energy to expand- 
ing the facilities at Menlo Park and se- 
curing the essential financing, he con- 
tinued his studies of the gas-lighting in- 
dustry. In parallel he projected the eco- 
nomics of the electric-lighting system he 

Cas had its inconvenience and dan- 
gers. "So unpleasant . . . that in the new 
Madison Square theater every gas jet is 
ventilated by small tubes to cany away 
the products of combustion." But what- 
ever is to replace gas must have "a gen- 
eral system of distribution— the onlv pos- 
sible means of economical illumination." 
Gathering all the back files of the gas 
industry's journals and scores of volumes 
bearing on gas illumination, he studied 
the operations and habits of the indus- 
try, its seasonal curves and the layout of 
its distribution systems. In his mind he 
mapped out a network of electric-light 
lines for an entire city, making the 
shrewd judgment: "Poorest district for 

light, best for power— thus evening up 
whole city." He meant that in slum dis- 
tricts there would be higher demand for 
small industrial motors. Against tables 
for the cost of converting coal to gas he 
calculated the cost of converting coal 
and steam into electric energy. An ex- 
pert gas engineer, whose services Edison 
engaged at this time, observed that few 
men knew more about the world's gas 
business than did Edison. 

Edison had a homo oeconomicus with- 
in him, a well-developed social and com- 
mercial sense, though he was careless of 
money and was not an accountant of the 
type exemplified by his contemporary 
John D. Rockefeller. Before the experi- 
mental work on his invention was under 
way, he had formed a clear notion, 
stated in economic terms, of what its ob- 
ject must be This concept guided his 
search and determined the pattern of his 
technical decisions, so that the result 
would be no scientific toy but a product 
useful to people everywhere. By his ini- 
tial calculation of the capital investment 
in machinery and copper for a whole 
system of light distribution he was led 
to define the kind of light he sought and 
the kind of generating and distributing 
system he needed. 

Backers of the Electric Light 

In the crucial matter of financing his 
inventive work Edison had the generous 
and imaginative aid of Crosvenor Low- 
rey, a patent and corporation lawyer 
well established in the financial com- 
munity of Wall Street. Lowrey had fall- 
en completely under Edison's spell and 
regarded him much as a collector of 
paintings regards a great artist whose 
works he believes are destined for im- 
mortality. Using his extensive connec- 
tions and the favorable press-notices that 
he encouraged Edison to secure during 
late September and early October, 1878, 
Lowrey assembled a sponsoring syndi- 
cate of some of the most important fin- 
anciers of the time. The underwriters 
of the Edison Electric Light Company, 
which was incorporated in mid-October, 
included William H. Vanderbilt and 
J. P. Morgan's partner Egisto Fabbri. 
This was an unprecedented develop- 
ment in U. S. business. Inventors had 
been backed in the development of in- 
ventions already achieved; Edison's fi- 
nanciers were backing him in research 
that was to lead to a hoped-for invention. 
In many respects the venture marks the 
beginning in this country of close rela- 
tions between finance and technology. 

"Their money," Edison said, "was in- 


The Invention of the Electric Light 

EDISON AND HIS PHONOGRAPH were photographed in 1878 
by Mathew Brady. He had worked with electric lights but had 

turned to the more promising phonograph. In the year that this 
photograph was made, however, he resumed his work on lighting. 


MENLO PARK was depicted in Frank Leslie's Illustrated News- 
paper for January 10, 1880. The barnlike "tabernacle" of Edison's 

laboratory is visible a! ihe far right. In its windows passengers on 
the nearby railroad could see his experimental lights burning. 

vested in confidence of my ability to 
bring it back again." The 31-year-old 
Edison was by now a well-known figure 
in Wall Street. His quadruplex telegraph 
system, by which four separate messages 
could be transmitted over a single wire, 
had furnished the pivotal issue in the vast 
economic war waged between Western 
Union and the rival telegraph empire of 
the robber baron Jay Could. Edison's 
carbon microphone had transformed the 
telephone from an instrument of limited 
usefulness to an efficient system of long- 
range communication that was now ra- 
diating across the country. The shares of 
gas-lighting enterprises had tumbled on 
the New York and London exchanges 
upon Edison's announcement, in the 
press campaign instigated by Lowrey, 
that he was now about to displace gas 
with electricity in the lighting of homes 
and factories. 

The alliance between Edison and his 
sponsors was nonetheless an uneasy one. 
The first rift appeared before the end of 
October, when the rival inventor Wil- 
liam Sawyer and his partner Albon Man 
announced that they had "beaten" Edi- 
son and applied for a patent on a carbon- 
pencil light in a nitrogen-filled glass 
tube. There was a flutter of panic in the 
directorate of the Edison Electric Light 
Company. The suggestion was made 
that Edison should join forces with Saw- 
yer and Man. Lowrey passed the sug- 
gestion on to S. L. Criffin, a former 
junior executive at Western Union whom 
Lowrey had hired to help Edison with 
his business affairs. 

Criffin sent back a hasty "confiden- 
tial" reply: "I spoke to Mr. Edison re- 
garding the Sawyer-Man electric light. 
... I was astonished at the manner in 
which Mr. Edison received the informa- 
tion. He was visibly agitated and said it 
was the old story, that is, lack of confi- 
dence. . . . No combination, no consoli- 

dation for him. I do not feel at liberty to 
repeat all he said, but I do feel impelled 
to suggest respectfully that as little be 
said to him as possible with regard to 
the matter." 

In view of Edison's talent for candid 
and salty language Griffin's reticence is 
understandable. After that there was no 
further talk of consolidation with Saw- 
yer or any other inventor. 

The Menlo Park Laboratory 

In his belief that he would "get ahead 
of the other fellows" Edison was sus- 
tained by his unbounded confidence in 
his laboratory, its superior equipment 
and its staff. The Menlo Park laboratory 
was still the only full-time industrial re- 
search organization in the country, in 
itself perhaps Edison's most important 
invention. During this period the physi- 
cal plant was greatly expanded; a sep- 
arate office and library, a house for two 
80-horsepower steam engines, and a 
glass blower's shed were added to the 
original barnlike "tabernacle." Even 
more important, Edison had collected a 
nucleus of talented engineers and skilled 
craftsmen, who were of inestimable help 
to him in working out his ideas. 

The self-taught Edison thought pri- 
marily in concrete, visual terms. When 
he was at work on the quadruplex tele- 
graph, he had even built a model made 
up of pipes and valves corresponding to 
the wires and relays of his system, and 
with running water replacing the elec- 
tric current, so that he could actually see 
how it worked. But now he would have 
to depend far more on theory and mathe- 

One of the happiest effects of Gros- 
venor Lowrey 's personal influence was 
the hiring of Francis R. Upton, a young 
electrical engineer who had worked for 
a year in the Berlin laboratory of the 

great physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. 
Edison jocularly nicknamed Upton "Cul- 
ture," and, according to an oft-told story, 
put the "green" mathematician in his 
place with one of his scientific practical 
jokes. He brought out a pear-shaped 
glass lamp-bulb and gave it to Upton, 
asking him to calculate its content in 
cubic centimeters. Upton drew the 
shape of the bulb exactly on paper, and 
derived from this an equation for the 
bulb's volume. He was about to compute 
the answer when Edison returned and 
impatiently asked for the results. Upton 
said he would need more time. "Why, ' 
said Edison, "I would simply take that 
bulb, fill it with a liquid, and measure 
its volume directly!" 

When Upton joined the staff late in 
October, Edison had already committed 
himself to the incandescent light. This, 
rather than the arc light, was the way to 
imitate the mildness of gas. But the fila- 
ment glowing in a vacuum had been 
sought in vain by numerous inventors 
for half a century. In choosing the in- 
candescent light rather than the arc- 
light he was "putting aside the technical 
advance that had brought the arc light 
to the commercial stage." No one, in- 
cluding himself, had succeeded in mak- 
ing an incandescent lamp that would 
work for more than a few minutes. 

Edison's first efforts in 1878 were not 
notably more successful. Knowing that 
carbon has the highest melting point of 
all the elements, he first tried strips of 
carbonized paper as "burners" and man- 
aged to keep them incandescent for 
"about eight minutes" before they 
burned up in the partial vacuum of his 
glass containers. Turning to the infusi- 
ble metals, he tried spirals of platinum 
wire; they gave a brilliant light but 
melted in the heat. Edison accordingly 
devised a feedback thermostat device 
that switched off the current when the 


heat approached the melting point. The 
lamp now blinked instead of going out 
entirely. Nonetheless, with his eye on 
the problem of financing, Edison filed a 
patent application on October 5 and in- 
vited the press in for a demonstration. 

As this discouraging work proceeded 
in the weeks that followed, Edison 
turned, with Upton's help, to calculating 
the current that would be consumed by 
a lighting system equipped with a cer- 
tain number of such lamps. They as- 
sumed that the lights would be con- 
nected in parallel, so their imaginary 
householder could turn one light in the 
circuit on or off at will, as in a gas-light- 
ing system. Thinking in round numbers, 
they assumed that these lamps, when 
perfected, might have a resistance of one 
ohm and so would consume 10 amperes 
of current at 10 volts. Allowing in addi- 
tion for the energy losses in the distribu- 
tion system, they found that it would 
require a fabulous amount of copper to 
light just a few city blocks. Such a sys- 
tem of low-resistance lights was clearly 
a commercial impossibility. 

This was the gist of the objections 
which had greeted Edison's first an- 
nouncements that he would use an in- 
candescent bulb in a parallel circuit. 
Typical of the scorn heaped upon him 
was the opinion expressed by a commit- 
tee set up by the British Parliament to 
investigate the crash of gas-lighting se- 
curities. With the advice of British sci- 

entists, the members of the committee 
declared that though these plans seemed 
"good enough for our transatlantic 
friends," they were "unworthy of the at- 
tention of practical or scientific men." 
From Ohm's law, which governs the re- 
lationship between voltage, amperage 
and resistance in a circuit, the report 
argued that if an electric light of 1,000 
candlepower were divided into 10 
smaller lights and connected in parallel, 
each of the smaller lights would radiate 
not one tenth but "one hundredth only of 
the original light." In this judgment such 
figures as Lord Kelvin and John Tyndall 
concurred. Before the Royal Institution 
in London the distinguished electrician 
Sir William Preece declared: "Subdivi- 
sion of the electric light is an absolute 
tgnts fatuus." 

Ohm's law does indeed show that the 
amount of current (amperes) flowing in 
a circuit is equal to the electromotive 
force (volts) divided by the resistance 
(ohms) in the circuit. Edison's contem- 
poraries reasoned that an increase in the 
number of lights in a circuit would in- 
crease the resistance and therefore re- 
duce the flow of current to each. It was 
thought that the only way to provide 
these lights with sufficient current was to 
reduce the resistance in the distribution 
system. In a parallel circuit this meant 
increasing the thickness of the copper 
conductors to an impractical degree. 
Such were the limits on the operation 

The Invention of the Electric Light 

of arc lights, with their low resistance 
and huge appetite for current. Upton's 
calculations showed that this conclu- 
sion also applied to Edison's first low- 
resistance incandescent lamps. 

Edison now confounded his collabora- 
tor by proposing that he make the same 
sort of estimates for an entirely different 
kind of circuit. This time he would 
assume lights of very high resistance, 
supplied with current at high voltage 
and low amperage. In November and 
December Upton made calculations on 
the basis of the same number of lights, 
but lights with the high resistance of 
100 ohms each. These lights were to 
operate on the low current of only one 
ampere. Their high resistance was to be 
offset, in accord with Ohm's law, by the 
high voltage of 100 volts in the circuit. 
The result was astonishing: A high- 
resistance system would require only 
one hundredth of the weight of copper 
conductor needed for a low-resistance 
system. And copper was the most costly 
element involved— the decisive eco- 
nomic factor. 

The High-Resistance System 

Here was the crux of Edison's insight 
at Ansonia. He had recognized there 
that the subdivision of light called for 
lamps of high resistance which would 
consume but little current; to balance 
the electrical equation it would be neces- 

also depicted in the January 10, 1880, issue of Frank Leslie's 

Illustrated Newspaper. At the time of the work on the electrir 
light the laboratory had expanded into several other buildings. 


sary to supply the current at high volt- 
age. This was the "necessary secret" that 
was "so simple." Today every high- 
school physics student learns that the 
power lost in transmitting electric ener- 
gy varies with the square of the current. 
Thus a tenfold reduction in current 
meant a decrease of a hundredfold in the 
energy wasted (or a hundredfold de- 
crease in the weight of the transmis- 
sion line). It was a conception easily 
reached by an elementary applica- 
tion of Ohm's law, but it had not oc- 
curred to any of Edison's contem- 
poraries. Even Upton did not immedi- 
ately grasp the full import of Edison's 
idea. As he said later: "I cannot imagine 
why I did not see the elementary facts 
in 1878 and 1879 more clearly than I 
did. I came to Mr. Edison a trained man, 
with a year's experience in Helmholtz's 

laboratory, ... a working knowledge of 
calculus and a mathematical turn of 
mind. Yet my eyes were blind in com- 
parison with those of today; and ... I 
want to say that I had company!" 

With Upton's figures before him Edi- 
son was convinced that a new and strate- 
gic invention lay surely within his grasp. 
It was clear what kind of distributing 
system he wanted. And he knew what 
form of incandescent burner would serve 
his purpose. To offer the necessary re- 
sistance to the passage of current it must 
have a small cross section and so would 
have a small radiating surface. 

By January, 1879, Edison was testing 
his first high-resistance lamp. It had a 
spiral of very fine platinum wire set in 
a globe that contained as high a vacuum 
as could be achieved with an ordinary 
air pump. The results were encourag- 

ing; these lamps lasted "an hour or two." 
He then attacked the dual problem of 
getting a higher vacuum and improving 
his incandescing element. After another 
trial with carbon, he returned to metals: 
platinum, iridium, boron, chromium, 
molybdenum, osmium— virtually every 
infusible metal. He thought of tungsten, 
but could not work it with existing tools. 
Discouraged by the problem, Edison 
tried nitrogen in his globe and then re- 
sumed his efforts to obtain a higher 
vacuum. Hearing of the new and effi- 
cient Sprengel vacuum pump, which 
used mercury to trap and expel air, he 
sent Upton to borrow one from the near- 
by College of New Jersey (now Prince- 
ton University). When Upton returned 
with the pump late that night, Edison 
kept him and the other men on the staff 
up the rest of the night trying it out. 

GENERATOR which Edison developed for the needs of electric 
lighting appears at right in this engraving from Scientific Ameri- 

can for October 18, 1879 (at that lime this magazine appeared 
weekly I. The generator was railed the "long-w .listed Mary Ann." 


The Invention of the Electric Light 

At this stage Edison made a useful 
finding: "I have discovered," he noted, 
"that many metals which have gas with- 
in their pores have a lower melting point 
than when free of such gas." With the 
aid of the Sprengel pump he devised a 
method of expelling these occluded 
gases, by heating the element while the 
air was being exhausted from the bulb. 
The platinum wire within the bulb 
thereupon became extremely hard and 
could endure far higher temperatures. 
Edison later said that at this stage he 
"had made the first real steps toward the 
modern incandescent lamp." 

Meanwhile the spirits of his financial 
sponsors had begun to droop. Their bril- 
liant inventor, far from having achieved 
anything tangible, was hinting plainly 
that he needed more monev. The first 
Brush arc lights were ablaze over lower 
Broadway, and more were being in- 
stalled elsewhere with impressive effect. 
Edison's backers began to have serious 
doubts as to whether he had pursued the 
right course. To shore up their morale 
Lowrey arranged to have Edison give 
them a private demonstration. 

In April, as one of Edison's associates 
recalled it, 'They came to Menlo Park 
on a late afternoon train from New 
York. It was already dark when they 
were conducted into the machine shop 
where we had several platinum lamps in- 
stalled in series." The "boss" showed his 
visitors pieces of platinum coil he was 
using in the lamps, pointed out the 
arrangement of the lights and described 
the type of generator he hoped to build. 
Then, the room having grown quite 
dark, he told "Honest John" Kruesi to 
"turn on the juice slowly." 

"Today, I can still see those lamps 
rising to a cherry-red . . . and hear Mr. 
Edison saying 'A little more juice' and 
the lamps began to glow. 'A little more,' 
. . . and then one emits a light like a 
star, after which there is an eruption 
and a puff, and the machine shop is in 
total darkness. . . . The operation was 
repeated two or three times, with about 
the same results." 

The platinum coils still consumed a 
lot of power for the light they gave, and 
they were costly and short-lived. The 
temporary Wallace-Farmer dynamos 
heated up badly, and were not powerful 
enough to enable Edison to connect his 
lamps in parallel. Edison admitted that 
the system was not yet "practical." 

It was a gloomy gathering that broke 
up on that raw April evening. All of 
Lowrey's abounding faith would be nec- 
essary to rally, the spirits and funds of 
Edison's despondent backers. Some 

VACUUM PUMP used to remove air from lamp bulbs (lop center) was of a new type about 
which Edison had read in a scientific journal. The man is holding a vessel of mercury. 

rumors of the disappointing demonstra- 
tion leaked out; the price of Edison stock 
fell sharply, while that of gas-lighting 
securities rose. "After that demonstra- 
tion," Edison's associate relates, "we 
had a general house cleaning at the labo- 
ratory, and the metallic lamps were 
stored away." 

Edison now rallied his staff to efforts 
on a much broader area of the front 
"under siege." He followed three main 
lines of investigation. One group he 
detailed to the task of developing the 
dvnarno to supply the constant-voltage 

current required by his high-resistance 
system. He set another group to pulling 
down a still higher vacuum in the glass 
bulbs. The third team, under his watch- 
ful eye, carried out the series of experi- 
ments in which 1,600 different materials 
were tested for their worth as incan- 
descent elements. 

The "Long-Waisted Mary Ann" 

To subdivide the electric current for 
numerous small lights in parallel Edison 
needed a dynamo which would produce 


a higher voltage than any dynamo in ex- 
istence, and which would maintain that 
voltage constant under varying demands 
for current from the system. Existing 
dynamos were designed around the fal- 
lacious notion, held by most electrical 
experts, that the internal resistance of 
the dynamo must be equal to the ex- 
ternal resistance of the circuit. Through 
study of battery circuits they had proved 
that a dynamo could attain a maximum 
efficiency of only 50 per cent. In 1877 a 
committee of scientists appointed by the 
Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had 
been impressed to discover that the most 
successful European dynamo, designed 
by Zenobe Theophile Cramme, con- 
verted into electricity 38 to 41 per cent 
of the mechanical energy supplied to 
it. The efficiency of the Brush dynamo 
was even lower: 31 per cent. These ma- 
chines and their theoretically successful 

contemporaries all produced current at 
a relatively low voltage. 

Edison had concluded, however, that 
he must produce a dynamo of reduced 
internal resistance capable of generating 
current at a high voltage. Such a ma- 
chine would not only meet the needs of 
his lighting system but would also con- 
vert mechanical energy to electrical en- 
ergy with far greater efficiency. As his 
associate Francis Jehl recalled, Edison 
said that "he did not intend to build up 
a system of distribution in which the ex- 
ternal resistance would be equal to the 
internal resistance. He said he was just 
about going to do the opposite; he 
wanted a large external resistance and 
a low internal resistance. He said he 
wanted to sell the energy outside the 
station and not waste it in the dynamo 
and the conductors, where it brought no 
profits." Jehl, who carried out the tests 


SERIES CIRCUIT (top) requires thai a number of electric lights (circles) be turned on 
or off at the Mine time by a single switch (break in circuit). Parallel circuit (bottom), 
which was adopted by Edison, makes it possible to turn lights on or off one at a time. 


IJie Great Inventor's Triumph in 
Electric Illumination. 


It Makes a Light, Without Gas or 
Flame, Cheaper Than Oil. 


Complete Details of the Perfected 
Carbon Lamp, 


Siory of His Tireless Experiments with Lamps, 
Barters acd Generators. 


The Wizard's Byplay, with Bodily Pain 
and Gold "Tailings." 


The oar approach of ine first puoltc exhibition of 
Sduon's long looked for electric light, uooaued to 
take place on New Vuri Eve at Menlo Pari, on 
»UicU occasion that place will bo Illuminated with 
the Dew light, has revived public lotereet In the 
great inventor's work, and throughout tte mvlllsed 
world scientists and people generally are anxiously 
'•raiting the result. From the beginning of hie ex- 
periments in electric lighting to the preeent lime 
klr. Edison h.e kept his laboratory gaardedly 
closed, and no authoritative account (except that 
PubUahed lu the Uuild some months ago rotating, 
to his first patent) of any of the important steps of 
his progress has been made public — a course of pro- 
cedure the Inreutor found absolutely ne c essa r y for 
his own protection. The BxaiLO la now, however, 
suabled to preeent to Its res dire a foil and accurate 
account of his work from Its Inception to its oom- 

a uoertZD nru. 

EJitou's electric light, lucredible as It may appear. 
Is produced from a little piece of paper — a tiny strip 
or pauar that a brea t h would blow away. Through 

son's brilliant success appeared in The 
/Vein York Herald for December 21, 1879. 


The Invention of the Electric Light 

of resistance, also remarked that the art 
of constructing dynamos was then as 
mysterious as air navigation. All elec- 
t :cal testing was in the embryonic stage. 
"There were no instruments for measur- 
ing volts and amperes directly: it was 
like a carpenter without his foot rule." 

Upton himself had his difficulties in 
this hirherto unexplored field: "I re- 
member distinctly when Mr. Edison gave 
me the problem of placing a motor in 
circuit, in multiple arc, with a fixed re- 
sistance; and I . . . could find no prior 
solution. There was nothing I could find 
bearing on the [effect of the] counter- 
electro-motive force of the armature . . . 
and the resistance of the armature on the 
work given out by the armature. It was a 
wonderful experience to have problems 
given me by him based on enormous ex- 
perience in practical work and applying 
to new lines of progress." 

The problem of a constant-voltage 
dynamo was attacked with the usual 
Edisonian elan. Seeking to visualize 
every possible structural innovation for 
his dynamo armature, he had his men 
lay out numerous wooden dummies on 
the floor and wind wire around them, 
spurring them on in their task by laying 
wagers as to who would finish first,. 

After Edison had decided upon the 
form of winding and type of electromag- 
nets to be used, Upton made drawings 
and tables from which the real armatures 
were wound and attached to the com- 
mutator. Edison eventually worked out 
an armature made of thin sheets of iron 
interleaved with insulating sheets of 
mica; this armature developed fewer 
eddy currents and so produced less heat 
than the solid armature cores then used. 
When the new cores were test-run, it 
was Upton who made the mathematical 
calculations from these tests and drew 
up the final blueprints. 

The self-effacing Upton can be given 
principal credit for interpreting Edi- 
son's ideas and translating them into 
mathematical form. A careful student of 
contemporary electrical knowledge, he 
seems to have been conversant with, and 
to have guided himself by, the design of 
a German dynamo, made by the Siemens 
works, that employed an auxiliary source 
of current to excite its field magnets. 

The new Menlo Park dynamo com- 
prised many admirable features for that 
period. With its great masses of iron and 
large, heavy wires, it stood in bold con- 
trast to its contemporary competitors. 
Owing to the two upright columns of its 
field electromagnets, it was nicknamed 
"Edison's long-waisted Mary Ann." 

When the dynamo was run at the cor- 
rect speed, the voltage between its arma- 

ture brushes was approximately 110, 
and remained fairly constant, falling but 
slightly when increasing amounts of cur- 
rent were taken out of the machine. 
Edison and Upton also contrived a sim- 
ple but ingenious dynamometer by 
which the torque of a drive belt was 
used to measure the work output of the 
steam engine that powered the dynamo. 
When Kruesi completed the first oper- 
ating machine, Upton carefully checked 
the results. To his astonishment— and 
quite as Edison had "guessed"— the new 
dynamo, tested at full load, showed 90- 
per-cent efficiency in converting steam 
power into electrical energy. 

Ldison was as jubilant as a small boy. 
As was usual with him, the world was 
soon told all about his "Faradic ma- 
chine." It was described and depicted in 
Scientific American for October 18, 
1879, in an article written by Upton. 

Once more there was scoffing at 
Edison's "absurd claims." The hectoring 
of Edison by some of the leading U. S. 
electrical experts, among them Henry 
Morton of the Stevens Institute of Tech- 
nology, now seems traceable to their 
ignorance. Reading Morton's predictions 
of failure, Edison grimly promised that 
once he had it all running "sure-fire," 
he would erect at Menlo Park a little 
statue to his critic which would be eter- 
nally illuminated by an Edison lamp. 

As a matter of fact, this allegedly 
ignorant "mechanic" was to be found 
reading scientific journals and institu- 
tional proceedings at all hours of the day 
and night. It was thus that he had 
learned about the Sprengel vacuum 
pump. This device enabled him to 
achieve an increasingly greater vacuum 
and to test a broad variety of metals, rare 
earths and carbon compounds under 
hitherto unexplored conditions. 

The globe itself was also much im- 
proved, by the inventor's own design, 
after he had brought to Menlo Park an 
artistic German glass blower named 
Ludwig Boehm. Edison one day drew a 
sketch of a one-piece, all-glass globe 
whose joint was completely sealed, and 
late in April, 1879, Boehm, working skill- 
fully with hand and mouth, fashioned 
it in the small glass blower's shed in back 
of the laboratory. 

"There never has been a vacuum pro- 
duced in this country that approached 
anywhere near the vacuum which is 
necessary for me," Edison wrote in his 
notebook. After months of effort he could 
say exultantly: "We succeeded in mak- 
ing a pump by which we obtained a 
vacuum of one-millionth part of an 

In the late summer of 1879 he realized 

with growing excitement that a key posi- 
tion had been won. He had a dynamo 
supplying constant high voltage, and a 
tight glass globe containing a high vacu- 
um. In his mind's eye he saw what might 
be done with an extremely fine, highly 
resistant incandescing substance under 
these conditions. His state of tension is 
reflected in the laboratory notebooks by 
such exclamations as: "S - - - ! Glass 
busted by Boehm!" All that remained for 
him was to discover a filament that 
would endure. 

The Carbon Filament 

In late August or early September— 
about a year after he first took up his 
search— he turned back to experiment- 
ing with carbon, this time for good. The 
rods of carbon he had tried earlier had 
been impossible to handle, as he now 
understood, because carbon in its porous 
state has a marked propensity for ab- 
sorbing gases. But once he had a truly 
high vacuum and a method for expelling 
occluded gases he saw that he might 
achieve better results with carbon than 
with platinum. 

In a shed in back of the laboratory 
there was a line of kerosene lamps always 
burning, and a laborer engaged in scrap- 
ing the lampblack from the glass chim- 
neys to make carbon cake. But lampblack 
carbon by itself was not durable enough 
to be made into fine lamp filaments. Edi- 
son and Upton had an-ived at the conclu- 
sion that, given a 100-volt multiple-arc 
circuit, the resistance of the lamps should 
be raised to about 200 ohms; this meant 
that the filament could be no thicker 
than a 64th of an inch. 

Through the summer months Edison 
and his staff worked at the tantalizing 
task of making fine reeds of lampblack 
carbon mixed with tar. His assistants 
kept kneading away at this putty-like 
substance for hours. It seemed impos- 
sible to make threads out of it; as an 
assistant complained one day, the stuff 

"How long did you knead it?" Edison 

"More than an hour." 

"Well just keep on for a few hours 
more and it will come out all right." 

Before long they were able to make 
filaments as thin as seven thousandths 
of an inch. Edison then systematically 
investigated the relations between the 
electrical resistance, shape and heat 
radiation of the filaments. On October 
7, 1879, he entered in his notebook 
a report on 24 hours of work. "A spiral 
made of burnt lampblack was even bet- 
ter than the Wallace (soft carbon) mix- 


hire." This was indeed promising: the 
threads lasted an hour or two before 
they burned out. But it was not yet 
good enough. 

As he felt himself approaching the 
goal Edison drove his co-workers harder 
than ever. They held watches over cur- 
rent tests around the clock, one man 
getting a few hours' sleep while another 
remained awake. One of the laboratory 
assistants invented what was called a 
"corpse-reviver," a sort of noise machine 
that would be set going with horrible 
effect to waken anyone who overslept. 
Upton said that Edison "could never 
understand the limitations of the 
strength of other men because his own 
mental and physical endurance seemed 
to be without limit." 

The laboratory notebooks for October, 
1879, show Edison's mood of anticipation 
pervading the whole staff. He pushed on 
with hundreds of trials of fine filaments, 
so attenuated that no one could conceive 

how they could stand up under heat. 
Finally he tried various methods of 
treating cotton threads, hoping that their 
fibrous texture might give strength to 
the filament even after they had been 
carbonized. Before heating them in the 
furnace he packed them with powdered 
carbon in an earthenware crucible 
sealed with fire clay. After many failures 
in the effort to clamp the delicate fila- 
ment to platinum lead-in wires, Edison 
learned to mold them together with 
lampblack and then fuse the joint be- 
tween them in the act of carbonization. 
Then, as Edison later related, it was 
necessary to take the filament to the 
glass blower's shed in order to seal it 
within a globe: "With the utmost pre- 
caution Batchelor took up the precious 
carbon, and I marched after him, as if 
guarding a mighty treasure. To our con- 
sternation, just as we reached the glass 
blower's bench, the wretched carbon 
broke. We turned back to the main 
laboratory and set to work again. It was 

late in the afternoon before we produced 
another carbon, which was broken by 
a jeweler's screwdriver falling against 
it. But we turned back again and before 
nightfall the carbon was completed and 
inserted in the lamp. The bulb was ex- 
hausted of air and sealed, the current 
turned on, and the sight we had so long 
desired to see met our eyes." 

"Ordinary Thread" 

The entries in the laboratory note- 
books, although bare and impersonal, 
nonetheless convey the drama and sense 
of triumphant resolution pervading the 
laboratory that night: "October 21— 
No. 9 ordinary thread Coats Co. cord 
No. 29, came up to one-half candle and 
was put on 18 cells battery permanently 

at 1:30 A.M No. 9 on from 1:30 

A.M. till 3 P.M.-13X hours and was then 
raised to 3 gas jets for one hour then 
cracked glass and busted." 

As the light went out the weary men 

picted in one of Edison's notebooks. Thi> 
lamp had a filament of platinum. It mehed. 

FRANCIS R. UPTON made invaluable calculations for Edison's system. An electrical en- 
gineer who had studied with Hermann von Helmholtz, he was named "Culture" by Edison. 


The Invention of the Electric Light 

waiting there jumped from their chairs 
and shouted with joy. Edison, one of 
them recalled, remained quiet and then 
said: "If it can bum that number of hours 
I know I can make it bum a hundred." 
Yet all the workers at Menlo Park— Edi- 
son, Upton, Kruesi, Boehm and the rest- 
were completely astonished at their suc- 
cess. They had become accustomed to 
laboring without hope. "They never 
dreamed," as one contemporary account 
put it, "that their long months ... of 
hard work could be ended thus abruptly, 
and almost by accident. The suddenness 
of it takes their breath away." 

For once Edison tried to be discreet 
and keep his momentous discoveries a 
secret until he could improve upon his 
lamp filament. At length, after experi- 
menting with various cellulose fibers, 
he found that paper, in the form of tough 
Bristol cardboard, proved most endur- 
ing when carbonized. Edison was ex- 
ultant when this filament burned for 170 
hours, and swore that he would perfect 
his lamp so that it would withstand 400 
to 1,000 hours of incandescence before 
any news of it was published. 

On November 1, 1879, he executed a 
patent application for a carbon-filament 
lamp. Its most significant passage was 
the declaration: "The object of the in- 
vention is to produce electric lamps giv- 
ing light by incandescence, which lamps 
shall have high resistance, so as to allow 
the practical subdivision of the electric 
light. . . . The invention consists in a 
light-giving body of carbon wire ... to 
offer great resistance to the passage of 
the electric current, and at the same 
time present but a slight surface from 
which radiation can take place." The 
specifications called for a distinctive 
one-piece all-glass container, lead-in 

wires of platinum that passed through 
the glass base and were fused to the 
carbon filament, and joints that were 
sealed by fusing the glass. 

Here were the essential features of 
the basic Edison carbon-filament lamp, 
in the form that was to be known to the 
world during the next half century. It 
was not the "first" electric light, nor 
even the first incandescent electric 
lamp. It was, however, the first practical 
and economical electric light for uni- 
versal domestic use. 

Edison had spent more than $42,000 
on his experiments-far more than he 
had been advanced by his backers. Now 
he asked for more money so that he 
might complete a pilot light-and-power 
station at Menlo Park: But the directors 
were still uncertain about the future of 
the invention. Was it "only a laboratory 
toy," as one of them charged? Would 
it not need a good deal of work before it , 
became marketable? Crosvenor Lowrey 
stoutly defended his protege\ He got no 
results until he prematurely, and over 
Edison's objections, made the secret of 
the electric lamp public. 

Rumors had been spreading for sev- 
eral weeks. New Jersey neighbors told 
of brilliant lights blazing all night at 
Menlo Park, and railroad passengers be- 
tween New York and Philadelphia also 
saw the bright lights with astonishment 
from their train windows. In Wall Street 
there was a flurry of speculation in 
Edison stock; the price rose briefly to 
$3,500 a share. 

Then came a front-page story in The 
New York Herald on Sunday, December 
21, 1879. There followed an exclusive 
article about the inventor's struggles for 
the past 14 months, told to the world, 
con amore, by Marshall Fox, who had 

written much of Edison before. The de- 
tailed treatment of such an adventure 
in applied science as a feature story was 
something of an innovation. Also some- 
what unusual in the journalism of the 
time was its relative accuracy of detail, 
owing to help provided by Upton, who 
also supplied drawings for the Herald's 
Sunday supplement. The writer did his 
best to explain how this light was pro- 
duced from a "tiny strip of paper that 
a breath would blow away"; why the 
paper filament did not burn up but be- 
came as hard as granite; and how the 
light-without-flame could be ignited— 
without a match— when an electric cur- 
rent passed through it, giving a "bright, 
beautiful light, like the mellow sunset 
of an Italian autumn." 

In the week following Christmas hun- 
dreds of visitors made their way to the 
New Jersey hamlet. Edison hurried with 
his preparations for an announced New 
Year's Eve display as best he could, but 
was forced to use his whole staff of 60 
persons to handle the crowds. He could 
do no more than put on an improvised 
exhibition, with only one dynamo and 
a few dozen lights. 

The closing nights of the year 1879 
turned into a spontaneous festival that 
reached its climax on New Year's Eve, 
when a mob of 3,000 sight-seers flooded 
the place. The visitors never seemed to 
tire of turning those lights on and off. 

The inventor promised the sight-seers 
that this was but a token of what was 
in store. He was awaiting the completion 
of a new generator, he said, and intended 
to illuminate the surroundings of Menlo 
Park, for a square mile, with 800 lights. 
After that he would light up the dark- 
ness of the neighboring towns, and even 
the cities of Newark and New York. 


Hi-fi is a field in which erroneous ideas abound. 
Both human and electronic factors are involved in 
the accurate reproduction of sound. 

11 High Fidelity 

Edgar Villchur 

Two chapters from his book Reproduction of Sound published in 1962. 

It might appear that following a dis- 
cussion of the nature of sound, the 
logical subject to consider would be 
the criteria for reproducing this sound 
with "high fidelity" to the original. One 
other element, however, should be cov- 
ered first— the way in which we hear. 

Perception of Sound 

We have already seen, in examining 
units of measurement for pitch and 
power— the octave and the decibel— that 
our perception of sound does not neces- 
sarily correspond directly to the objec- 
tive reality. The illusion is consistent, 
however, so that a given sound always 
has the same effect on a normal ear. 

An important element in the percep- 
tion of sound was discovered by Fletcher 
and Munson in 1933. These investigators 
demonstrated that our impression of 
loudness did not depend solely on the 
amplitude of the sound wave, but on 
other things as well. Specifically, they 
showed that sound in the lower treble 
range of the frequency spectrum-the 
3500-cps region— appeared to be much 
louder than sound of the same amplitude 

at any other part of the spectrum. Thus, 
if the frequency scale was swept by a 
tone which continuously rose in fre- 
quency but kept exactly the same ampli- 
tude, the loudness, or apparent ampli- 
tude, would increase to a maximum at 
about 3500 cps and then fall off again. 

This fact does not have much practical 
interest for the person listening to re- 
produced music, except as it describes 
the relative nuisance value of different 
types of noise. No matter how lop-sided 
our interpretation of acoustic reality, we 
make the same interpretation in the con- 
cert hall as in our living room, and the 
craftsmen who designed musical instru- 
ments (who worked to satisfy their ears, 
not sound-level meters) perceived sound 
in the same way. 

Fletcher and Munson made a second 
discovery, however, that does bear di- 
rectly on the reproduction of sound. 
They found that the effect described 
above took place in varying degree, de- 
pending on the over-all level of the 
sound. For very high amplitude sound 
the drop in loudness with frequency 
below 3500 cps hardly occurred at all, 


while for very soft sound the effect was 
maximum. Above 3500 cps the effect re- 
mained constant, within 2 or 3 db, no 
matter what the over-all sound level. 

The well-known "equal loudness con- 
tours," also referred to as the Fletcher- 
Munson curves, are reproduced in Fig. 
2—1. Each curve plots the sound ampli- 
tude required to produce the same per- 
ceived loudness at different frequencies 
of the scale. It can be seen that normal 
hearing losses in the bass end become 
progressively greater as the over-all 
sound level is decreased. 

This means that if an orchestra plays 
a musical passage at the sound level rep- 
resented by 90 db, and if this music is 
reproduced at the 60 db level, we will 
hear the bass with less relative loudness 
than we would have heard it at the con- 
cert itself. If you follow the 90- and 
60-db curves, shown superimposed in 
Fig. 2—2, you will see that there is ap- 
proximately a 14 db perceived loss at 
50 cps— it takes 14 db more of actual 
amplitude, in the lower curve, to pro- 
duce the same relative loudness at 50 
cps as it does in the upper curve. 

In order to re-create the original bal- 
ance of perceived frequencies at low vol- 

ume levels, it has become customary to 
introduce bass boost which is related to 
the setting of the volume control, either 
automatically or otherwise. 

A volume control tied to automatic 
bass boost is called a loudness control. 
(Some loudness controls also boost the 
treble spectrum appreciably at low vol- 
ume settings. There is no justification 
for this in the Fletcher-Munson curves. ) 

High Fidelity to What? 

The assumption will be made here 
that the purpose of high fidelity equip- 
ment is to reproduce as closely as possi- 
ble the experience of the concert hall, 
not to transcend or improve it. 

I remember an exhibition at New 
York's Museum of Modern Art, during 
the late thirties, of "high fidelity" repro- 
ductions of water color paintings. Life- 
size reproductions were hung side by 
side with the originals, and it was often 
difficult or impossible to tell them apart. 
There was no question in anyone's mind 
about how to judge the quality of these 
prints. The only criterion was accuracy. 
The public that visited the exhibit was 
used to looking at paintings, and was 
able to make an immediate comparison 

Fig. 2-1. The Fletcher- 
Munton equal loud- 
ness contours. For 
•ach curvo, the 
height at any point 

repre»enf» the found 
amplitude required to 
produce the •am* 
• ubjective loudness 
as at 1000 cps. (After 
Fletcher and Munson) 


y x 



















ai 60 



s ^\ 









>— — 
















-1 ll 




500 WOO 2000 


5000 10,000 20,000 


High Fidelity 


* .20 
> S «!0 

£ z 

i! » 


20 DB 



1 H— 

3D6 «o 




I ' 










20 ' ' ' • • 

100 iooo 10 



Fig. 2-2. The 60 and 
90 db Fletcher-Mun- 
ton curvet superim- 
posed. The shaded 
area represents the 
difference in normal 
hearing loss from one 
sound level to the 

between the copy and the original. No. 
one thought of the prints as entities in 
themselves, with qualities independent 
of the qualities of the originals. 

This point of view does not always 
hold in the field of high fidelity musical 
reproduction. Only a minority of today's 
high fidelity public are concert-goers. 
Many have never attended a live con- 
cert; they know the sound of the orches- 
tra or of individual musical instruments 
only as it is reported by amplifiers and 
loudspeakers. They may know what they 
like in reproduced sound, but they have 
no way of evaluating the realism of 

This partly explains why so much vari- 
ation is tolerated in audio equipment. 
The same record may sound very dif- 
ferent when played through different 
brands of equipment, each brand equally 
acceptable in the market place. The 
evaluation of high fidelity components 
is popularly thought of as an entirely 
subjective matter, like comparing the 
tone of one violin to that of another 
rather than like holding a facsimile up to 
its original. 

For similar reasons high fidelity dem- 
onstrations such as the annual Hi-Fi 
shows can get away with a lot of sound 
that is startling but essentially non-mu- 
sical. Some of the "reproduced" sound 
that greets the show visitor is necessarily 
unfamiliar because it has no live coun- 
terpart. A harmonica blown up in vol- 
ume to the dimensions of a theatre organ 
is a new and different instrument. A 

crooner whispering into a microphone 
an inch away invents a new sound; his 
unamplified voice is never heard in pub- 
lic. A combination of Bongo drum, 
chimes and electric guitar creates a tutti 
which one may like or dislike, but for 
which there is no equivalent in one's 
memory to serve as a live standard. 

Such sound can only be accepted as 
a self-sufficient entity, like an old calen- 
dar chromo. Any resemblance to five 
music or to painting is purely coinci- 
dental, and the science and /or art of 
reproduction is not really involved. 

High fidelity has undoubtedly in- 
creased rather than decreased the ranks 
of music lovers, and there are probably 
more people than ever who are unim- 
pressed with gimmick sound. Many de- 
signers and manufacturers in the field 
work only for naturalness of reproduc- 
tion. The designer of integrity avoids 
like the plague those exaggerations that 
sometimes attract the novice— over-em- 
phasized bass for "depth," over-em- 
phasized mid-range for "presence," 
over-emphasized treble for "brilliance." 
These distortions are more properly 
called, respectively, boominess, nasality 
or "honkiness," and harshness. 

Many demonstrations are not, fortu- 
nately, of the gimmick type, and use 
musical material played at musical lev- 
els. There have also been concerts staged 
with live musicians, in which direct com- 
parisons of reproduced sound to the 
sound of the live instruments could be 
made, in the same way that direct com- 


parisons of prints to original paintings 
were made at the Museum of Modern 
Art. The live vs. recorded public concert 
is one method of giving direction to 
equipment designers and perspective to 
high fidelity consumers. Although trans- 
ferring concert hall atmosphere to the 
home has special problems of its own, 
success in creating an identity of sound 
in the concert hall itself solves the major 
part of the problem. Even more vital to 
maintaining balance and perspective in 
the high fidelity world is live concert 

We are now prepared to discuss the 
technical standards of quality that may 
be applied to a sound reproducing sys- 
tem. There will be no dividing lines pro- 
posed, at which low fidelity becomes 
medium, high, or super. 

Frequency Response 

The frequency response of a sound re- 
producing system, or of one of its com- 
ponents, describes its relative handling 
of parts of the input signal which differ 
in frequency. "Handling" may refer to 
electrical amplification, as in an ampli- 
fier, to conversion of mechanical to elec- 
trical energy, as in a pickup, or to con- 
version from electrical to acoustical 
energy, as in a loudspeaker. 

There are two aspects of frequency 
response: the range of frequencies han- 
dled, and the uniformity with which the 
unit or system responds to different fre- 
quencies. Knowledge of the first of these 
is useless without knowledge of the sec- 
ond. Let us therefore pass over the ques- 
tion of range for the moment, and deter- 
mine what uniformity will be required 
for the range we finally decide on. 

Uniformity of Response 

Although the trained ear can usually 
perceive a change of sound level of a 
db or less in test signals, the average 
observer is probably less sensitive to a 
change of sound level in a particular 
frequency range of a musical passage. 

Reproduction which remains constant 
over its frequency range within one or 
two db would thus probably be ade- 
quate for perfect apparent fidelity, other 
things being equal. 

This standard can be met in amplifiers 
without much difficulty, even at high 
power levels. The best pickups are also 
able to conform, but loudspeakers are 
laggard in this respect. 

The results of non-uniform reproduc- 
tion are several. Undue volume in a par- 
ticular section of the sound spectrum 
can produce stridency or boominess as 
opposed to natural musical sound. More 
particularly, the existence of sharp peaks 
in the response curve, usually repre- 
senting a resonant condition, mean that 
hangover or ringing may be present— 
the speaker cone or section of cone will 
continue to vibrate after the signal has 
stopped. This is perceived as a "rain- 
barrel" effect, a muddying up of the 
sound and impairment of the distinct- 
ness of the different instrumental voices. 
Such an effect is also indicated when the 
listener is unable to distinguish clearly 
the pitch of low-frequency tones. 

Another important effect of peaked 
frequency response is the exaggeration 
of unwanted noise components such 
as turntable rumble or record surface 
scratch. This effect was not given its due 
recognition in the earlier days of high 
fidelity, when the existence of rumble 
and surface noise was proudly displayed 
as evidence of extended frequency range. 

The amount of surface noise in a 
good quality modern LP record and the 
amount of rumble from a good record 
player are such that there will not be 
much significant noise produced in a 
system with uniform frequency response, 
even though the frequency range be ex- 
tended to the limits of the present state 
of the art. In a comparison test con- 
ducted recently between two tweeters, 
the one which was able to reproduce 
almost an octave more of treble (into the 
inaudible region) showed a dramatic 


High Fidelity 

decrease of surface noise, due to its ex- 
treme evenness of response. There was 
no selective reproduction of discrete fre- 
quency regions, and the switch to the 
superior speaker produced a fuller, more 
natural treble simultaneously with the 
reduction in surface noise. 

A similar situation exists with regard 
to turntable rumble. A peaked system 
whose response falls off rapidly below 
60 cps may exhibit more turntable 
rumble than a smooth system whose 
full response extends an octave lower. 

Tell-tale evidence of the existence of 
peaked reproduction in the bass may be 
gathered from listening to the reproduc- 
tion of speech. The male speaking voice 
ordinarily contains no sound compo- 
nents whose frequency is below 100 cps, 
and the reproducing system should give 
no hint (by a boomy, resonant quality 
in the voice) that it is also capable of 
speaking in the tones of the double bass. 

Range of Response 

It is generally agreed among acoustics 
authorities that the range of 40 to 15,000 
cps is sufficient for perfect or near-per- 
fect apparent fidelity in the reproduction 
of orchestral music. The phrase "near- 
perfect" is meant to imply that when 
such a range has been achieved the de- 
signer should direct his attention to inac- 
curacies of reproduction more gross than 
are associated with the frequency limita- 
tions indicated. 

For the pipe organ enthusiast, how- 
ever, there is significant intelligence 
(significant, that is, from the point of 
view of the emotional impact of the 
music) down to 32 cps or lower. 32.7 
cps is three octaves below middle C rela- 
tive to A-440, and is the lowest note of 
the average pipe organ, although many 
larger organs reach down an octave 
lower. These low organ tones are distin- 
guished by the fact that they contain 
a strong fundamental component. The 
lowest tones of the piano, on the other 
hand, contain no fundamental energy 

that significantly affects the quality of 
the sound. Even though the lowest key 
on the piano strikes 27.5 cps, response 
down to this frequency is not required 
for the reproduction of piano music. 

Probably no characteristic of audio 
components is so freely booted about 
by advertising copywriters as frequency 
range. Any numerical range of frequen- 
cies listed is totally meaningless unless 
accompanied by a description of the 
decibel tolerance above or below refer- 
ence that is being used, and, for a loud- 
speaker, by a description of off-axis re- 
sponse as well. A 3-in. speaker made 
for portable radios will "respond" when 
stimulated by a 30-cps signal— perhaps 
by having its cone tear loose and fly out 
into the air— and almost any speaker, 
even a woofer, will make some kind of 
sound when stimulated by a high-pow- 
ered 15,000-cps signal. A frequency re- 
sponse rating must mean something 
more than that a signal of given fre- 
quency makes a speaker move audibly, 
or that it makes an amplifier show an 
electrical output of some sort at its ter- 
minals. It must mean that within a stated 
frequency range, and, for power devices, 
within a stated range of power, the fun- 
damental output of a given device is 
uniform to a stated degree. 

Treble Dispersion 

The on-axis response of a loudspeaker 
may be very deceiving, because the 
higher frequencies tend to be directed 
in a beam which continually narrows as 
the frequency is raised. Good sound dis- 
persion must therefore be a qualifying 
factor for any treble response curve. 

A speaker which has relatively uni- 
form treble output both on-axis and off- 
axis (over a reasonably large solid angle 
—perhaps 45 degrees in any direction 
from the axis) will reproduce music with 
a "spaciousness" that does not exist 
when there is more concentrated beam- 
ing of the treble. Furthermore, severely 
attenuated off-axis response in the treble 


means that the total sound power radi- 
ated at treble frequencies is considerably 
less than that implied by the on-axis 
response curve. It is this total radiated 
power, rather than the on-axis pressure, 
that determines whether a speaker will 
sound dull, natural, or over-bright in a 
normally reverberant room. 

Transient Response 

Transient response refers to the ac- 
curacy of reproduction of the wave 
envelope, and is concerned with the 
reproduction of attack and decay char- 
acteristics of the sound. We have seen 
that uniform frequency response predicts 
the absence of ringing; if the steady- 
state frequency response curve does not 
have peaks, the reproduced sound will 
die away just as in the original. 

Consider, for example, the tone repre- 
sented in (A) of Fig. 2—3. Perfect re- 
production would produce an identical 
wave form, differing perhaps only in 
amplitude, while poor transient response 
would be indicated by the hangover that 
is apparent in (B). The continuation of 
the reproduced signal after the original 


Fig. 2-3. Poor transient response. 

has ended may be compared to a color 
smear on a reproduced painting. 

Attack time involves the reproduction 
of frequencies higher than the funda- 
mental. Although a percussive tone may 
have a low fundamental pitch, the fre- 
quency components associated with its 
steep attack characteristic may be very 
high. Natural reproduction of a drum 

beat through a two-way speaker sys- 
tem may thus be accomplished by the 
"woofer" handling the fundamental tone 
and its proper decay, while the "tweeter" 
contributes the sound components that 
make up the sharp attack. 

Harmonic and Intermodulatlon 

Reproducing devices have a charac- 
teristic way of performing with less than 
perfect accuracy. In addition to the fre- 
quencies at which they are asked to 
vibrate mechanically (or alternate elec- 
trically) they introduce new modes of 
oscillation of their own— and these new 
frequencies are harmonics, integral mul- 
tiples of the original frequency. This 
inaccuracy is called harmonic distor- 
tion. It is measured as the ratio of the 
amplitude of the spurious harmonics to 
the true signal, in per cent. 

We have seen that harmonics of fun- 
damental frequencies are produced in 
any case by musical instruments. Yet 
small amounts of harmonic distortion 
produce very unpleasant effects. The 
sound becomes harsh, unmusical; the 
bass is wooden and the treble painful. 

The primary reason for this is that 
with harmonic distortion comes an at- 
tendant evil— intermodulation distortion. 
Intermodulation distortion can be de- 
scribed as the introduction of new sound 
components, at sum and difference fre- 
quencies, when tones of two or more fre- 
quencies are passed through a non-linear 
system— that is, a system which creates 
harmonic distortion. These sum and dif- 
ference frequencies are harmonically un- 
related to the original musical tones. 
They are musically discordant, and they 
serve to create raucous, unmusical sound 
in a degree proportional to their relative 
strength. The formation of intermodula- 
tion products is illustrated in Fig. 2—4. 

The primary importance of low dis- 
tortion has always been recognized by 
audio authorities. It has also become in- 







1000 CPS 


50 CPS 





AND 1050 CPS 

1000 CPS 

Fig. 2-4. Intermodulation distortion as a result of harmonic distortion of the low-frequency wave 
form. Note that the wave envelope of the high-frequency tone is "modulated." 

High Fidelity 

creasingly recognized by the high fidel- 
ity public in recent years, after the first 
flush of excitement over reproducing 
regions of the frequency spectrum pre- 
viously untouched. Amplifier manufac- 
turers now feature distortion data over 
frequency response data; unfortunately 
it is very rare for loudspeaker specifi- 
cations to make any quantitative refer- 
ence to distortion at all. The reason lies 
in the fact that while both harmonic dis- 
tortion and intermodulation distortion 
(the latter is usually greater by a factor 
of 3 or 4 ) can be kept to extremely low 
values in high quality amplifiers— a small 
fraction of one per cent at rated power— 
the corresponding values for loudspeak- 
ers are much higher. In the octave below 
60 cps it is a rare speaker indeed which 
can hold harmonic distortion, at any 
appreciable sound level, below the 5 per 
cent mark over the entire octave, and 
many speakers produce percentages of 
distortion in this frequency region ten 

times as great. But the listening results 
are not as bad as might appear at first 
glance: speaker response is normally 
severely attenuated in this lower range, 
which helps, and there is comparatively 
little musical material of such low fre- 
quency to be distorted. 

When the reproducing system has a 
minimum of low frequency distortion, 
very low bass tones of high power, such 
as might be produced by organ pedal 
pipes, not only remain pure in timbre 
themselves but do not create intermodu- 
lation with the rest of the music; they 
do not destroy the purity of the treble 
by introducing false tones. 

Power Capability 

The power capability of a high-quality 
reproducing system should be such as 
to be able to establish an intensity level 
of sound in the living room equal to the 
level at a good seat in the original con- 
cert hall. The electrical power required 


of the amplifier for achieving this goal 
depends upon the efficiency of the 
speaker, and the sound power required 
of the speaker depends on the size and 
other acoustical characteristics of the 
room. Concert-hall level can be estab- 
lished in a living room with a tiny 
fraction of the acoustical power of a 
symphony orchestra, because the lower 
power is concentrated in a much smaller 

"Concert-hall level" is sometimes mis- 
interpreted to mean the sound level 
which would be created if the orchestra 
were somehow jammed into the living 
room itself. The writer has yet to ex- 
perience at a live concert, even during 
fortissimo passages, an assault on his 
ears that compares to hi-fi assaults he 
has weathered. It is interesting to note 
that certain hi-fi demonstrations pre- 
clude intelligible conversation which is 
not shouted, while whispered conver- 
sations in a concert hall are liable to 
prove extremely distracting and annoy- 
ing to one's neighbors. It is the sound 
intensity level at the ear, not the power 
of the orchestra, that we are trying to 

Noise Level 

Any sound component not present in 
the original program material, other 
than distortion products, is referred to 
as noise, even though it may be periodic 
and not conform to our strictly scientific 
definition. Hum, rumble, surface scratch, 
tube hiss or other circuit noise and sim- 
ilar disturbances tend to destroy the 
auditory illusion, and must be kept to a 

A standard for satisfactorily low noise 
has been established by the FCC for FM 
broadcast stations. It is that the power 
ratio of the maximum signal to the noise 
must always be at least 60 db; this rep- 
resents a ratio of one million to one. 

Dynamic Range 

The dynamic range, or range of ampli- 

tude of the reproduced sound from soft- 
est to loudest, is determined by the two 
factors just discussed, noise level and 
power capability. 

Soft musical passages can be masked 
by any of the types of noise referred to, 
and therefore the lowest sound levels 
that can be used must be much louder 
than the noise level. The maximum sound 
levels that can be used, of course, are 
limited by the power capability of the 

A dynamic range of 60 db, or a mil- 
lion to one power ratio between highest 
and lowest sound levels, is generally 
considered adequate for reproduction 
of the largest symphony orchestra. 


All of the above considerations apply 
equally to monaural and to stereophonic 
reproducing systems. These objective 
elements of equipment fidelity— low dis- 
tortion, adequate frequency response, 
dynamic range, etc.— are able, in stereo, 
to contribute more to the subjective illu- 
sion of musical reality than in a mon- 
aural system. 

A stereo record-reproduce system 
has in effect two parallel and complete 
monaural systems. The work of each 
component along the way is done twice. 
The sound is picked up by two separate 
microphones; the output of each micro- 
phone is recorded on a separate track of 
the tape; the record groove, although 
not doubled, is cut in such a way as to 
independently contain the record of 
each signal channel; the pickup con- 
tains two separate generating elements 
which independently sense and trans- 
mit each signal channel; the two signal 
outputs of the pickup are sent through 
independent amplifiers and fed to two 
independent loudspeakers. There are 
variations on this ideal scheme, but the 
above describes the basic concept of 

The purpose of this dual-channel re- 
production is, in the simplest terms, to 


High Fidelity 

help recreate the acoustical atmosphere 
of the concert hall. In the old-fashioned 
stereopticon each visual channel gave a 
slightly different perspective view of the 
subject. Similarly, in stereo recording, 
each microphone gets a slightly differ- 
ent auditory perspective. It is important 
to note that this auditory perspective is 
of the orchestra or soloists in the hall in 
which they are performing, not merely 
of the musical performers in the ab- 
stract. This is important because a good 
part of the sound that reaches our ears 
at a concert does not come directly from 
the orchestra, but is reflected from the 
walls and ceiling of the concert hall. 

The channels of a stereo system are 
identified as "right and "left." This does 
not mean that one microphone picks up 
the sound of the right section of the 
orchestra only, and that the other micro- 
phone picks up the sound from the left 
section of the orchestra. It does mean 
that one microphone has a right- 
oriented perspective of the total sound 
in the recording hall, and that the other 
microphone has a left-oriented perspec- 
tive of the total sound. When these two 
recorded channels (which, like the two 
photos on a stereopticon card, are very 
similar to each other) are reproduced 
through two separate loudspeakers they 
create, although not perfectly, the illu- 
sion of the acoustical environment and 
sense of space of the concert hall. There 
is an increased awareness of the phys- 
ical position of different instruments, 
but this is very much less important 

than the general increase in realism and 
the consequent increase of clarity, par- 
ticularly from the point of view of the 
distinctness of the different musical 

There is an approach to stereo 
recording, commonly referred to as 
"ping-pong" stereo, which provides an 
exaggerated separation between the 
right and left channels. If only the left 
side of the orchestra were playing dur- 
ing a particular passage, there would be 
practically no sound from the right re- 
cording channel. The left-right orienta- 
tion of the different instruments is the 
primary goal in this case, rathe; than 
reproduction of the original acoustical 
environment. The degree to which one's 
attention is directed to the physical 
position of the instruments in "ping- 
pong" stereo is often much greater than 
that at the live concert itself. 

The greatest benefit of good stereo 
recording and reproduction is that it 
frees us, to a greater extent than was 
possible previously, from the acoustical 
environment of the listening room, and 
transports us to some extent to the 
acoustical environment of the hall in 
which the recording was made. The 
normal living room does not provide the 
proper acoustical atmosphere for a 
musical concert, particularly of a large 
orchestra. Musical instrument designers 
worked in terms of the tonal qualities 
that would be produced in the type of 
concert hall with which they were 



The phonograph is a classic example 
of an invention that cannot be cred- 
ited wholly to one man. In 1877 Edison 
directed his assistant, John Kruesi, to 
construct the first complete record- 
reproduce system, but sound recorders 
were sold on a commercial b?sis as early 
as 1860, and Thomas Young's "A Course 
of Lectures on Natural Philosophy" de- 
scribed and illustrated a crude but prac- 
tical sound recorder in 1807. 

Young's recorder consisted of a sharp 
metal stylus held by spring tension 
against a revolving cylinder, the cylinder 
coated with wax and turned by a gov- 
ernor-controlled gravity motor. When 
a vibrating body such as a tuning fork 
was held against the stylus, a wavy 
line was cut into the wax. This line rep- 
resented the wave form of the vibra- 
tions, and it could be studied and ana- 
lyzed at leisure. The recorder was a 
mechanical draftsman, that could sense 
very small motions and record pressure 
changes that took place within a period 
of a very small fraction of a second. 

By 1856 Leon Scott de Martinville 
had constructed the "phonautograph" 

(self-writer of sound) illustrated in 
Fig. 3—1. The sound wave form was 
scratched by a hog-bristle stylus on the 
surface of a cylinder coated with lamp- 
black, but the big advance over Young's 
machine was the fact that the phonauto- 
graph could record directly from the 
air. The force of the acoustical vibrations 

Fig. 3-1. The phonautograph of lion Scott do 
Martinville — a commercial sound recorder of 
the eighteen sixties. (Courtesy Smithsonian 


High Fidelity 

was concentrated by a horn onto a dia- 
phragm, and the stylus was attached to 
the diaphragm, so that the recording 
needle did not have to actually touch 
the vibrating source of sound. This de- 
vice, which corresponds in function to 
the modern oscilloscope, was a catalogue 
item of the Paris firm of Koenig, and was 
sold as a measuring instrument to acous- 
tical laboratories. 

The phonautograph which is at the 
Smithsonian Institution at Washington 
would undoubtedly reproduce music if 
a proper record were placed on its re- 
volving cylinder. The theoretical possi- 
bility of playback was understood then, 
too, but the lampblack records were use- 
less for playback, as their grooves were 
not rigid enough to direct the vibrations 
of a playback needle. About half a year 
before Edison got his brainstorm Charles 
Cros conceived a method for bringing 
the groove sinuosities back to life as 

sound. The lampblack recording was to 
be photo-engraved on a metal cylinder, 
and running a needle through the hard 
groove would then cause the needle to 
vibrate from side to side, in the same 
time pattern as the hog bristle stylus 
that first inscribed the line. 

For reasons which may be related to 
nineteenth century differences in tradi- 
tion between the scholar and the indus- 
trial engineer, Cros didn't even construct 
a working model, but merely filed a com- 
plete, sealed description of his system 
with the Academie des Sciences. On the 
other hand, less than a month after 
Edison first conceived of a reproducing 
phonograph the country was reading 
about a working unit in newspaper head- 
lines. There was a great stir of excite- 
ment over this amazing tonal imitator, 
(see Fig. 3-2) with public demonstra- 
tions, lectures before august scientific 
bodies, and a visit to the White House. 

Rg. 3-2. Edit on with his tin-foil phonograph. (Photograph by Brady — courtesy Smithsonian Insti- 


The excitement soon died down, as 
the Edison machine was an impractical 
toy, with neither permanent records nor 
usable fidelity. The recorded groove was 
indented into a semi-hard material, tin 
foil; it was only able to retain its shape 
partially, and that for very few play- 
ings. Subsequent technical improve- 
ments, however, made the phonograph 
a popular device by the turn of the cen- 
tury. It is curious that our modem re- 
cording system, in which the record is a 
mechanical copy of the original master, 
is more closely related to Cros' system 
than to Edison's. Emil Berliner, the 
father of the moulded or cast record, 
began his research work by successfully 
carrying out Cros' proposals. 

The Mechanical or "Acoustic" 

It would be useful to consider the de- 
sign of the non-electric phonograph, as 
illustrated in (A) of Fig. 3-3. A better 
insight can thereby be gained into the 


L_ 1 O Q O 

Fig. 3-3. (A) The mechanical phonograph. (B) 
The electric phonograph. 

function of the various components of 
a modern electronic system. 

The wave forms frozen into the record 
groove control the vibrations of the play- 
back stylus when the groove is dragged 
past the stylus by a revolving turntable. 
These stylus vibrations, although they 
contain a fairly large amount of me- 
chanical energy, engage practically no 
air, like the revolutions of a bladeless 
electric fan. The needle is therefore 
attached to a diaphragm, which vibrates 
in sympathy with the stylus and has a 
much larger surface area in contact with 
the air of the room. 

But even the reproducing diaphragm 
doesn't get a sufficient bite of the air 
for practical purposes. Therefore the dia- 
phragm is placed at the narrow throat 
of an acoustical horn, and the actual 
usable sound emerges into the room 
from the much larger mouth of the horn. 
The system works somewhat as though 
the diaphragm area were really that of 
the horn's mouth. 

It can be seen that all of the energy 
radiated by the horn is taken from the 
mechanical vibrations of the needle, and 
the forces between needle and record 
groove are necessarily great. This has 
obvious implications for record wear, 
but perhaps more important, the de- 
mands for power placed on the "sound 
box" or "speaker" (old-fashioned terms 
for the needle-diaphragm-head assem- 
bly) place a severe limitation on musi- 
cal fidelity. High distortion and peaked 
and severely limited frequency response 
are to be expected. 

The Phonograph Amplifier 

The solution to this problem lies in 
changing the function of the phono- 
graph pickup, from the primary genera- 
tor of sound power to a device which 
controls an outside source of power. If 
the power from the outside source is 
made to oscillate in imitation of the 
needle vibrations, two benefits can result: 

1. The final output sound derived 


High Fidelity 

from the record groove can be much 

2. The power demands on the 
pickup itself are no longer heavy. The 
pickup can be designed for quality 
rather than loudness; the problems 
of achieving uniform, extended fre- 
quency response and low distortion 
are considerably lessened. So, inci- 
dentally, is the required weight on 
the pickup and the grinding away of 
the record groove. 

The control of an outside source of 
power to conform to given oscillations 
is called amplification. The first phono- 
graph amplifier was pneumatic: the 
needle was made to actuate an air valve, 
which periodically throttled a flow of 
compressed air. Most of the work of ra- 
diating sound power was thus performed 
by the air compressor, and the stylus 
was relieved of part of its burden. 

All modern sound reproducing sys- 
tems use amplifiers, but unlike the first 
pneumatic systems these amplifiers are 
electronic. The phonograph pickup is no 
longer a sound generator but an elec- 
tric generator. It produces small alter- 
nating voltages at its terminals, whose 
wave forms conform to those of the 
groove and of the recorded sound. The 
pickup has to generate very little power, 
because the output voltage can be ampli- 
fied to almost any desired degree. The 
amplified electrical power must finally, 
of course, be converted back into sound 
by a loudspeaker. The two types of re- 
producing system, electrical and purely 
mechanical, are shown in Fig. 3—3. 

The Modern Sound Reproducing 

The purpose of the historical approach 
used above has been to furnish the 
reader with an appreciation of the rea- 
son for the modern audio system being 
designed as it is. With the electronic 
amplifier supplying the brute force, so 
to speak, the mechanical components- 
pickup and loudspeaker— can be built 

in such a way as to suppress the natural 
resonant tendencies inherent in mechani- 
cal vibratory systems. 

Before discussing each of the audio 
components in detail, it would be useful 
to make a brief survey of the entire re- 
producing system. A complete monaural 
system is illustrated in Fig. 3—4. 

First of all the disc record must be 
revolved by a motor and turntable. The 
chief operational requirements of this 
part of the system are that it revolve at 
the correct speed, that the speed be con- 
stant, and that extraneous vibrations 
do not communicate themselves to the 

The first of these requirements is for 
the purpose of keeping the reproduced 
music at the same absolute pitch at 
which it was recorded: too fast a turn- 
table speed will make the pitch sharp, 
and too low a speed will make it flat. 
The second condition listed, constant 
speed, is required in order to avoid pitch 
variations, or "wow." The third require- 
ment, lack of extraneous vibrations, 
keeps low-frequency noise called "rum- 
ble" out of the final sound. 

The groove variations are sensed by 
the needle, or stylus, which in high- 
quality systems is jewel tipped; it is 
usually diamond. The needle must have 
an unmarred, smooth surfaced, hard tip, 
normally of spherical shape. 

The pickup is an electric generator 
(usually either of the piezo-electric, 
variable reluctance, or moving-coil type) 
whose function is to translate the me- 
chanical vibrations of the needle into 
electrical oscillations of the same wave 
form. It must do this with minimum 
distortion of the wave form, and must 
not allow resonances of its own to in- 
fluence its output voltage significantly. 
It is also an advantage for the pickup 
to impose as little work as possible on 
the needle. The greater the force re- 
quired for the groove to displace the 
needle from side to side, the greater the 
vertical bearing force will have to be to 









a a a — [ 





Fig. 3-4. Diagram of a complete monaural •ound reproducing system. 

maintain proper and constant stylus- 
groove contact, and the greater the 
wear of both record and needle. 

The tone arm holds the pickup in 
place over the groove, and must pro- 
vide sufficient freedom of motion so 
that the pressure of the groove walls 
alone can make the needle move across 
the record, following the recorded spiral. 
It must also be free enough to follow 
warp and eccentricity of the disc easily. 
The tone arm must hold the pickup ap- 
proximately tangent to the groove being 
played, must provide the proper vertical 
force for the pickup, and must not allow 
its own resonant behavior to influence 
the system. 

The electrical output of one type of 
pickup, the piezo-electric, is usually fed 
directly to the amplifier. It is of the 
order of V2 volt or more, and is a fairly 
accurate replica of the recorded sound. 
This is so because the characteristic fre- 
quency response of the pickup is more 
or less the inverse image of the frequency 
characteristics "built in" to the record. 
(This last subject will be taken up in 
detail later.) 

The reluctance and moving-coil pick- 
ups, however, produce a much smaller 
amount of electrical energy. The output 

voltage of these pickups (which are 
classed together as magnetic types) may 
be as low as a few thousandths of a 
volt. Furthermore the characteristic fre- 
quency response of the magnetic pickup 
does not compensate for the way in 
which the frequency characteristics of 
the recorded sound has been doctored. 
Therefore the pickup output must be 
passed through a preamplifier before it 
enters the amplifier proper. 

The preamplifier is normally com- 
bined with the main amplifier control 
sections (volume and tone controls). 
Its functions are to increase the output 
voltage of the pickup, and to compensate 
accurately for the frequency character- 
istics of the record so that the sound is 
not deficient in bass and heavy in the 
treble. Since different record companies 
have made records with different char- 
acteristics the preamplifier may allow 
the operator to choose between several 
types of frequency compensation. The 
need for such control, which is called 
variable record equalization, has disap- 
peared with modem records, which are 
standardized on the RIAA recording 

The control section of the amplifier 
allows the operator to regulate the vol- 


High Fidelity 

ume, and, in most cases, to either ac- 
centuate or attenuate ("boost" or "cut") 
the bass and treble portions of the repro- 
duced sound independently. The pri- 
mary function of tone control is to com- 
pensate for deficiencies in associated 
equipment or program material, and to 
compensate for acoustical conditions of 
the room in which the music is heard. 
When the control section and phono- 
graph preamplifier are combined on one 
chassis, the entire unit is commonly re- 
ferred to as a preamplifier. 

The power amplifier receives the elec- 
trical signal as it is finally shaped, and 
releases another signal, ideally identical 
in all respects except power. The power 
amplification may be tens of millions 
of times, from a fraction of a micro- 
watt (one millionth of a watt) to dozens 
of watts. 

Although the demands on the ampli- 
fier are very great, and although it 
appears to be the most complicated of 
the system components, it is the least 
imperfect of these components. The per- 
centages of harmonic and intermodula- 
tion distortion, the irregularities of fre- 
quency response, and the extraneous 
noise introduced by an amplifier built 
according to the best current design 
practice, and without regard for cost, 

are such that they are not limiting fac- 
tors in the fidelity of the reproduced 

The final component of the sound 
system is the loudspeaker system, which 
consists of the speaker mechanism itself 
and the speaker enclosure. The loud- 
speaker converts the alternating elec- 
trical output of the amplifier into me- 
chanical vibrations of a cone or dia- 
phragm. But the cone vibrating by itself 
cannot, for reasons that will be discussed 
further on, produce adequate bass en- 
ergy. It must be mounted in an enclo- 
sure or baffle of some sort, which gives 
the vibrating surface the "bite" of air 
that it needs to radiate low-frequency 

The speaker and its enclosure, like the 
amplifier, should introduce as little dis- 
tortion and frequency irregularity into 
the signal as possible. Typical speaker 
deficiencies are irregular frequency re- 
sponse, poor transient response (hang- 
over), and harmonic and intermodula- 
tion distortion. 

Two other components are shown in 
Fig. 3—4. The tuner is a device which 
converts AM or FM radio signals to 
audio signals that can be handled by the 
audio amplifier; the tape transport 
mechanism, with its associated pream- 


Fig. 3-5. A stereo reproducing system. 


plifier, provides a signal of the same cated); the stereo tuner receives the 

nature as that coming from the tuner "multiplex" FM stereo signal and sepa- 

or phonograph pickup. rates it into two separate channels, 

Fig. 3-5 shows the basic elements of which it feeds independently to each of 

a stereo reproducing system. The stereo the control units. Each control unit and 

tape mechanism has two heads which each power output is shown duplicated, 

independently reproduce each channel The two control units and power ampli- 

that is recorded in parallel on the tape; fiers may be separate, or they may be 

the stereo pickup provides two separate combined on one chassis, or all four 

output signals from the two channels units may be combined on one chassis, 

recorded in the groove (the turntable but in any case they must provide inde- 

and pickup arm do not have to be dupli- pendent amplification for each channel. 


Since the Niagara power plant was built, commercial 
electric power has been almost entirely alternating 
current. Now new consideration is being given to 
the advantages of direct current for long distance 
power transmission. 

12 The Future of Direct Current Power Transm 


N. L Allen 

A popular article published in 1967. 

The history of technology provides many examples of 
unexpected turns of fortune, and electrical technology is 
no exception. It frequently happens that a principle or 
technique, originally the basis of a well-established 
system, is superseded by a device making a significant 
advance, only to reappear in a different guise as the 'last 
word' in the state of the art. An obvious example is the 
crystal of the early radio receiver. This was superseded 
by the thermionic valve, but it has now developed into 
the more sophisticated form of the transistor. Not many 
years before the era of the crystal receiver, an appreciable 
proportion of electrical energy was generated, trans- 
mitted, and used in the form of direct current. At that 
time, generation and consumption usually took place in 
the same locality, distribution was simple, and the 
quantities of energy transmitted were small by modern 
standards. However, serious limitations appeared as it 
became necessary to distribute electrical energy more 
widely, and direct current as the distributing medium 
gave way to alternating current. 

In many countries, the economic advantages of being 
able to concentrate power generation in large stations 
have led to the adoption of a comprehensive network of 
power lines that interconnect generating plant and the 
areas where the power is used. As the length of a power 
line increases, the current passed, for minimum power 
loss, decreases: the economic operating voltage for trans- 
mission of a given power therefore increases. The trans- 
mission of larger quantities of energy at high voltages 
and low currents is greatly facilitated by the ease with 
which alternating current can be transformed to the 
voltage most appropriate for the power lines. In the 
receiving areas of the system, the voltage can equally 
easily be transformed to lower values suitable for distri- 
bution, and a system of far greater flexibility can be set 
up than is the case with direct current. Fur .her, it is 
difficult to switch and, particularly, to interrupt direct 
current. The interruption of an alternating current by 
circuit breakers is relatively easy because the current 
passes through zero twice in every cycle. 

This combination of circumstances made alternating 
current the natural choice as power systems increased in 
size. The main links operated initially at 132 kilovolts, 
but the need for increased power during the post-war 
years has led to the adoption of 275 kilovolts and, more 
recently, 400 kilovolts as the operating voltages of the 
principal links in Britain. The power is distributed locally 
at lower voltages. During this period, the remaining 
direct current distribution systems have been reduced or 

Transmission over long distances 

What, then, is the place of direct current? There is 
certainly no good reason for turning away completely 
from alternating current distribution. But there have 
always been some situations in power distribution prac- 
tice in which direct current has distinct advantages over 
alternating current, and it is worth while considering 
what these situations are. 

One basic factor in power system design is the need to 
find the simplest and most efficient means of transferring 
power from one point to another. Figure 1 (a) shows the 
basic three-phase alternating current system and figure 
1 (b) a favoured direct current system, which has positive 
and negative polarities on the two lines, and is linked by 
convenors to alternating current for generation at one 
end and distribution at the other. In both cases, the 
maximum voltage to earth is E, but for alternating 
current, it is the root-mean-square value Ejy/ '2 that 
determines the power transmitted. This is lEI A cos 9/^2, 
where l A is the current in each conductor, lagging behind 
the voltage in phase by 9 degrees. In the direct current 
system, the power transmitted by each line is E/ D , where 
I D is the current. For transmission of equal power by the 
two systems, therefore, it can be shown that each 
alternating current line has 4/(3 cos* 9) times the cross 
sectional area of the corresponding direct current line, a 
factor which is always greater than 133. Moreover, the 


alternating current system requires three cables rather 
than two, so that the amount of copper required is 
2/cos 2 <f times that in the direct current system, a factor 
which is always greater than 2. 

Direct current, then, reduces the cost of the cables. 
This may appear trivial compared with the other capital 
costs in electrical systems, but over great distances, as in 
the United States and the Soviet Union, the saving in 
cable, and in the means of supporting the cable, becomes 
a very significant factor that can outweigh the cost of 
providing the convenor stations at each end of the 

Great distances bring further problems in alternating 
current transmission that do not occur with direct 
current. These problems arise from the relationship be- 
tween the wavelength of the oscillation and the dimen- 
sions of the system. The quarter-wavelength of a 50 
cycles per second wave in air is about 900 miles, and the 
transmission of energy through a conductor can be re- 
garded as due to an influx of energy along its length from 
the electromagnetic field that surrounds it. Over short 
distances, this field is very nearly the same at all points, 
since electromagnetic energy is conveyed with the 




Figure 1 Simplified distribution systems: (a) alternating 
current, (b) direct current. 

velocity of light. But at distances greater than 900 miles, 
the fact that the velocity of light is finite results in 
significant differences, at any instant, in the phase of the 
current at the two ends. 

This situation leads to difficulties where two parts of a 
power circuit, joined by a long alternating current link, 
are out of phase and where a loop is formed through 
another part of the network of different length. Large 
circulating currents will be set up unless some form of 
compensation is applied. A direct current link obviates 
these difficulties; as a corollary, it may be noted also 
that if a direct current line is used to link two alternating 
current systems, they need not be synchronized with 
each other. 

Transmission over short distances 

For long-distance transmission, overhead lines, supported 
by towers, are used. The virtues of direct current are 
most clearly shown when the current is carried by under- 
ground or underwater cables. Here, the central core of 
the cable, which is at the transmission voltage, is sur- 
rounded by an insulant, the exterior of which is at earth 
potential. This constitutes a coaxial capacitor, and the 
capacitance per mile of a cable rated at 200 kV is 
typically about 03 microfarads. In an alternating current 
circuit, this capacitance is charged and discharged, 
through the inductance and resistance of the cable itself, 
once every half-cycle. Additional generating capacity is 
needed to supply this charging current. In the example 
quoted, at 200 kV, the charging current requires about 
5000 ikilovolt-amperes per mile of cable ; at 400 kV 
the figure is about 15 000 kilovolt-amperes per mile. For 
appreciable lengths of cable, the losses become such that 
the charging currents must be supplied at intermediate 
points. At 200 kV, these points are about 25 miles apart 
for 50-cycle alternating current; at 400 kV, only 15 
miles. Thus, alternating current transmission becomes 
impracticable in cables over long distances. Further, the 
cost of the generating capacity needed to supply the 
charging current is significant. Taking a rough figure of 
£50 per kilowatt of installed capacity at the generating 
station, this extra cost is £250 000 per mile for a 200 
kilovolt cable. By contrast, with direct current in the 
steady state, there is no charging current. It may well be 
worthwhile, therefore, to accept the cost of converting 
to direct current to avoid having to provide this charg- 
ing current. Direct current is also advantageous in that 
there are no dielectric losses due to reversal of the elec- 
tric stress in the insulant. 

The balance between the two systems 

To summarize, direct current has significant advantages 
for the transmission of bulk power over great distances 
by overhead lines, and over short or long distances by 
cable. In addition to the technical advantages already 
examined, direct current may be valuable in linking two 
alternating current systems that need not then be 
synchronized. Alternatively, a very large alternating 
current system mav be divided by direct current links 


The Future of Direct Current Power Transmission 

into two or more smaller systems: this is a possible future 
development as power systems continue to increase in 
size. It is necessary, however, to examine some disad- 
vantages of direct current, and some relevant non- 
technical factors, to demonstrate the balance affecting 
the final choice of system. 

The most obvious drawback to the use of direct 
current is the need for conversion at each end of the link 
in order to integrate it with established alternating 
current systems. The technical details are outlined later, 
but it may be mentioned here that the cost of the con- 
version equipment is about twice that of the alternating 
current equipment required for the termination of a 
power line of corresponding size and output . These 
costs must be set against the savings inherent in the 
direct current system. There is therefore, a limit to the 
length of a line, below which the capital outlay on a 
direct current system is higher than that of an alternating 
current system. Estimates of the critical length for a long 
overhead line naturally vary, depending mainly on the 
power to be transmitted and the voltage to be employed, 
but figures of more than 300 miles have frequently been 
quoted. This approach is unlikely to be favoured, 

therefore, in the British Isles, but such systems are being 
developed in the United States and in the Soviet Union. 
For underground or submarine cables, where dielectric 
losses and charging currents are so important, the 
'critical length' is reduced to about 30 miles, and it is in 
short submarine links and in urban transmission lines 
that direct current finds its second important application. 
Indeed, where large amounts of power have to be intro- 
duced into large cities, legal and social considerations 
may predominate over technical and economic factors. 
It is frequently extremely difficult to obtain permission 
to erect overhead lines in urban areas, and the distur- 
bance to local amenities caused by the towers for high- 
tension cables may not be justifiable. Underground 
cables become necessary, and it is preferable to use 
direct current for distances greater than about 30 

In choosing between the systems, the fact that there 
can be no direct current transformer and that there is no 
satisfactory circuit breaker ensures that alternating 
current maintains its general superiority for distribution 
purposes. The use of direct current is thus confined to 
the bulk transmission of high power between discrete 
parts of a system or between two separate systems. 


The Reader for Unit 3 contained the first part of 
Newman's biography of this outstanding mathematician 
and physicist. This final part covers primarily his 
work on electromagnetic theory. 

James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

James R. Newman 

A biographical essay published in 1955. 

In February, 1858, Maxwell wrote a letter to his aunt, Miss 
Cay, beginning, "This comes to tell you that I am going to have 
a wife." "Don't be afraid," he added, "she is not mathematical, 
but there are other things besides that, and she certainly won't 
stop mathematics." His engagement to Katherine Mary Dewar, 
daughter of the principal of Marischal College, was formally 
announced the same month, and in June they were married. 


Their union became very close: they enjoyed doing things 
together — horseback riding, reading aloud to each other, 
traveling — and he even found useful tasks for her in his 
experimental work. The marriage was childless, but this very 
fact increased the couple's dependency and devotion. Maxwell 
regarded the marriage tie in an "almost mystical manner." 
The published letters to his wife overflow with religiosity.* 

The Aberdeen appointment terminated in 1860 when the 
two colleges, King's and Marischal, were fused into a new 
university and Maxwell's chair in physics at Marischal was 
eliminated. He was not long at liberty. In the summer of the 
same year he became professor of natural philosophy at 
King's College, London, a post he retained until 1865. The 
teaching schedule at King's was long and arduous; in the 
evenings there were lectures to be given to "artisans" as part 
of his regular duties. Living in London offered him the oppor- 
tunity to see something of Faraday, with whom, up to this time, 
Maxwell had had only correspondence, to make the acquaint- 
ance of other scientific men and to renew old friendships. He 
was no solitary. "Work is good, and reading is good, but 
friends are better," he wrote to his friend Litchfield. 

Yet despite academic duties and social distractions, the five 
years in London were the most productive of his life. The 
paper "On the Theory of Three Primary Colors," the two 
articles in the Philosophical Magazine on "Physical Lines of 
Force" and the culminating electrical memoir "A Dynamical 
Theory of the Electromagnetic Field," the Bakerian lecture 
"On the Viscosity or Internal Friction of Air and other Gases," 
and the celebrated paper "On the Dynamical Theory of Gases," 
all belong to this period. He also performed important experi- 
mental work during these years. At his house in Kensington, 

* He did not write in this vein to others and it is a little puzzling why he found 
it necessary in corresponding with her to quote Scriptures, to express the fer- 
vent hope that the Lord would protect her from evil, and that she would get 
her eyes off "things seen and temporal and be refreshed with things eternal." 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

in a large garret, he measured the viscosity of gases and ob- 
tained practical confirmation of the theoretical work I have 
described. (For example, he found that the viscosity of air at 
12 millimeters of mercury measured the same as at normal 
pressure of 760 millimeters, thus proving that viscosity is in- 
dependent of density.) To maintain the necessary temperature, 
a fire had to be kept up in the midst of very hot weather and 
kettles kept boiling to produce steam, which would be allowed 
to flow into the room. Mrs. Maxwell acted as stoker. Another 
investigation dealt with the ratio of the electromagnetic to the 
electrostatic unit of electricity and led to one of Maxwell's 
greatest discoveries. But I must postpone explaining this work, 
even though to do so means abandoning the strict chronology 
of events in Maxwell's life, until I have sketched the develop- 
ment of his ideas on electricity. 

To gain an appreciation of Maxwell's stupendous contribu- 
tion to this branch of science it is necessary first to describe 
very briefly the position of electrical theory when he embarked 
on his studies. 

In the eighteenth century, Charles Augustin de Coulomb 
established the fundamental facts of electrostatic attraction 
and repulsion. He showed that an inverse-square law, resem- 
bling that of gravitational forces, applied to electric charges: 
attraction or repulsion between charged bodies is directly 
proportional to the product of the charges and inversely pro- 
portional to the square of the distance between them.* (The 
same discoveries, and others going beyond them, were made 
earlier by the brilliant English recluse Henry Cavendish, but 
his researches remained unpublished until 1879.) The next 
major advance was that of Hans Oersted, who in 1819 found 
that the flow of electric current through a wire parallel to a 
magnetic needle makes the needle swing to a position at right 

* F = k-^jr-, where F equals the force; k, a constant; q and q', the charges; 

r 2 
r, the separating distance. 


angles to the current. In other words, a current produces a 
magnetic field. 

A complementary series of advances was made early in the 
same century by the French physicist and mathematician 
Andre Ampere, whom Maxwell called the Newton of electric- 
ity. The accolade was not undeserved, but there is a special 
reason for Maxwell's conferring it: Ampere was the first to 
explain the relationship of electric currents in terms of me- 
chanical action,* an approach later perfected by Maxwell 
himself. By experiment Ampere learned that a coil of wire 
carrying an electric current behaves like a magnet, and he 
suggested that a magnet owes its property to tiny electrical 
currents inside the steel molecules. Thus a great conceptual 
link was forged; for magnetism was shown to be not distinct 
from electricity, but rather a name we give to some of the 
effects of moving electric currents. 

The crown of these fundamental researches was the im- 
mortal work of Michael Faraday. He found that an electric 
current flowing in one circuit can cause ("induce") a current 
to flow in another circuit; that there is a magnetic field between 
two currents; that a current can also be induced to flow in a 
wire by use of a magnet — in other words, as a symmetric 
counterpart to the phenomena discovered by Oersted and 
Ampere, that changes in a magnetic field produce an electric 

Faraday's explanation of these phenomena is of central 
importance to understanding Maxwell's work. He imagined 
lines of force running through space as the instrumentality of 
electric and magnetic actions. 

These lines, it should be emphasized, were not conceived as 
mere mathematical makeshifts, but as entities possessing phys- 
ical properties. The lines spread out in every direction from 
an electric charge or magnetic pole; every electric line of force 

* He showed how to calculate the mechanical forces between circuits carrying 
currents, from an assumed law of force between each pair of elements of the 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

starts from a positive charge and ends on a negative charge; 
the more powerful the source, the more lines emanate from it. 
Along the lines there is tension, a kind of pull, so that each 
line behaves like an elastic thread trying to shorten itself; lines 
of force repel each other sideways; the ends of a line of force, 
representing charges, can move freely over the surface of a 
conductor but are anchored on an insulator. 

This hypothetical system, for which Faraday was convinced 
he had found experimental evidence, was the starting point of 
Maxwell's studies. He believed in it; he sought to develop it. 

However, it must not be supposed that everyone accepted 
Faraday's hypothesis. In fact, the majority of electricians — I 
use the term in its older sense — regarded lines of force as a 
concept much inferior to that of "action at a distance." They 
likened electricity to gravitation. They imagined a charge (or 
mass) situated at one point in space mysteriously influencing 
a charge (or mass) at another point, with no linkage or con- 
nection of any kind, however tenuous, bridging the distance 
between the charges (or masses). Where Faraday sought to 
assimilate the behavior of electricity to that of a mechanical 
system, in which all parts are joined by levers, pulleys, ropes 
and so on, the others held electricity to be a special case, to 
which mechanical analogies were inapplicable. Maxwell ad- 
mirably summarized the cleavage between the two views: 
"Faraday, in his mind's eye, saw lines of force traversing all 
space, where the mathematicians saw centres of force attract- 
ing at a distance; Faraday saw a medium where they saw noth- 
ing but distance; Faraday sought the seat of the phenomena in 
real actions going on in the medium, they were satisfied that 
they had found it in a power of action at a distance impressed 
on the electric fluids." 

Maxwell's first electrical paper "On Faraday's Lines of 
Force" was delivered at Cambridge in 1855, within a few 
months after he had finished reading Faraday's Experimental 
Researches. What he tried to do was imagine a physical model 
embodying Faraday's lines, whose behavior, like that of any 


machine, could be reduced to formulae and numbers. He did 
not suggest that the model represented the actual state of things; 
on the other hand, he had no confidence in what mathematical 
manipulations alone would reveal about the actual state of 
things. It was important, he said, so to balance the method of 
investigation that the mind at every step is permitted "to lay 
hold of a clear physical conception, without being committed 
to any theory founded on the physical science from which that 
conception is borrowed."* Such a method will neither lead 

* The opening paragraph of the paper is worth giving in full. "The present 
state of electrical science seems peculiarly unfavorable to speculation. The laws 
of the distribution of electricity on the surface of conductors have been analyt- 
ically deduced from experiment; some parts of the mathematical theory of 
magnetism are established, while in other parts the experimental data are want- 
ing; the theory of the conduction of galvanism and that of the mutual attrac- 
tion of conductors have been reduced to mathematical formulae, but have not 
fallen into relation with the other parts of the science. No electrical theory can 
now be put forth, unless it shows the connection not .only between electricity at 
rest and current electricity, but between the attractions and inductive effects of 
electricity in both states. Such a theory must accurately satisfy those laws the 
mathematical form of which is known, and must afford the means of calculat- 
ing the effects in the limiting cases where the known formulae are inapplicable. 
In order therefore to appreciate the requirements of the science, the student 
must make himself familiar with a considerable body of most intricate mathe- 
matics, the mere attention of which in the memory materially interferes with 
further progress. The first process therefore in the effectual study of the science, 
must be one of simplification and reduction of the results of previous investiga- 
tion to a form in which the mind can grasp them. The results of this simplifica- 
tion may take the form of a purely mathematical formula or of a physical hypoth- 
esis. In the first case we entirely lose sight of the phenomena to be explained; 
and though we may trace out the consequences of given laws, we can never ob- 
tain more extended views of the connections of the subject. If, on the other 
hand, we adopt a physical hypothesis, we see the phenomena only through a 
medium, and are liable to that blindness to facts and rashness in assumption 
which a partial explanation encourages. We must therefore discover some meth- 
od of investigation which allows the mind at every step to lay hold of a clear 
physical conception, without being committed to any theory founded on the 
physical science from which that conception is borrowed, so that it is neither 
drawn aside from the subject in pursuit of analytical subtleties, nor carried be- 
yond the truth by a favorite hypothesis. In order to obtain physical ideas with- 
out adopting a physical theory we must make ourselves familiar with the exist- 
ence of physical analogies. By a physical analogy I mean that partial similarity 
between the laws of one science and those of another which makes each of them 
illustrate the other. Thus all the mathematical sciences are founded on rela- 
tions between physical laws and laws of numbers, so that the aim of exact sci- 
ence is to reduce the problems of nature to the determination of quantities by 
operations with numbers." 


James Clerk Maxwell Part 

into a blind alley of abstractions, nor permit the investigator 
to be "carried beyond the truth by a favorite hypothesis." 

Analogies are, of course, the lifeblood of scientific specula- 
tion. Maxwell gives a number of examples, among them the 
illuminating suggestion of William Thomson comparing the 
formulae of the motion of heat with those of attractions (such 
as gravitation and electricity) varying inversely as the square 
of the distance. To be sure, the quantities entering into heat 
formulae — temperature, flow of heat, conductivity — are 
distinct from a quantity such as force entering into the formu- 
lae of inverse-square attraction. Yet the mathematical laws of 
both classes of phenomena are identical in form. "We have 
only to substitute source of heat for center of attraction, flow 
of heat for accelerating effect of attraction at any point, and 
temperature for potential, and the solution of a problem in 
attractions is transformed into that of a problem of heat."* 

Maxwell proposed a hydrodynamical analogy to bring be- 
fore the mind in "convenient and manageable form those math- 
ematical ideas which are necessary to the study of the phe- 
nomenon of electricity. "t The analogy was combined with 
Faraday's lines of force, so that they were converted from 
lines into "tubes of flow" carrying an incompressible fluid 
such as water. He was then able to show that the steady flow of 
particles of this fluid would give rise to tensions and pressures 
corresponding to electrical effects. The fluid moving through a 
system of such tubes represented electricity in motion; the 
form and diameter of the tubes gave information as to strength 
and direction of fluid (electric) flow. The velocity of the fluid 
was the equivalent of electrical force; differences of fluid pres- 
sure were analogous to differences of electrical pressure or 
potential. Since the tubes were flexible and elastic, and ar- 

* "On Faraday's Lines of Force," Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical 
Society, vol. X, part I, included in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Max- 
well, op. cit. 

t Ibid. 


ranged so as to form surfaces — each tube being in contact 
with its neighbors — pressure transmitted from tube to tube 
furnished an analogy to electrical induction. 

One of Faraday's key concepts deals with the effect on space 
of lines of magnetic force. A wire introduced into ordinary 
space remains inert; but if magnetic lines of force are intro- 
duced into the space, a current flows through the wire. Faraday 
explained this by saying that the introduction of the magnet 
threw the space into an "electro-tonic state." This concept 
could not be fitted into the hydrodynamical analogy; Maxwell 
admitted that while he could handle Faraday's conjecture 
mathematically, the electro-tonic state at any point of space be- 
ing defined "as a quantity determinate in magnitude and direc- 
tion," his representation involved no physical theory — "it is 
only a kind of artificial notation."* 

It was a wonderful paper, and Faraday, to whom Maxwell 
sent a copy, appreciated how much it advanced the "interests 
of philosophical truth." "I was at first almost frightened," he 
wrote Maxwell, "when I saw such mathematical force made to 
bear upon the subject, and then wondered to see that the sub- 
ject stood it so well."t Other students, however, thought the 
subject stood it not at all well. Electricity was mysterious 
enough without adding tubes and surfaces and incompressible 
fluids. But Maxwell, who had good training in being consid- 
ered queer, went on with the task of extending Faraday's ideas. 

The second great memoir, On Physical Lines of Force, a 
series of three papers published in the Philosophical Magazine 
in 1861 and 1862, was an attempt to describe a more elaborate 
mechanism that would not only account for electrostatic effects 
but also explain magnetic attraction and Faraday's concept of 

* For a discussion of Maxwell's use of physical analogy, see Joseph Turner. 
"Maxwell on the Method of Physical Analogy," The British Journal for the 
Philosophy of Science, vol. VI, no. 23, November, 1955. 

t Campbell and Garnett, op. cit., p. 519. 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

electromagnetic induction. Again, Maxwell used a concrete, 
mechanical image to exhibit and develop his theory.* For, as 
he said, "scientific truth should be regarded as equally scien- 
tific whether it appears in the robust form and vivid colouring 
of a physical illustration or in the tenuity and paleness of a 
symbolic expression." 

In the new model a magnetic field is produced by the rota- 
tion in space of what Maxwell called "molecular vortices." 
These may be thought of as slender cylinders (Maxwell him- 
self had a disconcerting way of modifying the image as he 
went along) that rotate round the lines of magnetic force. The 
lines, traced by the pattern of iron filings about a magnet, are 
the axes of rotation of the cylinders; the velocity of rotation 
depends on the intensity of the magnetic force. Two mechan- 
ical effects are associated with the cylinders: tension in the 
direction of the lines of force, and pressure, exerted in the 
"equatorial" direction (i.e., lateral pressure), arising from 
the centrifugal force produced by the rotating cylinders. Com- 
bined, these effects mechanically reproduce magnetic phe- 
nomena: magnetism is a force exerted both along the axis and 
outward from the axis. 

It may now be asked how this curious arrangement fitted in 
with the known facts that an electric current produces a mag- 
netic field, and changing magnetic forces produce an electric 
current. Step by step Maxwell answers this question. 

The first point to clarify is the structure of a uniform mag- 
netic field. Maxwell supposed this to consist of a portion of 
space filled with cylinders rotating at the same velocity and in 
the same direction "about axes nearly parallel." But immedi- 
ately a puzzle confronted him. Since the cylinders are in con- 
tact, how can they possibly rotate in the same direction? For 

* As Turner top. cit.) points out. Maxwell employed two analogies. One 
bridged a stationary field and a solid under stress. The other is between elec- 
tricity and fluid motion, "with its suggestion that Ampere's laws be modified to 
satisfy the equation of continuity." 


Model of an electromagnetic field used by Maxwell visualized "Molecular 
vortices" rotating in space. In this illustration the vortices are slender 
cylinders seen from the end. (Maxwell gave the cylinders a hexagonal cross 
section to simplify the geometry of the model.) Between the vortices are 
small "idle wheels." If a row of the idle wheels is moved from A toward B, 
they cause the adjacent vortices to rotate in the opposite direction. ( Scientific 

as everyone knows, a revolving wheel or cylinder causes its 
neighbor to revolve in the opposite direction; thus one would 
expect the rotation of the cylinders to alternate in direction 
from one to the next. Maxwell hit upon a pretty idea. He sup- 
posed the cylinders to be separated by rows of small spheres, 
like layers of ball bearings, which acted as gears (in Max- 
well's words, "idle wheels"). This arrangement, resembling a 
device envisaged a century earlier by John Bernoulli, the 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

younger, fulfilled the requirement. The spheres rotate in an 
opposite sense to that of each of the cylinders with which they 
are in contact, and so the cylinders all rotate in the same direc- 

And now, as just reward for his ingenuity, Maxwell found 
that the spheres could be made to serve another, even more 
valuable, purpose. Think of them as particles of electricity. 
Then by purely mechanical reasoning it can be shown that 
their motions in the machine of which they are a part serve to 
explain many electrical phenomena. 

Consider these examples. In an unchanging magnetic field 
the cylinders all rotate at the same constant rate; thus they 
maintain a constant magnetic field. The little rotating spheres 
keep their position; there is no flow of particles, hence no elec- 
tric current, a result that tallies with the properties of a uni- 
form magnetic field. Now suppose a change in the magnetic 
force. This means a change in the velocity of rotation of the 
cylinders. As each cylinder is speeded up, it transmits the 
change in velocity to its neighbors. But since a cylinder now 
rotates at a slightly different speed from its neighbor, the 
spheres between them are torn from their positions by a kind 
of shearing action. In other words, they begin to move from 
their centers of rotation, in addition to rotating. This motion of 
translation is an electric current; again, a result that tallies 
with the properties of a changing magnetic field. 

Observe now how the model begins to live a life of its own. 
It was designed, as J. J. Thomson has pointed out,* to exhibit 
Faraday's great discovery that magnetic changes produce elec- 
tric currents. It suggested to Maxwell the no less striking con- 
verse phenomenon that changes in electric force might produce 
magnetism. t Assume the spheres and cylinders are at rest. If 

* Sir J. J. Thompson, "James Clerk Maxwell." in James Clerk Maxwell, A 
Commemoration Volume, op. cit. 

t Ampere, of course, had already demonstrated that currents in wires produced 
accompanying magnetic fields. 


a force is applied to the spheres of electricity, they begin to 
rotate, causing the cylinders of magnetism with which they are 
in contact to rotate in the opposite direction. The rotation of the 
cylinders indicates a magnetic force. Moreover, the model 
holds up even as to details. Take a single illustration. Mag- 
netism acts at right angles to the direction of flow of current. If 
you will examine the diagram of Maxwell's model, you will 
see that the cylinders will rotate in the direction perpendicular 
to the motion of the spheres, thus bearing out the observation 
that a magnetic force acts at right angles to the flow of a cur- 

"I do not bring it forward," Maxwell wrote of his system, 
"as a mode of connection existing in Nature. ... It is, how- 
ever, a mode of connection which is mechanically conceivable 
and easily investigated, and it serves to bring out the actual 
mechanical connection between the known electromagnetic 
phenomena.* Certain aspects of these "mechanical connec- 
tions" have already been discussed — rotations, pressures, 
tensions — which account for the reciprocal relations between 
currents and magnetic forces. t The connections also serve to 
explain the repulsion between two parallel wires carrying cur- 
rents in opposite directions, an effect produced by the centrifu- 
gal pressures of the revolving cylinders acting on the electrical 
particles between them. The induction of currents is similarly 
elucidated: this phenomenon, says Maxwell, is simply "part of 
the process of communicating the rotary velocity of the vor- 
tices [cylinders] from one part of the field to another." In 
other words, whenever electricity (Maxwell's particles) "yields 
to an electromotive force," induced currents result. His dia- 
gram and the accompanying text make this beautifully clear. 

Maxwell was not done with his model. It had helped in the 

* "On Physical Lines of Force," op. cit. 

t The model explained, for example, why a current of electricity generated heat: 
for as the particles (or spheres) move from one cylinder to another, "they 
experience resistance, and generate irregular motions, which constitute heat." 


James Clerk Maxwell. Part II 

interpretation of magnetism, the behavior of electric currents, 
the phenomenon of induction; it had yet to pass the supreme 
test: that is, to supply a mechanical explanation of the origin 
of electromagnetic waves. To orient ourselves in this matter we 
must examine briefly the question of condensers and insulators. 
An electric condenser is a device for storing electricity. In 
its simplest form it consists of two conducting plates separated 
by an insulating material, or dielectric as it is called. The 
plates can be charged, after which the charges attract each 
other through the dielectric and are thus said to be "bound" in 
place. Faraday in his experiments had come upon a curious 
fact. He found that two condensers of the same size, fed by the 
same electric source and with insulation of equal thickness, 
differed markedly in their capacity to take or to hold a charge 
if the insulating material (dielectric) was different. This was 
difficult to understand if all dielectrics were equally imperme- 
able to an electric current. Moreover, if it were true, as Max- 
well already was beginning to suspect, that light itself is an 
electrical phenomenon, how could light pass through certain 
dielectrics, empty space among them? With the help of his 
model, Maxwell advanced a bold hypothesis. Conductors, he 
said, pass a current when the electrical particles they contain 
are acted upon by an electric force. Under such an impulsion, 
the little particles move more or less freely from cylinder to 
cylinder, and the current flows as long as the force persists. 
Not so in a dielectric. The particles are present but an easy 
passage from cylinder to cylinder is impossible. This fact may- 
be taken as the characteristic attribute of a dielectric, having 
to do with its physical structure. Yet it was known that "local- 
ized electric phenomena do occur in dielectrics." Maxwell sug- 
gested that these phenomena also are currents — but of a 
special kind. When an electric force acts on a dielectric, the 
particles of electricity are "displaced," but not entirely torn 
loose; that is, they behave like a ship riding at anchor in a 
storm. The medium in which they are located, the magnetic 


cylinders, is elastic ; under pressure the particles move, a lim- 
ited distance, until the force pushing them is balanced by the 
stresses due to the elastic reaction of the medium. Thus a state 
of equilibrium is attained. But as soon as the impelling force 
ceases to act, the particles snap back to their original positions. 
The net effect of these mechanical actions is twofold. First, the 
initial displacement of the electric particles constitutes a cur- 
rent that passes through the dielectric. A current of this type is 
called a displacement current to distinguish it from currents 
that flow through conductors and are therefore known as con- 
duction currents.* Wherever there is an electric force, said 
Maxwell, there is displacement; wherever there is displace- 
ment, there is a current. 

Second, whenever the pressure displacing the particles is re- 
leased, and they snap back, they overshoot and oscillate briefly 
about their fixed positions. The oscillation is transmitted 
through the magnetic medium (the insulator) as a wave. This 
wave is the return phase of the displacement current.t (Max- 
well suggested this disturbance on analogy to the displacement 
of an elastic solid under stress.) 

Maxwell next arrived at an epoch-making conclusion. The 
velocity of the displacement wave, or current, depends on the 
electrical properties of the medium in which it moves. More- 
over, this velocity, as he showed, was "within the limits of 
experimental error, the same as that of light." Hence, he in- 

* The contrast between displacement currents and currents through conductors 
was vividly expressed by Henri Poincare. A displacement current, he said, is 
an elastic reaction like the compression of a spring: it can only be effected by 
pressure against resistance. Equilibrium is reached when resistance balances 
pressure. When the pressure is removed the spring regains its original form. A 
conduction current, on the other hand, is like a viscous reaction such as is en- 
countered in moving a body immersed in water. It can be effected only by pres- 
sure; the resistance depends on velocity; the motion continues as long as the 
motive force acts, and equilibrium will never be established. "The body does not 
return to the starting point, and the energy expended in moving it cannot be 
restored, having been completely transformed into heat through the viscosity of 
the water." (Maxwell's Theory and Wireless Telegraphy, New York, 1904.) 

t If the electric force applied to the insulator is varied continually, it will pro- 
duce a continually varying displacement wave: in other words, a continuing 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part 

Electromagnetic wave as visualized by Maxwell is a moving disturbance 
which tends to separate positive (plus sign) and negative (dot) charges. In 
the drawing at the top, magnetic lines of force (arrows) lie at right angles 
to the direction in which the disturbance is moving. The drawing at the bot- 
tom depicts the two components of the electromagnetic wave. The electrical 
component is shown in black, the magnetic component in color. (Scientific 

ferred, "the elasticity of the magnetic medium in air is the 
same as that of the luminiferous medium, if these two coex- 
istent, coextensive and equally elastic media are not rather 
one medium." 


More must be said as to how Maxwell actually arrived at 
this conclusion. In the 1850s the German physicists Wilhelm 
Weber and Friedrich Kohlrausch had investigated an impor- 
tant relationship, namely, the ratios of electrostatic to electro- 
dynamic action. The electrostatic unit of charge was defined 
as the repulsion between two (like) unit charges at unit dis- 
tance apart. The electrodynamic unit was defined as the repul- 
sion between two definite lengths of wire carrying currents 
"which may be specified by the amount of charge which travels 
past any point in unit time." In order to compare the repulsion 
between static charges with that between moving charges, a 
factor of proportionality must be introduced, since the units 
are different for static and dynamic phenomena. That is, one 
must determine how many positive units of electricity flowing 
in one wire, and negative units flowing in the other, are re- 
quired to produce between the wires a repulsion quantitatively 
equal to that between two static units. The factor turns out to 
be a velocity; for since the length of the wires is fixed, and the 
number of units of electricity passing a given point in a given 
time can be measured, what the investigator must consider is 
the dimension length divided by time or velocity. Weber and 
Kohlrausch had found that the velocity of propagation of an 
electric disturbance along a perfectly conducting wire is close 
to 3 x 10 10 centimeters per second. This was an astonishing 
coincidence, for the figure was about the same as the velocity 
of light as it had been determined a few years earlier by the 
French physicist Hippolyte Fizeau. 

Kirchhoff remarked the coincidence, but did not pursue it; 
Maxwell did. In 1860 he attacked the problem experimentally, 
using an ingenious torsion balance to compare the repulsion 
between two static charges and two wires carrying currents. 
The Weber-Kohlrausch results were roughly confirmed. Also, 
at about the same time (he said, in fact, that the pencil and 
paper work was done before seeing Weber's memoir), he cal- 
culated the velocity of displacement currents in empty space 
or in any other dielectric. The resulting values tallied closely. 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

In other words, currents in a wire, displacement currents in a 
dielectric, and light in empty space (which of course is a 
dielectric) all traveled with the same velocity. With this evi- 
dence at hand, which he communicated in a letter to Faraday 
in 1861, Maxwell did not hesitate to assert the identity of the 
two phenomena — electrical disturbances and light. "We can 
scarcely avoid the inference," he said, "that light consists in 
the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the 
cause of electric and magnetic phenomena." 

"On Physical Lines of Force," despite its cogwheels and 
other gross mechanical adjuncts, may be regarded as the most 
brilliant of Maxwell's electrical papers. If it did not claim to 
give a picture of the true state of things, it was at least enor- 
mously enlightening as to how electricity and magnetism could 
interact in a purely mechanical relationship. Maxwell himself 
summarized the achievements of the theory as follows. It ex- 
plained magnetic forces as the effect of the centrifugal force 
of the cylinders; induction as the effect of the forces called into 
play when there is a change of angular velocity of the cylin- 
ders; electromotive force as an effect produced by stress on the 
connecting mechanism; electric displacement as a result of the 
elastic yielding of the mechanism; electromagnetic waves as 
an accompaniment of displacement. The paper is one of the 
rare examples of scientific literature in which one may glimpse 
the play of imagination, the actual exercise of inductive power, 
the cultivation of nascent ideas. 

None of the basic concepts unfolded in this memoir was 
discarded in the more mathematical writings that followed. 
But Maxwell now had to outgrow his model. In "A Dynamical 
Theory of the Electromagnetic Field," published in 1864,* 
Maxwell, in Sir Edmund Whittaker's words, displayed the 
architecture of his system "stripped of the scaffolding by aid 
of which it had first been erected."t The particles and cylinders 

* Royal Society Transactions, vol. CLV. 

t History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity: The Classical Theories, 
London, 1951. 


are gone; in their place is the field — "the space in the neigh- 
borhood of the electric or magnetic bodies" — and the aether, 
a special kind of "matter in motion by which the observed 
electromagnetic phenomena are produced." The matter com- 
posing the aether has marvelous properties. It is very fine and 
capable of permeating bodies; it fills space, is elastic and is 
the vehicle of "the undulations of light and heat." Yet for all 
its refinements and subtleties, the medium is no less a mechan- 
ical rig than the cylinders and spheres of its predecessor. It 
can move, transmit motions, undergo elastic deformations, 
store potential (mechanical) energy and release it when the 
deforming pressures are removed. Though susceptible to the 
action of electric currents and magnets, it is nonetheless a 
mechanism that, as Maxwell said, "must be subject to the gen- 
eral laws of Dynamics, and we ought to be able to work out all 
the consequences of its motion, provided we know the form of 
the relation between the motions of the parts." In the preceding 
paper Maxwell already had devised a set of equations that 
described the possible mechanical basis of electrical and mag- 
netic phenomena, and, in particular, how certain changes in 
electric and magnetic forces could produce electrical waves. 
He now elaborated the hypothesis of displacement currents and 
obtained the expressions that are in substance the famous Max- 
wellian equations of the electromagnetic field. 

In their most finished form the equations appear in the 
Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873), the culmina- 
tion of Maxwell's researches, which he wrote at Glenlair in the 
years following his resignation from King's College. This 
celebrated work deals with every branch of electric and mag- 
netic science and presents the results of twenty years of thought 
and experiment. Maxwell remained faithful to Faraday, whose 
point of view is emphasized throughout the Treatise. Charac- 
terizing his own part as that of an "advocate," Maxwell makes 
no attempt to describe the hypotheses propounded by Weber, 
Gauss, Riemann, Carl and Franz Neumann, or Ludwig Lorenz, 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

the foremost cultivators of the theory of action at a distance. 

The task Maxwell set himself was, first, to formulate mathe- 
matically electromagnetic phenomena as observed experi- 
mentally, and, second, to show that these mathematical 
relationships could be deduced from the fundamental science 
of dynamics; or to put it another way, that the laws of elec- 
tricity in motion could be derived from the laws applicable to 
any system of moving bodies. As always, Maxwell was very 
cautious in expressing himself about the nature of electricity. 
It behaves, he said, like an incompressible fluid; "wherever 
there is electric force there is electric displacement." These, 
as J. J. Thomson observed, are the only definite statements 
about electricity to be found in the treatise, which led Hertz 
to say that Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's equations, and 
caused Helmholtz to comment that "he would be puzzled to 
explain what an electric charge was on Maxwell's theory be- 
yond being the recipient of a symbol." 

What are the Maxwellian equations? I cannot hope to give 
an easy answer to this question, but at the cost of deliberate 
oversimplification I must try summarily to explain them, for 
they are the heart of the theory. 

Maxwell based the equations on four principles: (1) that 
an electric force acting on a conductor produces a current 
proportional to the force; (2) that an electric force acting on 
a dielectric produces displacement proportional to the force; 
(3) that a current produces a magnetic force (i.e., a moving 
electric charge is surrounded by a magnetic field) at right 
angles to the current's lines of flow and proportional to its 
intensity; (4) that a changing magnetic force (or field) pro- 
duces a current proportional to the intensity of the force. The 
third and fourth principles exhibit a striking symmetry. The 
third is Faraday's law of electromagnetic induction, according 
to which "the rate of alteration in the number of lines of mag- 
netic induction passing through a circuit is equal to the work 
done in taking unit electric charge round the circuit." Max- 






James Clerk Maxwell, Part 

Lines of force appear in Electricity and Magnetism, left: "Uniform magnetic 
field disturbed by an electric current in a straight conductor." above: "Two 
circular currents." (Scientific American) 

well's complementary law, the fourth principle, is that "the 
rate of alteration in the number of lines of electric force pass- 
ing through a circuit is equal to the work done in taking a unit 
magnetic pole round it." 

On this foundation two sets of symmetrical equations can be 
erected. One set expresses the continuous nature of electric 
and magnetic fields; the second set tells how changes in one 
field produce changes in the other. In these formulations the 
mechanical aspects of the theory are retained, perfect conti- 
nuity is preserved by treating electricity as if it were an in- 
compressible fluid, and wave phenomena are deduced as the 
consequences of displacement in a dielectric. 

How does the concept of the field enter the theory? We have 


followed Maxwell as he stripped his model of its particles and 
cylinders and reduced it to an aetherial medium. In the 
Treatise, while not abandoning the medium altogether, he robs 
it of almost all its attributes other than form. The matter of the 
medium, as Poincare says, is left only with purely geometric 
properties, the atoms dwindle to mathematical points, subject 
to the laws of dynamics alone. The grin is left but the cat is 
gone. It is a perfect example of mathematical abstraction.* 

The aether is a thing that wiggles when it is prodded, 
but does nothing on its own. An electromagnetic field con- 
sists of two kinds of energy, electrostatic or potential en- 
ergy, and electrodynamic or kinetic energy. The aether, like 

* Einstein made an interesting comment about Maxwell's equations and his use 
of the concept of the field. "He showed that the whole of what was then known 
about light and electromagnetic phenomena was expressed in his well-known 
double system of differential equations, in which the electric and the magnetic 
fields appear as the dependent variables. Maxwell did, indeed, try to explain, 
or justify, these equations by intellectual constructions. But he made use of 
several such constructions at the same time and took none of them really seri- 
ously, so that the equations alone appeared as the essential thing and the 
strength of the fields as the ultimate entities, not to be reduced to anything 
else. By the turn of the century the conception of the electromagnetic field as 
an ultimate entity had been generally accepted and serious thinkers had aban- 
doned the belief in the justification, or the possibility, of a mechanical explana- 
tion of Clerk Maxwell's equations. Before long they were, on the contrary, 
actually trying to explain material points and their inertia on field theory lines 
with the help of Maxwell's theory, an attempt which did not, however, meet 
with complete success. Neglecting the important individual results which Clerk 
Maxwell's life work produced in important departments of physics, and con- 
centrating on the changes wrought by him in our conception of the nature of 
physical reality, we may say this: — before Clerk Maxwell people conceived of 
physical reality — insofar as it is supposed to represent events in nature — as 
material points, whose changes consist exclusively of motions, which are sub- 
ject to partial differential equations. After Maxwell they conceived physical 
reality as represented by continuous fields, not mechanically explicable, which 
are subject to partial differential equations. This change in the conception of 
reality is the most profound and fruitful one that has come to physics since 
Newton; but it has at the same time to be admitted that the program has by 
no means been completely carried out yet." 

I am puzzled as to what Einstein meant in saying that Maxwell's equation 
eliminated the notion of mechanism in explaining electromagnetic phenomena. 
Similar views have been expressed by many other physicists and philosophers. 
Maxwell himself would not have agreed with this position. His writings refute 
it. The inference was drawn by his successors. But there is a more important 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

a universal condenser, may be conceived as storing energy — 
in which case, being elastic, it is deformed. Since the aether 
fills all space and therefore penetrates conductors as well as 
dielectrics, it no longer makes any difference whether we deal 
with a conduction current or a displacement current; in either 
case the aether is set in motion. This motion is communicated 
mechanically from one part of the medium to the next and is 
apprehended by us as heat, or light, or mechanical force (as 
in the repulsion between wires) or other phenomena of mag- 
netism and electricity. The ruling principle of all such phe- 
nomena, it should be observed, is that of least action. This is 
the grand overriding law of the parsimony of nature: every 

point that requires clarification; namely, do the equations justify the inference? 
It is true that a field is not the same as a material particle, and that the motion 
of a particle is not the same as a change in a field. It is true also that the con- 
cept "material particle" was long held to he intuitively clear, while the concept 
"field" has never heen so regarded. This makes it easier to say mysterious 
things about fields, which no one would dream of saying about particles. But a 
more careful definition of these concepts, as physicists actually use them, raises 
serious question as to whether a field is any less suited to a "mechanistic" ex- 
planation than a system of material particles; indeed, whether a mechanistic 
explanation fits either or neither case. In modern physics material particles are 
not what they once were. They are pale abstractions, quite incapable of any- 
thing so robust as a collision. But then what is a collision? One thinks of bil- 
liard balls knocking together, as a pristine example. This, however, is a plain 
man's way of thinking. The modern physicist has rid his mind of such seductive 
images. (As far back as the eighteenth century, the Italian physicist Boscovich 
proposed the idea that the heart of an atom is not solid substance but a mere 
center of immaterial force.) As particles fade, the field becomes more substan- 
tial. Properties are now ascribed to it that make it seem more real and more 
potent than a billiard ball or a boulder. Of course the field is hard to describe 
in homely terms. Yet it is quite capable, as physicists tell us, of doing homely 
things. It produces and undergoes changes — now as if it were a cloud, now an 
engine, now an ocean. In short it has mechanical effects. By this I mean effects 
of a kind produced by what used to be called material particles. Moreover, it 
has mechanical properties. By this I mean properties of a kind produced by 
what we call a machine. The field can do things no system of particles or 
machine yet conceived can do. Since it can also do all they can do, it is a super- 
machine. Is there any point in saving the name? I think there is, to keep our 
thinking straight. We ought to keep it to describe both fields and particles or 
we ought to discard it entirely. If the word "mechanism" has any meaning in the 
universe of refined observation, it has as much meaning in relation to fields as 
to particles. At the same time I am quite prepared to believe that it has as little 
meaning in one case as the other; for that matter, no meaning in either. 


action within a system is executed with the least possible ex- 
penditure of energy. It was of the first importance to Maxwell 
that electrical phenomena should satisfy the principle, for 
otherwise his mechanical explanation of the phenomena would 
not have been possible. 

With these points in mind, we may examine a set of Max- 
well's equations in a form that describes the behavior of an 
electromagnetic field under the most general conditions, i.e., a 
field moving in empty space. No conductors are present, no 
free charges, and the medium is a vacuum. The equations then 

1) divE = 

2) divH = 

. _ 1 dH 

3) curlE-- - -^ 

1 dE 

4) curlH= - ^ 

The meaning of the symbols is as follows: E and H represent 
electric and magnetic field strength; since they vary in time, 
and from place to place, they are functions of the space co- 
ordinates x, y, z (not shown) and of the time coordinate, t. 
C is the velocity of light and enters the equations as the rate 
of propagation; div (an abbreviation for divergence) and curl 
(an abbreviation for rotation) represent mathematical opera- 
tions whose physical meaning is explained below. 

Divergence is essentially a measure of rate of change. In 
words, then, equation 1 

div E = 

says that in a moving field the electric intensity is the same at 
every point, i.e., the rate of change is zero at every point. More 
loosely, this equation extends to the field the classical principle 
that electric lines of force can be neither created nor de- 
stroyed. Thus the equation says that the number of electric 
lines of force, representing the field strength, that enter any 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

tiny volume of space must equal the number leaving it. Mak- 
ing use of still another analogy, if one conceives of electricity 
in Maxwell's idiom, as an incompressible fluid, equation 1 
states that as much fluid flows out of a tiny volume of space in 
a given time as flows in.* 

* For the reader interested in a little more detail, the following explanation 
may be helpful. Equation 1 states that the divergence of the electric field inten- 
sity is zero at any point in space and at any instant of time. The meaning of the 
equation may be visualized as follows. It is customary to represent £ at a given 
instant of time by a series of lines whose relative density in space is propor- 
tional to E. These lines have direction because £ is a vector. Consider a point 
P and a sphere surrounding P. Let us suppose that the intensity of the electric 
field on the left hemispherical surface of the sphere is uniform over the surface 
and is directed at each point perpendicular to the surface. 



Suppose further that some change takes place in the electric field intensity E 
in the region occupied by the sphere but such that on the right hemispherical 
surface the field E is again uniform and perpendicular to the surface but strong- 
er than on the left portion. We would indicate this increase in the intensity of 
E by having more lines leave the sphere on the right than enter on the left. 
Using the number of lines as a measure of E, we count the lines entering the 
spherical surface and multiply this number by the area of the hemisphere, and 
regard this product as negative. Let us next form the analogous product of the 
area and the number of lines leaving the surface, and regard this product as 
positive. The algebraic sum of these two products, that is, the positive plus the 
negative, is called the net electric flux through the spherical surface. This net 
flux is the divergence of E over the volume of the sphere. In our illustration 
the net flux of E has increased as E passes through the sphere. Hence we 
should say in this case that the divergence of E through the sphere is positive. 
If we now divide this net flux through the sphere by the volume of the sphere, 
we obtain the next net flux per unit volume. We now imagine that the sphere 
becomes smaller and smaller and contracts to the point P. Of course the net 
flux per unit volume changes and approaches some limiting value. This limiting 
value, which is a mathematical abstraction, is div E at the point P. Thus div E 
is essentially a measure of the spatial rate of change of E at the point P. Since 
equation 1 says that for electric fields div E = at each point P, we may say 
that the net spatial rate of change of E is zero in empty space. More loosely 
stated, this equation says that electric field lines are neither created nor de- 
stroyed at the point P. It is to be noted that the phrase "spatial rate of change" 
is intended to emphasize that the divergence is concerned with the way in 
which E changes from point to point in space at the same instant of time. This 
spatial rate must be distinguished from the rate at which some quantity, for 
example, E itself in equation 4, may change during some interval of time. 


Equation 2 

div H = 

makes the same assertion for magnetic lines as equation 1 
makes for electric lines. 
Equation 3 

curl E — -55— 


is Maxwell's way of stating Faraday's law of induction. The 
equation describes what happens in a changing magnetic field. 

The right side expresses rate of change,—^ — , multiplied by a 


very small factor, (the negative sign before the fraction 


is purely a matter of algebraic convenience) ; the left side ex- 
presses the fact that an electric field is created by a changing 
magnetic field. But the equation is more than analytic; thanks 
to the sign curl, it actually gives a picture of the event. A simple 
diagram may help make this clear. Suppose the existence of a 
magnetic field uniform over a region of space. We draw a 

_ H 

surrounding a bundle of parallel lines, which represent the 
intensity and direction of the magnetic field. The circle lies in 
a plane perpendicular to the lines. If the field is changed (by 


James Clerk Maxwell. Part II 

motion or by increase or reduction of strength), it produces 
an electric field that acts in a circle around the lines of mag- 
netic force (though it may also act in other directions). By 
summing the work done in moving unit electric charge around 
the circle, we obtain what is called the net electromotive force 
around the circle.* If the circle were made of wire, the chang- 
ing magnetic lines would of course induce the flow of a cur- 
rent; but even without a wire — and therefore no current — a 
force would be induced. Dividing this force by the area en- 
closed by the circle gives the net electromotive force (per unit 
area) which "curls" around the circle. Now imagine the circle 
growing smaller and smaller and shrinking finally to the point 
P. By this limiting process we obtain a limiting value of the 
net electromotive force per unit area : this is curl E at P. Thus 
equation 3 says that the limiting value of electromotive force 
per unit area equals the rate of change of H at the point P, 

multiplied by the tiny negative fraction, J Or, again, 

more loosely stated, a changing magnetic field creates an 
electric field whose electromotive force per unit area at any 
given point and instant of time equals the time rate of change 
of the magnetic field at that point and instant. 

Equation 4 

curl H — — -^r 
c Ot 

says that, except for the change in algebraic sign (which has 
to do with the directions of the fields), the roles of E and H in 

* In physical terms, we obtain the net capacity of the electric field to move 
current along the circle. 

t The symbol c, which here stands for the ratio of the electrostatic to the elec- 
tromagnetic units of electricity, is required to translate E (an electrostatic phe- 
nomenon) and H (an electromagnetic phenomenon) into the same system of 
units. The equation explains how Maxwell was able to connect electrical and 
magnetic phenomena with the velocity of light, for c is in fact that velocity. 


equation 3 may be reversed. At any given point and instant the 
magnetomotive force (the analogue for magnetic fields of 
electromotive force) per unit of area created by a changing 
electric field is equal to the time rate of change of the electric 

field multiplied by the tiny positive fraction — . Now, the 

reader who has followed this discussion will perceive that the 

time rate of change of E, -«— , is none other than Maxwell's 

displacement current. For since the changes are taking place 
in the dielectric known as empty space, the only currents that 
can flow are displacement currents.* Prior to Maxwell, it was 
thought that the magnetic field H could be produced only by 
currents that flowed in wires passing through the circle. If no 
wires were present, the law thought to be applicable was 
curl H = 0. It was Maxwell's great discovery, deduced me- 
chanically from his model and expressed mathematically in 
this equation, that a time-varying electric field produces (or 
must be accompanied by) a net "curled" magnetic force even 
in an insulator or empty space. t 

According to Maxwell's theory, the introduction of a time- 
varying electric force in a dielectric produces displacement 
waves with the velocity of light. To put it another way, it is the 
surge and ebbing of the force that produces the periodic dis- 
placement waves; a static charge would merely create an in- 
stantaneous displacement, which would be fixed, but not a 

* Equation 4 assumes the existence of this current and relates it quantitatively 
to the magnetomotive force generated by the existent magnetic field. Physically 
we may regard the magnetic field as creating the displacement current or, con- 
versely, regard the displacement current as creating the accompanying magnetic 
field and magnetomotive force. 

t Maxwell called -=- the displacement current, the term "displacement" mean- 
ing that the electric field intensity E was being altered or displaced as time 

varies, and the term "current" suggesting that — had the properties of a cur- 


a ■ &E 

rent Mowing in a wire even though — existed in empty space. 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

wave. Now, an electric current, as we have seen, whether in a 
dielectric or in a conductor, is accompanied by a magnetic 
force; and similarly a periodic wave of electric displacement 
is accompanied by a periodic magnetic force. The wave front 
itself, as Maxwell showed, comprises electric vibrations at 
right angles to the direction of propagation and a magnetic 
force at right angles to the electric displacement. The com- 
pound disturbance is therefore called an electromagnetic wave. 
A light wave (which is a displacement wave) is, as Henri 
Poincare later elaborated, "a series of alternating currents, 
flowing in a dielectric, in the air, or in interplanetary space, 
changing their direction 1,000,000,000,000,000 times a sec- 
ond. The enormous inductive effect of these rapid alternations 
produces other currents in the neighboring portions of the 
dielectric, and thus the light waves are propagated from place 
to place." 

The electromagnetic theory of light was testable experi- 
mentally, and indeed stood up remarkably well in laboratory 
trials. But this was only a limited confirmation of Maxwell's 
system, for if his reasoning was correct, there must be other 
electrical waves produced by initial disturbances of differing 
intensity. These waves would differ from light in wave length 
and would therefore not be visible, yet it should be possible to 
detect them with appropriate instruments. How to find them, 
not to say generate them, was now the crucial problem. Max- 
well did not live to see it solved. Not until ten years after his 
death were his prophecies fulfilled and the skepticism of his 
most distinguished contemporaries refuted. As late as 1888 
Lord Kelvin referred to Maxwell's waves as a "curious and 
ingenious, but not wholly tenable hypothesis" ; but a year later 
Helmholtz's greatest pupil, Heinrich Hertz, nosed out Oliver 
Lodge in the race to demonstrate their existence. In a series of 
brilliant experiments he showed how electric waves could be 
"excited" (i.e., generated) by oscillation and detected by 
a circular conductor provided with a small gap; and how they 
could be polarized, reflected, refracted, made to form shadows 


and to interfere with each other. The connection, he said, "be- 
tween light and electricity ... of which there were hints and 
suspicions and even predictions in the theory, is now estab- 
lished. . . . Optics is no longer restricted to minute aether 
waves, a small fraction of a millimetre in length; its domain is 
extended to waves that are measured in decimetres, metres and 
kilometres. And in spite of this extension, it appears merely 
... as a small appendage of the great domain of electricity. 
We see that this latter has become a mighty kingdom." 

The Treatise, written while Maxwell was "in retirement" at 
Glenlair, drew only part of his energy. As a "by-work" during 
the same period he wrote a textbook on heat, which appeared 
in 1870, and a number of papers of considerable importance 
on mathematics, color vision and topics of physics. He main- 
tained a heavy scientific and social correspondence, enlarged 
his house, studied theology, composed stanzas of execrable 
verse, rode his horse, went on long walks with his dogs, visited 
his r ghbors and played with their children, and made fre- 
quent trips to Cambridge to serve as moderator and examiner 
in the mathematical tripos. 

In 1871 a chair in experimental physics was founded at 
Cambridge. It is hard to realize that at the time no courses in 
heat, electricity and magnetism were being taught there, and 
no laboratory was available for the pursuit of these arcane 
matters. The University, as a contemporary scholar delicately 
observed, "had lost touch with the great scientific movements 
going on outside her walls." A committee of the faculty began 
to bestir itself, a report was issued, and the lamentable facts 
fell under the gaze of the Duke of Devonshire, Chancellor of 
the University. He offered the money for the building and 
furnishing of the famous Cavendish Laboratory. Thomson, it 
was known, would not leave his post at Glasgow to take the 
new chair, and Maxwell, though at first reluctant to leave 
Glenlair, yielded to the urging of his friends to offer himself 
as a candidate. He was promptly elected. 


James Clerk Maxwell, Part II 

He now devoted himself to the task of designing and super- 
intending the erection of the laboratory. His aim was to make 
it the best institution of its kind, with the latest apparatus and 
the most effective arrangements for research. He inspected 
Thomson's laboratory at Glasgow and Clifton's at Oxford to 
learn the desirable features of both and embody them in the 
Cavendish. He presented to the laboratory all the apparatus in 
his own possession and supplemented the Duke's gift by gen- 
erous money contributions. With so many details to be taken 
care of, the structure and its appointments were not completed 
until 1874. The delay, while inevitable, was inconvenient. "I 
have no place," wrote Maxwell, "to erect my chair, but move 
about like the cuckoo, depositing my notions in the Chemical 
Lecture Room in the first term, in the Botannical in Lent and 
in the Comparative Anatomy in Easter." His "notions" were 
the courses he gave, beginning in 1871, on heat, electricity and 
electromagnetism, a schedule maintained throughout the ten- 
ure of his chair. And though the audiences were often small, 
some of the best students were soon attracted to his lectures, 
which contained much important original work. The renais- 
sance that followed in physical science at Cambridge was the 
direct result of his influence. 

Maxwell's classic Matter and Motion, "a small book on a 
great subject," was published in 1876. About this time he 
contributed articles on various subjects — "Atom," "Aether," 
"Attraction," "Faraday," among others — to the famous ninth 
edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His public lectures 
include a charming discourse "On the Telephone," which, 
though delivered when he was already very ill, is not only as 
clear as his best expositions but filled with gay, amusing 
asides. Speaking, for example, of "Professor Bell's inven- 
tion," he comments on "the perfect symmetry of the whole 
apparatus — the wire in the middle, the two telephones at the 
ends of the wire, and the two gossips at the ends of the tele- 
phones "A task that occupied him for five years, almost to 

the very end of his life, was editing twenty packets of unpub- 


lished scientific papers of Henry Cavendish, who was great- 
uncle to the Duke of Devonshire. This splendid two-volume 
work, published in 1879, did much to fix the reputation of an 
immensely gifted investigator, whose important work on elec- 
tricity was unknown to his contemporaries because the results 
were confided only to his manuscripts. Maxwell repeated 
Cavendish's experiments and showed that he had anticipated 
major discoveries in electricity, including electrostatic capac- 
ity, specific inductive capacity and Ohm's law. 

As Maxwell grew older, friends remarked on his "ever-in- 
creasing soberness" of spirit. This must not be taken to mean he 
was invariably melancholy or withdrawn or that his nice sense 
of fun — about himself no less than about others — had van- 
ished. He continued to see his many friends, to write light 
verse and parodies, to promenade with his dog Toby, who was 
at Maxwell's side even in the laboratory, to play small prac- 
tical, but never mean, jokes, to engage in what was called 
"humorous mystification" by advancing preposterous scien- 
tific ideas in conversation while keeping a straight face. All 
things, he once remarked, are "full of jokes," though they are 
also "quite full of solemn matters," and he was as likely to 
stress their light as their grave aspect. 

But it is true he became somewhat more reticent with the 
passing years, and more and more concealed his feelings and 
reflections beneath an ironical shell. The tough, rational, 
Scotch common-sense cord of his nature had always been inter- 
twined with threads of mysticism. Often plain, even blunt, in 
his address, he also had an allusive way of speaking and 
showed a fondness for parables. He had faith in science, yet 
he was at bottom skeptical as to how much could be learned 
from science alone about nature and meaning. It was all very 
well, he felt, to have "ideal aspirations"; on the other hand, 
"It's no use thinking of the chap ye might have been." His 
contemporaries remember him as both modest and intellectu- 
ally scornful, tentative in his scientific opinions and dogmatic 
when others seemed to him to be immoderately self-assured. 


James Clerk Maxwell. Part II 

"No one knows what is meant by" so-and-so was his way of 
answering a cocksure formulation of a scientific "truth." 

The most striking of Maxwell's traits was his gentleness. 
"His tenderness for all living things was deep and instinctive; 
from earliest childhood he could not hurt a fly." An extraordi- 
nary selflessness characterized his relationship to those close 
to him. When his brother-in-law came to London to undergo 
an operation, Maxwell gave up the ground floor of his house 
to patient and nurse and left himself with a room so small that 
he frequently breakfasted on his knees because there was no 
room for a chair at the table. Mrs. Maxwell had a serious and 
prolonged illness in the last years of Maxwell's life, and he 
insisted on nursing her. On one occasion it is reported that he 
did not sleep in a bed for three weeks. But his work went on 
as usual, and he was as cheerful as if he enjoyed the ordeal — 
which may indeed have been the case. Nor did he give the 
slightest sign of being downcast or show self-pity when his own 
fatal illness seized him. 

In the spring of 1877 he began to be troubled with pain and 
a choking sensation on swallowing. For some strange reason he 
consulted no one about his symptoms for almost two years, 
though his condition grew steadily worse. His friends at Cam- 
bridge observed that he was failing, that the spring had gone 
out of his step. When he went home to Glenlair for the sum- 
mer of 1879, he was so obviously weakening that he called for 
medical help. He was in terrible pain, "hardly able to lie still 
for a minute together, sleepless, and with no appetite for the 
food which he so required." He understood thoroughly that his 
case was hopeless, yet his main concern seemed to be about the 
health of his wife. In October he was told he had only a month 
to live. On November 5 he died. "No man," wrote his physi- 
cian, Dr. Paget, "ever met death more consciously or more 
calmly." When Maxwell was buried in Parton Churchyard at 
Glenlair, the world had not yet caught up with his ideas. Even 
today it has not fully explored the kingdom created by his 


Oersted established a connection between electric 
currents and magnetism; Faraday found the connection 
between magnetic fields and induced electric cur- 
rents. But it was Maxwell who synthesized and ex- 
tended these two results. 

14 On the Induction of Electric Currents 

James Clerk Maxwell 

An excerpt from his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism 
published in 1873. 

528.] The discovery by Orsted of the magnetic action of an 
electric current led by a direct process of reasoning to that of 
magnetization by electric currents, and of the mechanical action 
between electric currents. It was not, however, till 1831 that 
Faraday, who had been for some time endeavouring to produce 
electric currents by magnetic or electric action, discovered the con- 
ditions of magneto-electric induction. The method which Faraday 
employed in his researches consisted in a constant appeal to ex- 
periment as a means of testing the truth of his ideas, and a constant 
cultivation of ideas under the direct influence of experiment. In 
his published researches we find these ideas expressed in language 
which is all the better fitted for a nascent science, because it is 
somewhat alien from the style of physicists who have been accus- 
tomed to established mathematical forms of thought. 

The experimental investigation by which Ampere established the 
laws of the mechanical action between electric currents is one of 
the most brilliant achievements in science. 

The whole, theory and experiment, seems as if it had leaped, 
full grown and full armed, from the brain of the 'Newton of elec- 
tricity.' It is perfect in form, and unassailable in accuracy, and 
it is summed up in a formula from which all the phenomena may 
be deduced, and which must always remain the cardinal formula of 

The method of Ampere, however, though cast into an inductive 
form, does not allow us to trace the formation of the ideas which 
o-uided it. We can scarcely believe that Ampere really discovered 
the law of action by means of the experiments which he describes. 
We are led to suspect, what, indeed, he tells us himself*, that he 

* Thdorie da rherwminet Electrodynamiqiut, p. 9. 


discovered the law by some process which he has not shewn us, 
and that when he had afterwards built up a perfect demon- 
stration he removed all traces of the scaffolding by which he had 
raised it. 

Faraday, on the other hand, shews us his unsuccessful as well 
as his successful experiments, and his crude ideas as well as his 
developed ones, and the reader, however inferior to him in inductive 
power, feels sympathy even more than admiration, and is tempted 
to believe that, if he had the opportunity, he too would be a dis- 
coverer. Every student therefore should read Ampere's research 
as a splendid example of scientific style in the statement of a dis- 
covery, but he should also study Faraday for the cultivation of a 
scientific spirit, by means of the action and reaction which will 
take place between the newly discovered facts as introduced to him 
by Faraday and the nascent ideas in his own mind. 

It was perhaps for the advantage of science that Faraday, though 
thoroughly conscious of the fundamental forms of space, time, and 
force, was not a professed mathematician. He was not tempted 
to enter into the many interesting researches in pure mathematics 
which his discoveries would have suggested if they had been 
exhibited in a mathematical form, and he did not feel called upon 
either to force his results into a shape acceptable to the mathe- 
matical taste of the time, or to express them in a form which 
mathematicians might attack. He was thus left at leisure to 
do his proper work, to coordinate his ideas with his facts, and to 
express them in natural, untechnical language. 

It is mainly with the hope of making these ideas the basis of a 
mathematical method that I have undertaken this treatise. 

529.] We are accustomed to consider the universe as made up of 
parts, and mathematicians usually begin by considering a single 
particle, and then conceiving its relation to another particle, and so 
on. This has generally been supposed the most natural method. 
To conceive of a particle, however, requires a process of abstraction, 
since all our perceptions are related to extended bodies, so that 
the idea of the all that is in our consciousness at a given instant 
is perhaps as primitive an idea as that of any individual thing. 
Hence there may be a mathematical method in which we proceed 
from the whole to the parts instead of from the parts to the whole. 
For example, Euclid, in his first book, conceives a line as traced 
out by a point, a surface as swept out by a line, and a solid as 
generated by a surface. But he also defines a surface as the 


On the Induction of Electric Currents 

boundary of a solid, a line as the edge of a surface, and a point 
as the extremity of a line. 

In like manner we may conceive the potential of a material 
system as a function found by a certain process of integration with 
respect to the masses of the bodies in the field, or we may suppose 
these masses themselves to have no other mathematical meaning 

than the volume-integrals of — V 2 *, where * is the potential. 

In electrical investigations we may use formulae in which the 
quantities involved are the distances of certain bodies, and the 
electrifications or currents in these bodies, or we may use formulae 
which involve other quantities, each of which is continuous through 

all space. 

The mathematical process employed in the first method is in- 
tegration along lines, over surfaces, and throughout finite spaces, 
those employed in the second method are partial differential equa- 
tions and integrations throughout all space. 

The method of Faraday seems to be intimately related to the 
second of these modes of treatment. He never considers bodies 
as existing with nothing between them but their distance, and 
acting on one another according to some function of that distance. 
He conceives all space as a field of force, the lines of force being 
in general curved, and those due to any body extending from it on 
all sides, their directions being modified by the presence of other 
bodies He even speaks of the lines of force belonging to a body 
as in some sense part of itself, so that in its action on distant 
bodies it cannot be said to act where it is not. This, however, 
is not a dominant idea with Faraday. I think he would rather 
have said that the field of space is full of lines of force, whose 
arrangement depends on that of the bodies in the field, and that 
the mechanical and electrical action on each body is determined by 
the lines which abut on it. 


The magnetic properties of certain materials and the 
electric effects produced by friction were both known 
in ancient days. Oersted's experiment with electric 
current and a compass showed that electricity and 
magnetism are related. Maxwell found the connec- 
tion between the two phenomena in his electromag- 
netic equations. 

15 The Relationship of Electricity and Magnetism 

D. K. C. MacDonald 

Excerpt from his book, Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin, published in 1964. 

We know that an electric current can produce forces 
on a magnet in its vicinity, or, in other words, an elec- 
tric current produces a magnetic "field." Faraday had 
shown, moreover, that a changing magnetic field (pro- 
duced either by moving a magnet or by varying an elec- 
tric current in a coil) could induce an electric current 
in a neighboring, but separate, coil of wire. Thus, 
through these fundamental experiments of Oersted, 
Ampere, and particularly Faraday, various vital facts 
had been discovered about how electric currents and 
magnets could interact with one another and, as we 
have said earlier, these discoveries were already lead- 
ing to exciting practical developments such as the elec- 
tric telegraph and the submarine cables. But, in broad 
terms, what James Clerk Maxwell tried to do was to 
build up a more general picture of these interactions 
between electric and magnetic effects (or "fields") 


without worrying so much about actual coils of wire 
with electric currents in them, or about how in practice 
one actually produced the magnetic fields. Following 
Faraday's general lead in concentrating on the "lines 
of force" or the "fields," Maxwell tried to work out 
directly and quantitatively the interaction in space of 
the electric field on the magnetic field, and vice versa, 
wherever they might exist. In his mind Maxwell in- 
vented, or designed, various semi-mechanical models 
to build up his theory, but in the end he could discard 
this mental scaffolding and give a complete mathemati- 
cal description of electromagnetic behavior which holds 
good to this day. 

Consider the production of a magnetic field by a cur- 
rent of electricity in a coil. We know that such a cur- 
rent always involves a movement of electric charge, 
so from the electrical point of view we may say that 
something is changing all the time. One of the things 
Maxwell did was to generalize this discovery boldly, 
saying in essence: [I] "A Changing Electric Field Will 
Always Produce a Magnetic Field." 

But, on the other hand, Faraday had shown that 
the movement of a magnet could produce an electric 
current, as we have already seen; so on the same lines 
this can be generalized to say: [II] "A Changing 
Magnetic Field Can Produce an Electric Field" 

The ultimate result of James Clerk Maxwell's work 
was, in effect, that he expressed these two basic ideas 
in precise, quantitative terms, and he came out finally 
with what are now known as Maxwell's Equations, 
which, as I already have said, remain today the stand- 
ard method of predicting how electricity and magnetism 
will behave under any given conditions. The acme of 
Maxwell's work, however, was his discovery that when 
applied in free, empty space his equations took on a 
form which is equally descriptive of any undamped 


The Relationship of Electricity and Magnetism 

wave motion propagating itself freely from place to 
place. Thus, if you drop a stone into a large pond of 
water a ripple or wave will proceed out from that 
place, and some of the energy from the falling stone 
will radiate outward in the wave from the splash. If 
you shout to somebody else some distance away, then it 
is a vibration or wave in the air around you which car- 
ries the sound to the distant person; or if you rig up a 
long, tight rope or string between two points, and then 
"twang" the rope, you can see a wave running along 
the rope, and this wave carries some of the energy that 
you put in the "twang." Again, if there is a violent 
storm at sea, the energy from this storm gets carried 
over long distances by waves in the ocean; the waves 
which smash on the rocks of Newfoundland may well 
be getting their energy from a storm a thousand miles 
or more out in the Atlantic Ocean. In each of these lat- 
ter examples the waves will be damped to some degree 
or other. For example, waves traveling on the surface 
of the sea lose some energy by dragging deeper layers 
of water, by the very fact that water is not entirely free 
to move by itself, but has a viscosity or "stickiness," 
which means that the waves ultimately suffer losses by 

The particularly remarkable, and unique, feature of 
electromagnetic waves is the fact that they can propa- 
gate themselves quite freely without damping through 
empty space where no matter whatsoever is present, 
but it is not difficult to see from the two italicized state- 
ments above that a self-propelled wave motion of the 
electromagnetic field might be possible. 

Imagine that we have electric and magnetic fields 
present in a small region of space, and that the fields 
are changing suitably with time. As the electric field 
changes at some point in space it will produce a mag- 
netic field in the neighborhood, and if things are right 


this magnetic field will then reinforce the magnetic 
field in some regions, and in turn the over-all changing 
magnetic field will produce again a fresh electric field 
in its neighborhood. What Maxwell's equations showed 
was that this process, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of 
an endless game of leapfrog, could indeed be self- 
maintained, with the energy constantly radiating out- 
ward from where the waves started. 

But this was not all. Maxwell was able to predict 
from this theory, moreover, the speed with which such 
an electromagnetic wave should travel in space. This 
speed was simply determined by the ratio of two meas- 
urements which could be made on electric and mag- 
netic quantities in the laboratory, and it turned out 
that the speed predicted in this way was very close to 
the already known speed of light (about 300,000 
km/sec «=* 186,000 miles/sec). Furthermore, it is also 
a well-known characteristic of light that it too can 
propagate through empty space, as witness the light of 
day which reaches us unfailingly from the sun across 
about a hundred million miles of empty space. So Max- 
well could finally say with confidence that, physically 
speaking, light must be a form of electromagnetic 

Some years after Maxwell's death, Heinrich Hertz 
(1857-94) was able to show experimentally, using 
electrical apparatus, the direct generation and detection 
of the electromagnetic waves predicted by Maxwell. 
These "Hertzian waves" are the great-grandfather of 
the waves which carry all our radio and television 
broadcasts today, and in fact radio waves, television 
waves, light waves, X-rays, and gamma rays, are all 
members of one and the same family— electromagnetic 
waves. In free space they all travel with identically the 
same speed, which for convenience we always refer to 
as "the velocity of light." What distinguishes one type 


The Relationship of Electricity and Magnetism 

of wave from another is simply its rate of vibration, or 
the corresponding wave length (i.e., the distance be- 
tween two successive "crests" or "troughs" of a wave). 
A typical radio wave vibrates at, or has a frequency 
(/) of, about a million times a second (/ = 10 G cy- 
cles/sec = 1 M c/s), and has a wave length (X) of 
about 300 meters. For those who do not mind an equa- 
tion, the relationship is very simple, namely f\ = c, 
where c denotes, as always in physical science, the 
velocity of light. At the other end of the scale, a gamma 
ray might have a wave length of only about one ten- 
billionth part of a centimeter (\ = 10 -10 cm), and a 
corresponding frequency of vibration of about three 
hundred billion billion cycles/sec (/ = 3 X 10 20 c/s). 

Electromagnetic Waves 

Maxwell's electromagnetic theory also led to intense 
discussion later about the fundamental nature of the 
electromagnetic waves involved. Many physicists felt 
that in order to have a wave at all there had to be 
"something" to do the waving or vibrating, and they in- 
vented a sort of all-pervading, universal, thin soup or 
consomme which they called the "aether." But whether 
it is more reasonable to talk about electromagnetic 
waves in free space (which still worries some people 
for the same sort of reason that "action at a distance" 
worried people), or whether it is better to try to think 
about an all-permeating, vibrating "aether" is not a 
very burning issue today. What matters now is that 
Maxwell's Equations are a generally accepted founda- 
tion for discussing electromagnetic behavior under the 
widest range of possible situations, and also that Max- 
well's lead in analyzing electromagnetism by means of 
the electric and magnetic fields has led more generally 
to the concept of discussing other forms of interaction 


through some appropriate "field." Indeed, Maxwell 
himself was at first very inclined to believe that gravita- 
tional attraction must also be propagated in this way, 
but he ran up against difficulties with the energy in- 
volved which seemed to him then insurmountable. 

We have seen that, starting from the picture of "ac- 
tion at a distance" between charges of electricity, Max- 
well, following Faraday's lead, could reformulate the 
problem in terms of a field acting through, and at all 
points of, space of which the charged particles are, so 
to speak, now just the "terminals" or "end points." The 
discovery that this electromagnetic field would vibrate 
in free space was a great step toward identifying light 
as an electromagnetic wave, since the wave phenome- 
non of light (interference, diffraction, etc.) had been 
known for a long time. At the same time there had al- 
ways been some persistent reasons for regarding light 
alternatively as a corpuscular phenomenon, and Ein- 
stein was to show, half a century later, that Maxwell's 
vibrating electromagnetic aether, when coupled with 
Planck's quantum theory first proposed around 1900, 
could also then be regarded in a more or less corpuscu- 
lar manner. What Planck and Einstein showed was 
that the energy in the electromagnetic field could only 
exist in certain minimum-sized bundles or "quanta" 
dependent in magnitude on the frequency of vibration 
and the newly discovered Planck's constant. These 
"bundles" of light, or more technically "quanta" of the 
electromagnetic field, are generally known today as 
photons. So now we can think of electromagnetic in- 
teractions as either conveyed by the vibrating aether 
or equivalently as conveyed by streams of photons 
which will to some extent behave like particles. In deal- 
ing with many kinds of interactions, including those 
which hold an atomic nucleus together, modern physics 
finds it most valuable to be able to think in both these 


The Relationship of Electricity and Magnetism 

terms without being bound to regard one picture as 
more necessarily "real" than the other. 


The formulation of Maxwell's equations opened the 
new area of science called electromagnetism, with 
far-reaching consequences. 

16 The Electromagnetic Field 

Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld 

Excerpt from their book entitled the Evolution of Physics published 
in 1938 and 1961. 


The quantitative, mathematical description of the 
laws of the field is summed up in what are called Max- 
well's equations. The facts mentioned so far led to the 
formulation of these equations but their content is 
much richer than we have been able to indicate. Their 
simple form conceals a depth revealed only by careful 

The formulation of these equations is the most im- 
portant event in physics since Newton's time, not only 
because of their wealth of content, but also because 
they form a pattern for a new type of law. 

The characteristic features of Maxwell's equations, 
appearing in all other equations of modern physics, are 
summarized in one sentence. Maxwell's equations are 
laws representing the structure of the field. 

Why do Maxwell's equations differ in form and 
character from the equations of classical mechanics? 
What does it mean that these equations describe the 
structure of the field? How is it possible that, from the 
results of Oersted's and Faraday's experiments, we can 
form a new type of law, which proves so important for 
the further development of physics? 


We have already seen, from Oersted's experiment, 
how a magnetic field coils itself around a changing 
electric field. We have seen, from Faraday's experi- 
ment, how an electric field coils itself around a chang- 
ing magnetic field. To outline some of the characteris- 
tic features of Maxwell's theory, let us, for the moment, 
focus all our attention on one of these experiments, 
say, on that of Faraday. We repeat the drawing in 
which an electric current is induced by a changing mag- 
netic field. We already know that an induced current 
appears if the number of lines of force, passing the sur- 
face bounded by the wire, changes. Then the current 
will appear if the magnetic field changes or the circuit 
is deformed or moved: if the number of magnetic lines 
passing through the surface is changed, no matter how 
this change is caused. To take into account all these 
various possibilities, to discuss their particular influ- 
ences, would necessarily lead to a very complicated 
theory. But can we not simplify our problem? Let us 
try to eliminate from our considerations everything 
which refers to the shape of the circuit, to its length, 
to the surface enclosed by the wire. Let us imagine 
that the circuit in our last drawing becomes smaller and 


The Electromagnetic Field 

smaller, shrinking gradually to a very small circuit en- 
closing a certain point in space. Then everything con- 
cerning shape and size is quite irrelevant. In this limit- 
ing process where the closed curve shrinks to a point, 
size and shape automatically vanish from our consid- 
erations and we obtain laws connecting changes of 
magnetic and electric field at an arbitrary point in 
space at an arbitrary instant. 

Thus, this is one of the principal steps leading to 
Maxwell's equations. It is again an idealized experiment 
performed in imagination by repeating Faraday's ex- 
periment with a circuit shrinking to a point. 

We should really call it half a step rather than a 
whole one. So far our attention has been focused on 
Faraday's experiment. But the other pillar of the field 
theory, based on Oersted's experiment, must be consid- 
ered just as carefully and in a similar manner. In this 
experiment the magnetic lines of force coil themselves 
around the current. By shrinking the circular magnetic 
lines of force to a point, the second half-step is per- 
formed and the whole step yields a connection be- 
tween the changes of the magnetic and electric fields 
at an arbitrary point in space and at an arbitrary instant. 

But still another essential step is necessary. Accord- 
ing to Faraday's experiment, there must be a wire test- 
ing the existence of the electric field, just as there must 
be a magnetic pole, or needle, testing the existence of 
a magnetic field in Oersted's experiment. But Maxwell's 
new theoretical idea goes beyond these experimental 
facts. The electric and magnetic field, or in short, the 
electromagnetic field is, in Maxwell's theory, some- 
thing real. The electric field is produced by a changing 
magnetic field, quite independently, whether or not 


there is a wire to test its existence; a magnetic field is 
produced by a changing electric field, whether or not 
there is a magnetic pole to test its existence. 

Thus two essential steps led to Maxwell's equations. 
The first: in considering Oersted's and Rowland's ex- 
periments, the circular line of the magnetic field coil- 
ing itself around the current and the changing electric 
field, had to be shrunk to a point; in considering.Fara- 
day's experiment, the circular line of the electric field 
coiling itself around the changing magnetic field had to 
be shrunk to a point. The second step consists of the 
realization of the field as something real; the electro- 
magnetic field once created exists, acts, and changes 
according to Maxwell's laws. 

Maxwell's equations describe the structure of the 
electromagnetic field. All space is the scene of these 
laws and not, as for mechanical laws, only points in 
which matter or charges are present. 

We remember how it was in mechanics. By knowing 
the position and velocity of a panicle at one single 
instant, by knowing the acting forces, the whole future 
path of the particle could be forseen. In Maxwell's 
theory, if we know the field at one instant only, we 
can deduce from the equations of the theory how the 
whole field will change in space and time. Maxwell's 
equations enable us to follow the history of the field, 
just as the mechanical equations enabled us to follow 
the history of material particles. 

But there is still one essential difference between me- 
chanical laws and Maxwell's laws. A comparison of 
Newton's gravitational laws and Maxwell's field laws 


The Electromagnetic Field 

will emphasize some of the characteristic features ex- 
pressed by these equations. 

With the help of Newton's laws we can deduce the 
motion of the earth from the force acting between the 
sun and the earth. The laws connect the motion of the 
earth with the action of the far-off sun. The earth and 
the sun, though so far apart, are both actors in the play 
of forces. 

In Maxwell's theory there are no material actors. 
The mathematical equations of this theory express the 
laws governing the electromagnetic field. They do not, 
as in Newton's laws, connect two widely separated 
events; they do not connect the happenings here with 
the conditions there. The field here and novo depends 
on the field in the immediate neighborhood at a time 
just past. The equations allow us to predict what will 
happen a little further in space and a little later in time, 
if we know what happens here and now. They allow 
us to increase our knowledge of the field by small steps. 
We can deduce what happens here from that which 
happened far away by the summation of these very 
small steps. In Newton's theory, on the contrary, only 
big steps connecting distant events are permissible. The 
experiments of Oersted and Faraday can be regained 
from Maxwell's theory, but only by the summation of 
small steps each of which is governed by Maxwell's 

A more thorough mathematical study of Maxwell's 
equations shows that new and really unexpected con- 
clusions can be drawn and the whole theory submitted 
to a test on a much higher level, because the theoretical 
consequences are now of a quantitative character and 
arc revealed by a whole chain of logical arguments. 


Let us again imagine an idealized experiment. A small 
sphere with an electric charge is forced, by some ex- 
ternal influence, to oscillate rapidly and in a rhythmical 
way, like a pendulum. With the knowledge we already 
have of the changes of the field, how shall we describe 
everything that is going on here, in the field language? 

The oscillation of the charge produces a changing 
electric field. This is always accompanied by a chang- 
ing magnetic field. If a wire forming a closed circuit is 
placed in the vicinity, then again the changing mag- 
netic field will be accompanied by an electric current 
in the circuit. All this is merely a repetition of known 
facts, but the study of Maxwell's equations gives a 
much deeper insight into the problem of the oscillating 
electric charge. By mathematical deduction from Max- 
well's equations we can detect the character of the 
field surrounding an oscillating charge, its structure 
near and far from the source and its change with time. 
The outcome of such deduction is the electromagnetic 
'wave. Energy radiates from the oscillating charge trav- 
eling with a definite speed through space; but a trans- 
ference of energy, the motion of a state, is character- 
istic of all wave phenomena. 

Different types of waves have already been consid- 
ered. There was the longitudinal wave caused by the 
pulsating sphere, where the changes of density were 
propagated through the medium. There was the jelly- 
like medium in which the transverse wave spread. A 
deformation of the jelly, caused by the rotation of the 
sphere, moved through the medium. What kind of 
changes are now spreading in the case of an electro- 
magnetic wave? Just the changes of an electromagnetic 
field! Every change of an electric field produces a mag- 


The Electromagnetic Field 

netic field; every change of this magnetic field pro- 
duces an electric field; every change of ... , and so 
on. As field represents energy, all these changes spread- 
ing out in space, with a definite velocity, produce a 
wave. The electric and magnetic lines of force always 
lie, as deduced from the theory, on planes perpendicu- 
lar to the direction of propagation. The wave pro- 
duced is, therefore, transverse. The original features of 
the picture of the field we formed from Oersted's and 
Faraday's experiments are still preserved, but we now 
recognize that it has a deeper meaning. 

The electromagnetic wave spreads in empty space. 
This, again, is a consequence of the theory. If the oscil- 
lating charge suddenly ceases to move, then, its field 
becomes electrostatic. But the series of waves created 
by the oscillation continues to spread. The waves lead 
an independent existence and the history of their 
changes can be followed just as that of any other ma- 
terial object. 

We understand that our picture of an electromag- 
netic wave, spreading with a certain velocity in space 
and changing in time, follows from Maxwell's equa- 
tions only because they describe the structure of the 
electromagnetic field at any point in space and for any 

There is another very important question. With 
what speed does the electromagnetic wave spread in 
empty space? The theory, with the support of some 
data from simple experiments having nothing to do 
with the actual propagation of waves, gives a clear an- 
swer: the velocity of an electromagnetic wave is equal 
to the velocity of light. 


Oersted's and Faraday's experiments formed the 
basis on which Maxwell's laws were built. All our re- 
sults so far have come from a careful study of these 
laws, expressed in the field language. The theoretical 
discovery of an electromagnetic wave spreading with 
the speed of light is one of the greatest achievements in 
the history of science. 

Experiment has confirmed the prediction of theory. 
Fifty years ago, Hertz proved, for the first time, the 
existence of electromagnetic waves and confirmed ex- 
perimentally that their velocity is equal to that of light. 
Nowadays, millions of people demonstrate that elec- 
tromagnetic waves are sent and received. Their ap- 
paratus is far more complicated than that used by 
Hertz and detects the presence of waves thousands of 
miles from their sources instead of only a few yards. 


Instruments borne aloft by artificial satellites and 
probes report that our planet is encircled by two zones 
containing high-energy radiation against which space 
travelers will have to shield themselves. 

Radiation Belts Around the Earth 

James Van Allen 

An article published in Scientific American in 1959. 

So far, the most interesting and least 
expected result of man's explora- 
tion of the immediate vicinity of 
the earth is the discovery that our planet 
is ringed by a region— to be exact, two re- 
gions—of high-energy radiation extend- 
ing many thousands of miles into space. 
The discovery is of course troubling to 
astronauts; somehow the human body 
will have to be shielded from this radia- 
tion, even on a rapid transit through the 
region. But geophysicists, astrophysi- 
cists, solar astronomers and cosmic-ray 
physicists are enthralled by the fresh im- 
plications of these findings. The configu- 
ration of the region and the radiation it 
contains bespeak a major physical phe- 
nomenon involving cosmic rays and solar 
corpuscles in the vicinity of the earth. 
This enormous reservoir of charged par- 
ticles plays a still-unexplained role as 
middleman in the interaction of earth 
and sun which is reflected in magnetic 
storms, in the airglow and in the beauti- 
ful displays of the aurora. 

The story of the investigation goes 
back to 1952 and 1953, before any of 
us could think realistically about the use 
of earth satellites to explore the environ- 
ment of the earth. Parties from our lab- 
oratory at the State University of Iowa 
spent the summers of those years aboard 
Coast Guard and naval vessels, cruising 
along a 1,500-mile line from the waters 
of Baffin Bay, near the magnetic pole in 
the far northwestern corner of Green- 
land, southward to the North Atlantic 
off the coast of Newfoundland. Along 
the way we launched a series of rocket- 

carrying balloons— "rockoons." (The bal- 
loon lifts a small rocket to an altitude of 
12 to 15 miles, whence the rocket car- 
ries a modest payload of instruments to 
a height of 60 to 70 miles.) Our objec- 
tive was to develop a profile of the cos- 
mic-ray intensities at high altitudes and 
latitudes, and thus to learn the nature of 
the low-energy cosmic rays which at 
lower altitudes and latitudes are de- 
flected by the earth's magnetic field or 
absorbed in the atmosphere. 

Most of the readings radioed down 
from the rockets were in accord with 
plausible expectations. Two rockoons 
sent aloft in 1953, however, provided us 
with a puzzle. Launched near New- 
foundland by Melvin Gottlieb and Les- 
lie Meredith, they encountered a zone 
of radiation beginning at an altitude of 
30 miles that was far stronger than we 
had expected. At first we were uneasy 
about the proper operation of our in- 
struments. But critical examination of 
the data convinced us that we had un- 
questionably encountered something 
new in the upper atmosphere. 

Significantly these measurements were 
made in the northern auroral zone. In 
this zone, which forms a ring some 23 
degrees south of the north geomagnetic 
pole, the incidence of visible auroras 
reaches its maximum. Since rockets fired 
north and south of the zone had revealed 
nothing unusual, we speculated that the 
strong radiation played some part in the 
aurora. Showers of particles from the 
sun, it was thought, come plunging into 
the atmosphere along magnetic lines of 

force and set off these displays [see "Au- 
rora and Airglow," by C. T. Elvey and 
Franklin E. Roach; Scientific Ameri- 
can, September, 1955]. But the theory 
underlying this explanation did not ex- 
plain satisfactorily why the aurora and 
the high-intensity radiation we had de- 
tected should occur in the auroral zone 
and not in the vicinity of the geomag- 
netic pole itself. Nor could it account 
for the high energies required to carry 
the solar particles through the atmos- 
phere to such relatively low altitudes. 

The mystery deepened when we 
found in later studies that the radiation 
persists almost continuously in the zone 
above 30 miles, irrespective of visible 
auroral displays and other known high- 
altitude disturbances. More discriminat- 
ing detectors established that the radia- 
tion contains large numbers of electrons. 
Our original observations had detected 
X-rays only; now it turned out that the 
X-rays had been generated by the im- 
pact of electrons on the skin of the in- 
strument package ( as if it had been the 
"target" in an X-ray tube) and on the 
sparse atoms of the upper atmosphere 
itself. Sydney Chapman and Gordon 
Little at the University of Alaska sug- 
gested that such a process might well 
account for the attenuation of radio sig- 
nals in the lower ionosphere of the auro- 
ral zones. 


he International Geophysical Year 
gave us our first opportunity to in- 
vestigate the "auroral soft radiation" on 
a more comprehensive scale. During the 


STRUCTURE OF RADIATION BELTS revealed by contours of 
radiation intensity (black lines) is shown schematically by shading 

(left); dots {right) suggest distribution of particles in the two 
belts. Contour numbers give counts per second; horizontal scale 

summer and fall of 1957 Laurence Ca- 
hill and I launched a number of rockoons 
off the coast of Greenland and also got 
off one successful flight in Antarctica. 
The latter flight established that the ra- 
diation exists in the southern as well as 
the northern auroral zone. In February, 
1958, Carl Mclhvain fired a series of 
two-stage rockets through visible auro- 
ras above Fort Churchill in Canada, and 
discovered that the radiation includes 

energetic protons (hvdrogen nuclei) as 
well as electrons. 

Meanwhile all of us had been pushing 
a new development that greatly expand- 
ed the possibilities for high-altitude re- 
search. During the summer of 1955 the 
President and other Government author- 
ities were finally persuaded that it 
might be feasible to place artificial satel- 
lites in orbit, and authorized an I. G. Y. 
project for this purpose. In January, 

1956, a long-standing group of high- 
altitude experimentalists, called the 
Rocket and Satellite Research Panel, 
held a symposium to consider how the 
satellites could be most fruitfully em- 
ployed. At that meeting our group pro- 
posed two projects. One was to put a 
satellite into an orbit nearly pole-to-pole 
to survey the auroral radiation in both 
the north and south auroral zones. Such 
orbits, however, did not appear to be 


Radiation Belts Around the Earth 

shows distance in earth radii (about 4,000 miles) from the center 
of the earth. Particles in the inner belt may originate with the 

radioactive decay of neutrons liberated in the upper atmosphere by 
cosmic rays; those in the outer belt probably originate in the sun. 

technically feasible in the immediate 
future. For the time being we were 
forced to abandon the use of a satellite 
to probe farther into the auroral soft 
radiation. We also suggested that a satel- 
lite orbiting over the lower latitudes of 
the earth might usefully be employed in 
a comprehensive survey of cosmic-ray 
intensities over those regions.- This proj- 
ect was adopted, and we were author- 
ized to prepare suitable experimental 

apparatus [see "The Artificial Satellite 
as a Research Instrument," by James A. 
Van Allen; Scientific American, No- 
vember, 1956]. It was planned to place 
this apparatus on one of the early Van- 
guard vehicles. 

The difficulties and failures of the 
Vanguard are now history. Sputnik I 
stimulated some high government offi- 
cials to accept a proposal that a num- 
ber of us had been urging for more than 

a year: to use the proven Jupiter C 
rocket as a satellite-launching vehicle. 
As a result on January 31, 1958, Ex- 
plorer I went into orbit carrying our 
simple cosmic-ray detector and a radio 
to broadcast its readings. 

In the first reports from stations locat- 
ed in the U. S. the intensity of radiation 
increased with altitude along the expect- 
ed curve. Several weeks later, however, 
we began to get tapes from stations in 


EXPLORER IV AND PIONEER III gave the first detailed picture of the radiation belts. 
The Explorer IV satellite (short ellipse) monitored radiation levels for nearly two months 
at altitudes up to 1,300 miles. The Pioneer III lunar probe (long ellipse) provided data out 
to 65,000 miles. Its orbit is shown distorted because of the earth's rotation during flight. 

EXPLORER IV ORBIT covered the entire region 51 degrees north and south of the equator; 
the black curve shows a small part of its trace on the earth's surface. More than 25 observa- 
tion stations (colored dots) recorded data from several thousand of the satellite's passes. 




/ w 



10,000 20.000 30,000 40,000 


PIONEER III DATA gave the first confirmation of two distinct rings of particles. Counting 
rates on both the outbound (black curve) and the inbound (gray curve) legs of the flight 
showed two peaks. The two curves differ because they cover different sections of the belts. 

South America and South Africa which 
gave us counting rates for much higher 
altitudes, due to the eccentricity of the 
satellite's orbit. These records brought us 
a new surprise. At high altitudes over the 
equatorial region the apparent counting 
rate was very low; in some passes it 
dropped to zero for several minutes. Yet 
at lower altitudes the rate had quite 
"reasonable" values— from 30 to 50 
counts a second. Again we were uneasy 
about the trustworthiness of the instru- 
ments. The only alternative seemed to 
be that cosmic rays do not strike the 
uppermost layers of the atmosphere over 
the tropics, and we were quite unable 
to accept this conclusion. 

Our uneasiness was increased bv the 
incompleteness of our early data. The 
Explorer I apparatus broadcast its obser- 
vations continuously, but its signals 
could be picked up only intermittently, 
when the satellite came within range of 
a ground station. Our original apparatus, 
designed and developed by George Lud- 
wig for the Vanguard satellites, included 
a magnetic-tape recorder which could 
store its observations for a complete orbit 
around the earth and then report them in 
a "burst" on radio command from the 

T)y early February, working with the 
*-* Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we had 
convertea this apparatus for use in the 
Explorer II satellite. The first attempt to 
get it into orbit failed. A second rocket 
placed Explorer III, carrying identical 
apparatus, in orbit on March 26. This 
satellite fully confirmed the anomalous 
results of Explorer I. At altitudes of 200 
to 300 miles the counting rate was low. 
When the satellite went out to 500 to 
600 miles, the apparent rate ascended 
rapidly and then dropped almost to zero. 
One dav, as we were puzzling over the 
first tapes from Explorer III, Mcllwain 
suggested the first plausible explanation 
for their peculiar readings. He had just 
been calibrating his rocket instruments, 
and called our attention to something 
that we all knew but had temporarily 
forgotten: A sufficiently high level of 
radiation can jam the counter and send 
the apparent counting rate to zero. We 
had discovered an enormously high level 
of radiation, not a lack of it. As Ernest 
Ray, a member of our group, inaccu- 
rately but graphically exclaimed: "Space 
is radioactive!" 

During the next two months Explorer 
III produced a large number of playback 
records, every one of which showed the 
same effect. At low altitudes the count- 
ing rate was reasonably attributable to 


Radiation Belts Around the Earth 













1 2 3 4 2048 


1 2 3 4 64 


1 2 3 ...16 



- | SCALE OF 2048 \ - 

- | SCALE OF 64 [ - 

OF 16 

1 2 3. ..128 


OF 128 




nnnfir^n J 1 


















,.\in ■ > - . . J »f 















I i I i 

EXPLORER IV INSTRUMENTS were designed to give a detailed rather than individual particles. Shielded and ""shielded Geiger 

LXTLUKt-K IV inaiKUJncn 19 "....* Plastic scin . m bes could be compared to estimate the penetrability of the radia- 

Dicture of the nature and intensity of the radiation, riasuc sun luuoa r 

picture o. me nature a a » energies; two tion. Radio signals suggested by the red curves in upper drawing 

tillator counted only charged particles above certain energies, •» , J , . . ,; „ „„j i ,„ r n Uv*A thrnnsh a 

different scaling factors adapted i, to both high and low counting were recorded by S">undj.a -s and a ler pi ,e ihroug • 

rates. Cesium-iodide scintillator measured the total energy input multichannel oscillograph to y.eld record, hke that shown below. 


1,500 1,000 5C0 

500 1,000 1,500 

TWO SETS OF CONTOURS from readings on opposite sides of 
the earth Hell and center) show the northern and southern "horns" 

of radiation, which point toward the auroral zones; the contour 
numbers show radiation intensity in counts per second. The "tipped" 

cosmic rays. At higher altitudes— the pre- 
cise height depended on both latitude 
and longitude— the count increased to 
very high values. Up to the points at 
which the counter jammed, it showed 
counting rates more than 1,000 times 
the theoretical expectation for cosmic 
rays. From the rate of increase and the 
length of the periods of jamming we 
judged that the maximum count prob- 
ably went to several times this level. 
Since the radiation appeared to resem- 
ble the auroral soft radiation, we would 
not have been surprised to find it in the 
auroral zone or along the magnetic lines 
of force that connect these zones. But in 
the equatorial latitudes these lines of 
force lie much farther out in space than 
the altitudes attained by the satellites. 

On May 1 of last year we were able 
to report with confidence to the National 
Academy of Sciences and the American 
Physical Society that Explorers I and 
III had discovered a major new phenom- 
enon: a very great intensity of radiation 
above altitudes of some 500 miles over 
the entire region of their traverse, some 
34 degrees north and south of the equa- 
tor. At the same time we advanced the 
idea that the radiation consists of 
charged particles— presumably protons 
and electrons— trapped in the magnetic 
field of the earth. 

We could rule out uncharged particles 
and gamma and X-rays because they 
would not be confined by the magnetic 
field, and so would be observed at lower 
altitudes. The possibility that the earth's 

magnetic field might act as a trap for 
charged particles was first suggested by 
the Norwegian physicist Carl Stormer 
in a classical series of papers beginning 
some 50 years ago, and there was a 
considerable body of evidence for the 
existence of low-energy charged parti- 
cles throughout our solar system and 
specifically in the vicinity of the earth. 
But there had been no indication that 
these particles would possess the high 
energies we had detected. 

From Stormer's theoretical discussion 
and our own observations we evolved a 
rough picture of the trapping mechan- 
ism. When a fast-moving charged parti- 
cle is injected into the earth's magnetic 
field, it describes a corkscrew-shaped 
trajectory, the center line of which lies 
along a magnetic line of force. The turns 
of the helical path are quite open over 
the equator but become tighter as the 
particle reaches the stronger magnetic 
field toward the poles [see illustration at 
bottom of opposite page]. At the lower 
end of its trajectory the particle goes into 
a flat spiral and then winds back along 
a similar path to the other hemisphere, 
making the transit from one hemisphere 
to the other in a second or so. During 
this time its line of travel shifts slightly, 
SO that the particle drifts slowly around 
the earth as it corkscrews from hemi- 
sphere to hemisphere. An electron drifts 
from west to east; a proton, in the op- 
posite direction. At each end of its path 
the particle descends into regions of 
higher atmospheric density; collisions 

with the atoms of atmospheric gases 
cause it gradually to change its trajectory 
and to lose energy. After a period of days 
or weeks the particle is lost into the lower 

r 1 1 here was obviously an urgent scien- 
-*- tific need to extend these observa- 
tions with equipment of greater dynamic 
range and discrimination. In April of 
1958 we persuaded several Federal 
agencies to support further satellite 
flights of our radiation equipment as an 
adjunct to the I. G. Y. program, and we 
received the enthusiastic support of the 
National Academy of Sciences for the 
continuation of our work. We also per- 
suaded the Army Ballistic Missile Agen- 
cy and the Cape Canaveral Air Force 
Base to try to place the satellite in an 
orbit more steeply inclined to the equa- 
tor; at an inclination of about 50 degrees 
to the equator it would cover a much 
greater area of earth and skim the edges 
of both auroral zones. 

Working night and dav, we set out at 
once to build new apparatus of a more 
discriminating nature. We retained the 
Geiger tube, which we had used in pre- 
vious satellites, as a basic "simple-mind- 
ed" detector. To be ready for the highest 
intensities of radiation, however, we 
used a much smaller tube that would 
yield a lower count in a given flux of 
radiation, and we hooked it into a circuit 
that would scale down its count by a 
much larger factor. To obtain a better 
idea of the penetrability of the radiation 


Radiation Belts Around the Earth 



drawing al right shows the essential symmetry 
axis. The structure of the radiation zone was 

we shielded a similar Geiger tube with a 
millimeter of lead. As a more discriminat- 
ing particle detector we adopted a plas- 
tic scintillator and photomultiplier tube 
to respond to electrons with an energy 
of more than 650,000 electron volts and 
to protons of more than 10 million elec- 
tron volts. Finally we glued a thin cesi- 
um-iodide crystal to the window of an- 
other photomultiplier tube; the light 
emitted by the crystal when it was ir- 
radiated would measure the over-all in- 
put of energy rather than the arrival of 
individual particles. To keep out light 
when the crystal faced the sun, we 
shielded it with thin, opaque nickel foil. 
A special amplifier gave this detector a 
large dynamic range extending from 
about .1 erg per second to 100,000 ergs 
per second. 

Explorer IV carried this apparatus in- 
to orbit on July 26, and sent down data 
for almost two months. Magnetic tapes 
from some 25 observing stations flowed 
in steadily from late July to late Septem- 
ber; altogether we obtained some 3,600 
recorded passes of the satellite. A typical 
pass was readable for several minutes; 
some of the best were readable for up to 
20 minutes, a large fraction of the time 
required for the satellite to make a turn 
around the earth. We are still analyzing 
this mass of data, but the preliminary 
results have already proved to be en- 

The readings have confirmed our ear- 
lier estimates of the maximum levels of 
radiation. Moreover, we have extended 

of the radiation around the earlh*s magnetic 
built up from hundreds of observed points. 

our observations to more than 50 degrees 
north and south of the equator and have 
been able to plot the intensity of the 
radiation at various latitudes and longi- 
tudes for altitudes up to 1,300 miles. 
The intensity contours follow the shape 
of the earth in the equatorial region, but 
as they approach high northern and 
southern latitudes they swing outward, 
then inward and sharplv outward again 
to form "horns" reaching down toward 

the earth near the auroral zones [see 
illustrations at the top oj these two 
pages]. The entire picture so far is com- 
pletely consistent with the magnetic- 
trapping theory. 

It was clear from the contours that 
Explorers I, III and IV penetrated onlv 
the lower portion of the radiation belt. 
As early as last spring we began to make 
hypothetical extensions of the observed 
contours out to a distance of several 
thousand miles. One of these speculative 
diagrams showed a single, doughnut- 
shaped belt of radiation with a ridge 
around the northern and southern edges 
of its inner circumference, correspond- 
ing to the horns of the contours. Another 
showed two belts— an outer region with 
a banana-shaped cross section that ex- 
tended from the northern to the southern 
auroral zone and an inner belt over the 
equator with a bean-shaped cross section 
[see illustration on pages 40 and 41]. 
The latter diagram seemed to fit the con- 
tours better. In our seminars and after- 
hour discussions Mcllwain held out for 
the two-belt theory. The rest of us tend- 
ed to agree with him but preferred to 
stay with the single "doughnut" because 
of its simplicity. 

T^o take the question out of the realm 
■*- of speculation we had to secure 
measurements through the entire region 
of radiation. In May, therefore, I ar- 
ranged to have one of our radiation de- 
tectors carried aboard the lunar probes 
planned for the fall of 1958. On October 


TRAPPED PARTICLES spiral rapidly back and forth along a corkscrew shaped path 
whose center is a magnetic line of force. At the same time they drift slowly around the earth 
{broken arrows). Electrons I negative) and protons I positive* drift in opposite directions. 


11, 12 and 13 Pioneer I, the first lunar 
probe, carried our instruments nearly 
70,000 miles out from the earth. Though 
its readings were spotty, they confirmed 
our belief that the radiation extended 
outward for many thousands of miles, 
with its maximum intensity no more than 
10,000 miles above the earth. 

The next attempted moon shot, Pio- 
neer II, was a fizzle. Pioneer III, how- 
ever, went off beautifully on December 
6. Although this rocket was intended to 
reach the vicinity of the moon, we were 
almost as pleased when it failed to do 
so, for it gave us excellent data on both 
the upward and downward legs of its 
flight, cutting through the radiation re- 
gion for 65,000 miles in two places. 

The observations on both legs showed 
a double peak in intensity [see illustra- 
tion at bottom of page 42], establishing 
that there are indeed two belts rather 
than one. The inner belt reaches its 
peak at about 2,000 miles from the earth, 
the outer one at about 10,000 miles. 
Bevond 10,000 miles the radiation in- 
tensity diminishes steadily; it disappears 
almost completely beyond 40,000 miles. 
The maximum intensity of radiation in 
each belt is about 25,000 counts per sec- 
ond, equivalent to some 40,000 parti- 

cles per square centimeter per second. 

Most of us believe that this great 
reservoir of particles originates largely 
in the sun. The particles are somehow 
injected into the earth's magnetic field, 
where they are deflected into corkscrew 
trajectories around lines of force and 
trapped. In this theoretical scheme the 
radiation belts resemble a sort of leaky 
bucket, constantly refilled from the sun 
and draining away into the atmosphere. 
A particularly large influx of solar par- 
ticles causes the bucket to "slop over," 
mainly in the auroral zone, generating 
visible auroras, magnetic storms and re- 
lated disturbances. The normal leakage 
may be responsible for the airglow which 
faintly illuminates the night sky and may 
also account for some of the unexplained 
high temperatures which have been ob- 
served in the upper atmosphere. 

This solar-origin theory, while attrac- 
tive, presents two problems, neither of 
which is yet solved. In the first place 
the energy of many of the particles we 
have observed is far greater than the pre- 
sumed energy of solar corpuscles. The 
kinetic energy of solar corpuscles has 
not been measured directly, but the 
time-lag between a solar outburst and 
the consequent magnetic disturbances 

HEAD OF EXPLORER IV includes nose rone (left), instrument "payload" (center) and 
protective shell i right). Payload includes four detectors, two radio transmitters, batteries 
and associated electronic circuity. The outer shell is approximately six inches in diameter. 

on earth indicates that the particles are 
slow-moving and thus of relatively low 
energy. It may be that the earth's mag- 
netic field traps only a high-energy frac- 
tion of the particles. Alternatively, some 
unknown magnetohydrodynamic effect 
of the earth's field may accelerate the 
sluggish particles to higher velocities. 
Some such process in our galaxv has 
been suggested as responsible for the 
great energies of cosmic rays. The second 
problem in the solar-origin theory is that 
it is difficult to explain how charged 
particles can get into the earth's mag- 
netic field in the first place. We believe 
that neither problem is unsolvable. 

Nicholas Christofilos of the University 
of California and the Soviet physicist 
S. N. Vernov have suggested an entirelv 
different theory of how the radiation 
originates. They note that neutrons are 
released in large numbers in the earth's 
upper atmosphere by the impact of cos- 
mic rays. These neutrons, being un- 
charged, can travel through the mag- 
netic field without deflection. In due 
course some of them decav there into 
electrons and protons, which are trapped. 

Our group agrees that particle-injec- 
tion of this sort is going on, and at a rate 
which can be easily calculated; but we 
feel for a number of reasons that it can- 
not be the main source of radiation-belt 
particles. If we are right in supposing 
that the radiation belts provide the "res- 
ervoir" for the aurora, the neutron hy- 
pothesis cannot account for more than 
one 10,000th of the auroral energy out- 
put. Even if the association between 
the radiation belts and the aurora turns 
out to be fortuitous, preliminary indica- 
tions both from our work and from the 
Russian experience with Sputnik III 
suggest that most of the particles in the 
radiation belt have much lower energies 
than those of particles that would be 
produced by neutron decay. A full 
knowledge of the energy distribution of 
the particles will aid greatly in clarifying 
their origin. 

Neither theory explains why there 
should be two belts rather than one. It is 
tempting to combine the two theories 
and suppose that the inner belt orig- 
inates with "internal injection"— i.e., neu- 
tron-decav products— and the outer one 
with "external injection" of solar cor- 
puscles. The two-belt configuration may 
of course be a transitory phenomenon, 
though the data from Explorer IV and 
Pioneer III indicate that the separate 
belts persisted in essentially the same 
form for at least five months. We should 
bear in mind, however, that 1958 was 
a \ ear of great solar activity. Three years 


Radiation Belts Around the Earth 

FOUR-STAGE ROCKET launched the Pioneer III moon probe on 
December 6, 1958. Though the flight failed to reach the moon, its 

outbound leg gave a continuous record of radiation out to 65,000 
miles; the inbound leg gave data between 30,000 and 10,000 miles. 

from now we may well find a much 
lower over-all intensity and perhaps a 
different structure altogether. 

In addition to these possible long-term 
changes, there may be short-term fluc- 
tuations in the belts. While we feel sure 
that the influx and leakage of particles 
must balance in the long run, a major 
solar outbreak may temporarily increase 
the intensity of the radiation many-fold. 
If we were to detect such fluctuations 
and were to find that they coincide with 
solar outbursts on the one hand and 
with terrestrial magnetic disturbances 
on the other, we would have a plain 
lead to the origin of the particles. Be- 
fore long we hope to launch a satellite 

that will monitor radiation levels for 
at least a year. 

/"\ur measurements show that the max- 
^-^ imum radiation level as of 1958 is 
equivalent to between 10 and 100 roent- 
gens per hour, depending on the still- 
undetermined proportion of protons to 
electrons. Since a human being exposed 
for two days to even 10 roentgens would 
have onlv an even chance of survival, the 
radiation belts obviously present an ob- 
stacle to space flight. Unless some prac- 
tical way can be found to shield space- 
travelers against the effects of the radia- 
tion, manned space rockets can best take 
off through the radiation-free zone over 

the poles. A "space station" must orbit 
below 400 miles or beyond 30,000 miles 
from the earth. We are now planning a 
satellite flight that will test the efficacy 
of various methods of shielding. 

The hazard to space-travelers may not 
end even when they have passed the 
terrestrial radiation belts. According to 
present knowledge the other planets of 
our solar system mav have magnetic 
fields comparable to the earth's and thus 
may possess radiation belts of their own. 
The moon, however, probablv has no 
belt, because its magnetic field appears 
to be feeble. Lunar probes should give 
us more definite information on this 
point before long. 


How does the brain work? Part of the answer lies in 
electrophysiology, the study of the relation between 
electricity and nervous stimulation. 

18 A Mirror for the Brain 

W. Grey Walter 

A chapter from his book The Living Brain published in 1963. 

The Greeks had no word for it. To them the 
brain was merely "the thing in the head," and completely 
negligible. Concerned as so many of them were about man's 
possession of a mind, a soul, a spiritual endowment of the 
gods, it is strange they did not anticipate our much less enter- 
prising philosophers of some score of centuries later, and in- 
vent at least a pocket in the head, a sensorium, to contain it. 
But no, the Greeks, seeking a habitation for the mind, could 
find no better place for it than the midriff, whose rhythmic 
movements seemed so closely linked with what went on in 
the mind. 

The Hebrews also attributed special dignity to that part of 
the body; thence Jehovah plucked man's other self. Old ideas 
are not always as wide of the mark as they seem. The rhythm 
of breathing is closely related to mental states. The Greek 
word for diaphragm, phren, appears in such everyday words 
as frenzy and frantic, as well as in the discredited phrenology 
and the erudite schizophrenia. 


Above the midriff the classical philosophers found the 
vapours of the mind; below it, the humours of the feelings. 
Some of these ideas persisted in physiological thought until 
the last century and survive in the common speech of today. 
Hysteric refers by derivation to the womb. The four basic 
human temperaments were: choleric, referring to the gall 
bladder; phlegmatic, related to inflammation; melancholic, 
black bile; and sanguine, from the blood. This classification 
of temperaments was revived by a modern physiologist, Pav- 
lov, to systematize his observations of learning. 

As in nearly all notions that survive as long as these fossils 
of language have survived, there is an element of truth, of 
observation, in them. States of mind are certainly related to 
the organs and liquors designated, and may even be said in 
a sense to originate in them. The philosopher, William James, 
was responsible with Lange for a complete theory of emotion 
which invoked activity in the viscera as the essential precursor 
of deep feeling. Some of the most primitive and finest phrases 
in English imply this dependence of sincere or deep emotion 
on heart or bowels. But communication of thought is so rapid 
that the Greeks overlooked the existence or need of a relay 
station. And no doubt it is for the same reason that we all 
seem particularly given to the same error of over-simplification 
when we first begin, or refuse to begin, to consider how the 
mind works. We know what makes us happy or unhappy. 
Who, in the throes of sea-sickness, would think of dragging 
in the brain to account for his melancholy state? 

More curious still is Greek negligence of the brain, con- 
sidering their famous oracular behest, "Know thyself." Here 
indeed was speculation, the demand for a mirror, insistence 
upon a mirror. But for whom, for what? Was there, among 


A Mirror for the Brain 

the mysteries behind the altar, concealed perhaps in the 
Minerva myth, a suspicion of something more in the head 
than a thing, and that the organ which had to do the knowing 
of itself must be an organ of reflection? 

The brain remained for more than two thousand years in 
the dark after its coming of age. When it was discovered by 
the anatomist, he explored it as a substance in which might 
be found the secret dwelling of intelligence; for by that time 
the mind had moved from the diaphragm to the upper story, 
and Shakespeare had written of the brain, "which some sup- 
pose the soul's frail dwelling-house." Dissection was high 
adventure in those days. Most people believed what an 
ironical writer today was "astonished to leam," that "it is 
possible for anger, envy, hatred, malice, jealousy, fear and 
pride, to be confined in the same highly perishable form of 
matter with life, intelligence, honesty, charity, patience and 
truth.*' The search for such prize packets of evil and virtue 
in the brain tissue, dead or alive, could only lead to disap- 
pointment. The anatomist had to be satisfied with weighing 
the "grey matter" — about 50 ounces for man and 5 less for 
woman — and making sketches of the very complicated and 
indeed perishable organisation of nerves and cells which his 
knife revealed. He could do little more. It should enlighten 
us at once as to the essential character of brain activity, that 
there was no possible understanding of ihe mechanism of 
the brain until the key to it, the electrical key, was in our 

There were some flashes of foresight, sparks in the scien- 
tific dark, before Galvani put his hand on the key. What gen- 
erated all the speculations of the day was a new notion in 


science, the conception of physical motion which began to 
acquire importance with Galileo and continued with Newton 
and into our own times with Rutherford and Einstein. First 
among these imaginative flashes may be mentioned the novel 
proposal made by the 16th Century philosopher, Hobbes, 
when disputing the dualist theory of Descartes. The French 
philosopher contemplated a non-spatial mind influencing the 
body through the brain, and suggested the pineal gland as 
the rendezvous for mind and matter. The proposal advanced 
by Hobbes, in rejecting this popular theory, was that thought 
should be regarded as being produced by bodies in motion. 
Hobbes was born in the year of the Spanish Armada; the 
Royal Society had received its charter seventeen years before 
he died in 1679. 

The controversy about ihe residential status of the mind 
is almost as much out of date as that in which the non- 
existence of motion seemed to be proved by the hare and 
tortoise fable. But the value of Hobbes' speculation was en- 
during; the observation and correlation of mental and phys- 
ical phenomena are today a routine of physiological research. 

More specific than the speculation of Hobbes was that of 
Dr. David Hartley about a century later. Hartley in 1749 
anticipated by two hundred years the kind of theory of mental 
function for which evidence has been found in the last year 
or two. His "Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty and 
his Expectations" is a milestone in the history of English 
thought. Hartley, a contemporary of Newton and Hume, was 
a pioneer of what he termed the "doctrine of mechanism." 
According to this, he suggested, mental phenomena are de- 
rived from rhythmic movements in the brain — vibrations, he 
called them; upon these is superimposed a fine structure of 


A Mirror for the Brain 

"vibratiuncles" which give thought and personality their 
subtle shades and variations. Hartley realised quite well the 
value of the plastic and compact virtues such a system might 
have. He was also the first to develop the theory of "associa- 
tion of ideas" in a rigorous form, relating this to his "vibra- 
tiuncles" in a manner which we should now consider strictly 
scientific in the sense that it is susceptible to experimental 
test. It is difficult for us to appreciate the originality of his 
notions, the gist of which is now a commonplace of electro- 

Hartley wrote nearly half a century before Galvani ( 1737- 
1798 ) and with him we might say farewell to fancy. But to 
pass over the famous Galvani- Volta controversy with the 
bald statement that the one claimed to have discovered elec- 
tricity in animals and the other its generation by metals, would 
be unfair to any reader who may not know how strangely 
truth came out of that maze of error. 

The incident began with an experiment made by Luigi and 
Lucia Galvani in the course of their long and patient study 
of that still fresh mystery, electricity. The word had been in 
use since William Gilbert coined it in the 16th century from 
elektron, meaning amber, another pretty semantic shift; and 
Henry Cavendish had already, eight years before the inci- 
dent, determined the identity of its dynamic laws with those 
of gravitation. Everybody in high society was familiar with 
the effects of discharges from Leyden jars upon the lifeless 
muscles of executed criminals; and Louis XV had, in the 
words of Silvanus Thomson, "caused an electric shock from a 
battery of Leyden jars to be administered to 700 Carthusian 
monks joined hand to hand, with prodigious effect." But in 
Bologna in 1790 the professor of anatomy had a notion that 


it was atmospheric electricity which acted upon the muscle 
tissues of animals. On a stormy evening, one version of the 
story goes, he and his wife had the curious idea of testing 
this point by tying a dead frog to the top of the iron balustrade 
of the court-yard, apparently using copper wire to hold it 
by the leg. They expected that, as the storm approached, the 
frog would be convulsed by electric shocks. And, as they 
watched the thunder cloud come near, so indeed it happened; 
the dead frog, hanging against the iron grill, twitched in re- 
peated convulsions. 

Further experiments convinced the Galvani that they had 
witnessed a form of electricity derived from living processes, 
not merely from the atmosphere. He published a famous ac- 
count of his experiments on the relation of animal tissue to 
electricity: De viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Com- 
mentarius (1791). Volta seized upon this to refute the whole 
of Galvani's thesis, repeating his experiment not only with- 
out the storm but without the frog, proving that the elec- 
tricity in question could be generated by copper and zinc 
sheets. This "current electricity" as it was called, was there- 
fore metallic, and no nonsense about any animal variety. So 
ended a controversy and a friendship. So began the science 
of electrical engineering. 

Eppur, the Galvani might have repeated, si muove. For 
their discredited experiment had truly revealed, not indeed 
what they supposed, but something more wonderful. What 
had happened was that, swaying in the wind, the suspended 
frog had come into contact with the iron bars, between which 
and the copper wire a current had been generated, activating 
its muscles. The Galvani had demonstrated the electrical 
aspect of nervous stimulation. 


A Mirror for the Brain 

This was an event as important to the physiologist as its 
counter-event was to the physicist; it was the starting-point 
of that branch of the science with which we are concerned 
here, electrophysiology. 

Volta's counter-demonstration led directly to the invention 
of the electric battery, and economic opportunity evoked 
electrical engineering from the Voltaic pile. There was no 
such incentive for research when, a generation later, the 
existence of animal electricity was proved. Instead, the dis- 
covery was exploited by the academic dilettante and the 
quack. The Aristotelian doctors of the period, assuming that 
where there is electricity there is magnetism, saw in it proof 
also of Mesmer's "Propositions" which had been published 
in his "Memoire sur la Decouverte du Magnetisme Animal" 
in 1779, floundering deeper into mystification than Dr. Mes- 
mer himself, who had at least declared in his "Memoire" that 
he used the term analogically, and that he "made no further 
use of electricity or the magnet from 1776 onwards." 

There is still controversy about the origin and nature of 
animal electricity. Nobody who has handled an electric eel 
will question the ability of an animal to generate a formidable 
voltage; and the current is demonstrably similar in effect to 
that of a mineral dry cell. On the other hand, there is no evi- 
dence that the electric energy in nerve cells is generated by 
electro-magnetic induction or by the accumulation of static 
charge. The bio-chemist finds a complicated substance, acetyl- 
choline, associated with electric changes; it would be reason- 
able to anticipate the presence of some such substance having 
a role at least as important as that of the chemicals in a Le- 
clanche cell. 

We know that living tissue has the capacity to concentrate 


potassium and distinguish it from sodium, and that neural 
electricity results from the differential permeability of an 
inter-face, or cell-partition, to these elements, the inside of 
a cell being negatively charged, the outside positively. 
Whether we call this a chemical or an electrical phenomenon 
is rather beside the point. There would be little profit in argu- 
ing whether a flash-lamp is an electrical or chemical device; 
it is more electrical than an oil lamp, more chemical than a 
lightning flash. We shall frequently refer to changes of po- 
tential as electrical rhythms, cycles of polar changes, more 
explicitly electro-chemical changes. We shall be near the truth 
if we keep in mind that electrical changes in living tissue, 
the phenomena of animal electricity, are signs of chemical 
events, and that there is no way of distinguishing one from 
the other in the animal cell or in the mineral cell. The current 
of a nerve impulse is a sort of electro-chemical smoke-ring 
about two inches long travelling along the nerve at a speed 
of as much as 300 feet per second. 

The neglect and mystification which obscured Galvani's 
discovery, more sterile than any controversy, forced electro- 
physiology into an academic backwater for some decades. A 
few experiments were made; for example, by Biedermann, 
who published a 2-volume treatise called Electrophysiology, 
and by Dubois-Reymond, who introduced Michael Fara- 
day's induction coil into the physiological laboratory and the 
term faradisation as an alternative to galvanisation into the 
physiotherapist's vocabulary. Faraday's electrical and elec- 
trifying research began in 1831, the date also of the foun- 
dation of the British Association for the Advancement of 
Science; but physiology long remained a backward child of 
the family. 


A Mirror for the Brain 

Hampered though these experimenters were by lack of 
trustworthy equipment — they had to construct their own 
galvanometers from first principles — they gradually accumu- 
lated enough facts to show that all living tissue is sensitive 
in some degree to electric currents and, what is perhaps more 
important, all living tissue generates small voltages which 
change dramatically when the tissue is injured or becomes 

These experiments were not concerned with the brain; they 
were made on frog's legs, fish eggs, electric eels and flayed 
vermin. Nor could the brain be explored in that way. 

Following life through creatures you dissect, 
You lose it in the moment you detect 

It took a war to bring the opportunity of devising a tech- 
nique for exploring the human brain — and two more wars to 
perfect it Two medical officers of the Prussian army, wan- 
dering through the stricken field of Sedan, had the brilliant if 
ghoulish notion to test the effect of the Galvanic current on 
the exposed brains of some of the casualties. These pioneers 
of 1870, Fritsch and Hitzig, found that when certain areas at 
the side of the brain were stimulated by the current, move- 
ments took place in the opposite side of the body. 

That the brain itself produces electric currents was the dis- 
covery of an English physician, R. Caton, in 1875. 

This growing nucleus of knowledge was elaborated and 
carried further by Ferrier in experiments with the "Faradic 
current.'* Toward the end of the century there was a spate of 
information which suggested that the brain of animals pos- 
sessed electrical properties related to those found in nerve and 
muscle. Prawdwicz-Neminski in 1913 produced what he 


called the "electro-cerebrogranT of a dog, and was the first to 
attempt to classify such observations. 

The electrical changes in the brain, however, are minute. 
The experiments of all these workers were made on the ex- 
posed brains of animals. There were no means of amplifica- 
tion in those days, whereby the impulses reaching the exterior 
of the cranium could be observed or recorded, even if their 
presence had been suspected. On the other hand, the grosser 
electrical currents generated by the rhythmically contracting 
muscles of the heart were perceptible without amplification. 
Electro-cardiography became a routine clinical aid a gen- 
eration before the invention of the thermionic tube made it 
possible to study the electrical activity of the intact human 

From an unexpected quarter, at the turn of the century, 
came an entirely new development. Turn up the section on 
the brain in a pre-war textbook of physiology and you will 
find gleanings from clinical neuro-anatomy and — Pavlov. Al- 
most as if recapitulating the history of physiological ideas, 
Pavlov's work began below the midriff. He found that the 
process of digestion could not be understood without refer- 
ence to the nervous system, and so commenced his laborious 
study of learning in animals. 

In the gospel according to Stalin, Pavlov founded not 
merely a branch of physiology as Galvani had done, but a 
whole new science — Soviet physiology. His work indeed was 
original; it owed nothing to Galvani, lying quite outside elec- 
trophysiology, to which it was nevertheless eventually, though 
not in Pavlov's day, to contribute so much in the way of under- 

A Mirror for the Brain 

For nearly two generations Pavlov's experiments were the 
major source of information on brain physiology. Workers in 
the English laboratories had not permitted themselves to ex- 
plore further than the top of the spinal cord. One took an 
anatomical glance at the brain, and turned away in despair. 
This was not accountable to any peculiar weakness of physio- 
logical tradition but to the exigencies of scientific method 
itself. A discipline had been building up through the cen- 
turies which demanded that in any experiment there should 
be only one variable and its variations should be measurable 
against a controlled background. In physiology this meant 
that in any experiment there should be only one thing at a 
time under investigation — one single function, say, of an 
organ — and that the changes of material or function should 
be measurable. There seemed to be no possibility of isolating 
one single variable, one single mode of activity, among the 
myriad functions of the brain. Thus there was something like 
a taboo against the study of the brain. The success of Pavlov 
in breaking this taboo early in the century was due to his 
contrivance for isolating his experimental animals from all 
but two stimuli; his fame rests on his measurement of re- 
sponses to the stimuli. 

There was no easy way through the academic undergrowth 
of traditional electrophysiology to the electrical mechanisms 
underlying brain functions. The Cambridge school of electro- 
physiology, under a succession of dexterous and original ex- 
perimenters beginning toward the end of the last century, 
developed its own techniques in special fields of research, par- 
ticularly in the electrical signs of activity in muscles, nerves 
and sense organs. At the same time, the Oxford school under 
the leadership of Sherrington was beginning to unravel some 


of the problems of reflex function of the spinal cord. In both 
these schools the procedure adopted, to comply with the 
traditional requirements of scientific method, was to dissect 
out or isolate the organ or part of an organ to be studied. This 
was often carried to the extreme of isolating a single nerve 
fibre only a few thousandths of a millimetre in diameter, so 
as to eliminate all but a single functional unit. 

Imagine, then, how refreshing and tantalizing were the 
reports from Pavlov's laboratory in Leningrad to those en- 
gaged on the meticulous dissection of invisible nerve tendrils 
and the analysis of the impulses which we induced them to 
transmit After four years spent working literally in a cage 
and chained by the ankle — not for punishment but for elec- 
trical screening — enlargement came when my professor of 
that date, the late Sir Joseph Barcroft, assigned me to estab- 
lishing a laboratory in association with a visiting pupil of 
Pavlov, Rosenthal. We spent a year or so on mastering the 
technique and improving it by the introduction of certain 
electronic devices. The Russian results were confirmed. To 
do more than this would have required staff and equipment 
far beyond the resources of the Cambridge laboratory. 

Meanwhile, another major event in the history of physiology 
had taken place. Berger, in 1928, at last brought Hartley's 
vibrations into the laboratory and with them a method which 
seemed to hold out the promise of an investigation of elec- 
trical brain activity as precise as were the reflex measure- 
ments of Pavlov. When Pavlov visited England some time 
after we heard of this, as the English exponent of his work 
I had the privilege of discussing it with him on familiar terms. 
Among other things, I asked him if he saw any relation be- 
tween the two methods of observing cerebral activity, his 


A Mirror for the Brain 

method and Berger's. The latter, I was even then beginning 
to suspect, might in some way provide a clue to how the con- 
ditioning of a reflex was effected in the brain. But Pavlov 
showed no desire to look behind the scenes. He was not in 
the least interested in the mechanism of cerebral events; they 
just happened, and it was the happening and its consequence 
that interested him, not how they happened. Soviet physiology 
embalmed the body of this limited doctrine as mystically as 
the body of Lenin, for the foundations of their science. The 
process of conditioning reflexes has a specious affinity with 
the Marxian syllogism. Others have found in the phenomena 
sufficient substantiation for a gospel of Behaviourism. 

Pavlov was before his time. He would have been a greater 
man, his work would have been more fertile in his lifetime, 
and Russian science might have been spared a labyrinthine 
deviation, had the work of Berger come to acknowledgement 
and fruition in his day. But again there was delay; Berger 
waved the fairy wand in 1928; the transformation of Cinder- 
ella was a process of years. 

There were reasons for this delay. For one thing, Berger 
was not a physiologist and his reports were vitiated by the 
vagueness and variety of his claims and the desultory nature 
of his technique. He was indeed a surprisingly unscientific 
scientist, as personal acquaintance with him later confirmed. 

The first occasion on which the possibilities of clinical elec- 
troencephalography were discussed in England was quite an 
informal one. It was in the old Central Pathological Labora- 
tory at the Maudsley Hospital in London, in 1929. The team 
there under Professor Golla was in some difficulty about 
electrical apparatus; they were trying to get some records of 

the "Berger rhythm," using amplifiers with an old galvanom- 
eter that fused every time they switched on the current. Golla 
was anxious to use the Matthews oscillograph, then the last 
word in robust accuracy, to measure peripheral and central 
conduction times. I was still working at Cambridge under the 
watchful eye of Adrian and Matthews and was pleased to 
introduce this novelty to him and at the same time, with 
undergraduate superiority, put him right on a few other 
points. When, at lunch around the laboratory table, he re- 
ferred to the recent publication of Berger's claims, I readily 
declared that anybody could record a wobbly line, it was a 
string of artefacts, even if there were anything significant in 
it there was nothing you could measure, and so on. Golla 
agreed with milder scepticism, but added: "If this new ap- 
paratus is as good as you say, it should be easy to find out 
whether Berger's rhythm is only artefact; and if it isn't, the 
frequency seems remarkably constant; surely one could meas- 
ure that quite accurately." And he surmised that there would 
be variations of the rhythm in disease. 

Cambridge still could not accept the brain as a proper study 
for the physiologist. The wobbly line did not convince us or 
anybody else at that time. Berger's "elektrenkephalograms" 
were almost completely disregarded. His entirely original and 
painstaking work received little recognition until in May, 
1934, Adrian and Matthews gave the first convincing demon- 
stration of the "Berger rhythm" to an English audience, a 
meeting of the Physiological Society at Cambridge. 

Meanwhile, Golla was reorganising his laboratory, and his 
confidence in the possibilities of the Berger method was 
growing. When he invited me to join his research team as 
physiologist at the Central Pathological Laboratory, my first 


A Mirror for the Brain 

task was to visit the German laboratories, including particu- 
larly that of Hans Berger. 

Berger, in 1935, was not regarded by his associates as in 
the front rank of German psychiatrists, having rather the 
reputation of being a crank. He seemed to me to be a modest 
and dignified person, full of good humour, and as unperturbed 
by lack of recognition as he was later by the fame it even- 
tually brought him. But he had one fatal weakness: he was 
completely ignorant of the technical and physical basis of 
his method. He knew nothing about mechanics or electricity. 
This handicap made it impossible for him to correct serious 
shortcomings in his experiments. His method was a simple 
adaptation of the electrocardiographic technique by which 
the electrical impulses generated by the heart are recorded. 
At first he inserted silver wires under the subject's scalp; later 
he used silver foil bound to the head with a rubber bandage. 
Nearly always he put one electrode over the forehead and 
one over the back of the head; leads were taken from these to 
an Edelmann galvanometer, a light and sensitive "string" type 
of instrument, and records were taken by an assistant photog- 
rapher. A potential change of one-ten-thousandth of a volt — 
a very modest sensitivity by present standards — could just be 
detected by this apparatus. Each record laboriously produced 
was equivalent to that of two or three seconds of modern con- 
tinuous pen recording. The line did show a wobble at about 
10 cycles per second. ( See Figure 3. ) He had lately acquired 
a tube amplifier to drive his galvanometer, and his pride and 
pleasure in the sweeping excursions of line obtained by its 
use were endearing. 

Berger carried the matter as far as his technical handicap 
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A Mirror for the Brain 

rhythms tended to stop when the subject opened his eyes or 
solved some problem in mental arithmetic. This was con- 
firmed by Adrian and Matthews with leads from electrodes 
on Adrian's head attached to a Matthews amplifier and ink- 
writing oscillograph. This superior apparatus, and a more 
careful location of electrodes, enabled them to go a step fur- 
ther and prove that the 10 cycles per second rhythm arises in 
the visual association areas in the occiput and not, as Berger 
supposed, from the whole brain. 

Only some years later was it realised what an important 
step this was. Its significance could not be recognised while 
so little was known about the components of the "wobbly 
line," the electroencephalogram or, abbreviated, EEC Un- 
avoidably at the time, the significance of the salient character 
of the normal EEG was overlooked; it was found, in Adrian's 
phrase, "disappointingly constant." The attention of many 
early workers in electroencephalography therefore turned 
from normal research to the study of nervous disease. In im- 
mediate rewards this has always been a rich field. In this in- 
stance, a surprising state was soon reached wherein what 
might be called the electropathology of the brain was further 
advanced than its electrophysiology. 

In the pathological laboratory, Golla's earlier surmise, that 
there would be variations of the rhythmic oscillation in 
disease, was soon verified. A technique was developed there 
by which the central point of the disturbance in the tissue 
could be accurately determined. For surgery, the immediate 
result of perfecting this technique was important; it made 
possible the location of tumours, brain injuries, or other phys- 
ical damage to the brain. It was helpful in many head cases 
during the war as well as in daily surgical practice. 


The study of epilepsy and mental disorders also began to 
occupy the attention of many EEG workers. The difficulties 
encountered in these subjects threw into prominent relief 
the essential complexity of the problem as compared with 
those of classical physiology. The hope of isolating single func- 
tions had now been abandoned; those who entered this field 
were committed to studying the brain as a whole organ and 
through it the body as a whole organism. They were therefore 
forced to multiply their sources of information. 

It is now the general EEG practice, not only for clinical 
purposes, but in research, to use a number of electrodes si- 
multaneously, indeed as many as possible and convenient. 
The standard make of EEG recorder has eight channels. 
Eight pens are simultaneously tracing lines in which the 
recordist, after long experience, can recognise the main com- 
ponents of a complex graph. The graphs can also be auto- 
matically analysed into their component frequencies. A more 
satisfactory method of watching the electrical changes in all 
the main areas, as in a moving picture, a much more informa- 
tive convention than the drawing of lines, has been devised 
at the Burden Neurological Institute. This will be described 
after a simple explanation of what is meant by the rhythmic 
composition of the normal EEG; for its nature, rather than the 
methods of recording and analysing it, is of first importance 
for understanding what follows. 

If you move a pencil amply but regularly up and down on 
a paper that is being drawn steadily from right to left, the 
result will be a regular series of curves. If at the same time 
the paper is moving up and down, another series of curves 
will be added to the line drawn. If the table is shaking, the 
vibration will be added to the line as a ripple. There will then 


A Mirror for the Brain 

be three components integrated in the one wavy line, which 
will begin to look something like an EEG record. The line 
gives a coded or conventional record of the various fre- 
quencies and amplitudes of different physical movements. In 
similar coded or integrated fashion the EEG line reports the 
frequencies and amplitudes of the electrical changes in the 
different parts of the brain tapped by the electrodes on the 
scalp, their minute currents being relayed by an amplifier 
to the oscillograph which activates the pens. 

All EEG records contain many more components than this; 
some may show as many as 20 or 30 at a time in significant 
sizes. Actually there may be tens of thousands of impulses 
woven together in such a manner that only the grosser com- 
binations are discernible. 

A compound curve is of course more easily put together 
than taken apart. ( See Figure 4. ) The adequate analysis of a 
few inches of EEG records would require the painstaking com- 
putation of a mathematician — it might take him a week or so. 
The modern automatic analyser in use in most laboratories 
writes out the values of 24 components every 10 seconds, as 
well as any averaging needed over longer periods. 

The electrical changes which give rise to the alternating 
currents of variable frequency and amplitude thus recorded 
arise in the cells of the brain itself; there is no question of 
any other power supply. The brain must be pictured as a 
vast aggregation of electrical cells, numerous as the stars of 
the Galaxy, some 10 thousand million of them, through which 
surge the restless tides of our electrical being relatively thou- 
sands of times more potent than the force of gravity. It is 
when a million or so of these cells repeatedly fire together 


that the rhythm of their discharge becomes measureable in 
frequency and amplitude. 

What makes these million cells act together — or indeed 
what causes a single cell to discharge — is not known. We are 
still a long way from any explanation of these basic mechanics 
of the brain. Future research may well carry us, as it has car- 

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Figure 4. "A compound curve is more easily put together than 
taken apart." (a) A compound curve in which the three components 
can be detected by visual inspection, ratios 1:2 and 2:3. (b) The three 
components (ratios 8:9, 9:10) of this compound curve cannot be 
determined at sight The bottom line shows their frequencies auto- 
matically recorded every 10 seconds. Note the accidental similarity of 
this curve to the EEG record of alpha rhythms in Figure 3 (b). 


A Mirror for the Brain 

ried the physicist in his attempt to understand the compo- 
sition of our atomic being, into vistas of ever increasing 
enchantment but describable only in the convention of mathe- 
matical language. Today, as we travel from one fresh vista 
to another, the propriety of the language we use, the con- 
vention we adopt, becomes increasingly important. Arith- 
metic is an adequate language for describing the height and 
time of the tides, but if we want to predict their rise and fall 
we have to use a different language, an algebra, with its spe- 
cial notation and theorems. In similar fashion, the electrical 
waves and tides in the brain can be described adequately by 
counting, by arithmetic; but there are many unknown quan- 
tities when we come to the more ambitious purposes of under- 
standing and predicting brain behaviour — many x's and y's; 
so it will have to have its algebra. The word is forbidding 
to some people; but, after all, it means no more than "the 
putting together of broken pieces." 

EEG records may be considered, then, as the bits and 
pieces of a mirror for the brain, itself speculum speculorum. 
They must be carefully sorted before even trying to fit them 
together with bits from other sources. Their information 
comes as a conventional message, coded. You may crack the 
code, but that does not imply that the information will neces- 
sarily be of high significance. Supposing, for instance, you 
pick up a coded message which you think may be about a mo- 
mentous political secret. In the first stage of decoding it you 
might ascertain that the order of frequency of the letters was 
ETAONI. This does not sound very useful information; but 
reference to the letter-frequency tables would assure you at 
least that it was a message in English and possibly intelligible. 
Likewise, we watch the frequencies as well as the amplitude 
and origin of the brain rhythms, knowing that many earnest 
seekers for the truth have spent lifetimes trying to decipher 


what they thought were real messages, only to find that their 
horoscopes and alembics contained gibberish. The scientist 
is used to such hazards of research; it is only the ignorant 
and superstitious who regard him, or think he regards him- 
self, as a magician or priest who is right about everything all 
the time. 

Brain research has just about reached the stage where the 
letter frequencies of the code indicate intelligibility and their 
grouping significance. But there is this complication. The 
ordinary coded message is a sequence in time; events in the 
brain are not a single sequence in time — they occur in three- 
dimensional space, in that one bit of space which is more 
crowded with events than any other we can conceive. We 
may tap a greater number of sectors of the brain and set more 
pens scribbling; but the effect of this will only be to multiply 
the number of code signals, to the increasing embarrassment 
of the observer, unless the order and inter-relation of the 
signals can be clarified and emphasised. Redundancy is al- 
ready a serious problem of the laboratory. 

The function of a nervous system is to receive, correlate, 
store and generate many signals. A human brain is a mecha- 
nism not only far more intricate than any other but one that 
has a long individual history. To study such a problem in 
terms of frequency and amplitude as a limited function of 
time — in wavy lines — is at the best over-simplification. And 
the redundancy is indeed enormous. Information at the rate 
of about 3,600 amplitudes per minute may be coming through 
each of the eight channels during the average recording pe- 
riod of 20 minutes; so the total information in a routine record 
may be represented by more than half a million numbers; yet 
the usual description of a record consists only of a few sen- 
tences. Only rarely does an observer use more than one- 
hundredth of one per cent of the available information. 


A Mirror for the Brain 

"What's in a brain that ink may character . . . ?" 
For combining greater clarity with greater economy, many 
elaborations of methods have been adopted in clinic and 
laboratory. They still do not overcome the fundamental em- 
barrassment of redundancy and the error of over-simphfi ca- 
tion, both due to the limitations of a time scale. A promising 
alternative is a machine that draws a snapshot map instead 
of a long history, projecting the electrical data visually on a 
spatial co-ordinate system which can be laid out so as to repre- 
sent a simple map or model of the head. This moving pano- 
rama of the brain rhythms does approximate to Sherrington's 
"enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a 
dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never 
an abiding one." ( Figure 5. ) 

We have called the apparatus which achieves this sort of 
effect at the Burden Institute a toposcope, by reason of its 
display of topographic detail. The equipment was developed 
by Harold Shipton, whose imaginative engineering trans- 
formed the early models from entertainment to education. 
Two of its 24 channels are for monitoring the stimuli; the 
others, instead of being connected with pens, lead the elec- 
trical activity of the brain tapped by the electrodes for display 
on the screens of small cathode-ray tubes. So instead of wavy 
lines on a moving paper, the observer sees, to quote Sherring- 
ton again, "a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with 
trains of travelling sparks hurrying hither and thither." As- 
sembled in the display console, 22 of the tubes give a kind 
of Mercator's projection of the brain. Frequency, phase and 
time relations of the rhythms are shown in what at first ap- 
pears to be a completely bewildering variety of patterns in 
each tube and in their ensemble. Then, as the practised eye 
gains familiarity with the scene, many details of brain ac- 
tivity are seen for the first time. A conventional pen machine 


is simultaneously at the disposal of the observer, synchronised 
so that, by turning a switch, a written record of the activity 
seen in any five of the tubes can be made. Another attachment 
is a camera with which at the same time permanent snapshot 
records of the display can be obtained. ( Figure 6. ) 

Thus, from Berger's crude galvanometer to this elaborate 
apparatus requiring a whole room of its own, electroenceph- 
alography has progressed from a technique to a science. Its 
clinical benefits, by-products of free research, are acknowl- 
edged; they can be gauged by the vast multiplication of EEG 
laboratories. From Berger's lone clinic have sprung several 
hundred EEG centres — more than 50 in England alone. Lit- 
erally millions of yards of paper have been covered with fran- 
tic scribblings. In every civilized country there is a special 
learned society devoted to the discussion of the records and 
to disputation on technique and theory. These societies are 
banded together in an International Federation, which pub- 
lishes a quarterly Journal and organises international con- 

For a science born, as it were, bastard and neglected in 
infancy, this is a long way to have travelled in its first quarter 
of a century. If it is to provide the mirror which the brain 
requires to see itself steadily and whole, there is still a long 
road ahead. The following chapters give the prospect as seen 
from the present milestone, assuming that such studies are 
allowed to continue. Looking back, we realise that the present 
scale of work as compared with previous physiological re- 
search is elaborate and expensive. But our annual cost of con- 
ducting planned investigations of a fundamental nature into 
man's supreme faculties is less than half that of one medium 
tank, and the money spent on brain research in all England 
is barely one-tenth of one per cent of the cost of the national 
mental health services. 


A Mirror for the Brain 

Figure 5. ". . . a moving panorama of the brain rhvthms." The Toposcope Laboratory. The subject's couch and 
triggered stroboscope (flicker) reflector at extreme left be\ond desk of 6-channel pen recorder with remote control 
panel. The 22-channeI toposcope amplifier is in the background, the display panel at right centre, camera and pro- 
jector at extreme right. 

Figure 6. ". . . always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one." 
Snapshots of the "sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points." Each of the tube 
screens, which form a chart oi the head seen from above with nose at top. 
shows bv the flashing sectors of its disc the activity of the corresponding area 
of the brain. (Top left) Resting alpha rhythms, (fop right) Theta rhythms in 
anger. (Bottom left) Wide response to double flashes of light. (Bottom right) 
Spread of response to triple flashes. 


Physics is full of concepts of which we cannot form 
simple pictures. Therefore the authors, like most 
modern scientists, recommend taking a "mathematical 
view. " 

19 Scientific Imagination 

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands 
Excerpt trom The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume II, 1964. 

I have asked you to imagine these electric and magnetic fields. What do you 
do? Do you know how? How do /imagine the electric and magnetic field? What 
do / actually see? What are the demands of scientific imagination? Is it any 
different from trying to imagine that the room is full of invisible angels? No, it is 
not like imagining invisible angels. It requires a much higher degree of imagination 
to understand the electromagnetic field than to understand invisible angels. Why? 
Because to make invisible angels understandable, all I have to do is to alter their 
properties a little bit— I make them slightly visible, and then I can see the shapes 
of their wings, and bodies, and halos. Once I succeed in imagining a visible angel, 
the abstraction required — which is to take almost invisible angels and imagine 
them completely invisible— is relatively easy. So you say, "Professor, please give 
me an approximate description of the electromagnetic waves, even though it may 
be slightly inaccurate, so that I too can see them as well as I can see almost invisible 
angels. Then I will modify the picture to the necessary abstraction." 

I'm sorry I can't do that for you. I don't know how. I have no picture of this 
electromagnetic field that is in any sense accurate. I have known about the electro- 
magnetic field a long time— I was in the same position 25 years ago that you are 
now, and I have had 25 years more of experience thinking about these wiggling 
waves. When I start describing the magnetic field moving through space, I speak 
of the E- and # fields and wave my arms and you may imagine that I can see them. 


I'll tell you what I see. I see some kind of vague shadowy, wiggling lines — here 
and there is an E and B written on them somehow, and perhaps some of the lines 
have arrows on them — an arrow here or there which disappears when I look too 
closely at it. When I talk about the fields swishing through space, I have a terrible 
confusion between the symbols I use to describe the objects and the objects them- 
selves. I cannot really make a picture that is even nearly like the true waves. So 
if you have some difficulty in making such a picture, you should not be worried 
that your difficulty is unusual. 

Our science makes terrific demands on the imagination. The degree of 
imagination that is required is much more extreme than that required for some of 
the ancient ideas. The modern ideas are much harder to imagine. We use a lot 
of tools, though. We use mathematical equations and rules, and make a lot of 
pictures. What I realize now is that when I talk about the electromagnetic field in 
space, I see some kind of a superposition of all of the diagrams which I've ever 
seen drawn about them. I don't see little bundles of field lines running about be- 
cause it worries me that if I ran at a different speed the bundles would disappear. 
I don't even always see the electric and magnetic fields because sometimes I think 
I should have made a picture with the vector potential and the scalar potential, 
for those were perhaps the more physically significant things that were wiggling. 

Perhaps the only hope, you say, is to take a mathematical view. Now what is 
a mathematical view? From a mathematical view, there is an electric field vector 
and a magnetic field vector at every point in space; that is, there are six numbers 
associated with every point. Can you imagine six numbers associated with each 
point in space? That's too hard. Can you imagine even one number associated 
with every point? I cannot! I can imagine such a thing as the temperature at every 
point in space. That seems to be understandable. There is a hotness and coldness 
that varies from place to place. But I honestly do not understand the idea of a 
number at every point. 

So perhaps we should put the question: Can we represent the electric field by 
something more like a temperature, say like the displacement of a piece of jello? 
Suppose that we were to begin by imagining that the world was filled with thin 
jello and that the fields represented some distortion — say a stretching or twisting — 
of the jello. Then we could visualize the field. After we "see" what it is like we 
could abstract the jello away. For many years that's what people tried to do. 
Maxwell, Ampere, Faraday, and others tried to understand electromagnetism 
this way. (Sometimes they called the abstract jello "ether.") But it turned out that 
the attempt to imagine the electromagnetic field in that way was really standing in 
the way of progress. We are unfortunately limited to abstractions, to using in- 
struments to detect the field, to using mathematical symbols to describe the field, 
etc. But nevertheless, in some sense the fields are real, because after we are all 
finished fiddling around with mathematical equations— with or without making 
pictures and drawings or trying to visualize the thing— we can still make the instru- 
ments detect the signals from Mariner II and find out about galaxies a billion miles 
away, and so on. 


Scientific Imagination 

The whole question of imagination in science is often misunderstood by people 
in other disciplines. They try to test our imagination in the following way. They 
say, "Here is a picture of some people in a situation. What do you imagine will 
happen next?" When we say, "I can't imagine," they may think we have a weak 
imagination. They overlook the fact that whatever we are allowed to imagine in 
science must be consistent with everything else we know: that the electric fields and 
the waves we talk about are not just some happy thoughts which we are free to 
make as we wish, but ideas which must be consistent with all the laws of physics 
we know. We can't allow ourselves to seriously imagine things which are obviously 
in contradiction to the known laws of nature. And so our kind of imagination is 
quite a difficult game. One has to have the imagination to think of something that 
has never been seen before, never been heard of before. At the same time the 
thoughts are restricted in a strait jacket, so to speak, limited by the conditions that 
come from our knowledge of the way nature really is. The problem of creating 
something which is new, but which is consistent with everything which has been 
seen before, is one of extreme difficulty. 

While I'm on this subject I want to talk about whether it will ever be possible 
to imagine beauty that we can't sec. It is an interesting question. When we look 
at a rainbow, it looks beautiful to us. Everybody says, "Ooh, a rainbow." (You 
see how scientific I am. I am afraid to say something is beautiful unless I have an 
experimental way of defining it.) But how would we describe a rainbow if we were 
blind? We are blind when we measure the infrared reflection coefficient of sodium 
chloride, or when we talk about the frequency of the waves that are coming from 
some galaxy that we can't see — we make a diagram, we make a plot. For instance, 
for the rainbow, such a plot would be the intensity of radiation vs. wavelength 
measured with a spectrophotometer for each direction in the sky. Generally, such 
measurements would give a curve that was rather flat. Then some day, someone 
would discover that for certain conditions of the weather, and at certain angles in 
the sky, the spectrum of intensity as a function of wavelength would behave 
strangely; it would have a bump. As the angle of the instrument was varied only a 
little bit, the maximum of the bump would move from one wavelength to another. 
Then one day the physical review of the blind men might publish a technical article 
with the title "The Intensity of Radiation as a Function of Angle under Certain 
Conditions of the Weather." In this article there might appear a graph such as 
the one in Fig. 20-5. The author would perhaps remark that at the larger angles 
there was more radiation at long wavelengths, whereas for the smaller angles the 
maximum in the radiation came at shorter wavelengths. (From our point of view, 
we would say that the light at 40° is predominantly green and the light at 42° is 
predominantly red.) 



Fig. 20-5. The intensity of electro- 
magnetic waves as a function of wave- 
length for three angles (measured from 
the direction opposite the sun), observed 
only with certain meteorological con- 

Now do we find the graph of Fig. 20-5 beautiful? It contains much more de- 
tail than we apprehend when we look at a rainbow, because our eyes cannot see 
the exact details in the shape of a spectrum. The eye, however, finds the rainbow 
beautiful. Do we have enough imagination to see in the spectral curves the same 
beauty we see when we look directly at the rainbow? I don't know. 

But suppose I have a graph of the reflection coefficient of a sodium chloride 
crystal as a function of wavelength in the infrared, and also as a function of angle. 
I would have a representation of how it would look to my eyes if they could see 
in the infrared — perhaps some glowing, shiny "green," mixed with reflections from 
the surface in a "metallic red." That would be a beautiful thing, but I don't know 
whether I can ever look at a graph of the reflection coefficient of NaCl measured 
with some instrument and say that it has the same beauty. 

On the other hand, even if we cannot see beauty in particular measured results, 
we can already claim to see a certain beauty in the equations which describe general 
physical laws. For example, in the wave equation (20.9), there's something nice 
about the regularity of the appearance of the x, the y, the z, and the /. And this 
nice symmetry in appearance of the x, y, z, and / suggests to the mind still a greater 
beauty which has to do with the four dimensions, the possibility that space has 
four-dimensional symmetry, the possibility of analyzing that and the developments 
of the special theory of relativity. So there is plenty of intellectual beauty asso- 
ciated with the equations. 

a 2 i|> 

3x 2 


+ d2 ^ _ JL 92 4> 

3z 2 c 2 3t 2 



Magnifying glasses, spectacles, cameras, projectors, eyes, 
microscopes, telescopes— they all work on the same simple 

20 Lenses and Optical Instruments 

Physical Science Study Committee 

From the textbook Physics by Physical Science Study Committee, 1 962. 

Optical instruments — cameras, projectors, tele- 
scopes, and microscopes — usually are built with 
lenses ; that is, with pieces of refractive materials 
to converge or diverge light according to our 
design. A whole industry is devoted to the design 
and production of such instruments or their 
components. All these instruments are under- 
stood and designed in terms of Snell's law. The 
whole field of applications rests on the simple sum- 
mary of refraction that we reached in the last 
chapter, n x sin 6 X = n 2 sin d 2 . Most optical tech- 
nology stems from this little bit of physics. 

In this chapter, we want to learn how the laws 
of refraction are related to the construction of 
lenses and optical systems. An extensive treat- 
ment of the design of optical systems is, however, 
beyond the purpose of this chapter. 

14-1. The Convergence of Light by a Set 
of Prisms 

We found in Chapter 12 that we could control 
and redirect light beams by the use of curved 
mirrors. Devices that can accomplish similar 
purposes through refraction, instead of reflection, 
are called lenses. To understand how a lens 
operates, let us examine the behavior of light in 
passing through the combination of a plate of 
glass with parallel sides and the two triangular 
prisms shown in Fig. 14-1 (a). If a parallel beam 
of light falls on this system from the left, so that 
it is normally incident on the plate of glass, it will 
behave as indicated by the rays shown in the 

figure. The light that passes through the plate 
in the center will continue along its original 
direction, since the angle of incidence is 0°. 
Light striking the upper prism will be deviated 
downward by an amount depending on the open- 
ing angle of the prism and on its index of refrac- 

14-1. Construction of a lens by the process of subdividing prismatic 


tion. Similarly, light striking the lower prism 
will be deviated upward. As a result, there is a 
region, shown shaded in the figure, through 
which passes almost all of the light that falls on 
the plate and the prisms. 

The convergence of a parallel beam of light into 
a limited region by this system resembles the 
convergence of a similar beam by a set of mirrors. 
(See Section 12-6.) While working with mirrors, 
we decreased the size of the region into which 
the light was converged by using an increased 
number of mirrors, each smaller than the original 
one. Let us try the same scheme here. Fig. 
14-1 (b) shows parts of the central plate and of 
the two prisms cut away and replaced by pieces 
of new prisms. The size of the shaded region is 
clearly smaller than it was before. 

If we continue the process of removing parts 
of the prisms and replacing them by sections 
having smaller opening angles, we come closer 
and closer to a piece of glass with the smoothly 
curved surface shown in Fig. 14-1 (c). This 
device is the limit that is approached as we 
increase the number of prisms indefinitely, just as 
the parabolic mirror of Fig. 12-16 was the limit 
approached as we used more and more plane 
mirrors to converge parallel light. In Fig. 14-2 
we have actually carried out the construction 
indicated in Fig. 14-1. The lens produced by 
the process that we have outlined converges all 
of the parallel light that strikes it to a line as 
shown in Fig. 14-3. 

14-2. The experiments diagramed in Fig. 14—1. 

14—3. Convergence of light by a cylindrical lens like the one 
shown in Fig. 14—1. Note that the light is brought to a focus 
along a line. 

14-2. Lenses 

The device we have just constructed is called a 
cylindrical lens. Notice that we have not given 
any definition of the surfaces of the lens, except 
that they are obtained by increasing indefinitely 
the number of sections of prisms that are used to 
converge the light. It is possible to show that 
these surfaces are approximated very closely by 
circular cylinders. In other words, the lines 
representing the surfaces in Fig. 14-1 (c) are arcs 
of circles. The differences between the ideal 
surfaces and those of circular cylinders are very 
slight whenever both the width of the lens and its 
maximum thickness are considerably smaller 
than the distance from the lens to the line at which 
parallel light is converged. 

Cylindrical lenses bring the light from a distant 
point source of light to a focus along a line. For 
most purposes we prefer that the light from a point 
source should be focused at a point. This focus- 
ing can be accomplished by constructing a lens 
whose surfaces curve equally in all directions. 
Such surfaces are portions of spheres. Almost 
all lenses are bounded by two spherical surfaces. 

The line passing through the center of the lens 
and on which the centers of the two spheres are 
located is called the axis of the lens. The point 
on this axis at which incident parallel rays focus 
or converge is the principal focus, F. The distance 
of the principal focus from the center of the lens 
is known as the focal length, f 

The two surfaces of a lens do not always have 
the same radius. For example, the lens shown in 
Fig. 14-4 has a spherical surface of much larger 


Lenses and Optical Instruments 


L -~^ 

■^^"^^— " 

*- — ~^^^^Zs^ 

t r 


14—4. A lens with surfaces of unequal radii. 

radius at its right-hand boundary than it has at 
the left. 

If a lens is thin compared to its focal length, 
it makes no difference which side of the lens the 
light enters, the focal length is always the same. 
This symmetry is obvious if the lens is itself 
symmetric. That it is true for all thin lenses can 
easily be shown by an experiment in which a lens 
is used to focus the parallel rays of the sun to a 
point on a piece of paper or cardboard. If the 
lens is then flipped over, the focus occurs at the 
same distance from the lens (Fig. 14-5). 

This result is also predicted by a detailed 
application of Snell's law from which we find 



where R^ and R 2 are the radii of the opposing 
spherical surfaces.* We see that interchanging 
Ri and R 2 , which is equivalent to turning the lens 
aver, does not change the calculated value of/. 

From this equation, we can also see that when 
Ri and R 2 are small, the lens will have a short 
focal length. This is illustrated in Fig. 14-6 where 
ive see that the paths of light rays through the 
[ens in (b) are bent more sharply, so that the 
focal length is shorter than in (a). 

14-3. Real Images Formed by Lenses 

We have thus far concentrated our attention 
>n the focusing of light by a lens when the light 
x>mes from a very distant object. In the practical 
lse of lenses, we are commonly interested in the 

'We shall not give the proof of this "lens maker's" formula 
here. Although no new physics is involved, the proof is a 
long-winded application of trigonometry and Snell's law. 
Later, however, we can use the results of further study to 
get the formula more easily. It is therefore discussed at 
the end of Part II (see pages 302-303). 

14—5. The principal foci of a lens. For thin lenses the focal 
distance is the same for parallel light entering either the side with 
a small radius (a) or the side with a larger radius (b). 

light coming from near-by objects and we all 
know that lenses do form images of such objects. 
We can locate the images with the help of the 
knowledge that we have gained about the be- 
havior of initially parallel rays. 

Fig. 14-7 shows a lens, an object H», and its 
image H t . To find the location of this image, we 
draw the two principal rays from the top of the 
object, one ray parallel to the axis and the other 
through the principal focus F 2 . The ray parallel 
to the axis is bent by the lens so as to pass through 
the principal focus F v We also know that rays 
coming from the right and parallel to the axis 
would be deviated to pass through the other 
principal focus F 2 . It follows from the reversi- 
bility of light paths that the ray from the top of 
H that passes through F 2 from the left must travel 
parallel to the axis after it has passed through the 
lens. All rays starting from the top of H will 
converge very close to the point at which these 
two bent rays intersect. This point is therefore 
the real image of the top of H . 

We could have chosen any other point on the 
object and located its image in the same way. 
Had we done so for a number of points, we would 
have found that the image, //;, falls along the 
line that is shown in the figure. 


14—6. The shorter the radius of the surface of a lens, the shorter 
the focal length. 

You probably have noticed that, in constructing 
the two principal rays, we have not considered the 
exact path of the ray within the lens, but have 
broken it sharply. This approximate construction 
is good enough for our present purposes because 
our location of the two principal foci is accurate 
only if the lens thickness (at its center) is small 
compared with the focal length. The only lenses 
to which our construction accurately applies are 
therefore thin lenses. For the purposes of ray 
diagrams, we may consider such lenses to be 
circular plates perpendicular to the axis. 

Convex lenses, like parabolic mirrors, focus 
parallel rays to a point. Lenses, therefore, obey 
the same equation relating image distance, focal 
length, and object distance as do mirrors : 

The proof of this equation in the case of convex 
lenses is the same as for mirrors (Section 12-9). 
As there, we use the shaded similar triangles 
formed by the principal rays shown in Fig. 14-7. 
Considering first the shaded similar triangles to 
the left of the lens, we see that H-JH =//5 - 
The shaded triangles to the right of the lens give 
HJH = SJf- Combining the two equations, we 

S S { =p. 

14-4. Camera, Projector, and Eye 

Produce an image of the sun with a convex lens. 
Since the sun is far away, the image is formed 
practically at the principal focus and you can see 
it there on a piece of paper. Images of closer 
objects lie beyond the principal focus; and, in 
order to capture them on paper or on a photo- 
graphic film, we have to change the distance 
between lens and film. To make a photographic 
camera, then, we usually make a light-tight box 
with a bellows that allows us to move the lens. 
By adjusting the length of the bellows, we can 
place a sharp image on the photographic film. 
With some cameras we can place a piece of 
ground glass where the film is later inserted. 

14-7. The formation of a real image by a converging lens. 


Lenses and Optical Instruments 

14-8. A camera. The ray* of light that form the image of the 
head of the arrow are indicated. 

We can then view the image directly and focus 
sharply on the particular object we want to 
photograph (Fig. 14-8). 

As long as the object is more than twice the 
focal distance from the lens, so that S is longer 
than/, the image size is smaller than the object, 
as Hi/H =f/S shows. When a small object is 
brought closer to the principal focus, the image 
moves to distances behind the lens that are large 


optic nerve 


optic nerve 

14—9. The lens of an eye adjusted to focus the light from a dis- 
tant object (a) and from one near by. 

compared with the focal length; also, the image 
becomes bigger than the object. Consequently, 
to photograph small objects, a lens of short focal 
length is useful. 

A projector is just a camera worked backwards. 
You can make one by taking the back off a 
camera, mounting the slides or film where the 
film usually goes, and shining a bright light 
through the film and out through the lens. The 
lens then forms an enlarged image well in front 
of the camera, where you can place a screen. 

In cameras, projectors, and other man-made 
optical instruments, images are always brought 
into focus by changing the position of a lens with 
respect to the object. The eye, on the other hand, 
is unusual: it focuses images on the retina by 
changing its curvature and hence the focal length 
of its lens. When an object is at a very large 
distance from the eye, the rays entering the eye 
are nearly parallel and an image is formed at the 
principal focus as shown in Fig. 14-9 (a). When 
a close-by object is viewed, the image is formed 
beyond the focal point, and eye muscles form 
the elastic eye lens into a sharper curve, de- 
creasing its focal length so that a real image 
will form on the retina [Fig. 14-9 (b)]. 

14-5. The Magnifier or Simple Microscope 

Let us go back to the small object that we 
brought close to the principal focus of a lens. 
As the object is moved through the principal 
focus the real image moves infinitely far away 
on the other side of the lens ; and when the object 
is between the lens and the principal focus a virtual 
image is formed behind the object just as in the 
case of a concave mirror that we discussed in 


Section 12-10. The situation is illustrated in 
Fig. 14-10. As in the case of the concave mirror, 
the convex lens always forms an enlarged virtual 

What is the maximum magnification that we 
can obtain in this way? If we wish to see the 
greatest possible detail in an object, we get it as 
close to the eye as possible, thus giving a large 
real image on the retina of the eye. But there is 
a limit to how close we can view an object. As 
the object gets closer to the eye, the eye muscles 
must change the shape of the eye lens so that its 
radius of curvature becomes smaller and smaller 
in order to form a sharply focused real image on 
the retina. Soon a limit is reached; the adult 
eye cannot accommodate to an object closer than 
about 25 cm. This object distance is called the 
distance of most distinct vision. Try bringing 
a pencil closer and closer to your eye. You will 
see more and more detail until finally, with a great 
straining of your eye muscles, you can no longer 
keep a sharp image. Is your distance of most 
distinct vision greater or less than the average 
of 25 cm? 

A convex lens helps us to see more detail by 
forming an enlarged virtual image which we can 
place at a comfortable distance from the eye. 
We notice in Fig. 14-10 that no matter where 
the object is placed between the lens and F 2 , the 
top of the image always lies on the line F Y D, and 

Hi = — Si as usual. 

Consequently, to make the image look as large 
as possible we should bring our eye right up to 
the lens as in Fig. 14-11; and in addition we 
should move the object (or the lens and our eye) 
until the image gets as close as we can clearly 
accommodate. This is the way to get the largest 
angle between the rays entering our eye from the 
top and from the bottom of the object; and since 
this light is what the eye works with, it is the 
way to make the object (or its virtual image) 
look largest. 

Now for our own comfort we place the image 
at the distance of most distinct vision d, so the 
image distance S, (measured from F x ) is approxi- 
mately given by Si = d +f. Therefore 

Hi -5?S, - y°(</+/) = H (j+ l)- 
Furthermore, since we are looking at this image 

14-10. Formation of a virtual image by a converging lens . 

from the distance of most distinct vision just as 
we could best look at the object without the aid 
of the lens, the magnification of the image we 
see is Hi/H . That is, maximum magnification is 

This equation tells us the greatest magnification 
of a simple microscope. What, then, determines 
how great a magnification we can get? The focal 
length, /, of the convex lens is the determining 
factor; the smaller it is, the greater the magnifica- 
tion. In order to get a small/we use glass of high 
refractive index to produce sharper bending of 
the light for a given curvature of the lens surfaces. 
Also we need surfaces of small radius (sharp 
curvature). But a small radius of curvature means 
a small lens size, since the lens diameter cannot 


distance of 
most distinct vision 

14-11. A converging lens used as a magnifier. The image is 
placed at the distance of closest distinct vision. Since the eye 
is very close to the lens, the distance from the image to the lens 
is about the same as that to the eye. 


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onijrainrt nirrnxrsipt. Tm *»v»pitMi inrt inntrchv* 
cut tr hit mi: 

"* ■-■,:'.;■■-.: 
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14—13. Distortion by a lens. These three photographs were 
made by looking through the same lens. At left, the lens was 
held so that the page of the telephone book is slightly below 

the focal region; in the middle picture, the page is in the focal 
region; at right, the focal region lies below the page. Note 
the geometrical distortions. 

14-7. Limitations of Optical Instruments 

If you hold a magnifying glass close to this 
page, you can see a clear, undistorted and slightly 
magnified image of the print. Now slowly raise 
the glass from the paper and at the same time 
increase the distance between your eyes and the 
lens. At some positions the image appears 
distorted. If your eyes are far enough from the 
glass, you may also detect some rainbow colors 
when looking at a corner of the page. In Figure 
14-13 we see three pictures. They were made 
by looking through the same lens. In the first 
picture the lens was held so that the page of the 
telephone book lies entirely (but slightly) below 
the focal region; in the second picture the page 
is in the focal region; and in the last the focal 
region lies below the page. Clearly, in each 
case the image of the page looks quite different 
from the page itself. Part of the game of design- 
ing really good optical instruments is to minimize 
the geometrical distortions so apparent in these 

What are the origins of these defects in images? 
First, we know even for mirrors (Chapter 12) 
that a surface designed to bring light from one 
small object to a sharp focus is not the correct 
surface to bring light to an exact focus from an 
object at a different place. The same is true for 
lens surfaces. Some blurring of the image there- 
fore results. In addition, when we look through 
different parts of a lens the images are at different 
positions (and the magnification is different). 

The image therefore is distorted. In photography 
distortion and blurring are often cut down by 
using a "stop," a barrier with a small hole in it 
so that we use only a selected portion of the lens. 
The colored edges of images usually arise 
because of the dispersion of the light that passes 
through a lens. The focal length of a lens is 
slightly longer for red light than it is for blue 
light, because the blue light is refracted more 
strongly than the red. This undesirable effect is 
called chromatic aberration. It can be greatly 
reduced by using a weakly diverging lens made of 
glass for which the index of refraction changes 
greatly with color, in conjunction with a strongly 

14-14. A lens built of two pieces to minimize the different 
focal properties of different colors. Such doublets are often made 
with one common surface and glued together. They are called 
achromatic lenses. 


Lenses and Optical Instruments 

converging lens of glass for which the index of 
refraction changes less with color (Fig. 14-14). 
This trick makes the focal properties of the whole 
system of lenses nearly the same for all colors. 

The problem of designing a system of lenses 
with the smallest amount of distortions and 
aberrations is a very complicated one. But the 
complications arise only in the detailed applica- 
tions of the laws of refraction; they involve no 
new principle. Disentangling these complica- 
tions will not enrich our understanding of basic 

optical phenomena, and therefore we shall not 
do it here. 

There is one limiting factor affecting optical 
magnifiers which causes a blur in the image and 
is of a fundamental nature. This is the inevitable 
diffraction which results from the limited size 
of the objective lens through which the light 
must pass. At high magnification it is this 
blurring that prevents us from seeing finer and 
finer detail. We shall learn more about diffrac- 
tion in Chapter 19. 


14-15. For Problem 1. 

1. A crude converging lens can be constructed by 
placing two 30°-60°-90° glass prisms together 
with a glass block as shown in Fig. 14-15. 

(a) What is the focal length of this "lens" to 
one significant figure? 

(b) Would such a lens form a clear image? 

2. If two 45° prisms of glass (index = 1.50) are ar- 
ranged as in Fig. 14—16 they will not converge 
parallel light. Why not? What will happen to 
the light? 

3. Some lighthouses and light buoys mark the posi- 
tions of dangerous rocks and shoals. The light 
must be concentrated at a low angle with respect 
to the horizon (light directed upward is wasted) 
and must be equally visible from all points of the 

(a) Can you design a "lens" which will do this? 

(b) Instead of using a continuous curved sur- 
face, such lights often use a lens made of sections 
of prisms. Can you draw a diagram of such a 
lens? It is called a Fresnel lens after the French 
physicist who first devised such a lens. 

(c) Automobile headlights are constructed to 
give a wide, flat, horizontal beam. Parabolic 
reflectors are made to give a narrow beam which 
passes through a Fresnel lens in the front of the 
headlight. Examine an automobile headlight and 
see if you can understand how it gives broad, 
horizontal beams. 

14-16. For Problem 2. 

4. Use the Lens Maker's Formula 


to find the focal length of a glass iens (n = 1.50) 
with one flat surface and one with a radius of 10 
cm. (Such a lens is called a plano-convex lens.) 

(a) What are the focal lengths of the two lenses 
shown in Fig. 14-17? (Index of glass = 1.50.) 
(b) How does the focal length of (b) compare 
with a flat block of glass? 

A lens (index = 1.50) has a focal length in air of 
20.0 cm. 

(a) Is its focal length in water greater or less 
than in air? 

(b) What is its focal length in water? 

Hint: Notice that every individual refraction 
depends on the relative index of refraction. 


7. A lens whose focal length is 10 cm is used in a 
slide projector to give a real image on a screen at a 
distance of 6.0 meters. 

(a) What will be the magnification? 

(b) How far is the lens placed from the slide? 

8. Prove that if two identical converging lenses of 
focal length 10 cm are placed 40 cm apart, the 
combination will form an upright image of an 
object that is 20 cm away from the first lens and 
the magnification will be 1. 

9. (a) Prove that the size of the image of the sun 
produced by a convex lens is proportional to the 
focal length. What is the constant of pro- 

(b) How large an image of the sun (diameter 
1.4 X 10 9 m) will be formed by a lens of focal 
length 1.0 meter? 

(c) What will be the ratio of the size of the 
images of the sun formed by a lens of 10 cm focal 
length and a lens of 10 m focal length? 

10. How large an image will be formed of an artifi- 
cial satellite (53 cm in diameter) passing at an 
altitude of 500 miles, if it is photographed with a 
camera whose focal length is 10 cm? Would you 
expect an actual photograph to show a larger or 
smaller image than the size you have calculated? 

14-17. For Problem 5. 

11. (a) What is the focal length of the lens in Fig. 
14-18? (Index of the glass is 1.50.) 

(b) By sketching the paths of some light rays, 
show what the lens does to incident light parallel 
to its axis. 

(c) From the ray diagram of Fig. 14-18 (b), 
show that S Si =/ 2 . Notice from which focal 
points S and S ; are measured. 

(d) What happens as you move the object to- 
ward the lens? Can S; ever get bigger than S ? 
Is the image ever bigger than the object? 

(e) How would you find (experimentally) the 
focal length of a diverging lens? 

12. Assume your distance of most distinct vision is 
1 5 cm. What is the maximum magnification that 
can be obtained with each of the following convex 
lenses when used as a magnifying glass or simple 

(a) / = 30 cm, 

(b) / = 10 cm, 

(c) / = 1 cm, 

(d) / = 1 mm. 

(e) Graph the 
a function of "/." 

maximum magnification as 

13. Assume your distance of most distinct vision is 
25 cm. A compound microscope has an eyepiece 
of 2.0 cm focal length and an objective of 4.0 mm 
focal length. The distance between objective and 
eyepiece is 22.3 cm. What is its magnification to 
two significant figures? 

14. Using the microscope of Problem 13, with the 
same adjustment, we see an amoeba. With a 
ruler, we measure the size of the virtual image by 
looking at it with one eye and at the ruler with 
the other. On the ruler the amoeba appears to be 
about 10 cm long. About how big is it really? 

15. For the maximum magnification of an eyepiece, we 

found - + 1 where d is taken as the distance of 

most distinct (or closest distinct) vision. If your 

eyes can accommodate to see distinctly at 15 cm, 

15 cm , ._ 

we should write — - — + 1 as the magnification 

of a simple magnifier for you. Also, if you can 

14-18. For Problem 11. 


Lenses and Optical Instruments 



5 cm 

10 cm 

10 cm 

14-19. For Problem 19. 

accommodate to images no closer than 35 cm, 
— j h 1 would apply. Why does the magnifi- 
cation go up for someone who accommodates 
poorly at small distances? Does he see more 
detail than someone who can accommodate 
closer? Be prepared to discuss this question in 

16. Two lenses both have a focal length of 20 cm, but 
one has a diameter four times that of the other. 
Draw sketches of the two lenses and tell how the 
images they form differ. 

17. (a) What is the ratio of the focal lengths of a 
crown-glass lens for violet light and for red light? 
(The index of refraction for various colors is 
given in Table 4, Chapter 13.) 

(b) Is the ratio the same for all kinds of glass? 

18. A lens of focal length 20 cm is placed 30 cm from 
a plane mirror and an object is placed on the axis 
10 cm from the mirror. Where will the image of 
the object be found? 

19. Where are the images of the object in Fig. 14-19? 
Can you see all the images if you look through the 

(a) with your eye near the lens? 

(b) with your eye far from the lens? 


Rogers, Frances, Lens Magic. Lippincott, 1957. 
A history of the development of lenses, and a de- 
scription of their many applications. 

Texereau, Jean, How to Make a Telescope. Inter- 
science Publishing Co., 1957. 

Thompson, Allyn J., Making Your Own Telescope. 
Sky Publishing Co., Cambridge, Mass., 1947. 

Wald, George, "Eye and Camera." Scientific 
American, August, 1950 (p. 32). 



Everybody, however intelligent, has a mental block about 
some aspect of life. This article from a British magazine of 
humor, describes how electricity ought to behave. 


Keith Waterhouse 

Article in Punch, 1968. 

YOU learn something new every day. With no thought of self- 
improvement, for example, I was reading that story of Thurber's 
in which he recalls his mother's belief that electricity leaks out 
of an empty light socket if the switch has been left on. From 
this I gathered — going by the general context, and the known 
fact that Thurber was a humorist — that it doesn't. 

I picked up another piece of electrical knowledge in 1951, 
while working as a drama critic on the Yorkshire Evening Post. 
Wanting to imply that a certain actress had given a muted 
performance, I wrote that while undoubtedly she had an electric 
presence, on this occasion it was as if the electricity had been 
immersed in water. A kindly sub-editor explained to me that 
when electricity gets wet, by some miracle of the elements it 
intensifies rather than diminishes. I have never seen the sense 
of this, but I conceded the point and have used only gas-driven 
metaphor since that date. 

I was never taught electricity at school, nor was it often a 
topic of dinner-table conversation among my parents. What I 
know about the subject I have mastered the hard way. Take, as 
an instance, television, an electrical device of awesome com- 
plexity. Unlike more privileged students, who are able to go 
running to m'tutor every time the framehold goes wobbly, I 
have had to learn in the School of Life that on the large rented 
model the knobs are on the front whereas on the HMV portable 
they are on the side. Similarly with electric irons. When I bought 
my first electric iron there was no plug attached, presumably in 
case I wanted to wind the flex around my neck and jump off 
Westminster Bridge with it. There was a leaflet explaining how 
to get the plug on, but this was of course in German, the inter- 
national language of the household appliances industry. Only by 
putting my natural intelligence to the problem did I eventually 
work out the solution— find a German-speaking electrician. 

And so, what with having perforce to change a light bulb 


here and tune in a transistor radio there, I have picked up a 
pretty sound working knowledge of electrical matters. It is not 
comprehensive, God knows — I still can't fully understand why 
you can't boil an egg on an electric guitar — but when I jot down 
a summary of what I have learned, I marvel that I have never 
been asked to write for the Electrical Journal: 

1. Most electricity is manufactured in power stations where 
it is fed into wires which are then wound around large drums. 

2. Some electricity, however, does not need to go along wires. 
That used in portable radios, for example, and that used in 
lightning. This kind of electricity is not generated but is just 
lying about in the air, loose. 

3. Electricity becomes intensified when wet. Electric kettles 
are immune to this. 

4. Electricity has to be earthed. That is to say, it has to be 
connected with the ground before it can function, except in the 
case of aeroplanes, which have separate arrangements. 

5. Electricity makes a low humming noise. This noise may be 
pitched at different levels for use in doorbells, telephones, 
electric organs, etc. 

6. Although electricity does not leak out of an empty light 
socket, that light socket is nevertheless live if you happen to 
shove your finger in it when the switch is at the "on" position. 
So if it is not leaking, what else is it doing? 

7. Electricity is made up of two ingredients, negative and 
positive. One ingredient travels along a wire covered with red 
plastic, and the other along a wire covered with black plastic. 
When these two wires meet together in what we call a plug, the 
different ingredients are mixed together to form electricity. 
Washing machines need stronger electricity, and for this a 
booster ingredient is required. This travels along a wire covered 
with green plastic. 

8. Stronger electricity cannot be used for electric razors. 
Electric razors make a fizzing sound when attached to a power 

9. Electricity may be stored in batteries. Big batteries do not 
necessarily hold more electricity than small batteries. In big 
batteries the electricity is just shovelled in, while in small 
batteries (transistors) it is packed flat. 

10. Electricity is composed of small particles called electrons, 
an electron weighing only I 1 837 as much as an atom of the 
lightest chemical element, hydrogen, unless the Encyclopedia 
Britannica is a liar. 


Incurious people are content to take all this as read. They 
press a switch and the light comes on, and that is all they know 
about the miracle in their homes. This has never done for me. I 
have to know how things work, and if I cannot find out from 
some technical handbook— the Every Boys' Wonder Book series 
does an advanced manual on electricity— then I combine such 
information as I already have with simple logic. Thus it is very 
easy to deduce that the light switch controls a small clamp or 
vice which grips the wires very hard, so that the electricity cannot 
get through. When the switch is flicked on the vice is relaxed 
and the electricity travels to the light bulb where a bit of wire, 
called the element, is left bare. Here, for the first time, we can 
actually see the electricity, in the form of a small spark. This 
spark is enlarged many hundreds of times by the curved bulb 
which is made of magnifying glass. 

Why, is our next question, do these light bulbs have a limited 
life? As any schoolboy knows, heat converts oxygen into 
moisture. When all the oxygen in the light bulb has become 
liquified in this manner, it naturally quenches the electric spark. 
Some years ago a man in Birmingham invented an everlasting 
electric light bulb which, since it contained no oxygen, would 
never go out. The rights in it were bought up by the Atlas people 
who keep it locked in their safe. 

Now we come to electricity as a source of power rather than 
a source of light or heat. Why, when you plug in an electric 
iron, docs it get hot, whereas when you plug in an electric fan 
it does not get hot but whirrs round and round? The answer is 
that when light or heat is required we use bare electricity, where- 
as when power is required we keep the electricity covered up. 
The constant flow of sparks, unable to escape, is converted into 
energy. This energy is fed into a motor which makes things go 

round and round. 

I have not yet touched on fuse wire. It has always amazed me 
that an industry which is so en/terprising in most respects— the 
invention of colour electricity for use in traffic lights and the 
harnessing of negative electricity for refrigeration are two 
examples that come to mind— should still, two hundred years 
after James Watt invented the electric kettle, be manufacturing 
fuse wire too thin. I pass on a hint for what it is worth. There is 
available from hardware shops a sturdy wire used mostly for 
making chicken runs, and this is far more durable than the stufi 
sold by electricians (who must, I appreciate, make a living). By 
using chicken wire I now have a fuse box which— even when the 

spin-dryer burst into flames due to too much booster electricity 
having been fed into it — has for six months been as impregnable 
as the Bank of England. 

But why have fuse wire at all? I completely understand that 
the fuse box is the junction at which the wires leading from the 
power station join, or fuse with, the wires belonging to the 
house, and that these two sets of wires have got to be connected 
with each other somehow. But what is wrong with a simple 
knot? Perhaps I might make this the subject of a paper for the 
Electrical Journal which, I now see from the Writers' and Artists 
Year Book, welcomes electro-technical contributions not 
exceeding 3,000 words. 

In some respects, I reiterate, my knowledge is imperfect. I 
have not yet explored the field of neon signs — how do they make 
the electricity move about? And the pop-up toaster — how does 
it know when the toast is ready? With an electronic eye, pre- 
sumably — and this brings us to another fruitful area. What is 
the difference between electricity and electronics? Or is there a 
difference? Is electronics now just the smart word to use, like 
high-speed gas? How can an English computer speak French, 
which requires a different voltage? Logic would answer these 
questions too, and many of a more technical nature, but the 
light over my desk has just gone out. A valve blown somewhere, 
I expect. 

Authors and Artists 


Norman Leader Allen, British physicist, was born 
in 1927 and received his B.Sc. from the University 
of Birmingham, England, in 1948 and his Ph.D. in 
1951. Allen has been a staff member of Massachu- 
setts Institute of Technology and is now a lec- 
turer in the Electrical and Electronic Engineering 
Department at the University of Leeds. In addition 
to his book, Threshold Pressure for Arc Discharges , 
he has written extensively in scientific journals on 
arc discharges, cosmic rays and plasma physics. 


Albert V. Baez, born in Puebla, Mexico, in 1912, 
received his B.A. at Drew (1933), an M.A. from 
Syracuse (1936), and a doctorate in physics from 
Stanford University (1950). He has taught at 
Drew University, Wagner College, Stanford, and 
Harvard. From 1949 to 1950 he was a physicist 
in the aeronautical laboratory at Cornell, and 
from 1951 to 1958 professor of physics at the 
University of Redlands. He was physicist to the 
Film Group of the Physical Science Study Com- 
mittee, and for six years headed the science 
teaching section at UNESCO in Paris. 


Stanley S. Ballard, Professor of Physics and 
chairman of the department at the University of 
Florida, Gainesville, was born in Los Angeles 
in 1908. He received his A.B. from Pomona 
College, and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University 
of California. He has taught at the University of 
Hawaii, Tufts University, and has been a research 
physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceona- 
graphy. Ballard has served as president of the 
Optical Society of America. His specialities are 
spectroscopy, optical and infrared instrumentation, 
and properties of optical materials. Ballard is co- 
author of Physics Principles. 


John M. Carroll was born in Philadelphia in 1925, 
and educated at Lehigh University, and Hofstra. 
He was editor at Electronics Magazine from 1952 
to 1964, became professor of industrial engineering 
at Lehigh in 1964, and Associate Professor of the 
Department of Computer Science, University of 
Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, since 
1968. His professional work is in industrial engi- 
neering and electronics. 

charge of the first aircraft ground-controlled ap- 
proach project. He has won the Kalinga Prize, 
given by UNESCO for the popularization of science. 
The feasibility of many of the current space devel- 
opments was perceived and outlined by Clarke in 
the 1930's. His science fiction novels include 
Childhoods End and The City and the Stors. 


Albert Einstein, considered to be the most creative 
physical scientist since Newton, was nevertheless 
a humble and sometimes rather shy man. He was 
born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879. He seemed to learn 
so slowly that his parents feared that he might be 
retarded. After graduating to the Polytechnic In- 
stitute in Zurich, he became a junior official at 
the Patent Office at Berne. At the age of twenty- 
six, and quite unknown, he published three revo- 
lutionary papers in theoretical physics in 1905. 
The first paper extended Max Planck's ideas of 
quantization of energy, and established the quan- 
tum theory of radiation. For this work he received 
the Nobel Prize for 1921. The second paper gave 
a mathematical theory of Brownian motion, yield- 
ing a calculation of the size of a molecule. His 
third paper founded the special theory of relativity. 
Einstein's later work centered on the general 
theory of relativity. His work had a profound in- 
fluence not only on physics, but also on philo- 
sophy. An eloquent and widely beloved man, 
Einstein took an active part in liberal and anti- 
war movements. Fleeing from Nazi Germany, he 
settled in the United States in 1933 at the Insti- 
tute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He died 
in 1955. 


Richard Feynman was born in New York in 1918, 
and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology in 1939. He received his doctorate in 
theoretical physics from Princeton in 1942, and 
worked at Los Alamos during the Second World 
War. From 1945 to 1951 he taught at Cornell, and 
since 1951 has been Tolman Professor of Physics 
at the California Institute of Technology. Professor 
Feynman received the Albert Einstein Award in 
1954, and in 1965 was named a Foreign Member 
of the Royal Society. In 1966 he was awarded the 
Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with 
Shinichero Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, for 
work in quantum field theory. 


Arthur C. Clarke, British scientist and writer is a 
Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. During 
World War II he served as technical officer in 


Leopold Infeld, a co-worker with Albert Einstein 
in general relativity theory, was born in 1898 in 
Poland. After studying at the Cracow and Berlin 


Universities, he became a Rockefeller Fellow at 
Cambridge where he worked with Max Born in 
electromagnetic theory, and then a member of the 
Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. For 
eleven years he was Professor of Applied Mathe- 
matics at the University of Toronto. He then re- 
turned to Poland and became Professor of 
Physics at the University of Warsaw and until his 
death on 16 January 1968 he was Director of the 
Theoretical Physics Institute at the university. 
A member of the presidium of the Polish Academy 
of Science, Infeld conducted research in theoretical 
physics, especially relativity and quantum theories. 
Infeld was the author of The New Field Theory , 
The World in Modern Science, Quest, Albert 
Einstein, and with Einstein The Evolution of 
Physi cs. 


Dr. Kinerson was educated at the University of New 
Hampshire, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and 
Michigan State University. After serving in the 
U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946, he became Instructor 
in Physics at the University of Massachusetts at 
Fort Devens, in 1946. In 1948 he joined the staff 
of Russell Sage College in Troy, New York as 
Instructor in Physics. He is presently Chairman 
of the Department of Physics and Mathematics at 
that college. He is a co-author of Introduction to 
Natural Sciences, Part I— The Physical Sciences, 


Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United 
States, was born in 1743 at Shadwell in Goochland 
County, Virginia. He studied Greek, Latin, and 
mathematics at the College of William and Mary for 
two years, and later became a lawyer. From 1768 
to 1775 Jefferson was a member of the Virginia 
House of Burgesses. In 1775 he was elected to the 
Second Continental Congress, and in 1776 he drafted 
the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson felt a 
conflicting devotion to the tranquil pursuits of 
science and public service. His interests ranged 
over such fields as agriculture, meteorology, pale- 
ontology, ethnology, botany, and medicine. He be- 
lieved in the freedom of the scientific mind and the 
importance of basing conclusions on observations 
and experiment. Jefferson demanded utility of 
science, hence his numerous inventions and interest 
in improvements and simplifications of agricultural 
tools and techniques, and in balloons, dry docks, 
submarines, even the furniture in his home (swivel 
chairs and music stands). Because of his promi- 
nence as a public figure, he was influential in in- 
creasing and improving science education in 
America. He died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth 
anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 


Matthew Josephson, prolific writer and magazine 
editor, was born in Brooklyn in 1899. He received 
his B.A. from Columbia University in 1920. 
Josephson was successively editor of the Broom, 
Transition , and The New Republ ic, which he left 
in 1932. In 1948 he was elected to the National 
Institute of Arts and Letters and olso was a 
traveling Guggenheim fellow for creative literature. 
He is the author of Zola and His Time , The Robber 
Barons, and Portrait of the Artis t as American. 


Robert B. Leighton, born in Detroit, Michigan in 
1919, was first a student and then a faculty member 
at California Institute of Technology. He is a mem- 
ber of the International Astronomical Union, the 
National Academy of Science and the American 
Physics Society. Professor Leighton's work deals 
with the theory of solids, cosmic rays, high energy 
physics, and solar physics. 


Dr. Luchins received a B.A. degree from Brooklyn 
College (1935), M.A. degree from Columbia Univer* 
sity (1936), and his PhD. at New York University 
(1940). He was research assistant to the psycho- 
logist Max Wertheimer, clinical psychologist in 
the United States Army, and Director of Mental 
Hygiene Clinic for the Veterans' Administration. 
He was taught at McGill University, University of 
Oregon, University of Miami, and since 1962 has 
been Professor at the State University of New York 
at Albany. His publications include: Logical Foun- 

dations of Mathematics for Behavioral Scientists 
(1965) and Group Therapy: A Guide (1964); and he 
was a co-author of Introduction to Natural Science 

(Parts I and II), 1968 and 1970. 


David Keith Chalmers MacDonald was born in 
Glasgow, Scotland, in 1920 and received his M.A. 
in mathematics and natural philosophy from Edin- 
burgh University in 1941. After serving with the 
Royal Mechanical and Electrical Engineers during 
World War II, he received his Ph.D. in 1946 from 
Edinburgh. Then he attended Oxford as a research 
fellow and received a Ph.D. in 1949. In 1951 Dr. 
MacDonald went to Canada and started a low tem- 
perature physics research laboratory for the National 
Research Council. MacDonald was appointed to the 
physics department at Ottawa University in 1955 
and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London 
in 1960. Aside from numerous articles in scientific 
journals, he was the author of Near Zero: An Intro- 
duction to Low Temperature Physics and Faraday, 
Maxwell, and Kelvin. MacDonald died in 1963. 


Authors and Artists 


See J. R. Newman's articles in Readers 3 and 4. 


Alan S. Meltzer was born in New York in 1932 and 
educated at the University of Syracuse, and at 
Princeton, where he received his Ph.D. in astronomy, 
in 1956. He was physicist at the Smithsonian Astro- 
physical Observatory from 1956 to 1957. Presently he- 
is Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Rensselaer 
Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York. His areas 
of investigation include solar and stellar spectro- 
scopy, and solar-terrestrial relations. 


Precision measurement in experimental physics 
was the lifelong passion of A. A. Michelson (1852 — 
1931), who became in 1907 the first American to 
win a Nobel Prize in one of the sciences. Born in 
Prussia but raised in California and Nevada, 
Michelson attended the U.S. Naval Academy and 
was teaching there in 1879 when he first improved 
the methods of measuring the velocity of light on 
earth. After a post-graduate education in Europe he 
returned to the United States where he taught phy- 
sics at the college that became Case Institute of 
Technology, then at Clark University, and at the 
University of Chicago. While in Europe he invented 
the famous instrument called the Michelson inter- 
ferometer and while in Cleveland at Case in 1887, 
he and E.W. Morley improved this device in an 
effort to measure the absolute velocity of the 
Earth as it hurtles through space. The failure of 
the Michelson-Morley aether-drift experiment was 
an important result that showed a deep flaw in 
19th-century physics. Although Michelson re- 
mained a creative experimentalist in physical op- 
tics, meteorology, astrophysics and spectroscopy 
throughout his life, he died still believing in the 
wave model of the nature of light and in his 
"beloved aether." His experimental valu« of the 
speed of light, refined still further just before his 
death, remain the accepted value of one of the few 
"absolute" constants in physics for several 


James R. Newman, lawyer and mathematician, was 
born in New York City in 1907. He received his 
A.B. from the College of the City of New York and 
LL.B. from Columbia. Admitted to the New York 
bar in 1929, he practiced there for twelve years. 
During World War II he served as chief intelli- 
gence officer, U. S. Embassy, London, ond in 
1945 as special assistant to the Senate Committee 

on Atomic Energy. From 1956-57 he wassenior 
editor of The New Republic, and since 1948 had 
been a member of the board of editors for Scien- 
tific American where he was responsible for the 
book review section. At the same time he was a 
visting lecturer at the Yale Law School. J. R. 
Newman is the author of What is Science?, 
Science and Sensibility, ond editor of Common 
Sense of the Exact Sciences, The World of 
Mathematics, and the Harper Encyclopedia of 
Science. He died in 1966. 


V. Lawrence Parsegian studied at M.I.T., Washing- 
ton University, and New York University, obtaining 
his Ph.D. in physics in 1948. He has been profes- 
sor of nuclear science and engineering at Rens- 
selaer Polytechnic Institute, since 1954, and 
holds the distinguished Chair of Rensselaer pro- 
fessorship. In addition to his research activities, 
he has chaired a curriculum development project 
to improve college science teaching. 


As one of the earliest curriculum development 
groups, formed in 1956 and consisting of scientists 
and educators, it produced materials for a new high 
school physics course (first published in 1962). 
These continue to be used by many students and 
teachers in the U.S., and portions of the course 
have been adapted also for use in other countries. 


Matthew Sands was born in Oxford, Massachusetts, 
in 1919. He attended Clark College, Rice Institute 
of Technology. During World War II he worked at the 
the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. He was Pro- 
fessor of Physics at the California Institute of 
Technology before joining the linear accelerator 
group at Stanford University. Professor Sands 
specializes in electronic instrumentation for 
nuclear physics, cosmic rays, and high-energy 
physics. He served as chairman of the Commis- 
sion on College Physics. 


Born in Boston in 1909, William A. Shurcliff was 
educated at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D. in 
physics in 1934. During the war he served as tech- 
nical aide to the Office of Scientific Research and 
Development, National Defense Research Committee, 
and Manhattan project. Then he was with the Polar- 
oid Corporation as senior scientist and project 
leader. He is now a Research Fellow at the Elec- 
tron Accelerator at Horvard. Shurcliff is the author 
of Polarized Light: Production and Use and Bombs 


at Bikini. His technical interests include emission 
spectroscopy, absorption spectrophotometry, atomic 
energy, gamma radiation dosimeters, microscope 
design, and color vision. He has headed a citizen's 
group to examine the deleterious effects of the 
planned supersonic transport planes. 


James Alfred Van Allen, discoverer of the "Van 
Allen radiation belt," was born at Mt. Pleasant, 
Iowa, in 1914. After his undergraduate work at 
Iowa Wesleyan College, he received his M.S. and 
in 1939 his Ph.D. from the State University of 
Iowa, where he is now a Professor of Physics and 
Astronomy. He has been a Carnegie research fel- 
low, and a research associate at Princeton, and is 
the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates. For 
his distinguished work in nuclear physics, cosmic 
rays and space probes, he has been awarded the 
Hickman Medal from the American Rocket Society, 
the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal of the 
U.S. Army, and the Hill Award of the Institute of 
Aerospace Science. 


Edgar Villchur is President and Director of Re- 
search of the Foundation for Hearing Aid Re- 
search in Woodstock, New York. He was born in 
New York City in 1917 and received a M.S.Ed, from 
the City College of New York. He has taught at 

New York University, and was President and Chief 
Designer of Accoustic Research, Inc., a manufac- 
turing company in the high fidelity field. 


George Wald was born in New York in 1906 and re- 
ceived his education at New York University and 
Columbia University. He did research in biology at 
the Universities of Berlin, Zurich, and Chicago, 
and joined the faculty of Harvard University in 
1935, where he now is professor of biology. He is 
the recipient of many honors for his work on the 
biochemistry of vision, including the Nobel Prize 
in physiology and medicine for 1967. He is also 
widely regarded as one of the outstanding teachers 
of biology. 


William Grey Walter was born in 1911 and received 
his M.A. and Sc.D. (1947) from Cambridge Univer- 
sity. He was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Maudsley 
Hospital in England. W. Grey Walter is a pioneer in 
the use of electroencephalography for translating 
the minute electrical currents of the human brain 
into physical patterns which may be studied for 
the information they give us on brain processes. 
Walter is the author of The Living Brain, Further 
Outlook, The Curve of the Snowflake and articles 
to various scientific journals.