Some of Electricity’s Recent Triumphs

George IIes in American Review of Reviews March 1 1908

Some of Electricity’s Recent Triumphs

George IIes in American Review of Reviews March 1 1908

Some of Electricity’s Recent Triumphs

George IIes in American Review of Reviews

WHEN man in the making first kindled fire, he took a long stride toward becoming man as he is. Fire gave him warmth in winter: it opened to him gates of the north otherwise forever shut. After sundown it bestowed light, so that he could then work or travel, hunt or fish, instead of idling in caves or huts as when destitute of glowing ember or flaring torch. When a blaze died out the earth below its ashes was found baked to hardness ; here lay the promise of bricks and pottery, so that at last the walls of Nineveh were reared, the vases of Etruria took form. When a flame fiercer than common melted sand to glass, there was prophecy of a telescope for Galileo, a camera for Daguerre, a microscope whereby Pasteur should detect the deadliest, because the minutest, foes of man. All the streams of lead and iron, copper and zinc, ever smelted from ores ; all the acids, oils and alcohols that ever dropped from alembic or still, took their rise in That tiny blaze as it flickered under its creators’ hands. Unknowingly there, too, were laid foundations for the mighty engines of Watt and Stephenson, Parsons and De Laval. Thence, also, sprang the tides of iron and steel which to-day gridiron the continents, wall every steamship to resist the ocean surge, and build machines to exalt a hundred-fold the weaving, digging, hammering thrust' of the human arm.

Could mankind harness an agent still mightier than flame? Yes, and we are now in the midst of that subduing, for never more than at this hour were the masters of electricity triumphant. We have but to glance

at a few of their recent conquests to 44

see that electricity can do all that flame does, do it better, and accomplish tasks infinitely beyond the reach of fire, however ingeniously applied.


Flame, as a direct source of heat, is at best a fault)'servant. In consuming oxygen it produces carbon dioxide and other harmful gases ; it wastefully warms huge volumes of inert nitrogen, with the result that temperatures are much reduced. If the fuel contains sulphur or phosphorus these much impair the quality of molten iron or seething steel. In dwellings, in mines, on shipboard, the necessary consumption of air is a dire evil ; more serious still is the outpouring of deadly gases. Flame labors under other disadvantages. It is on the outside of a crucible or retort that it beats ; the shell to be penetrated, if the steel plate of a big boiler, may be an inch thick ; much thicker, and nonconducting as well, is the brick wall of a bake-oven. Flame produces much heat of little worth because of low temperature. The whole Atlantic Ocean might be lukewarm and still leave a potato unboiled. It is the margin by which a temperature overtops the degree needed for boiling, melting or welding that decides its value. Yet more : flame at most has a play of only a few inches. Even when it raises steam, the best of all heat-carriers, that steam may be borne no further than a mile without excessive loss. All these faults and wastes disappear when, instead of flame, we employ clcctric heat, notwithstanding the cost of its round-about production by a furnace, a heat-engine and a dynamo. In many cases the engineer can hap-

piiy dispense with fuel altogether, and draw upon a waterfall, as notably at Niagara. Electricity, in whatever mode produced, may be easily and fully insulated, taken, if we please, ioo miles, and there, through nonconducting mica or asbestos, enter the very heart of a kettle, or still, to exert itself as heat, without an iota of subtraction. It has no partner, gaseous or other, to work injury or levy a tax. Electricity, too, by a transformer, may be readily lifted from low to high voltage, or pressure, immensely widening its effective play in soldering, welding, smelting. At any temperature desired, there, with perfect constancy, electric heat may be maintained, with no need that a branding or smoothing iron return periodically to a fire, Vvith risk of scorching.


A capital example of the convenience and economy of electric heat is displayed in the art of electric welding, due to Elihu Thomson. Two steel bars to form parts of a crank are clamped together, and a current is sent through their junction. At every point where contact is imperfect, resistence to the current is greatest, and the highest temperature appears. Electric heat thus goes just where it does most work. At the instant of welding the two pieces of steel are forcibly drawn together; when cool they sever under stress anywhere but at their weld. In like manner the tires for bicycles and automobiles are united, the rails for railroads, the links of chains, the tubes for boilers, the containers for compressed gases, and so on through a long list. The chemist, with as much gain as the metal-worker, adopts electric heat.


Carbon, perhaps the chief chemical element, has forms as diverse as coal, graphite, and diamonds. Both as an element and in its compounds, it has for years engaged the skill of Edward Goodrich Acheson, at Niagara Falls. There, with electric heat of utmost intensity, he converts anthracite into

graphitized carbon rods, almost pure. Their conductivity is four-fold that of the best natural graphite. These rods serve as current-carriers in an electric manufacture of alkalis, impossible without their agency. Mr. Acheson makes graphite serviceable as a pigment, and also in a form useful as a lubricant. As little of his flak}’ graphite as i part to 300 of oil greatly heightens the value of the oil in lubrication. He has discovered that by adding a little gallotannic acid to this flaky graphite it remains suspended in either oil or water. .As an indivisible liquid the mixture may be pumped throughout a huge machine shop, and drop from its nozzles as if pure oil. Mr. Acheson makes also carborundum, a compound of carbon and silicon, an abrasive second only to the diamond.


The extreme heat of the electric furnace, with its exclusion of all undesired substances whatever, make it an ideal means of smelting iron or producing steel. In reviewing a remarkable series of experiments, Mr. F, W. Harbord, the eminent English metallurgist, says: '‘Pig iron can be

produced on a commercial scale where electric energy’ is $10 per kilowatt for a year, as against $7 per ton for coke. Meel. equal to the best Sheffield crucible steel, is obtainable electrically at less than the present cost of producing high-class crucible steel.” The Keller electrical process for pig iron has required in a first run .475 horsepower year per ton ; in a second run, .226. In steel making the Kjellin method has consumed .116 horsepower year per ton, the Heroult method, .153, the Keller method, .112. Only very few waterfalls in the world can furnish electricity at Mr. Harbord's limit of Sio per year for a kilowatt, or i 1-3 horse-power. For other purposes than the production of heat, as for motive power or lighting, the current would, as a rule, have much more value. In New York retail customers pay the Edison Company 10 cents per kilowatt hour, or $876 per annum Clearly a much lower rate must pre-

cede any rivalry betwixt the electric crucible and the blast furnace.


Two methods by which electricity may afford heat are illustrated in ordinary electric lighting. An Edison lamp has a filament of carbon which so resists a current as to rise to a vivid glow. A second mode is shown in an arc-lamp, whose two carbon pencils first touch, then withdraw, leaving between them an arc of dazzling radiance. An incandescent lamp, so far from requiring air, demands a vacuum. To-day the best lamp of this kind has a thread of tungsten, of an efficiency two and one-half times greater than that of a carbon filament. Tungsten may safely reacH 1,850 degrees Centigrade ; carbon may not surpass 1,660 degrees. Only within two years have the difficulties of treating tungsten for lamps been overcome. In one process the metal is crushed to powder, united with a binding material to form a paste which is squirted througli a die as a thread ; the binder is then removed, leaving the tungsten by itself. It is much more fragile than carbon, and must be carefully handled ; its filaments may be disposed downward only. Its rays are so bright that they are usually dimmed by a semi-opaque globe, with, of course, considerable loss of light.

The Westinghouse tungsten lamp has twenty candle power, for a current of 1.25 watts per candle; it lasts 1,000 hours with hardly any lessening of brilliancy ; it costs 90 cents. Side by side is a carbon-filament lamp, of sixteen candle power, for a current of 3.1 watts per candle; with a useful life of 450 hours; it costs 18 cents. With current at 10 cents per kilowatt hour, light from tungsten is about half as expensive as from carbon threads, inclusive of lamps in both cases.

A Cooper-Hewitt tube in economy excels a tungsten lamp as much as that lamp distances an Edison bulb. It is of clear glass, about 21 inches long, with a small cup at each end inside. When in circuit a little mercury running from end to end starts

the light, which, coming as it does, from an extensive surface, is so moderate in brightness as not to need a shade, with its destruction of light. In the automatic design here illustrated a switch closes the circuit, at once a magnet tilts the lamp for its start ; this device assures relighting should there be an accidental interruption of current. In this type, “H,” a candle power requires .64 watt ; with a tube twice as long, type “K,” the outlay sinks to .55 watt per candle, or 1,356 candles per horse-power. The light is green and unsuitable for houses, stores, or wherever else colors are to remain normal to the eye. Apart from this restriction the Hewitt tubes have wide applicability to factories, mills, foundries, composing rooms, freight sheds, docks, streets and public squares. They are used in the New York post office. In photography, their beams are particularly rapid and effective.

How in cost does light from electricity compare with light from flame? In its best form, with rays directed downward, a Welsbach mantle gives 25 candles for each cubic foot of gas burned an hour. With gas at $1.25 per 1,000 cubic feet, and tungsten lamps consuming current at 4 cents per kilowatt hour, the cost is the same, leaving out of account the expense of either mantles or candles.


Carbon-filament lamps are much cheaper to-day than at first ; a like fall in price may soon give popularity to lamps of much higher economy. On equal terms electric light is preferred to any other; it is the safest of all, sends out no fumes and but little heat, while it leaves the air unconsumed. I11 many another service electricity stands ready to lift the burdens of housekeeping, to create new comforts at home.

Last October the Brooklyn Edison Company exhibited in New York the best array of electric appliances for the household ever brought together. A suite of rooms, to form a home, were equipped with every electrical aid. The kitchen had a coffee percola-

tor, a frying kettle, a waffle iron, all heated at small cost. In the laundry was a smoothing iron always at the right temperature, needing no renewals of heat at a stove. A variety of motors operated a clothes-washer, a wringer, a sewing machine, a dishwasher, a buffer to polish silver, and a vacuum cleaner for rugs and carpets. A Brunswick refrigerator of one horse-power made a pound of ice every hour. Fan motors here and there were blowing a grateful breeze; in winter they might hasten the warming of rooms by driving air over their steam coils.

These household motors are an unmatched gift of electricity. On a minor scale, for domestic labor, heat engines are out of the question. Steam motors are economical only when large. Gas engines of as little as five horsepower are built, but they are unwelcome tenants in a house. All heat engines exhale gases or vapors, need qualified attendants, introduce a risk of fire or scalding. Whether small enough for a cottage, or big enough to drive a steel rolling mill, an electric motor is equally efficient and desirable. On request it takes a walk, as in the traveling crane of a ship yard or quarry. In any use a flexible wire conveys all its energy, dismissing chains and belts, cranks or pulleys. And when idle it asks no pay.


Suppose we have a windmill, waterwheels, or other prime mover, now swift, then slow, and after that absolutely still. How can we store its power at times of surplusage for hours of dearth? If we compress air, or lift water to lofty tanks, our outlay will be large, our losses by friction very considerable. But let us harness a storage battery and we shall be well and cheaply served. Every foot-pound of spare energy may be instantly and safely banked there, and withdrawn at need with small deduction. Not only in households, office buildings and factories has this battery high utility but also as a means of travel, as i x the runabout. The gasoline automobile has a field of its

own, as a high-power machine which may go indefinitely far. It may develop forty horse-power from a Herreshoff motor weighing but 4.15 pounds, and furnish a horse-power for an hour for each pint of gasoline consumed, picking up from the air, as it goes along, the oxygen for combustion. The electromobile carries much less effective fuel in its lead or iron, and besides must bear such acids and alkalis as its combinations demand. Last October Mr. Edison showed me his new nickel-iron cells, from which for every fifty-three pounds, he expects a horse-power for an hour. Despite its weight the electric vehicle is popular on many accounts ; it starts at a touch, asks no expert driver, is simple and safe, odorless and cool ; and, above all, its hâbit is to stay in order. In their best designs electromobiles run fast and far. A Babcock machine travels twenty-six miles an hour on a level road. A Detroit machine has gone from Detroit to Toledo, seventytwo miles, in 220 minutes, with charge enough left for thirty miles more. A lady as she pays a round of calls or goes shopping, a physician visiting his patients, a family taking the air, all find the runabout preferable to the automobile, whose power and swiftness are excessive, with mechanism difficult to control, costly to keep in repair.


Incomparably more important than the runabout is the electric locomotive, which, in its first estate, as the trolley-motor, has vastly expanded the suburbs of our cities, and created thousands of healthful homes. Passing from city streets and country roads to the tracks of steam lines, this motor is working a quiet revolution, by virtue of inherent superiority at every point. To begin with, an electric locomotive has left its fuel and furnace, its boiler, water-tank and engine at home. LTnburdened by their weight it is also free from their hazard of fire or scalding in case of mishap. With no tender to drag, this locomotive bears on its drivers so large a part of its total weight tlnf it

gets up speed in about half the time needed by its steam rival. Last July the New Haven Railroad began running its electric trains to New Rochelle from New York, sixteen miles since extending this service to Stamford, seventeen miles further. An alternating current, at 11,000 volts, enters a car from an overhead wire through a pantagraph which permits much more play than does the common trolley-wheel. These Westinghouse locomotives, hauling 200-ton trains, which stop on an average every 2.2 miles, must net 26 miles an hour. On long runs they must go sixty-five or seventy miles an hour, or take 250ton trains at sixty miles an hour. At such paces a steam locomotive would have low efficiency ; its cylinders would be too quickly emptied to be kept fully supplied with steam. At all speeds electric locomotives have their economy unimpaired. Nor is this all ; a heavy train, on a steep grade, may call for two or more steam locomotives. It is hardly possible to keep them in step so that they exert an even, uniform pull. A train might be a mile long, and with electric motors distributed throughout its length, all would advance as a single machine when controlled by the Sprague multiple-unit system. And again : a steam locomotive is impelled by the to and fro action of its pistons, which, at high speeds, sometimes deliver blows so violent as to lift the wheels from the track. An electric motor turns round and round, so that it never works this injury.


Whether for railroad service, factory toil, city lighting, or aught else, it is an inestimable boon that electricity may be borne for scores of miles at comparatively small cost for conductors, with inconsiderable leakage by the way. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company, of California, has stations at their farthest 318 miles apart, supplying, all told, about 80,000 horsepower. Its chief currents have the enormous pressure of 60,000 volts. Each insulator, of stout porcelain, is

made up of three separate, conical hoods.


rims far we have glanced at services long performed by fire, and now better executed by electricity. Let us now view feats of electricity that fire cannot attempt at all. In communicating messages, flame began to play a notable part long ago, first, as daring beacons ; then, in lamps such as those still swinging along railroad tracks. But all such means are narrowly limited in scope, and utterly fail when fogs descend or storms arise. Because an electric wire may be insulated for hundreds of miles it has created the telegraph, perhaps the chief gift bestowed by the electrician upon mankind. Electric waves are not only transmissible by a wire, they may be committed to the ether of free space, as by Marconi, so that with no metallic or other medium, save the aforesaid ether, he enables Ireland and Nova Scotia to signal to each other as if on opposite banks of the Hudson, instead of being divided by the tempest swept Atlantic. The four Marconi towers at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, each 215 feet tall, are surmounted by poles of fifty feet more, making a total height of 265 feet. Some fiftv aerial wires run from these poles horizontally for several hundred feet as a directive system. Thus far seventy kilowatts, about ninety-three horse-power, has sufficed in transmission. The plant includes a steam engine of 500 horse-power, and an alternator of 350 kilowatts at 2.000 volts.

And speech as well as signals may be carried bv the ether. Among the methods of wireless telephony may be mentioned that of Prof. R. A. Fessenden. For several months he has been transmitting speech from Brant Rock, Mass., to Brooklyn, N.Y., almost 200 miles, nearly three-fourths of the distance being overland. 11 is alternator runs at 81,700 cycles per second, employing either a single armature machine of 1 1-3 horse-power, or a machine of double this capacity.


No telephone line, of the Bell type, joins New York and San Francisco; its double circuit of heavy copper wire would cost too much.

A telegram takes its way along a succession of lines, each joined to the next by a self-acting repeater. No such contrivance is yet available in telephony, whose currents, furthermore, are so very slight as to be seriously impeded in passing through switchboards or other mechanism, no matter how well designed.


Through a telephone we may listen to a distant orchestra or choir, but the effect is not pleasant enough to give it popularity. To-day, the telephone adds to its old task of reproducing operas or symphonies as executed, the rendition of music wholly electric. In his telharmonium, Mr. Theodore Cahill proceeds upon the fact that when a current is reversed, or alternated, hundreds or thousands of times a second, it utters in a telephone a distinct musical note. When the alternations are few, the notes are grave; when the -alternations increase in their frequency, the notes rise in pitch. A performer at a keyboard touches off pulses from scores of diverse alternators, each voicing a simple note. Such notes duly blended recall the complex overtones of the flute, the oboe, or other instrument. Effects beyond these, wholly new and delightful, are created, so that Mr. Cahill has conferred a fresh resource upon composers and executants. His central station in New York resembles a powerhouse, with its engine, its groups of alternators and switchboards, its wire festoons. The music is sent forth on ordinary telephone lines anywhere within ioo miles, and so powerfully that at any desired place an audience of 500 may together hear its weird and sympathetic strains.


Our survey thus far, scant though it is, may suffice to show that the in-

ventor and the manufacturer have fulfilled their duty with respect to electrical art. They have designed and built excellent motors and dynamos, heaters and lamps, chemical dividers of all sorts, batteries of many types, all at moderate prices. Where electricity is cheap, as at Niagara Falls, these devices are in general use, both in factories and homes. Where the current is comparatively dear, we find its public acceptance much less wide. A good deal, too, depends upon the business manager of a central station. When he is bold and enterprising he repeats such a success as that of the telephone. To take a striking case: the Pueblo & Suburban Traction & Lighting Company recently wired gratis several hundred houses in Pueblo, Colo., at an average cost of $7.64 each for the first batch of 384 houses of seven lamps apiece. It is now earning from these dwellings enough to pay for the wiring twice over. Wholesale installations in this fashion reduce cost to the lowest notch ; they give a launching jolt to the inertia of heavyheeled citizens. A like policy, extended to sewing machine motors, fans, smoothing irons, chafing dishes and the like, would undoubtedly inure to the profit of central stations, while at the same time greatly lightening the tasks of housekeeping.

A central station earns most when its machinery is fully and constantly at work. Hence the importance of introducing heaters and motors usually busy at other than the “rush” hours of the day. Between midnight and dawn, when demands for current are slack, is the time to restore exhausted batteries for electric vehicles so that, by virtue of buying their energy at low prices, they may more strongly than ever compete with gasoline motors. In ice-making, electro-plating, and many other industries, a market may be found for current that to-day has no sale. And the more the field for electricity is widened, the cheaper it will become, with the effect, familiar in the gas business, of still further broadening the demand.

Only when electricity thus becomes

our universal servant will its mastery

mean as much for mankind to-day as, long ago, did the first kindling of fire, with slowly won arts of furnace and lamp, oven and smelter, crucible and still. A point to be kept steadily in view is that it was this old resource, flame, that in flowering gave birth to electric art. When Volta, as recently as 1800, built his battery, to create the first electric stream, he did so because rich in golden gifts of fire. His glass and porcelain, his plates of zinc and silver, his acids, were all bestowed upon him by flame. And it is by devising economical heat motors, whether using steam, gas or oil, that the modern engineer enables the electrician to generate currents readily and cheaply.

This flowering of old resources into new, of transcendent sweep, of subtler probe, is plain in every decisive advance of humankind. Let us ask, How came fire to be kindled at first? In all likelihood by a surpassing feat of manipulation, directed by the sagacity which only dexterity could awaken and inform. Probably in clashing flints together to shape rude arrows, or chisels, a savage flashed out a spark upon a tuft of dried fibre which at once leaped into a blaze. Or, it may be that in drilling a stick an armorer w7as rewarded for uncommon persistence and stress by a tiny flame, with its hint for repetition. The superiority of such a man to the kinsman next below7 him in skill and brains may have been slight enough; no wider, indeed, than the “variation”

which is Lanvin's unit of advance. But in the passing from mere warmth to fire a new world was entered, abounding in powers and insights impossible to beings who, though human, had not risen above the ability, shared by other creatures, merely to change the forms of leaves, bark and wood, of clay or stone. With fire to wrork his will man was able to alter properties as well as shapes, to gain copper and iron from ores, glass from sand, pottery from clay.

The argument here briefly indicated I presented in detail in “Flame, Electricity and the Camera,” published in 1900. To the proofs then adduced, many more might now be added, especially with regard to the researches of Crookes, Thomson and Rutherford. These investigators, armed with a glass bulb nearly vacuous, employ electricity to break down atoms into electrons about one-thousandth part in size of the hydrogen atom. These electrons are all alike whatever their source may be, whether lead, copper, gold, or aught else. As fire made man master of the molecule, electricity now enables him partly to resolve the atom itself into units which may be the foundation stones of nature. The fireless savage dealt’only with the surfaces of things; when he created fire at will he passed below surfaces to the molecules which build up masses ; to-day the electrician disrupts the atom itself to reach nature’s very heart.

Exclude not the Spirit which gives life, nor beauty which has vast bearings on life.