February 13th, 1880 – The Edison Effect

Today-In-History

Thermionic emission is the thermally induced flow of charge carriers from a surface or over a potential-energy barrier. The effect was rediscovered by Thomas Edison on February 13th, 1880, while trying to discover the reason for breakage of lamp filaments and uneven blackening (darkest near the positive terminal of the filament) of the bulbs in his incandescent lamps, and was subsequently called the “Edison effect.”

Edison effect 680

Thermionic emissions occur because the thermal energy given to the carrier overcomes the work function of the material. The charge carriers can be electrons or ions, and in older literature are sometimes referred to as “thermions”.

After emission, a charge that is equal in magnitude and opposite in sign to the total charge emitted is initially left behind in the emitting region. But if the emitter is connected to a battery, the charge left behind is neutralized by charge supplied by the battery as the emitted charge carriers move away from the emitter, and finally the emitter will be in the same state as it was before emission.

Because the electron was not identified as a separate physical particle until the 1897 work of J. J. Thomson, the word “electron” was not used when discussing experiments that took place before this date.

Frederick Guthrie (1833–1886)

Frederick Guthrie (1833–1886)

The phenomenon was initially reported in 1873 by Frederick Guthrie in Britain. While doing work on charged objects, Guthrie discovered that a red-hot iron sphere with a negative charge would lose its charge (by somehow discharging it into air). He also found that this did not happen if the sphere had a positive charge. Other early contributors included Johann Wilhelm Hittorf (1869–1883), Eugen Goldstein (1885), and Julius Elster and Hans Friedrich Geitel (1882–1889).

Edison built several experimental lamp bulbs with an extra wire, metal plate, or foil inside the bulb that was separate from the filament and thus could serve as an electrode. He connected a galvanometer, a device used to measure current (the flow of charge), to the output of the extra metal electrode. If the foil was put at a negative potential relative to the filament, there was no measurable current between the filament and the foil. When the foil was raised to a positive potential relative to the filament, there could be a significant current between the filament through the vacuum to the foil if the filament was heated sufficiently (by its own external power source).

One of the bulbs with which Edison discovered thermionic emission. It consists of an evacuated glass light bulb containing a carbon filament (hairpin shape), with an additional metal plate attached to wires emerging from the base. Electrons released by the filament were attracted to the plate when it had a positive voltage.

One of the bulbs with which Edison discovered thermionic emission. It consists of an evacuated glass light bulb containing a carbon filament (hairpin shape), with an additional metal plate attached to wires emerging from the base. Electrons released by the filament were attracted to the plate when it had a positive voltage.

We now know that the filament was emitting electrons, which were attracted to a positively charged foil, but not a negatively charged one. This one-way current was called the Edison effect (although the term is occasionally used to refer to thermionic emission itself). He found that the current emitted by the hot filament increased rapidly with increasing voltage, and filed a patent application for a voltage-regulating device using the effect on November 15th, 1883 (U.S. patent 307,031, the first US patent for an electronic device). He found that sufficient current would pass through the device to operate a telegraph sounder.

This was exhibited at the International Electrical Exposition in Philadelphia in September 1884. William Preece, a British scientist, took back with him several of the Edison effect bulbs. He presented a paper on them in 1885, where he referred to thermionic emission as the “Edison Effect.” The British physicist John Ambrose Fleming, working for the British “Wireless Telegraphy” Company, discovered that the Edison Effect could be used to detect radio waves. Fleming went on to develop the two-element vacuum tube known as the diode, which he patented on November 16th, 1904.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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