Faraday as a Discoverer

Author: John Tyndall

Chapter 12. Magnetism of Flame and Gases—Atmospheric Magnetism

When an experimental result was obtained by Faraday it was instantly enlarged by his imagination. I am acquainted with no mind whose power and suddenness of expansion at the touch of new physical truth could be ranked with his. Sometimes I have compared the action of his experiments on his mind to that of highly combustible matter thrown into a furnace; every fresh entry of fact was accompanied by the immediate development of light and heat. The light, which was intellectual, enabled him to see far beyond the boundaries of the fact itself, and the heat, which was emotional, urged him to the conquest of this newly-revealed domain. But though the force of his imagination was enormous, he bridled it like a mighty rider, and never permitted his intellect to be overthrown.

In virtue of the expansive power which his vivid imagination conferred upon him, he rose from the smallest beginnings to the grandest ends. Having heard from Zantedeschi that Bancalari had established the magnetism of flame, he repeated the experiments and augmented the results. He passed from flames to gases, examining and revealing their magnetic and diamagnetic powers; and then he suddenly rose from his bubbles of oxygen and nitrogen to the atmospheric envelope of the earth itself, and its relations to the great question of terrestrial magnetism. The rapidity with which these ever-augmenting thoughts assumed the form of experiments is unparalleled. His power in this respect is often best illustrated by his minor investigations, and, perhaps, by none more strikingly than by his paper ’On the Diamagnetic Condition of Flame and Gases,’ published as a letter to Mr. Richard Taylor, in the ’Philosophical Magazine’ for December, 1847. After verifying, varying, and expanding the results of Bancalari, he submitted to examination heated air-currents, produced by platinum spirals placed in the magnetic field, and raised to incandescence by electricity. He then examined the magnetic deportment of gases generally. Almost all of these gases are invisible; but he must, nevertheless, track them in their unseen courses. He could not effect this by mingling smoke with his gases, for the action of his magnet upon the smoke would have troubled his conclusions. He, therefore, ’caught’ his gases in tubes, carried them out of the magnetic field, and made them reveal themselves at a distance from the magnet.

Immersing one gas in another, he determined their differential action; results of the utmost beauty being thus arrived at. Perhaps the most important are those obtained with atmospheric air and its two constituents. Oxygen, in various media, was strongly attracted by the magnet; in coal-gas, for example, it was powerfully magnetic, whereas nitrogen was diamagnetic. Some of the effects obtained with oxygen in coal-gas were strikingly beautiful. When the fumes of chloride of ammonium (a diamagnetic substance) were mingled with the oxygen, the cloud of chloride behaved in a most singular manner,— ’The attraction of iron filings,’ says Faraday, ’to a magnetic pole is not more striking than the appearance presented by the oxygen under these circumstances.’

On observing this deportment the question immediately occurs to him, —Can we not separate the oxygen of the atmosphere from its nitrogen by magnetic analysis? It is the perpetual occurrence of such questions that marks the great experimenter. The attempt to analyze atmospheric air by magnetic force proved a failure, like the previous attempt to influence crystallization by the magnet. The enormous comparative power of the force of crystallization I have already assigned as a reason for the incompetence of the magnet to determine molecular arrangement; in the present instance the magnetic analysis is opposed by the force of diffusion, which is also very strong comparatively. The same remark applies to, and is illustrated by, another experiment subsequently executed by Faraday. Water is diamagnetic, sulphate of iron is strongly magnetic. He enclosed ’a dilute solution of sulphate of iron in a tube, and placed the lower end of the tube between the poles of a powerful horseshoe magnet for days together,’ but he could produce ’no concentration of the solution in the part near the magnet.’ Here also the diffusibility of the salt was too powerful for the force brought against it.

The experiment last referred to is recorded in a paper presented to the Royal Society on the 2nd August, 1850, in which he pursues the investigation of the magnetism of gases. Newton’s observations on soap-bubbles were often referred to by Faraday. His delight in a soap-bubble was like that of a boy, and he often introduced them into his lectures, causing them, when filled with air, to float on invisible seas of carbonic acid, and otherwise employing them as a means of illustration. He now finds them exceedingly useful in his experiments on the magnetic condition of gases. A bubble of air in a magnetic field occupied by air was unaffected, save through the feeble repulsion of its envelope. A bubble of nitrogen, on the contrary, was repelled from the magnetic axis with a force far surpassing that of a bubble of air. The deportment of oxygen in air ’was very impressive, the bubble being pulled inward or towards the axial line, sharply and suddenly, as if the oxygen were highly magnetic.’

He next labours to establish the true magnetic zero, a problem not so easy as might at first sight be imagined. For the action of the magnet upon any gas, while surrounded by air or any other gas, can only be differential; and if the experiment were made in vacuo, the action of the envelope, in this case necessarily of a certain thickness, would trouble the result. While dealing with this subject, Faraday makes some noteworthy observations regarding space. In reference to the Torricellian vacuum, he says, ’Perhaps it is hardly necessary for me to state that I find both iron and bismuth in such vacua perfectly obedient to the magnet. From such experiments, and also from general observations and knowledge, it seems manifest that the lines of magnetic force can traverse pure space, just as gravitating force does, and as statical electrical forces do, and therefore space has a magnetic relation of its own, and one that we shall probably find hereafter to be of the utmost importance in natural phenomena. But this character of space is not of the same kind as that which, in relation to matter, we endeavour to express by the terms magnetic and diamagnetic. To confuse these together would be to confound space with matter, and to trouble all the conceptions by which we endeavour to understand and work out a progressively clearer view of the mode of action, and the laws of natural forces. It would be as if in gravitation or electric forces, one were to confound the particles acting on each other with the space across which they are acting, and would, I think, shut the door to advancement. Mere space cannot act as matter acts, even though the utmost latitude be allowed to the hypothesis of an ether; and admitting that hypothesis, it would be a large additional assumption to suppose that the lines of magnetic force are vibrations carried on by it, whilst as yet we have no proof that time is required for their propagation, or in what respect they may, in general character, assimilate to or differ from their respective lines of gravitating, luminiferous, or electric forces.’

Pure space he assumes to be the true magnetic zero, but he pushes his inquiries to ascertain whether among material substances there may not be some which resemble space. If you follow his experiments, you will soon emerge into the light of his results. A torsion-beam was suspended by a skein of cocoon silk; at one end of the beam was fixed a cross-piece 1 1/2 inch long. Tubes of exceedingly thin glass, filled with various gases, and hermetically sealed, were suspended in pairs from the two ends of the cross-piece. The position of the rotating torsion-head was such that the two tubes were at opposite sides of, and equidistant from, the magnetic axis, that is to say from the line joining the two closely approximated polar points of an electro-magnet. His object was to compare the magnetic action of the gases in the two tubes. When one tube was filled with oxygen, and the other with nitrogen, on the supervention of the magnetic force, the oxygen was pulled towards the axis, the nitrogen being pushed out. By turning the torsion-head they could be restored to their primitive position of equidistance, where it is evident the action of the glass envelopes was annulled. The amount of torsion necessary to re-establish equidistance expressed the magnetic difference of the substances compared.

And then he compared oxygen with oxygen at different pressures. One of his tubes contained the gas at the pressure of 30 inches of mercury, another at a pressure of 15 inches of mercury, a third at a pressure of 10 inches, while a fourth was exhausted as far as a good air-pump renders exhaustion possible. ’When the first of these was compared with the other three, the effect was most striking.’ It was drawn towards the axis when the magnet was excited, the tube containing the rarer gas being apparently driven away, and the greater the difference between the densities of the two gases, the greater was the energy of this action.

And now observe his mode of reaching a material magnetic zero. When a bubble of nitrogen was exposed in air in the magnetic field, on the supervention of the power, the bubble retreated from the magnet. A less acute observer would have set nitrogen down as diamagnetic; but Faraday knew that retreat, in a medium composed in part of oxygen, might be due to the attraction of the latter gas, instead of to the repulsion of the gas immersed in it. But if nitrogen be really diamagnetic, then a bubble or bulb filled with the dense gas will overcome one filled with the rarer gas. From the cross-piece of his torsion-balance he suspended his bulbs of nitrogen, at equal distances from the magnetic axis, and found that the rarefaction, or the condensation of the gas in either of the bulbs had not the slightest influence. When the magnetic force was developed, the bulbs remained in their first position, even when one was filled with nitrogen, and the other as far as possible exhausted. Nitrogen, in fact, acted ’like space itself’; it was neither magnetic nor diamagnetic.

He cannot conveniently compare the paramagnetic force of oxygen with iron, in consequence of the exceeding magnetic intensity of the latter substance; but he does compare it with the sulphate of iron, and finds that, bulk for bulk, oxygen is equally magnetic with a solution of this substance in water ’containing seventeen times the weight of the oxygen in crystallized proto-sulphate of iron, or 3.4 times its weight of metallic iron in that state of combination.’ By its capability to deflect a fine glass fibre, he finds that the attraction of this bulb of oxygen, containing only 0.117 of a grain of the gas, at an average distance of more than an inch from the magnetic axis, is about equal to the gravitating force of the same amount of oxygen as expressed by its weight.

These facts could not rest for an instant in the mind of Faraday without receiving that expansion to which I have already referred. ’It is hardly necessary,’ he writes, ’for me to say here that this oxygen cannot exist in the atmosphere exerting such a remarkable and high amount of magnetic force, without having a most important influence on the disposition of the magnetism of the earth, as a planet; especially if it be remembered that its magnetic condition is greatly altered by variations of its density and by variations of its temperature. I think I see here the real cause of many of the variations of that force, which have been, and are now so carefully watched on different parts of the surface of the globe. The daily variation, and the annual variation, both seem likely to come under it; also very many of the irregular continual variations, which the photographic process of record renders so beautifully manifest. If such expectations be confirmed, and the influence of the atmosphere be found able to produce results like these, then we shall probably find a new relation between the aurora borealis and the magnetism of the earth, namely, a relation established, more or less, through the air itself in connection with the space above it; and even magnetic relations and variations, which are not as yet suspected, may be suggested and rendered manifest and measurable, in the further development of what I will venture to call Atmospheric Magnetism. I may be over-sanguine in these expectations, but as yet I am sustained in them by the apparent reality, simplicity, and sufficiency of the cause assumed, as it at present appears to my mind. As soon as I have submitted these views to a close consideration, and the test of accordance with observation, and, where applicable, with experiments also, I will do myself the honour to bring them before the Royal Society.’

Two elaborate memoirs are then devoted to the subject of Atmospheric Magnetism; the first sent to the Royal Society on the 9th of October, and the second on the 19th of November, 1850. In these memoirs he discusses the effects of heat and cold upon the magnetism of the air, and the action on the magnetic needle, which must result from thermal changes. By the convergence and divergence of the lines of terrestrial magnetic force, he shows how the distribution of magnetism, in the earth’s atmosphere, is effected. He applies his results to the explanation of the Annual and of the Diurnal Variation: he also considers irregular variations, including the action of magnetic storms. He discusses, at length, the observations at St. Petersburg, Greenwich, Hobarton, St. Helena, Toronto, and the Cape of Good Hope; believing that the facts, revealed by his experiments, furnish the key to the variations observed at all these places.

In the year 1851, I had the honour of an interview with Humboldt, in Berlin, and his parting words to me then were, ’Tell Faraday that I entirely agree with him, and that he has, in my opinion, completely explained the variation of the declination.’ Eminent men have since informed me that Humboldt was hasty in expressing this opinion. In fact, Faraday’s memoirs on atmospheric magnetism lost much of their force—perhaps too much—through the important discovery of the relation of the variation of the declination to the number of the solar spots. But I agree with him and M. Edmond Becquerel, who worked independently at this subject, in thinking, that a body so magnetic as oxygen, swathing the earth, and subject to variations of temperature, diurnal and annual, must affect the manifestations of terrestrial magnetism.[1] The air that stands upon a single square foot of the earth’s surface is, according to Faraday, equivalent in magnetic force to 8160 lbs. of crystallized protosulphate of iron. Such a substance cannot be absolutely neutral as regards the deportment of the magnetic needle. But Faraday’s writings on this subject are so voluminous, and the theoretic points are so novel and intricate, that I shall postpone the complete analysis of these researches to a time when I can lay hold of them more completely than my other duties allow me to do now.

Footnote to Chapter 12

[1] This persuasion has been greatly strengthened by the recent perusal of a paper by Mr. Baxendell.


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Chicago: John Tyndall, "Chapter 12. Magnetism of Flame and Gases— Atmospheric Magnetism," Faraday as a Discoverer, ed. Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941 and trans. Miall, Bernard in Faraday as a Discoverer Original Sources, accessed April 23, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DA7MF53IRI9JSKL.

MLA: Tyndall, John. "Chapter 12. Magnetism of Flame and Gases— Atmospheric Magnetism." Faraday as a Discoverer, edited by Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941, and translated by Miall, Bernard, in Faraday as a Discoverer, Original Sources. 23 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DA7MF53IRI9JSKL.

Harvard: Tyndall, J, 'Chapter 12. Magnetism of Flame and Gases— Atmospheric Magnetism' in Faraday as a Discoverer, ed. and trans. . cited in , Faraday as a Discoverer. Original Sources, retrieved 23 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DA7MF53IRI9JSKL.