The Electrical Mechanism Of The Ether
By A. Press, B.Sc.
The electrical theory of Maxwell was based on the assumption that when a
body was electrified something in the nature of a displacement passed
from the body into the ether, and from the ether to some other material
object or objects said to be thereby oppositely electrified.
That the displacement was not material, that is, it had no weight, went
without saying, for with the most delicate chemical balance no difference
in weight could be detected. It, therefore, had to partake of an
ether-like displacement because the ether is supposed to have no weight.
Maxwell conceived the idea that it was this mysterious displacement, by
an unrevealed physical mechanism, that caused electrified bodies to be
attracted or repelled according to the well-known material Newtonian laws
Whereas, the electrical displacement itself is intangible as it were,
because it involves the ether only, forces always very visibly manifested
at the material bounding surfaces of the ether were conceived to take
place by virtue of a special displacement mechanism which Maxwell
This displacement mechanism was considered to be located in the ether
itself rather than in the electrified material bodies. Forces there must
be in the ether, but it is necessary to remember that we can make sure of
their existence only by mechanical reactions of the ether upon material
bodies. When the forces wholly refer to the ether they are designated as
Thus, although an electro-motive force is regarded as setting up a flux
of electric displacement this force cannot be considered a true force in
the Newtonian sense, for matter is not involved, except indirectly.
The mechanical or Newtonian forces that are observable on electrified
bodies always imply matter. Electrical instruments are employed it is
true to measure E. M. F.'s (potentials) and currents, but it is very
obvious that what we are really measuring are the reactions of the ether
upon material bodies and not the forces that act wholly and entirely on
the parts of the ether medium itself.
The question can arise whether electricity as such can exist apart from
Heaviside is decidedly of the opinion that it cannot. We know that like
charges repel each other and therefore the functions of material bounding
surfaces for - the ether appears to be to keep the like elemental charges
together. Just how this property to see how any portion of electricity
can manifest itself except by a material reaction which can account for a
Newtonian force being set up, yet single negative electrons have been
observed. Again, if the electron or atom, of electricity were of the
imponderable ether substance then there is difficulty in accounting for
the elemental electric charge keeping itself intact; for even an electron
is supposed to have dimensions.
It was from this latter sort of consideration that Heaviside foretold
that the observable electron would be found to have a material nucleus.
It would also seem to nullify the earlier electric particle hypothesis of
Strange to say in attempting to form a physical picture of electrical
displacement, Maxwell himself imagined a sort of purely ether particle
which bears a very close resemblance to Lorentz's electron particle.
However, such makeshift devices, for such they are, do not by any means
enable us to explain how mechanical energy can be converted into
electrical energy or how electrical energy, such as the electro-magnetic
light waves from the sun, can be transmitted through space to be
thereafter transformed into work in the service of man, or how even to
interpret matter in terms of the ether.
Both Lorentz and Maxwell imagined their ultimate electrical particles to
be of such a nature that, in what are called dielectrics or
insulators,the electrons are only capable of moving a very short distance
from their normal state of equilibrium; whereas in conductors, such as
copper, the electrons were considered to be free and capable of being set
in motion by appropriate etherial or as we would now express
it—electromotive forces. Such forces, as has already been indicated
above, are not to be confounded with the mechanical forces such as
pressure or inertia. Yet when a conductor passes through a state of the
ether called a magnetic field, the electrons in the conductor are assumed
to be impelled in a certain direction. So far as the electrons are
concerned, it is an electro-motive force that causes the electrons to
travel through what are really the large-sized pores of the metal; but so
far as the copper or material conductor is concerned it is a Newtonian
mechanical force or pull that will be found necessary to be applied to
set up the electronic displacement.
In the dielectric or insulating medium of a condenser the electrons are
considered tied, a9 it were, to the material atoms or molecules of the
insulating medium. They are not supposed capable of extended migratory
movement from the individual atom. Thus for an alternating E. M. F. large
current volumes can be set up but cannot, however, be maintained
uni-directionally to any considerable extent. Of course, in conductors
this limitation is not present and the electrons are free to travel in a
complete physical circuit.
The question can also arise as to how an alternating current can be
maintained when there is nothing but the ether between the plates of a
condenser. Would such a medium constitute a perfect insulator? The answer
for an alternating E. M. F. is, "No." In fact, besides the Lorentz
electrons, with, however, a material nucleus added, one must, because of
this, fall back on a true Maxwellian, purely etherial displacement.
According to modern electron theory the true Maxwellian, purely etherial
displacement is always present in a dielectric, but superposed upon it in
material media is an electronic displacement, with a material nucleus.
The original Maxwellian displacement was structurally undefined. In
insulators the electrons are tied, but in material conductors the
electrons are free. It would be expected that since the electrons have a
material core that these elemental charges should be associated with
material media, but the true ether displacement currents of Maxwell, in
which the material core is absent entirely, offers considerable
difficulties to our understanding or rather visualization.
In the older theory, such as that of Ampere, the current flowing in a
conductor was considered to be altogether distinct from the current
flowing in a condenser.
It was Maxwell who insisted, however, that a condenser current in the
insulating medium itself must set up magnetic effects equivalent
absolutely to those set up in a conductor of like current capacity.
Nowadays the conductor current of Maxwell's mysterious days is pictured
as being due to an electronic stream of particles having a material
nucleus, but the old purely etherial condenser current of Maxwell has
still held its ground but superposed upon this current notion is the one
in which, for material dielectrics, electrons are in addition considered,
to be displaced to a limited extent just as in the old Maxwellian ether
In considering the manner in which light reaches us from the sun, since
this is understood to be an electro-magnetic wave phenomenon, it would
appear to be really of the nature of a true Maxwellian (or pure
Lorentzian) character. That is to say the light waves in leaving the sun
pass out like straight line streamers of a reeled off link chain in all
directions. The one set of links" lying in a plane, see Fig. 1, represent
the displacement circuits of electricity, which Maxwell pictured as due
to a flux of pure ether particles in such a circuit.
On the other hand the links looping the first set of links in a plane
perpendicular to the latter, represent the closed paths of magnetic
disturbances which Maxwell considered was due to what he called "idler"
ether particles. Now, in considering electro-magnetic waves set up by an
aerial in wireless telegraphy, the original displacement loops are not
considered to lie wholly in ether, as they must do, when electric waves
in the nature of light are sent out by the sun.
In wireless work such displacement loops are partly true Maxwellian (i.e.
they consist of a pure etherial displacement in ether) and partly what
one might call Lorentzian, or modified Lorentzian, because a portion of
the loop path passes through the earth. That part which passes through
the earth would be due to electrons according to modern theory, whereas
the remaining part in the ether, or air, would only be due to electrons
if the air was what is called ionized; otherwise the actual electrical
displacement in the ether part of the circuit would have to be considered
The difference apparently between a Maxwellian ether particle and a
Lorentzian electron is that Lorentz's electron is supposed to account for
the electrical conductivity in solids, liquids and gases or what is
called ionization, whereas Maxwell's ether particle is supposed to
account for the normal etherial conductivity.
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