Aepinus Atomized

Lord Kelvin*
Philosophical Magazine
Vol 3, No. 15 (Sixth Series)
March 1902, p.257ff


§ 1. According to the well-known doctrine of Aepinus, commonly referred to as the one-fluid theory of electricity, positive and negative electrifications consist in excess above, and deficiency below, a natural quantum of a fluid, called the electric fluid, permeating among the atoms of ponderable matter. Portions of matter void of the electric fluid repel one another; portions of the electric fluid repel one another; portions of the electric fluid and of void matter attract one another.

§ 2. My suggestion is that the Aepinus' fluid consists of exceedingly minute equal and similar atoms, which I call electrions**, much smaller than the atoms of ponderable matter; and that they permeate freely through the spaces occupied by these greater atoms and also freely through space not occupied

* Communicated by the author. From the Jubilee Volume presented to Prof. Bosscha in November 1901.

** I ventured to suggest this name in a short article published in 'Nature,' May 27, 1897, in which, after a slight reference to an old idea of a "one-fluid theory of electricity" with resinous electricity as the electric fluid, the following expression of my views at that time occurs: "I prefer to consider an atomic theory of electricity foreseen as worthy of thought by Faraday and Clerk Maxwell, very definitely proposed by Helmholtz in his last lecture to the Royal Institution, and largely accepted by present-day theoretical workers and teachers. Indeed, Faraday's law of electrochemical equivalence seems to necessitate something atomic in electricity and to justify Johnstone Stoney's word electron. The older, and at present even more popular, name ion given sixty years ago by Faraday, suggests a convenient modification of it, electrion, to denote an atom of resinous electricity. And now, adopting the essentials of Aepinus' theory and dealing with it according to the doctrine of Father Boscovich, each atom of ponderable matter is an electron of vitreous electricity; which, with a neutralizing electrion of resinous electricity close to it, produces a resulting force on every distant electron and electrion which varies inversely as the cube of the distance, and is in the direction determined according to the well-known requisite application of the parallelogram of forces." It will be seen then that I had not then thought of the hypothesis suggested in the present communication, that while electrions permeate freely through all space, whether occupied only bt ether or occupied also by the volumes of finite spheres constituting the atoms of ponderable matter, each electrion in the interior of an atom of ponderable matter experiences electric force towards the centre of the atom, just as if the atom contained within it, fixed relatively to itself, a uniform distribution of ideal electric matter.


by them. As in Aepinus'; theory we must have repulsions between the electrions; and repulsions between the atoms independently of the electrions: and attractions between electrions and atoms without electrions. For brevity, in future by atom I shall mean an atom of ponderable matter, whether it has many elections. For brevity, in future by atom I shall mean an atom of ponderable matter, whether it has any electrions within it or not.

§ 3. In virtue of the discovery and experimental proof by Cavendish and Coulomb of the law of inverse square of distance for both electric attractions and repulsions, we may now suppose that the atoms, which I assume to be all of them spherical, repel other atoms outside them with forces inversely as the squares of distances between centres; and that the same is true of elections, which no doubt occupy finite spaces, although at present we are dealing with them as if they were mere mathematical points, endowed with the property of electric attraction and repulsion. We must now also assume that every atom attracts every electrion outside it with a force inversely as the square of the distance between centres.

§ 4. My assumption that the electrions freely permeate the space occupied by the atoms requires a knowledge of the law of the force experienced by an electrion within an atom. As a tentative hypothesis, I assume for simplicity that the attraction experienced by an electrion approaching an atom caries exactly according to the inverse square of the distance from the centre, as long as the electrion is outside; has no abrupt change when the electrion enters the atom; and decreases to zero simply as the distance from the centre when the electrion, approaching the centre, is within the spherical boundary of the atom. This is just as it would be if the electric virtue of the atom were due to uniform distribution through the atom of an ideal electric substance of which each infinitely small part repels infinitely small portions of


the ideal substance in other atoms, and attracts elections according to the inverse square of the distance. But we cannot make the corresponding supposition of the mutual force between two overlapping atoms; because we must keep ourselves free to add a repulsion or attraction according to any law of force, that we may find convenient for the explanation of electric, elastic, and chemical properties of matter.

§ 5. The neutralizing quantum of electrions for any atom or group of atoms has exactly the same quantity of electricity of one kind as the atom or group of atoms has electricity of the opposite kind. The quantum for any single atom may be one or two or three or any integral number, and need not be the same for all atoms. The designations monelectrionic, dielectrionic, trielectrionic, tetraelectrionic, polyelectrionic, &c., will accordingly be convenient. It is possible that the differences of quality of the atoms of different substances may be partially due to the quantum-numbers of their electrions being different; but it is possible that the differences of quality are to be wholly explained in merely Boscovichian fashion by differences in the laws of force between the atoms, and may not imply any differences in the numbers of electrions constituting their quantums.

§ 6. Another possibility to be kept in view is that the neutralizing quantum for an atom may not be any integral number of electrions. Thus for example the molecule of a diatomic gas, oxygen, or nitrogen, or hydrogen, or chlorine, might conceivably have three electrions or some odd number of electrions for its quantum so that the single atoms, O, N, H, Cl, if they could exist separately, must be either vitreously or resinously electrified and cannot be neutral.

§ 7. The present usage of the designations, positive and negative, for the two modes of electrification originated no doubt with the use of glass globes or cylinders in ordinary electric machines giving vitreous electricity to the insulated prime conductor, and resinous electricity to the not always insulated rubber. Thus Aepinus and his followers regarded the prime conductors of their machines as giving the true electric fluid, and leaving a deficiency of it in the rubbers to be supplied from the earth. It is curious, in Beccaria's account of his observations made about 1760 at Garzegna in Piedmont on atmospheric electricity, to read of "The mild excessive electricity of the air in fair weather."" This in modern usage would be called mild positive electricity. The meaning of either expression, stated in non-hypothetical language, is, the mild vitreous electricity of the air in fair weather.


§ 8. In the mathematical theory of electricity in equilibrium, it is a matter of perfect indifference which of the opposite electric manifestations we call positive and which negative. But the great differences in the disruptive and luminous effects, when the forces are too strong for electric equilibrium, presented by the two modes of electrification, which have been known from the earliest times of electric science, show physical properties not touched by the mathematical theory. And Varley's comparatively recent discovery* of the molecular torrent of resinously electrified particles from the "kathode" or resinous electrode in apparatus for the transmission of electricity through vacuum or highly rarefied air, gives strong reason for believing that the mobile electricity of Aepinus' theory is resinous, and not vitreous as he accidentally made it. I shall therefore assume that our electrions act as extremely minute particles of resinously electrified matter; that a void atom acts simply as a little globe of atomic substance, possessing as an essential quality vitreous electricity uniformly distributed through it or through a smaller concentric globe; and that ordinary ponderable matter, not electrified, consists of a vast assemblage of atoms, not void, but having within the portions of space which they occupy just enough of electrions to annul electric force for all places of which the distance from the nearest atom is large in comparison with the diameter of an atom, or molecular cluster of atoms.

§ 9. This condition respecting distance would, because of the inverse square of the distance law for the forces, be unnecessary and the electric force would be rigorously null throughout all space outside the atoms, if every atom had only a single electrion at its centre, provided that the electric quantities of the opposite electricities (reckoned according to the old definition of mathematical electrostatics) are equal in the atom and in the electrion. But even if every neutralized separate atom contains just one electrion in stable equilibrium at its centre, it is obvious that, when two atoms overlap so far that the centre of one of them is within the spherical boundary of the other, the previous equilibrium of the two electrions is upset, and they must find positions of equilibrium elsewhere than at the centres. Thus in fig. 1 each electrion is at the centre of its atom, and is attracted and repelled with equal forces by the neighbouring atom and electrion at its centre. In fig. 2, if E and E' were at the centres C, C', of the two atoms, E would be reprelled by E' more than it would be

Proc. Roy. Soc. vol. xix. pp. 239, 240 (1871)