Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Young James Clerk Maxwell

June 13 marks the the 178th anniversary of the birth of Scottish mathematician and theoretical physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, who famously devised a linked set of differential equations that, together, describe the behavior of electric and magnetic fields and their interactions with matter. Maxwell's mathematical knowledge was so rare that his equations were hardly understood in 1864, when he first presented them, and for many years thereafter.

The early years of great innovators like Maxwell are always of interest. Maxwell was born to a well-off family in Edinburgh, but soon after moved with his family to their 1500 acre estate in the outskirts.

Not surprisingly, even as a toddler Maxwell showed remarkable interest in things mechanical and was always inquiring how things worked. He loved verse and liked to memorize passages of verse. With his prodigous memory, by the time he was 8 years he could recite all 176 verses of the 119th Psalm. He also loved geometry.

Maxwell was an only child who was educated at home until the age of ten, when he was sent to Edinburgh Academy, where his schoolmates poked fun at his home-made clothes and shoes and country accent, nicknaming him "Daftie," meaning silly, stupid, and crazy. He didn't seem to mind. Off on his own, Maxwell spent his free time satisfying his love of verse and poetry by reading the lyrics of old ballads; he exercised his mechanical ability constructing models; and he experimented with his budding love of mathematics by drawing diagrams that his classmates couldn't understand. After some time, he found two schoolmates who would become his friends for life.

At first Maxwell was not much of a scholar, but around the age of 13, he moved close to the head of the class. At the age of 14, he wrote a mathematical paper in which he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of string, simplifying constructions that had been examined by Descartes in the 17th century. This paper was brought to the attention of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, whose members were the elite of Scotland's scientists and mathematicians. Maxwell was considered too young to read the paper to the society, so it was read for him by a professor from the University of Edinburgh.

At the age of 16, the young scholar was ready to move onto the University of Edinburgh, where he studied mathematics and logic under two eminent mathematicians and natural philosophy under an highly respected physicist. When he was 18, he published two papers in the
Transactions of the Royal Society. One of these formed the basis for much of his future work. Again, he was thought too young to deliver the papers himself. To divert himself during his spare time, Maxwell studied the polarization of light; his experiments soon led him to discover photoelasticity, which in the 20th century was developed into an important tool for determining critical stress points in a material.

At 19, Maxwell moved to Cambridge, where he studied at Trinity College. At Trinity, he was well liked and his facile intelligence was well respected. He was invited to join the elite secret society known as the Cambridge Apostles, an intellectual discussion group that met once a week. While earning his degree in mathematics, he accomplished much of his work on his electromagnetism equations. He scored second in his final examination, but tied for first in the even more difficult examination for the annual Smith's Prize, awarded to Cambridge research students in theoretical physics, mathematics, and applied mathematics. Having earned his Bachelor's degree, Maxwell stayed at Trinity as a research fellow, free to pursue his own research.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Joseph Henry's Yale Magnet

Here at PV Scientific Instruments we are always conducting research, and lately we've been focusing on the work of the revered American investigator of electromagnetism, Joseph Henry.

After a childhood and adolescence of poverty, in which he was orphaned, worked at a general store, and was apprenticed to a watchmaker and silversmith in Albany, New York, some well-to-do friends sponsored Henry's studies at the Albany Academy, which he began at the age of 22, with the intention of learning about science and medicine.

To pay for his upkeep, he took jobs as country schoolmaster, tutor to sons of the wealthy, and road surveyor. Finally, he earned a position at the Academy of Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, which allowed him to conduct his own research.

That's when he undertook to improve on English natural philosopher William Sturgeon's first simple electromagnets. Sturgeon used loosely coiled, uninsulated windings, but Henry wound the coils around the cores tightly, and insulated the wires, reputedly with strips of silk torn from his wife's petticoats.

In 1831, Henry reported on his experiments and magnet-winding principle in the American Journal of Science, published at Yale College.

Soon Henry built a magnet for Yale, which was eight times more powerful than any electromagnet constructed in Europe. Shown here, the Yale magnet had a core of 59 1/2 pounds and could hold 2,063 pounds of iron.

Henry used his magnets for serious study of strong magnetic fields; he discovered mutual induction and self-induction. His discoveries made during experiments with windings made the telegraph possible.

In 1846, at the age of 49, Henry set aside his experimentation to head the newly instituted Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. In 1867, he took on the presidency of the infant National Academy of Sciences. Henry passed away in 1878, having made discoveries based on meticulous research that would transform industry and communications forever.



Roger Sherman, "Joseph Henry's Contributions to the Electromagnet and the Electric Motor," National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. [Online] Available: http://siarchives.si.edu/history/jhp/joseph21.htm

Spencer R. Weart, Editor, "Joseph Henry, 1797-1878," in Selected Papers of Great American Physicists. New York: American Institute of Physics, 1976, pp. 35-38.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Electrical Experimenter

In May of 1913, Hugo Gernsback, a well-known patron of wireless education and experimentation, began publishing
The Electrical Experimenter magazine. This was a fantastic collection of articles about topics on electricity, magnetism, wireless technology, and telegraphy.

Electrical technologies were in their infancy and wireless had just come into being. These technologies were exciting, but, until Gernsback started
The Electrical Experimenter, little information about them was available to the common person. All of a sudden, for an annual subscription price of 50 cents, anyone could purchase the key to a treasure chest of information about electricity, magnetism, and wireless technologies--and all kinds of people, young and old, became inspired to try their hands at experimentation.

Readers loved that
The Electrical Experimenter was prolifically illustrated with drawings and photos of apparatus that they could build at home, and many sent Gernsback descriptions and drawings of their own home-built experimental apparatus, which he then published in The Electrical Experimenter for others to try.

One of the greatest contributions of
The Electrical Experimenter was its effect on public awareness of, and experimentation with, wireless. The Titanic had gone down on April 15, 1912. As the world followed news accounts of this disaster, vast numbers of people became aware that wireless communication was responsible for the rescue of the Titanic survivors: messages had been sent point to point between the Titanic and the Carpathia using a system hardly known to most people. Ordinary people in all walks of life became very curious about what wireless was and how it worked.

Gernsback answered the call for information about the new, lifesaving, technology of wireless with his publication of the first issue of
The Electrical Experimenter. The first page of the first issue of the new magazine was devoted to "A Treatise on Wireless Telegraphy," the first of a series in which Gernsback explained the history and development of the science of wireless. This subject remained a major point of interest throughout the publication of The Electrical Experimenter. To supply his readers with parts and equipment that they could use to build their own wireless stations, Gernsback established his Electro Importing Company, which offered "Everything for the Experimenter."

Thus Gernsback sparked the development of an entire amateur radio-building industry of publications and suppliers to a growing number of wireless enthusiasts. In World War I, many of his younger readers served in the field as wireless operators. By World War II, as a result of what Gernsback started, the U.S. Army Signal Corps. had a ready supply of wireless operators who had trained themselves in the essentials of wireless communication. And, of course, many young subscribers to
The Electrical Experimenter went on to become the nation's communications engineers. Hugo Gernsback's publication of The Electrical Experimenter had become a major contributor to the technological superiority of the United States.

Here at PV Scientific Instruments, we are now offering
reprints of early issues of Gernsback's The Electrical Experimenter, starting with a complete set of the first two-and-a-half years of its publication. We are also offering a compilation of Gernsback's best articles on wireless written between May of 1913 and October of 1915. We are certain that today's readers will enjoy and learn from The Electrical Experimenter every bit as much as those first Gernsback fans of nearly 100 years ago.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Our First Blog Post

We are launching our new blog with the intention of keeping in touch with our many friends around the world, and we hope to make new friends as well.

Our interests are in the early technologies of electricity, magnetism, atomic physics, and wireless, and it is on these topics that we will be blogging.

There is much to discuss. Our current technological marvels depend on discoveries made by revered giants like Benjamin Franklin, but also on lesser-known investigators like Franklin's friend, Joseph Priestley.

Here we will be writing about our researches into the activities of interesting natural philosophers, electrical experimenters, and wireless builders. At PV Scientific Instruments, we often reproduce original experiments of our scientific forebears, which means that we first must build historically accurate reproductions of their apparatus. We'll share some of the results of these experiments with our readers.

We will begin with a weekly blog and see where that takes us. We hope that you will join us from time to time and comment on our efforts.