How a Barometer Led to The First Electric Lamp in 1705

How did a shaken barometer lead to an electric lamp and how in the world can you get an electric light almost 100 years before the invention of the battery?  Well, I’ll tell you and along the way, I will talk about an unlucky king, his slutty son, a cheap and mean boss, an abused assistant, the first static electricity machine, and one of the most influential experiments of all time.  Ready?  Let’s Go…

This part of the story begins with the unlucky King: Charles 1, the King of England.  Charles had upset his constituents by marrying a Catholic woman, trying to change taxes, and trying to dissolve parliament.  Oliver Cromwell’s “Old Ironsides” led the civil war of radical protestants (or puritans) against the king and won!  In 1649, Charles was convicted of treason and beheaded!  His son, also named Charles, ran off to France for sanctuary.  Eleven years later, in 1660, the Puritan leaders were defeated and Charles II returned and was instated as the king of England.  Charles was invested in undoing the strict and restrictive rules of the Puritans.  He supported the arts, science, and every attractive loose woman in London (he was infamous for his many mistresses).  Anyway, one of Charles II’s first acts was starting a science “club” called the Royal Society.

In 1687, the Royal Society co-published Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” which made Newton a scientific superstar.  Twenty-five years later Newton was elected as the President of the Royal Society and he decided to hire an assistant to run weekly demonstrations.  But Newton had a small problem, he was famous but he was also notoriously prickly, temperamental, and cheap.  Luckily, he found a talented experimentalist who was also desperate enough to put up with him. 

Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”
Newton’s Principia

Francis Hauksbee was from a lower-class family that made their money selling cloth.  No one knows how he began doing scientific demonstrations but we do know that he spent his entire life reminding everyone that he was unworthy and “undeserving”.  His demonstrations and obsequious behavior inspired Newton to hire Hauksbee as his assistant.  However, Newton never paid him enough to live on, with a yearly paycheck that depended on how good his demonstrations were, or as Newton put it with a salary “as he deserves”. 

Francis Hauksbee
Francis Hauksbee

Not surprisingly, Hauksbee was pretty desperate to find an inspiring demonstration.  At first, he did a lot of experiments using vacuums including making superior vacuum pumps.  Then, in 1703, he heard an intriguing story from France.  25 years earlier a French astronomer named Jean Picard had moved a mercury barometer (mercury tube used to measure air pressure) in the dark and the vacuum at the top produced a faint glow.  When Picard carefully shook it up and down it glowed even more!  Hauksbee did everything to kick it up a notch.  Hauksbee correctly deduced that it was the small amounts of mercury vapor in the top of the barometer that was glowing.  Therefore, he added a splash of mercury to an evacuated glass tube and then shook it and it glowed.  He then put the glass globe on a table with a handle to spin it instead of shaking it in a device that looks like a demented sewing machine.  He found that when he touched the globe with his hand it would glow pretty brightly, enough to read large print by, with a “curious purple light”.  Eventually, Hauksbee realized that by rubbing the tube, he was creating a static charge, and thus, this was the first electric light bulb! 

Hauksbee also realized that his machine was a good way to produce a lot of static electricity – making his machine the first static electricity machine.   He did try to use his machine to study static electricity by placing little metal strips around it but it just confused him and he moved on to other studies.  Eight years later Hauksbee died from an unknown disease and Newton went on to cheat his widow out of any money owed to her. 

Generator built by Francis Hauksbee
Generator built by Francis Hauksbee

Hauksbee’s experiment of creating the first electric machine and the electric lamp is unbelievably influential. Forty years later a theatrical self-proclaimed “wizard” used Hauksbee’s device for a series of dramatic electric demonstrations like using sparks to light alcohol on fire, electrifying silverware at dinner parties, and even charging up pretty girls and giving them electric kisses.  These demonstrations led to the invention of the Leyden jar which led Benjamin Franklin to invent the lightning rod and the rules of electricity which led to the battery which led to the laws of induction. 

In 1857, a German glassblower used the sparks from an induction coil to light up Hauskbee’s sphere with electricity from a battery.  These tubes were the precursors of neon lights!   Also, they were so impressive that a man named Crooke’s examined what happened with them if you remove all of the gas inside them which was a “cathode ray tube” which led to the discovery of x-rays, the discovery of the electron, the discovery of the photoelectric effect, the first CRT televisions, and on and on and on.  

It took over 230 years to make a commercially viable fluorescent light bulb but it is surprisingly similar to Hauksbee’s sphere.  Like Huaksbee’s original, fluorescent light bulbs contain a tiny bit of mercury vapor in a vacuum glass tube.  Of course, modern fluorescent bulbs use electricity from a battery or the plug in the wall (that gets its electricity from an electric generator).  However, you can get a fluorescent bulb to glow slightly with static electricity just like Hauksbee did by rubbing it with a cloth or fur like this. 

The other big difference between modern florescent bulbs and Huaksbee’s is that his bulb glowed with a faint purple light and florescent bulbs glow white.  That is because mercury mostly glows in the ultraviolet range, we only see the low-frequency end of it which is purple.  That is why fluorescent bulbs are coated in phosphors or fluorescents that glow white when hit with ultraviolet light.  That’s where fluorescent bulbs get their names.  However, Hauskbee’s globe would never have been used for “electric kisses” if it weren’t for the surprising move of a single feather.  In fact, all of the advancements in electricity that happened after Hauksbee, from the lightning rod to the battery, the telephone, the generator, the light bulb, radio, television, lasers, and on and on would have happened if on May 1st, of 1729 a single feather hadn’t moved in an odd manner and a man named Steven Gray hadn’t noticed it.  And that story is next time on “The Secret History of Electricity.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.