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A galvanometer is a type of ammeter: an instrument for detecting and measuring electric current. It is an analog electromechanical transducer that produces a rotary deflection of some type of pointer in response to electric current flowing through its coil. The term has expanded to include uses of the same mechanism in recording, positioning, and servomechanism equipment.



The deflection of a magnetic compass needle by current in a wire was first described by Hans Oersted in 1820. The phenomenon was studied both for its own sake and as a means of measuring electrical current. The earliest galvanometer was reported by Johann Schweigger at the University of Halle on 16 September 1820. André-Marie Ampère also contributed to its development. Early designs increased the effect of the magnetic field due to the current by using multiple turns of wire; the instruments were at first called "multipliers" due to this common design feature. The term "galvanometer", in common use by 1836, was derived from the surname of Italian electricity researcher Luigi Galvani, who discovered in 1771 that electric current could make a frog's leg jerk.

Originally the instruments relied on the Earth's magnetic field to provide the restoring force for the compass needle; these were called "tangent" galvanometers and had to be oriented before use. Later instruments of the "astatic" type used opposing magnets to become independent of the Earth's field and would operate in any orientation. The most sensitive form, the Thompson or mirror galvanometer, was invented by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and patented by him in 1858. Instead of a compass needle, it used tiny magnets attached to a small lightweight mirror, suspended by a thread; the deflection of a beam of light greatly magnified the deflection due to small currents. Alternatively the deflection of the suspended magnets could be observed directly through a microscope.

The ability to quantitatively measure voltage and current allowed Georg Ohm to formulate Ohm's Law, which states that the voltage across a conductor is directly proportional to the current through it.

The early moving-magnet form of galvanometer had the disadvantage that it was affected by any magnets or iron masses near it, and its deflection was not linearly proportional to the current. In 1882 Jacques-Arsène d'Arsonval and Marcel Deprez developed a form with a stationary permanent magnet and a moving coil of wire, suspended by fine wires which provided both an electrical connection to the coil and the restoring torque to return to the zero position. An iron tube within the coil concentrated the magnetic field. A mirror attached to the coil deflected a beam of light to indicate the coil position. The concentrated magnetic field and delicate suspension made these instruments sensitive; d'Arsonval's initial instrument could detect ten microamperes. [1] Edward Weston extensively improved the design. He replaced the fine wire suspension with a pivot, and provided restoring torque and electrical connections through spiral springs rather like those in a wristwatch balance wheel. He developed a method of stabilizing the magnetic field of the permanent magnet, so that the instrument would have consistent accuracy over time. He replaced the light beam and mirror with a knife-edge pointer, which could be directly read; a mirror under the pointer and in the same plane as the scale eliminated parallax error in observation. To maintain the field strength, Weston's design used a very narrow slot in which the coil was mounted, with a minimal air-gap and soft iron pole pieces; this made the deflection of the instrument more linear with respect to coil current. Finally, the coil was wound on a light former made of conductive metal, which acted as a damper. By 1888 Edward Weston had patented and brought out a commercial form of this instrument, which became a standard component in electrical equipment. It was known as the "portable" instrument because it was little affected by mounting position or by transporting it from place to place. This design is almost universally used in moving-coil meters today.

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