The Force of Gravitation

From Common Beauty

The Force of Gravitation by Michael Faraday, paragraphs 7-10

I want you now to understand the nature of the most simple exertion of this power of matter called weight or gravity. Bodies are heavy; you saw that in the case of water when I placed it in the balance. Here I have what we call a weight [an iron half cwt.]—a thing called a weight because in it the exercise of that power of pressing downward is especially used for the purposes of weighing; and I have also one of these little inflated India-rubber bladders, which are very beautiful although very common (most beautiful things are common), and I am going to put the weight upon it, to give you a sort of illustration of the downward pressure of the iron, and of the power which the air possesses of resisting that pressure; it may burst, but we must try to avoid that. [During the last few observations the lecturer had succeeded in placing the half cwt. in a state of quiescence upon the inflated India-rubber ball, which consequently assumed a shape very much resembling a flat cheese with round edges.] There you see a bubble of air bearing half a hundred-weight, and you must conceive for yourselves what a wonderful power there must be to pull this weight downward, to sink it thus in the ball of air.

Let me now give you another illustration of this power. You know what a pendulum is. I have one here (FIG. 1), and if I set it swinging, it will continue to swing to and fro. Now I wonder whether you can tell me why that body oscillates to and fro—that pendulum bob, as it is sometimes called. Observe, if I hold the straight stick horizontally, as high as the position of the ball at the two ends of its journey, you see that the ball is in a higher position at the two extremities than it is when in the middle. Starting from one end of the stick, the ball falls toward the centre, and then rising again to the opposite end, it constantly tries to fall to the lowest point, swinging and vibrating most beautifully, and with wonderful properties in other respects—the time of its vibration, and so on—but concerning which we will not now trouble ourselves.

Fig. 1

If a gold leaf, or piece of thread, or any other substance were hung where this ball is, it would swing to and fro in the same manner, and in the same time too. Do not be startled at this statement; I repeat, in the same manner and in the same time, and you will see by-and-by how this is. Now that power which caused the water to descend in the balance—which made the iron weight press upon and flatten the bubble of air—which caused the swinging to and fro of the pendulum, that power is entirely due to the attraction which there is between the falling body and the earth. Let us be slow and careful to comprehend this. It is not that the earth has any particular attraction toward bodies which fall to it, but, that all these bodies possess an attraction every one toward the other. It is not that the earth has any special power which these balls themselves have not; for just as much power as the earth has to attract these two balls [dropping two ivory balls], just so much power have they in proportion to their bulks to draw themselves one to the other; and the only reason why they fall so quickly to the earth is owing to its greater size. Now if I were to place these two balls near together, I should not be able, by the most delicate arrangement of apparatus, to make you, or myself, sensible that these balls did attract one another; and yet we know that such is the case, because if, instead of taking a small ivory ball, we take a mountain, and put a ball like this near it, we find that, owing to the vast size of the mountain as compared with the billiard ball, the latter is drawn slightly toward it, showing clearly that an attraction does exist, just as it did between the shell-lac which I rubbed and the piece of paper which was overturned by it.

Now it is not very easy to make these things quite clear at the outset and I must take care not to leave anything unexplained as I proceed, and, therefore, I must make you clearly understand that all bodies are attracted to the earth, or, to use a more learned term, gravitate. You will not mind my using this word, for when I say that this penny-piece gravitates, I mean nothing more nor less than that it falls toward the earth, and, if not intercepted, it would go on falling, falling, until it arrived at what we call the centre of gravity of the earth, which I will explain to you by-and-by.

The complete lecture The Force of Gravitation

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