[Illustration: FIG. 197.—A simple electric cell.]
281. Electricity as first Obtained by Man. Until modern times the only electricity known to us was that of the lightning flash, which man could neither hinder nor make. But in the year 1800, electricity in the form of a weak current was obtained by Volta of Italy in a very simple way; and even now our various electric batteries and cells are but a modification of that used by Volta and called a voltaic cell. A strip of copper and a strip of zinc are placed in a glass containing dilute sulphuric acid, a solution composed of oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur, and water. As soon as the plates are immersed in the acid solution, minute bubbles of gas rise from the zinc strip and it begins to waste away slowly. The solution gradually dissolves the zinc and at the same time gives up some of the hydrogen which it contains; but it has little or no effect on the copper, since there is no visible change in the copper strip.
If, now, the strips are connected by means of metal wires, the zinc wastes away rapidly, numerous bubbles of hydrogen pass over to the copper strip and collect on it, and a current of electricity flows through the connecting wires. Evidently, the source of the current is the chemical action between the zinc and the liquid.
Mere inspection of the connecting wire will not enable us to detect that a current is flowing, but there are various ways in which the current makes itself evident. If the ends of the wires attached to the strips are brought in contact with each other and then separated, a faint spark passes, and if the ends are placed on the tongue, a twinge is felt.
282. Experiments which grew out of the Voltaic Cell. Since chemical action on the zinc is the source of the current, it would seem reasonable to expect a current if the cell consisted of two zinc plates instead of one zinc plate and one copper plate. But when the copper strip is replaced by a zinc strip so that the cell consists of two similar plates, no current flows between them. In this case, chemical action is expended in heat rather than in the production of electricity and the liquid becomes hot. But if carbon and zinc are used, a current is again produced, the zinc dissolving away as before, and bubbles collecting on the carbon plate. By experiment it has been found that many different metals may be employed in the construction of an electric cell; for example, current may be obtained from a cell made with a zinc plate and a platinum plate, or from a cell made with a lead plate and a copper plate. Then, too, some other chemical, such as bichromate of potassium, or ammonium chloride, may be used instead of dilute sulphuric acid.
Almost any two different substances will, under proper conditions, give a current, but the strength of the current is in some cases so weak as to be worthless for practical use, such as telephoning, or ringing a door bell. What is wanted is a strong, steady current, and our choice of material is limited to the substances which will give this result. Zinc and lead can be used, but the current resulting is weak and feeble, and for general use zinc and carbon are the most satisfactory.