Biography of Francis Hauksbee (The Elder)


Francis Hauksbee (The Elder) was English physicist who wrote a famous book “Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects. Containing an Account of Several Surprising Phenomena Touching Light and Electricity” in 1709. It is one of the most important works in early electricity that introduced several new concepts and discoveries. He also invented a glass sphere, turned by a crank, which could build up an electric charge through friction.

He was also the first to study capillary action. Little is known of Francis Hauksbee’s life, even the dates of his birth and death are not documented. His father Richard Hauksbee was born in 1621 in Earls Colne, near Colchester, Essex, England, received good education from his father and the Church school and was a draper (he had a business inColchester). Francis Hauksbee’s mother is unknown.

Francis Hauksbee (The Elder) was born in c. 1666, probably in Colchester. He was a self-educated English scientist and eclectic experimentalist whose discoveries came too early for contemporary appreciation of their significance. He didn’t have a university education. However, there are some speculates (on the basis of fragmentary evidence) that Hauksbee may have been Boyle’s assistant. He was a small merchant and ran his own shop, 1687-1703 — this appears to mean a retail shop.

Hauksbee emerged out of obscurity at the meeting of the Royal Society on 15 December, 1703. He became the Royal Society’s paid performer of experiments from that time until his death, though he was never formally the Curator of Experiments. Apparently he had already made himself known to some people as an experimenter. We know that he was giving demonstrations in his shop in 1704 and in 1710 was offering public lectures.

He also made and sold instruments — e.g., cupping glasses used in surgery, air pumps, and barometers. He developed an improved air pump(though no one seems able to define precisely what Hauksbee’s improvements were), and what was, in effect, the first static electric or frictional electric machine, a glass globe mounted on an axle (1706), and also a primitive electroscope to detect electric charges.

Illustration of the air pump, published by Hauksbee in 1709

Hauksbee determined with reasonable accuracy the relative weights of air and water. Investigating the forces of surface tension, he made the first accurate observations on the capillary action of tubes and glass plates. He also made experiments on the propagation of sound in compressed and rarefied air, on freezing of water, and on elastic rebound. He measured specific gravities and refractive indices. He investigated the law of magnetic attraction and the time of fall through air.

His famous book “Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects. Containing an Account of Several Surprising Phenomena Touching Light and Electricity” appeared in 1709. Hauksbee published this book himself and sold the copies from his home. It is one of the most important works in early electricity that introduced several new concepts and discoveries. The book shown here is the Italian translation of the famous Hauksbee’s book.

Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1705, he contributed numerous papers to the society’s Philosophical Transactions, including an account of a two-cylinder pump that served as a pattern for vacuum pumps and remained in use with minor modifications for some 200 years. He was supported by Newton, who stood behind his appointment to the society. He collaborated with Newton on experiments at the Royal Society, and influenced some of Newton’s ideas, both with his capillary and with his electrical experiments.

Francis Hauksbee discovered that by putting a small amount of mercury in the glass of Von Guerick’s generator and evacuating the air from it, when a charge was built up on the ball and then his hand placed onto it, it would glow. This glow was enough to read by and was similar to the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire which was the name given to a strange glow seen around ships in electrical storms.

Hauksbee’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 experiment showed him that it was strongest when the mercury wasmoving 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.

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. The electrical discharge takes place with a variety of rarefied gases trapped in the tube (neon glows with its characteristic red light even at atmospheric pressure). The shaking is essential; electrification is probably produced both by the splashing of the mercury and by its movement over the glass surface. Impurities in the mercury considerably influence the phenomenon of barometric light, never exhaustively investigated.

He presented an explanation for the glowing mercury to the Royal Society in 1705, hypothesizing that friction between the glass and mercury was responsible. Interestingly, the phenomenon is still not completely understood. Eventually he had made a light source bright enough that “… Words in Capital Letters were legible by it”. Hauksbee noticed that his equipment was also creating electrical effects stronger than anybody had ever seen before. Gilbert had studied and analyzed the electrical properties of amber a hundred years before – but it had always been a weak force. For Hauksbee, electricity was no longer so weak. Unknown to him he had created the Neon Light.

Francis Hauksbee in 1709 proved that the effect occurred in other than glass containers, did not require an extremely low pressure, and was similar to discharges produced by his electrical machine. Hauksbee continued his research, and the next year demonstrated a device consisting of a glass globe which could be partially evacuated and spun, whereupon pressing a hand lightly against the spinning glass resulted in the mysterious luminosity. This was the first real example of gas discharge illumination. In 1734, Johann Heinrich Winkler, continuing Hauksbee’s research, sealed some mercury in evacuated glass tubes and achieved a sort of portable glow light.

Hauksbee’s Glass-Globe Friction Machine

Francis Hauksbee the Elder also made a glass-globe friction machine to produce static electricity in 1706. He called it the Influence Machine, and it worked by cranking a large drive wheel that spun a glass vacuum globe which created a mysterious “luminosity.” It crackled like lightning when touched and attracted metal flakes, threads, etc.

Francis Hauksbee the Elder was succeeded by his nephew, Francis Hauksbee the Younger, and when they worked they were not especially careful about the distinction. This confusion has plagued generations of scholars trying to determine which Francis did what.


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