The Ether in 1897

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1897 was a fascinating year.  (Ignore the book jacket above for a minute.)  Dracula came out in May.  Ever read it?  Not seen the movie — but read the novel?  The original story was nothing like the Hollywood iteration, with bloody-mouthed babes in nightgowns and all that.  The original one is about science.  More accurately, it’s about inferential logic and epidemiology.  Read it, and you’ll see what I mean.  Dracula was published within a year or two of when (a) microbes were first seen under microscopes and (b) their relation to operating room infections was posited.

So 1897 is an age of modelling invisible systems that drive visible ones.

The ether.  Here I come to my point.  In case you wondered, the ether, in 1897, was understood to have a density expressible on the order of 10 to the minus-27th power, calculated somehow ‘from the energy with which the light from the sun strikes the earth.’  It is a substance so fine that atoms sit like marinated cherries within it.  It perfuses all matter in the universe, so that all physical things are in continuity with all other physical things.  Yet things are not continuous with the ether.  Vibrate the ether, and the vibration will pass through distant objects – but the objects themselves will not vibrate.  The earth does not push through the ether, like a boat; the ether allows the earth to pass, as water allows a moving sieve to pass.  Rays, of light or electricity or Röntgen beams, move as vibrations of the ether.  For reasons not yet understood, the ether will conduct every kind of ray through every kind of substance.  Nor does it conduct rays at the same speed through every substance.  The ether in glass carries light at about 120,000 miles per second; through the air, closer to 192,000.  Glass alone, with no ether inside it, allows light to pass at a pokey 3 miles per second.

Oliver Lodge posited that ether functioned in the physics of spiritual life in the afterworld.  That’s another post, probably not on this site.  He was still writing about ‘The Effect of Light on Long Ether Waves’ in 1919 (Nature volume 102, page 464).  ‘The Ether’ was still slang for radio at least into the ’20s.  That too is a whole ‘nother post.  (Now you can look at the illustration above.)

Marconi at Poldhu is only 5 years away now.  It’s amazing, what we can do with the wrong model sometimes.


Says who (except for the Dracula or Oliver Lodge parts):

H.J.W. Dam, “Telegraphing without Wires. A Possibility of Electrical Science,” McClure’s Magazine, March, 1897, pp. 383-92.

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