The place is the historic lecture theater of the Royal Institution in London. The date is the 4th of June 1903, and the inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, is about to demonstrate his new wireless system, which he claims can securely send messages over a long distance, without interference by tuning the signal.
The inventor himself was over 300 miles away in Cornwall, preparing to send the messages to his colleague Professor Fleming in the theater. Towards the end of Professor Flemings lecture, the receiver sparks into life, and the morse code printer started printing out one word repeatedly: “Rats”. It then spelled out an insulting limerick: “There was a young man from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily”. Marconi’s supposedly secure system had been hacked.
The pioneering years in the history of capacitors was a time when capacitors were used primarily for gaining an early understanding of electricity, predating the discovery even of the electron. It was also a time for doing parlor demonstrations, such as having a line of people holding hands and discharging a capacitor through them. The modern era of capacitors begins in the late 1800s with the dawning of the age of the practical application of electricity, requiring reliable capacitors with specific properties.
One such practical use was in Marconi’s wireless spark-gap transmitters starting just before 1900 and into the first and second decade. The transmitters built up a high voltage for discharging across a spark gap and so used porcelain capacitors to withstand that voltage. High frequency was also required. These were basically Leyden jars and to get the required capacitances took a lot of space.
In 1909, William Dubilier invented smaller mica capacitors which were then used on the receiving side for the resonant circuits in wireless hardware.
Early mica capacitors were basically layers of mica and copper foils clamped together as what were called “clamped mica capacitors”. These capacitors weren’t very reliable though. Being just mica sheets pressed against metal foils, there were air gaps between the mica and foils. Those gap allowed for oxidation and corrosion, and meant that the distance between plates was subject to change, altering the capacitance.
In the 1920s silver mica capacitors were developed, ones where the mica is coated on both sides with the metal, eliminating the air gaps. With a thin metal coating instead of thicker foils, the capacitors could also be made smaller. These were very reliable. Of course we didn’t stop there. The modern era of capacitors has been marked by one breakthrough after another for a fascinating story. Let’s take a look.
The early days of electricity appear to have been a cutthroat time. While academics were busy uncovering the mysteries of electromagnetism, bands of entrepreneurs were waiting to pounce on the pure science and engineer solutions to problems that didn’t even exist yet, but could no doubt turn into profitable ventures. We’ve all heard of the epic battles between Edison and Tesla and Westinghouse, and even with the benefit of more than a century of hindsight it’s hard to tell who did what to whom. But another conflict was brewing at the turn of 19th century, this time between an Indian polymath and an Italian nobleman, and it would determine who got credit for laying the foundations for the key technology of the 20th century – radio.