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Francis Hauksbee the Elder
( - 1713?)

Hauksbee's invention was rather the opposite of what most people expect. When we think of electricity, we often think of Edison inventing the electric light. (Lots of people invented electric lights before Edison, but he created a commercially viable system of lighting. That made all the difference - but that is neither here nor there.)

Hauksbee's inventionHauksbee's work had roots in 1676, when a French astronomer named Jean Picard was moving a mercury barometer in the dark. He noticed a glow in the empty glass tube above the mercury column, and a bit of experimenting showed him that it was strongest when the mercury was moving up and down in the tube.

This was interesting, but it was not astronomy. The news eventually reached London, by way of Johann Bernoulli in Groningen. This was a time when indoor illumination involved fire: fireplaces, candles, oil lamps. It was dim, smelly, and hazardous. A new source of light could be very useful. Francis Hauksbee's first appearance before the Royal Society in 1703 was with his new air-pump, and experiments showing the "mercurial phosphor". Hauksbee did many interesting and beautiful experiments with mercury and the mercurial glow. (How I long to repeat some of them! But the modern world is less tolerant of mercury than the science of Hauksbee's day was.)

In October of 1705, Hauksbee renewed his studies of this glow. The glow involved glass, mercury, vacuum, and motion. He'd already shown mercury and light inside an evacuated bell-jar; now he tried rubbing other substances inside evacuated jars. He eventually decided to see what would happen if he simply rubbed an evacuated glass globe, which could be rapidly spun on an axle by a "great wheel". One of the axles was hollow, and connected to the globe through a valve. He connected it to a vacuum-pump, and sucked all the air out. When he spun the device in the dark, rubbing it with his bare hand - behold, there was a glow. Eventually he had made a light source bright enough that "... Words in Capital Letters were legible by it".

And he noticed that his equipment was also creating electrical effects stronger than anybody had ever seen before. Gilbert had studied and analyzed the electrica of amber a hundred years before - but it had always been a weak force. For Hauksbee, electricity was no longer so weak.

I said that Hauksbee's invention was "the opposite of what most people expect". We think of Edison studying electricity and creating the lightbulb - but almost two centuries earlier, Francis Hauksbee was studying the lightbulb and creating electricity. And the work on the "mercurial phosphor" bore fruit in our time: mercury vapor, glowing electrically in a vacuum, is at the heart of the modern fluorescent light.

The Bakken
A Library and Museum of Electricity in Life

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