Charles Wheatstone - Velocity of Electricity

Velocity of Electricity

He achieved renown by a great experiment — the measurement of the velocity of electricity in a wire. He cut the wire at the middle, to form a gap which a spark might leap across, and connected its ends to the poles of a Leyden jar filled with electricity. Three sparks were thus produced, one at either end of the wire, and another at the middle. He mounted a tiny mirror on the works of a watch, so that it revolved at a high velocity, and observed the reflections of his three sparks in it. The points of the wire were so arranged that if the sparks were instantaneous, their reflections would appear in one straight line; but the middle one was seen to lag behind the others, because it was an instant later. The electricity had taken a certain time to travel from the ends of the wire to the middle. This time was found by measuring the amount of lag, and comparing it with the known velocity of the mirror. Having got the time, he had only to compare that with the length of half the wire, and he could find the velocity of electricity. His results gave a calculated velocity of 288,000 miles per second, i.e. faster than what we now know to be the speed of light, but were nonetheless an interesting approximation.

It was afterwards found that the velocity of an electric field travelling in a cable depends on the nature of the conductor, its resistance, and its electro-static capacity. Michael Faraday showed, for example, that its velocity in a submarine wire, coated with insulator and surrounded with water, is only 144,000 miles per second (232,000 km/s), or still less. Wheatstone's device of the revolving mirror was afterwards employed by Léon Foucault and Hippolyte Fizeau to measure the velocity of light.

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