Scientists are becoming more and more intimate with the structure of matter. They are learning secrets every year which apparently are leading to a fundamental knowledge of the subject. When these mysteries are solved, who can say that man will not be able to create elements to suit his needs, or at least to alter the properties of the elements already available? If he could so alter the mechanism of radiation that a hot metal would radiate no invisible energy, he would have made a tremendous stride even in the production of light by virtue of high temperature. This property of selective radiation is possessed by some elements to a slight degree, but if treatment could enhance this property, luminous efficiency would be greatly increased. Certainly the principle of selectivity is a byway of possibilities.
A careful study of commonplace factors may result in a great step in light-production without the creation of new elements or compounds, just as such a procedure doubled the luminous efficiency of the tungsten filament when the gas-filled lamp appeared. There are a few elements still missing, according to the Periodic Law which has been so valuable in chemistry. When these turn up, they may be found to possess valuable properties for light-production; but this is a discouraging byway.
It is natural to inquire whether or not any mode of light-production now in use has a limiting luminous efficiency approaching the ultimate limit which is imposed by the visibility of radiation. The eye is able to convert radiant energy of different wave-lengths into certain fixed proportions of light. For example, radiant energy of such a wave-length as to excite the sensation of yellow-green is the most efficient and one watt of this energy is capable of being converted by the visual apparatus into about 625 lumens of light. Is this efficiency of conversion of the visual apparatus everlastingly fixed? For the answer it is necessary to turn to the physiologist, and doubtless he would suggest the curbing of the imagination. But is it unthinkable that the visual processes will always be beyond the control of man? However, to turn again to the physics of light-production, there are still several processes of producing light which are appealing.
Many years ago Geissler, Crookes, and other scientists studied the spectra of gases excited to incandescence by the electric discharge in so-called vacuum tubes. The gases are placed in transparent glass or quartz tubes at rather low pressures and a high voltage is impressed upon the ends of these tubes. When the pressure is sufficiently low, the gases will glow and emit light. Twenty-eight years ago, D. McFarlan Moore developed the nitrogen tube, which was actually installed in various places. But there is such a loss of energy near the cathode that short “vacuum” tubes of this character are very inefficient producers of light. Efficiency is greatly increased by lengthening the tubes, so Moore used tubes of great length and a rather high voltage. As a tube of this sort is used, the gas gradually disappears and it must be replenished. In order to replenish the gas, Moore devised a valve for feeding gas automatically. An advantage of this mode of light-production is that the color or quality of the light may be varied by varying the gas used. Nitrogen yields a pinkish light; neon an orange light; and carbon dioxide a white light. Moore’s carbon-dioxide tube is an excellent substitute for daylight and has been used for the discrimination of colors where this is an important factor. However, for this purpose devices utilizing color-screens which alter the light from the tungsten lamp to a daylight quality are being used extensively.
A Classic Style Reborn
The vacuum-tube method of producing light has an advantage in the selection of a gas among a large number of possibilities, and some of the color effects of the future may be obtained by means of it. Claude has lately worked on light-production by vacuum tubes and has combined the neon tube with the mercury-vapor tube. The spectrum of neon to a large extent compensates for the absence of red light in the mercury spectrum, with a result that the mixture produces a more satisfactory light than that of either tube. However, this mode of light-production has not proved practicable in its present state of development. Fundamentally the limitations are those of the inherent spectral characteristics of gases. Doubtless the possibilities of the mechanisms of the tubes and of combining various gases have not been exhausted. Furthermore, if man ever becomes capable of controlling to some extent the structure of elements and of compounds, this method of light-production is perhaps more promising than others of the present day.
There is another attractive method of producing light and it has not escaped the writer of fiction. H. G. Wells, with his rare skill and with the license so often envied by the writer of facts, has drawn upon the characteristics of fluorescence and phosphorescence. In his story “The First Men in the Moon,” the inhabitants of the moon illuminate their caverns by utilizing this phenomenon. A fluorescent liquid was prepared in large quantities. It emitted a brilliant phosphorescent glow and when it splashed on the feet of the earth-men it felt cold, but it glowed for a long time. This is a possibility of the future and many have had visions of such lighting. If the ceiling of a coal-mine was lined with glowing fireflies or with phosphorescent material excited in some manner, it would be possible to see fairly well with the dark-adapted eyes.