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Primer: Dufay and Nollet November 26, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Frontispiece of Nollet's Essai sur l'electricité des corps

Electricity and electrical phenomena presented a major conceptual problem for 18th-century experimental philosophers, who were tasked with understanding not only the nature of electricity and how it moved, but how (or, in some cases, whether) it related to light, fire, magnetism, lightning, sparks, shocks, phosphoresence, nervous phenomena, and the attractive and repulsive phenomena associated with electrically charged objects.  It was unclear whether electricity and the forces it exerted (what we would think of as charged particles and their fields) were one and the same thing, or how electricity moved about, or how it moved through materials such as glass, air, or vacuum.  The relationship between all of these phenomena and the differing electrical properties of different materials, not to mention electricity’s finicky response to changes in ambient humidity all made electricity an extremely complicated thing to study.  On the surface, Coulomb’s 19th-century late-18th-century law (the force of attraction or repulsion is proportional to the product of charges of bodies divided by the square of the distance between them) might seem like a logical extrapolation from Newton’s law of gravitation (the force of attraction is proportional to the product of the masses of bodies divided by the square of the distance between them).  Taking into account the experimental difficulties, however, it might also seem miraculous.

Unlike astronomy, the study of electricity remained without any quantitative basis for a long time.  Instead, natural philosophers attempted to develop qualitative schemes that were capable of explaining all of the various observations and (more…)