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Aedificium autem hujus universi structura sua, intellectui humano contem-

planti, instar labyrinthi est. F. Bacon

The following Essay was originally undertaken mainly as a

contribution towards the systematic theoretical development of the standpoint which considers electricity, as well as matter, to be constituted on an atomic basis.

This is, as regards its general idea, no recent hypothesis. Within ten years of the publication of the fundamental dis-

coveries of Volta, in the year 1800, which first revealed the

existence of permanent electric currents, Sir Humphry Davy

had been led to maintain the proposition that "chemical and

electrical attractions were produced by the same causes, acting

in the one case on particles and in the other on masses*," as

the outcome of the researches on electro-chemistry which are

recorded in his earlier Bakerian Lectures : and a little later the

foundation for a complete system of chemistry was sought by

Berzelius in a distinction between electro-positive and electro-

negative atoms. Although it would be of course wrong to read

back our precise modern knowledge into the general views

which a survey of the facts impressed on Davy's mind, just as

it would be erroneous to consider his more widely known views

on the nature of heat as an

anticipation of modern


thermal theory yet his striking pronouncements show how

* See Appendix D, infra, p. 317.



rapidly the times became ripe for the quantitative electro-

chemical investigations of his successor Faraday. Since

Faraday's work on electrolysis the





constitution of electrification, in its electro-chemical aspect,

has never been entirely absent:

it has been insisted on by

Maxwell and more particularly by von Helmholtz : it was

most natural manner, to the ideas of the

adapted, in the

Weberian electrodynamics, which treated of moving electric particles: but it is only recently that any efforts have been

made towards the development of the Maxwellian aether-theory

on that basis.

The form under which the atomic electric theory is intro-

duced in this Essay, originally presented itself as it happened

in a quite different connexion, in the course of an inquiry

into the competence of the aether devised by Mac Cullagh to

serve for electrical purposes as well as optical ones.

It was

found, reasoning entirely from abstract principles, that the only

possible way of representing electrification, in an elastic aether,

was as a system of discrete or isolated electric charges, consti-

tuting singular points involving intrinsic strain in the structure

of the medium^ If the propagation of disturbances in the

aether, with their ascertained optical properties, is

to be

explained dynamically at all, that is by the interaction of

inertia and motion, the elastic reaction of this medium


displacement is almost restricted, as Mac Cullagh showed, to be

effectively (even if not fundamentally*) a purely rotational

one ; an essential confirmation of this rotational character of

its elasticity here presents itself in the fact that in a medium

* It is not superfluous to repeat here that the object of a gyrostatic model of

the rotational aether is not to represent its actual structure, but to help us to

realize that the scheme of mathematical relations which defines its activity is a

legitimate conception. Matter may be and likely is a structure in the aether, but certainly aether is not a structure made of matter. This introduction of a

suprasensual aethereal medium, which is not the same as matter, may of

course be described as leaving reality behind us : and so in

fact may every

result of thought be described which is more than a record or comparison of




thus constituted the structure of an atomic electric charge

can be directly specified, so far at any rate as is required for

a knowledge of its interaction with other electric charges at

sensible distance, whereas the absence of any conception of

what constitutes electrification had previously been commonly

regarded as the fundamental obstacle to the electrical develop-

ment of aether-theory.

when carried through up to its logical extent, involves the

explanation of the atomic character of matter itself: matter

must be constituted of isolated portions each of which is of

The order of ideas thus indicated,

necessity a permanent nucleus or singularity in and belonging

to the aether, of some such type as is represented for example

by a minute vortex ring in perfect fluid or a centre of permanent

strain in a rotationally elastic medium.

It is thus natural to

infer that the ultimate atom of electricity is one aspect of the

entity which constitutes the ultimate atom of matter, a con-

clusion which (foreshadowed as above in set terms by Davy) is

almost demonstrated by Faraday's electro-chemical law ex-

pressing an exact numerical connexion between them. The

question must of course remain open as to whether other forms

of activity besides this electrical one can be recognized in the

constitution of the atom of matter: as yet nothing seems to

have been found in the ascertained types of general physical

and chemical phenomena which demands a further amplification,

so that any advance in that direction would at present be

For it is to be borne in mind

premature if not gratuitous.

that the proper aim of an atomic theory is not to attempt the impossible task of reducing once for all the whole complex of

physical activity to rule, but is rather to improve and connect

accepted methods of explanation of the various main regular

types of interaction that have been brought to light in this

field of knowledge.

It is incumbent on us to recognize an

aethereal substratum to matter, in so far as this proves con-

ducive to simplicity and logical consistency in our scheme of

physical relations, and helpful towards the discovery of hitherto



unnoticed ones; but it would be a breach of scientific method

to complicate its properties by any hypothesis, as distinct from

logical development, beyond what is required for this purpose.

It may therefore be held that, in so far as theories of the

ultimate connexion of different physical agencies are allowed to

be legitimate at all, they should develope along the lines of a

purely electric aether until critics of such a simple scheme are

able to point to a definite group of phenomena that require the

assumption of a new set of properties and that moreover can be

reduced to logical order thereby : a charge of incompleteness

without indication of a better way, is not effective criticism in

questions of this kind, because, owing to the imperfection of our perceptions and the limited range of our intellectual operations,

finality can never be attained. It appears to be not without value, as regards clearness and

definiteness of view, that the conception of an elastic aethereal

medium that had been originally evolved from consideration of

purely optical phenomena, is capable of direct natural develop-

ment so as to pass into line with the much wider and more

recent electrodynaniic theory which was constructed by Maxwell

on the basis of purely electrical phenomena, in fact largely as

the dynamical representation and development of Faraday's

idea of a varying electrotonic state in space, determined by the

changing lines of force.

In the following discussions some care has been taken to

trace the connexion with the historical course of physical ideas.

While there has been a steady gain in precision, the trend of

fundamental physical speculation has always been much the

same, and thus does not in its main features pass out of date :

but owing to the rapid accumulation of new phenomena and

the consequent necessity of formal treatises digesting the state

of actual knowledge, there is less and less opportunity to

become critically acquainted with the points of view of the

original discoverers in physical science, and the general lines of

thought in which the definite recorded advances are often only



incidents. The accumulation of experimental data, pointing

more or less exactly to physical relations of which no sufficiently

precise theoretical account has yet been forthcoming, is doubt-

less largely responsible for the prevalent doctrine that theoretical

development is of value only as an auxiliary to experiment, and

cannot be trusted to effect anything constructive from its own resources except of the kind that can be tested by immediate

experimental means. The mind will however not readily give

up the attempt to apprehend the exact formal character of the

latent connexions between different physical agencies : and the

history of discovery may be held perhaps to supply the strongest reason for estimating effort towards clearness of thought as of

not less importance in its own sphere than exploration of phenomena. Thus for example, the present view of the atomic

character of electricity, which is at length coming within the scope of direct experiment, has been in evidence with gradually

increasing precision ever since theoretical formulations were attempted on this subject : in fact if the considerations ex- plained below (§ 46) are valid, it is the only view that could logically be entertained without involving either a reconstruc-

tion of the accepted basis of physical representation or else an

admission of its partial or merely illustrative character.

may be regarded as a

re-statement in improved form of investigations already de-

velo ped in a series of memoirs, Phil. Trans. A 1894-6-7. They

Some of the following chapters

cover only a part of the survey that was there attempted, being

concerned mainly with the systematic construction of general

electric theory on the basis of intrinsic atomic charges. Judging

from some criticisms which that method has attracted, it would

appear that misconception has existed owing to difficulty in

attaining the point of view, such as may possibly arise from the

circumstance that the fundamental concept of the electron did

not there present itself at the beginning of the discussion, but

was introduced subsequently in an appendix. In estimating

the value of an undertaking of this kind, it should of course be



judged as a connected argument. Single departments of electric

theory can be, and usually are, more concisely formulated when the nature of their connexion with other departments is not a

question of immediate interest. Here the foundation is intended to be definite and universal, thus precluding the adoption of an

independent standpoint on each branch of the subject, to be developed as far as it will go, with the help if need be of

empirical modification irrespective of the requirements of other

branches : and the main question to be determined is not

whether the presentation is entirely free from flaw, but whether

and in what respects it is an advance sufficient to merit further

attention with a view to its improvement. The time has fully

arrived when, if theoretical physics is not to remain content

with being merely a systematic record of phenomena, some

definite idea of the connexion between aether and matter is

essential to progress ; the discussions which follow are largely

concerned with the development of the consequences of one

such conception. It seems reasonable to hold that the utility

of such a discussion will not be entirely removed should this

conception turn out to be practically incomplete, or even incoherent : for it is concerned with a body of ideas relating to

the ultimate activity of molecules which is on a different plane

from the indefinite notion of mutual forces to which dynamical

molecular science has mostly been restricted.

It is recognized of course that every attempt at improve-

ment in scientific exposition must have a limited range, and

that the chief critical interest will soon be transferred from

what can be explained by any new formulation to what it has

Yet it has turned out,

not shown itself competent to include.

to take a famous instance, to be no insuperable objection to

Dalton's chemical development of the atomic theory, that he could form no idea as to how his atoms held each other in

combination : although in fact Wollaston, and to some extent

Davy, hesitated about accepting the atoms while holding to the

laws of combination in definite and multiple proportions that



were suggested by them, because the theory did not explain

how an atom is constituted.

An instructive illustration of the

practical divergence of view that can arise in this manner is

afforded by the difference of opinion (cf. Appendix D infra)

between Newton and Huygens regarding the scope of the law

of gravitation.

The general conception of a kinetic molecular structure for

matter invites a reconstruction of the theoretical basis of ordin-

ary mechanics itself. The customary development of abstract

dynamics rests on the foundation of forces acting between

particles so as to satisfy Newton's three laws of motion.


only meaning that can here be assigned to such a particle is an

unchanging element of mass whose volume is large enough to

contain a vast assemblage of molecules. Even in the hands of Kirchhoff, who is considered to have in his treatment notably

broadened the subject, the dynamics of finite bodies is derived

through the principle of Least Action from the conception that

they are constituted of particles acting on each other in this

way ; thus in fact adhering to Lagrange's original procedure

developed in the year 1760. It

seems not too much to say, in

the light of molecular science, that such a constitution for a

material body is purely imaginary, and even meaningless when

applied to such subjects as stress and strain in elastic matter.

s The real foundation of general abstract mechanics is either the j

principle of Action in its general form, assumed as a descriptive

analytical formulation of the course of phenomena, or else the

principle of d'Alembert which is analytically equivalent to it*

The latter is doubtless the simpler basis when we are dealing

only with elements of mass in the ordinary sense ; for it is

merely the statement that the irregular or uncoordinated part

of the internal motions and strains in a stable or permanently

existing element of mass has nothing to do with the changes of

configuration of that element considered as a whole ; and the

preparation for its application consists in the process of picking out and specifying the coordinated parts so far as is needed for



the problem in hand. In electrodynamic problems however the

individual electrons in the element of volume come into con-

sideration, at any rate as regards their main division


positive and negative : and then the Action principle, as being

the more universal, must almost of necessity be employed. If

further we assume that the material molecule is wholly of

aethereal constitution, this general dynamical principle of Action

must itself be involved (cf. Appendix B) as a direct consequence

of whatever scheme of properties is assigned to the free aether,

irrespective of special hypothesis : so that, reasoning back from

its truth, we may gain some general knowledge as to the nature

?> of the interactions exerted by the ultimate material atoms

across the aether.

Its significance would then consist, not in

any directly ultimate character such as it was originally sup- posed to possess, but in its being a derived analytical formulation

sufficiently comprehensive to cover by itself the domain of


science, as






degree) in its

aptitude for analytical transformation to suit whatever aspect

of the phenomena is under discussion, after the manner illus-

trated for example by the analysis of Chapter VI infra. In the course of such an abstract development of the dynamics of

mechanical systems from the Action principle, the idea of force

would be introduced through the coefficients in the completed

variation of the Action, to which it is necessary for purposes of

physical discussions and comparisons to give a name, that name

which is in fact suggested from our sensation of muscular effort.

It is possible that these considerations are insisted on in various

connexions to an extent that will be tedious* : but they are at

* At one time it was customary to appeal to absolute dynamical principles

relating to forces, as the fixed unchanging datum of physical science.


interest in fundamental discussions regarding the mode of formulation of dynamics has however revived in recent years, mainly through the writings of James Thomson, and of Hertz and Boltzmann, and of the school of physicists

which advocates, restriction to a purely descriptive science of energetics.


conception of the subject that is propounded here is different from the points of

view of these writers; while it aims at denning the domain (including all that

of steady or very slowly varying states) within which the simpler principles of



any rate not more prominent than the cognate fundamental

discussions on convergency and functionality have become in

pure mathematical analysis. A field in which these two types

of approximation towards ideal exact procedure have something

in common is sketched in the analysis of Appendix A: it is

now recognized that, in a strictly rigorous presentation of the

theory of gravitational and other agencies, it is necessary to

inquire (at considerable length) how far a pote ntial is a function that can legitimately be differentiated at a point inside the

attracting mass : it is here explained, among other things, that

in a physical problem the potential about which these mathe-

matical discussions arise is not the potential

of the actual

molecular distribution of matter but that of an ideal smoothed-

out or continuous distribution, in fact a mechanical* repre- sentation which is, only in certain definite respects, equivalent

Refinements of this kind are no doubt foreign to an



empirical formulation of mathematical physics, where the aim is merely a concise expression of the facts of observation ; but

it seems not unlikely that in the final theory of the transition

from molecular to mechanical dynamics they will be of funda-

mental import. The main general principle in this domain, which is con-

sidered in some aspects more at length in the memoirs above

referred to',' is that the mechanical and the molecular properties

of a material system, which is not undergoing constitutive

change, are independent of each other and not mutually in- volved :' so that the mechanical interactions of a system can

be developed independently of a knowledge of its molecular

constitution. v This principle may even be sufficiently deep-

seated to have a bearing on the solution of the philosophical question of ultimate mechanical determinism.'

energetics can supply an adequate clue to the course of physical and chemical


* Throughout this Essay the term mechanical is used in antithesis to mole-

cular : mechanics is the dynamics of matter in bulk, in contrast with molecular dynamics.



No apology is offered for what may possibly be considered

as the non-mathematical character of a considerable portion of

the book. The physical hypothesis has been kept intentionally

in the

foreground, and algebraic results have been where

possible translated into their descriptive equivalents.


synthetic course, while more flexible, doubtless makes the ex-

position more difficult to follow, and apparently less exact, than

would be a mathematical development from a system of initial

hypotheses, in which attention would be demanded for the