Sunday 8 July 2012

Victorian Nitrogen Laser

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Note: this article would best be read in context, i.e. after having perused the letters and accounts of Ernest Glitch, Experimentalist, in the order they appear in The Chronicles

The following letter, from Ernest Glitch of Weardale to Michael Faraday, indicates the demonstration of a nitrogen TEA (Transversely Excited, Atmospheric pressure) laser, using air as the lasing medium. This occurred in Victorian England over a century before Maiman's ruby laser or Javan's helium-neon laser. Or indeed, H.D.Heard's 1963 nitrogen laser.

First day of June, 1856. Glitch Manor, Weardale.

My Dear Faraday,
I would like to expound to you a phenomenon of singular curiosity, apparent during investigations into expanding the electrical spark. It affords me little joy as my discovery took the sight from Hodges right eye and I have had to dismiss him. As my last correspondence indicated, I have surmised that the experiments are deleterious to poor Hodges, his health having sharply deteriorated due, I think, to the quicksilver effluvia he breathed during leyden phial silvering.

The leyden battery is now complete! What a detonation is delivered after charging for some time! I had Hodges place a ball of box-wood in the path of the spark (at point "c" on my hastily drawn diagram) and it illuminated the whole room, making it appear of a beautiful crimson, or rather fine scarlet colour. The box-wood ball was thrown into atoms, and Hodges narrowly escaped injury. But it is not with the Leyden battery, but with more modest storage of electrical fluid, with which my most peculiar discovery was uncovered.

As you well know Faraday, my collection of minerals is second only to that of Ramsey. I have recently obtained, from my contact in the Urals, a large plate of muscovite mica. It is a fine crystal of the hexagonal tabular form an inch thick and just shy of a foot between the faces. I had Hodges cleave some particularly fine sheets and, on a whim, instructed that a laminae be placed between the discharging brasses. The laminae being of such a thinness, I expected the discharge to rend the mica to flakes. Of this phenomenon there was no sign. I concluded that perhaps the influence machine was faulty. Signalling Hodges to stop turning the machine, I nearly caused a mischief upon myself. I was about to remove the mica when Maud the maid brought in my afternoon tea. What a fortuitous occurence! Instead of your sincere friend and present scribe, Hodges received the full discharge of 125 square feet. He was thrown, with mica in hand, at least twelve feet into the walnut Chippendale cabinet I bought during my last visit to London. Although completely insenseless, his grip on the mica sheet was of a peculiar nature, flexing it in a spasmodic and alarming way. However the laminae (and cabinet) were fortunately undamaged, and a month later when Hodges' arm had recovered sufficiently for turning the machine, I again demonstrated the qualities of vitreous strength inherent with mica. As an interesting sidenote, Hodges has sustained peculiar fern like scarring and ramifications on his skin where he touched the prime discharge brass. I have endeavored to draw these for you Faraday, please forgive the penmanship. Hodges' hand was still smoking when I started the sketch, I hurried somewhat, as he was pleading to go to the horse doctor.

My measurements show that the vitreous strength of mica to be some 10 times that of Venetian glass. I next instructed Hodges make up some finely polished hexagons from the brass I obtained from Barkers of Gateshead. I overheard poor Hodges complaining bitterly to Maud the maid about the numbness in his hand, and so didn't remonstrate him too much about the quality of these conductors. You know as well as I do Faraday, smooth rounded curves prevent the escape of the electrical fluid, and Hodges' efforts were ragged. Young of Alston trued up the hexagons. He is a fine metal worker. I think the 20 mile walk to Alston did Hodges the world of good, the fresh air flushing mercurial effluvations from his system. With the hexagonal conductors and the cleaved mica, I assembled a pair of flat leyden plate reservoirs. I've drawn the arrangement I'm using to expand the electric spark.

As you can see, the positive prime conductor is connected to the common lower plate. I use a copper wire conductor (from my galvanic experiments on the dead body of a criminal) to communicate the upper plates. In some manner which you may fathom, upon discharge of one side there is available an electrical discharge between the top plates. Faraday, this is even when the top plates are connected by the long anal wire. Perhaps the time taken for the electrical fluid to travel along the wire is more than that taken for the direct discharge between the plates? By carefully aligning the plates with a very small separation I have achieved linear expansion of the electric spark. It appears as an uncommonly violet glow with small white sparks. The position of the gap is critical to these phenomena, and afforded me much experimentation, apparently to the detriment of Hodges. Just as I was observing a continuous luminous glow appearing between the top conductors, upon each discharge, Hodges couldn't go on. His arm had seized and his whole frame was shaking as though palsied. At first I thought he had received another shock, but he maintained fatigue and virtually demanded a rest!

Sensing a shirker as well as you can Faraday, I took over turning the machine and with some merriment demanded he take observations of the expanded spark. The dolt actually had the audacity to assume a proprietorial stance next to the plates, Faraday! I had to stifle my amusement as he looked, not directly down onto gap but along it's axis. How imbecilic I thought, as I cranked the machine. I had been observing the gap from above to record the position of sparking and glow and Hodges would see nothing of value looking along the axis. How wrong Faraday! When the prime started sparking over, Hodges emitted a scream the like of which I hadnt heard since his scrotum was burned off during my experiment with fluorine gas last year. Hodges staggered back from the plates, covering his right eye and uttering blasphemities which would have themselves led to his dismissal, even had he not been blinded. But what had happened Faraday?

Again, my love of natures crystals enters the story. I have some outstanding green fluorspar from Heights mine in weardale. I believe I showed you a crystal on my last visit? A cube of extraordinary beauty, 3 inches to a side, water clear of a deep green apple hue is my favourite. It glows an uncanny purple in sunlight. I'd previously determined that the light from a spark similarly caused this mineral to glow. Introducing the crystal along from the axis of the gap, in the same position as Hodges orbit had been, caused a sight I'll never forget. Tearful, because of Hodges departure, Maud sweated as she turned the great influence machine, and almost distracted me. More stunning than an auroral display, more unexpected than a winter bloom, the crystal veritably illuminated with violet light! Faraday, I tell you, this observation is of some singular importance, the crystal will brightly glow, concentrated at one point, even when removed from the apparatus by several feet, but only when exactly in line with the gap! I think that some form of electrical effluvia is produced from the expanded spark, which travels like an invisible sunbeam until its effects are known through the juxtaposition of fluorspar or an assistants eye. I urge you to try these experiments Faraday, should you find the time.

At this point I must admonish you Faraday. My son Rupert received a package from you for his tenth birthday last month. A book. I must admit I looked over "The Young Mans Book of Amusement", to ensure its suitability for Rupert. Some time ago a raffish acquaintance of mine, from the Stockton Gentlemans Nitrous Club, gave him some anatomical line drawings of highly questionable nature. I therefore requested that Rupert hand me the book. Upon cursory examination, the book appeared to be harmless - its first little amusement being the preparation of edible candles.

I let Rupert have your gift Faraday, but I remember being suspicious about the glee with which he received it. I have re-examined the book now, after the south pasture eruption (of which more later). I now note it is a book without an author. Suspicious to say the least. Its innocuous first page is, I now realise, mearly a ruse - a camouflage - as it is directly followed by various preparations of fulminating concoctions. It is, I must say, a thoroughly interesting book, but to someone like Rupert, a potential Armageddon of chemical and electrical mayhem is likely. As well you know Faraday, my son is highly resourceful. He and Hodges' son had contrived to order and have delivered one tonne each of iron filings and flowers of sulphur. In my name and without my knowledge. This must have been a week after receiving "The Young Mans Book of Amusement". The first inkling I had that mischief was afoot was a strong sulphurous smell, occasionally wafting in the breeze from the south pasture. Later that day, Hodges arrived in my lab with Maud the maid. Both were in a dreadful funk. Hodges exclaiming that a volcano was erupting in the south pasture, Maud maintaining that the devil himself had arrived. My first thought was that the pair of them had been at my Indian hemp plantation again, however this would not have accounted for Maud's clothing, which appeared to have large monoclinic sulphur crystals attached to the posterior regions.

Upon arrival in the south pasture, I had to agree with them. It looked like an abomination of Lucifer. A carbuncle of perhaps twenty feet had risen from the pasture. The earth itself was riven, clods of earth and grass thrown aside, a hellish red glow emanating from deep fissures. Jets of steam and sulphurous gases noisily blew from its centre. Blue flames licked around the vents of the numerous fumeroles. Red liquid sulphur spilled from within, collecting and crystallising in yellow pools at our feet. Faraday, I was shocked.

Rupert arrived with Hodges son, and the look upon their faces spoke volumes. Rupert sheepishly handed me his book, opened to page 85.

What I read calmed my nerves (I had faced the prospect of losing my property to volcanism) and calmed my intellect (my geological knowledge being at a loss to account for modern volcanism in Weardale). Needless to say, I have confiscated "The Young Mans Book of Amusement". I must admit I have been greatly entertained by it since then, do you perchance know of its author, Faraday? Some parts of the book are written in a style of prose which bares an uncanny resemblance to your own! Please find within the accompanying package a solidified volcanic bomb, composed of the sulphide of iron.

I remain your respectful servant and friend,

Ernest Glitch

P.S. Did you receive the drawings of my centrifugally disposed galvanic engine? If so, I'm sure you will agree that its principals of operation are easily explained by your electrical theories. Using diamond bearings and quicksilver interruptors, I have increased its speed of revolution. Measurements using a geared, rotating octagonal prism (ground and silvered by Hodges) show the engine revolves some two millions, one hundred and sixty thousand times in the hour. The noise it makes is unbearable Faraday! Hodges was deaf for a week after its last operation. I cannot, for the life of me, conceive a use for this electrical abomination.

P.P.S. Upon reading this letter, I cannot but feel some measure of loss now that Hodges has gone. I know you were fond of his uneducated intellect. However, his injuries, together with the foul language, and also the incident involving Maud and my Siberian tiger skin rug; they all led to his dismissal. I had heard that he was on his way to Newcastle town moor. I wish the blighter well.

Copyright © 2002 Roger Curry
All Rights Reserved

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"Hodges emitted a scream the like of which
I hadn't heard since his scrotum was burned off
during my experiment with fluorine gas last year."

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