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Combustion By Invisible Rays

( Originally Published 1905 )



The sun's invisible rays far transcend the visible ones in heating power, so that if the alleged performances of Archimedes during the siege of Syracuse had any foundation in fact, the dark solar rays would have been the philosopher's chief agents of combustion. On a small scale we can readily produce, with the purely invisible rays of the electric light, all that Archimedes is said to have performed with the sun's total radiation. Placing behind the electric light a small concave mirror, the rays are converged, the cone of reflected rays and their point of convergence being rendered clearly visible by the dust always floating in the air. Placing between the luminous focus and the source of rays our solution of iodine, the light of the cone is entirely cut away; but the intolerable heat experienced when the hand is placed, even for a moment, at the dark focus, shows that the calorific rays pass unimpeded through the opaque solution.

Almost anything that ordinary fire can effect may be accomplished at the focus of invisible rays; the air at the focus remaining at the same time perfectly cold, on account of its transparency to the heat-rays. An air thermometer, with a hollow rock-salt bulb, would be unaffected by the heat of the focus: there would be no expansion, and in the open air there is no convection. The ether at the focus, and not the air, is the substance in which the heat is embodied. A block of wood, placed at the focus, absorbs the heat, and dense volumes of smoke rise swiftly upward, showing the manner in which the air itself would rise, if the invisible rays were competent to heat it. At the perfectly dark focus dry paper is instantly inflamed: chips of wood are speedily burned up: lead, tin, and zinc are fused: and disks of charred paper are raised to vivid incandescence. It might be supposed that the obscure rays would show no preference for black over white; but they do show a preference, and to obtain rapid combustion, the body, if not already black, ought to be blackened. When metals are to be burned, it is necessary to blacken or otherwise tarnish them, so as to diminish their reflective power. Blackened zinc foil, when brought into the focus of invisible rays, is instantly caused to blaze, and burns with its peculiar purple light. Magnesium wire flattened, or tarnished magnesium ribbon, also bursts into flame. Pieces of charcoal suspended in a receiver full of oxygen are also set on fire when the invisible focus falls upon them; the dark rays, after having passed through the receiver, still possessing sufficient power to ignite the charcoal, and thus initiate the attack of the oxygen. If, instead of being plunged in oxygen, the charcoal be suspended in vacuo, it immediately glows at the place where the focus falls.



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