This article explores the overlooked history of atmospheric electricity in the last third of the nineteenth century, delineating the work of Austrian physicist Franz Exner and German schoolteachers Julius Elster and Hans Geitel, and identifying the consequences of their work for twentieth-century physics. Since the earliest days of electrical science, the constant electrification of the atmosphere had been a persistent puzzle, with histories by historians and physicists alike typically focusing on what came after the discovery of gaseous ions in the atmosphere in 1899: cosmic rays, radioactivity, particle physics, and quantum phenomena. I argue that Exner and Elster and Geitel’s creative work in atmospheric electricity before 1899 provided the essential conditions for these twentieth-century discoveries. Their divergent theories, experiments, instruments, and environments, developed to understand the origins of the atmosphere’s electrification, provided a setting for new ideas about charge, determinism, and measurement to arise. This paper expands on the existing scholarship that has pointed to the fruitful interactions between physics and meteorology in British contexts in this period. In disentangling Exner’s and Elster and Geitel’s differing views on geographical and meteorological conditions I offer a new perspective on the recent vertical turn in the history of science. The paper concludes by suggesting that while the ionic revolution of 1899 was foundational for much of twentieth-century physics, it constituted a significant theoretical undoing for atmospheric electricians, leaving the field with even less understanding of the atmosphere’s electrification than before.
Between the Mountain, the Meadow, the Calm, and the Storm: Exner’s and Elster and Geitel’s Electrical Atmospheres
Abbreviations: Ann. Phys., Annalen der Physik; HAB, Herzog August Bibliothek; Phil. Mag., The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science; Proc. Roy. Inst., Proceedings of the Royal Institution; Proc. R. Soc. Lond., Proceedings of the Royal Society of London; Sitz.-Ber. K. Akad. Wiss., math.-naturwiss. Kl., Sitzungsberichte der mathematisch-naturwissenschaftlichen Classe; SBB, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin; Terr. Mag., Terrestrial Magnetism and Atmospheric Electricity
Katy Duncan; Between the Mountain, the Meadow, the Calm, and the Storm: Exner’s and Elster and Geitel’s Electrical Atmospheres. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 1 September 2023; 53 (4): 349–388. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2023.53.4.349
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