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Photolelectric Effect

The most dramatic prediction of Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, published in 1865, was the existence of electromagnetic waves moving at the speed of light, and the conclusion that light itself was just such a wave. This challenged experimentalists to generate and detect electromagnetic radiation using some form of electrical apparatus. The first clearly successful attempt was by Heinrich Hertz in 1886. He used a high voltage induction coil to cause a spark discharge between two pieces of brass, to quote him, "Imagine a cylindrical brass body, 3 cm in diameter and 26 cm long, interrupted midway along its length by a spark gap whose poles on either side are formed by spheres of 2 cm radius." The idea was that once a spark formed a conducting path between the two brass conductors, charge would rapidly oscillate back and forth, emitting electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength similar to the size of the conductors themselves.

To prove there really was radiation emitted, it had to be detected. Hertz used a piece of copper wire 1 mm thick bent into a circle of diameter 7.5 cms, with a small brass sphere on one end, and the other end of the wire was pointed, with the point near the sphere. He added a screw mechanism so that the point could be moved very close to the sphere in a controlled fashion. This "receiver" was designed so that current oscillating back and forth in the wire would have a natural period close to that of the "transmitter" described above. The presence of oscillating charge in the receiver would be signaled by a spark across the (tiny) gap between the point and the sphere (typically, this gap was hundredths of a millimeter). (It was suggested to Hertz that this spark gap could be replaced as a detector by a suitably prepared frog's leg, but that apparently didn't work.)

The experiment was very successful - Hertz was able to detect the radiation up to fifty feet away, and in a series of ingenious experiments established that the radiation was reflected and refracted as expected, and that it was polarized. The main problem - the limiting factor in detection -- was being able to see the tiny spark in the receiver. In trying to improve the spark's visibility, he came upon something very mysterious. To quote from Hertz again (he called the transmitter spark A, the receiver B): "I occasionally enclosed the spark B in a dark case so as to more easily make the observations; and in so doing I observed that the maximum spark-length became decidedly smaller in the case than it was before. On removing in succession the various parts of the case, it was seen that the only portion of it which exercised this prejudicial effect was that which screened the spark B from the spark A. The partition on that side exhibited this effect, not only when it was in the immediate neighbourhood of the spark B, but also when it was interposed at greater distances from B between A and B. A phenomenon so remarkable called for closer investigation."

Hertz then embarked on a very thorough investigation. He found that the small receiver spark was more vigorous if it was exposed to ultraviolet light from the transmitter spark. It took a long time to figure this out - he first checked for some kind of electromagnetic effect, but found a sheet of glass effectively shielded the spark. He then found a slab of quartz did not shield the spark, whereupon he used a quartz prism to break up the light from the big spark into its components, and discovered that the wavelength which made the little spark more powerful was beyond the visible, in the ultraviolet.

In 1887, Hertz concluded what must have been months of investigation: " I confine myself at present to communicating the results obtained, without attempting any theory respecting the manner in which the observed phenomena are brought about."