WHAT IS ELECTRICITY?
In a recent number of the Popular Science Monthly, Professor A. E. Dolbear fails (as others have failed before him) to answer the question, “What is electricity?” He writes: “Here on the threshold of the new century we are confronted with the question, ‘What is electricity?’ and the answer implied by the question seems to demand a something which could be described by one who knew enough, as one would describe some new mineral or gas or thing. Some eminent, scientific men are befogged bv the question, say electricity is some ultimate unknowable thing, and hopeless as an inquiry. If it is a something, it must be described by its constant properties, as other things arc. If it is unlike everything else, then it cannot he described by terms that apply to anything else. All material things have some common properties. A glowing coal is an incandescent solid; a flame is an incandescent gas; hut neither glow’ nor flame exists apart from the matter that exhibits the phenomena. Both are conditions of particular kinds of matter. If electric phenomena are different from gravitative or thermal or luminous phenomena, it does not follow’ that electricity is miraculous, or that it is a substance. We know pretty thoroughly what to expect from it, for it is as quantitatively related to mechanical and thermal and luminous phenomena as they are to each other; so, if they are conditions of matter, the presumption would be strongly in favor of electricity being a condition or property of matter, and the question, What is electricity? would then be answered, in a way, by saying so; but such an answer would not be the answer apparently expected to the question. To say that electricity was a property of matter would be not much more intelligible than to say the same of gravitation. At best it would add another property to the list of properties we already credit it with, as elasticity, attraction and so on. In any case, the nature of electricity remains to be discovered and stated in terms common to other forms of phenomena, and it is to be hoped that, long before this new century shall have been completed, mankind will be able to form as adequate an idea of electricity as it now has of heat.”