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, through a limited arc, 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.
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 (Johan) Schweigger of Nuremberg 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, derives from the surname of Italian electricity researcher Luigi Galvani, who discovered 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). 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 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 developed a form with a stationary permanent magnet and a moving coil of wire, suspended by coiled hair springs. The concentrated magnetic field and delicate suspension made these instruments sensitive and they could be mounted in any position. By 1888 Edward Weston had brought out a commercial form of this instrument, which became a standard component in electrical equipment. This design is almost universally used in moving-vane meters today.
The most familiar use is as an analog measuring instrument, often called a meter. It is used to measure the direct current (flow of electric charges) through an electric circuit. The D'Arsonval/Weston form used today is constructed with a small pivoting coil of wire in the field of a permanent magnet. The coil is attached to a thin pointer that traverses a calibrated scale. A tiny torsion spring pulls the coil and pointer to the zero position.
When a direct current (DC) flows through the coil, the coil generates a magnetic field. This field acts against the permanent magnet. The coil twists, pushing against the spring, and moves the pointer. The hand points at a scale indicating the electric current. Careful design of the pole pieces ensures that the magnetic field is uniform, so that the angular deflection of the pointer is proportional to the current. A useful meter generally contains provision for damping the mechanical resonance of the moving coil and pointer, so that the pointer settles quickly to its position without oscillation.
The basic sensitivity of a meter might be, for instance, 100 microamperes full scale (with a voltage drop of, say, 50 millivolts at full current). Such meters are often calibrated to read some other quantity that can be converted to a current of that magnitude. The use of current dividers, often called shunts, allows a meter to be calibrated to measure larger currents. A meter can be calibrated as a DC voltmeter if the resistance of the coil is known by calculating the voltage required to generate a full scale current. A meter can be configured to read other voltages by putting it in a voltage divider circuit. This is generally done by placing a resistor in series with the meter coil. A meter can be used to read resistance by placing it in series with a known voltage (a battery) and an adjustable resistor. In a preparatory step, the circuit is completed and the resistor adjusted to produce full scale deflection. When an unknown resistor is placed in series in the circuit the current will be less than full scale and an appropriately calibrated scale can display the value of the previously-unknown resistor.
Because the pointer of the meter is usually a small distance above the scale of the meter, parallax error can occur when the operator attempts to read the scale line that "lines up" with the pointer. To counter this, some meters include a mirror along the markings of the principal scale. The accuracy of the reading from a mirrored scale is improved by positioning one's head while reading the scale so that the pointer and the reflection of the pointer are aligned; at this point, the operator's eye must be directly above the pointer and any parallax error has been minimized.
Extremely sensitive measuring equipment once used mirror galvanometers that substituted a mirror for the pointer. A beam of light reflected from the mirror acted as a long, massless pointer. Such instruments were used as receivers for early trans-Atlantic telegraph systems, for instance. The moving beam of light could also be used to make a record on a moving photographic film, producing a graph of current versus time, in a device called an oscillograph.
Galvanometer mechanisms are used to position the pens of analog chart recorders such as used for making an electrocardiogram. Strip chart recorders with galvanometer driven pens might have a full scale frequency response of 100 Hz and several centimeters deflection. In some cases (the classical polygraph of movies or the electroencephalograph), the galvanometer is strong enough to move the pen while it remains in contact with the paper; the writing mechanism may be a heated tip on the needle writing on heat-sensitive paper or a fluid-fed pen. In other cases (the Rustrak recorders), the needle is only intermittently pressed against the writing medium; at that moment, an impression is made and then the pressure is removed, allowing the needle to move to a new position and the cycle repeats. In this case, the galvanometer need not be especially strong.
A tangent galvanometer is an early measuring instrument used for the measurement of electric current. It works by using a compass needle to compare a magnetic field generated by the unknown current to the magnetic field of the Earth. It gets its name from its operating principle, the tangent law of magnetism, which states that the tangent of the angle a compass needle makes is proportional to the ratio of the strengths of the two perpendicular magnetic fields. It was first described by Claude Servais Mathias Pouillet in 1837.
A tangent galvanometer consists of a coil of insulated copper wire wound on a circular non-magnetic frame. The frame is mounted vertically on a horizontal base provided with levelling screws. The coil can be rotated on a vertical axis passing through its centre. A compass box is mounted horizontally at the centre of a circular scale. It consists of a tiny, powerful magnetic needle pivoted at the centre of the coil. The magnetic needle is free to rotate in the horizontal plane. The circular scale is divided into four quadrants. Each quadrant is graduated from 0° to 90°. A long thin aluminium pointer is attached to the needle at its centre and at right angle to it. To avoid errors due to parallax a plane mirror is mounted below the compass needle.
In operation, the instrument is first rotated until the magnetic field of the Earth, indicated by the compass needle, is parallel with the plane of the coil. Then the unknown current is applied to the coil. This creates a second magnetic field on the axis of the coil, perpendicular to the Earth's magnetic field. The compass needle responds to the vector sum of the two fields, and deflects to an angle equal to the tangent of the ratio of the two fields. From the angle read from the compass's scale, the current could be found from a table.
The current supply wires have to be wound in a small helix, like a pig's tail, otherwise the field due to the wire will affect the compass needle and an incorrect reading will be obtained.
If the galvanometer is set such that the plane of the coil is along the magnetic meridian i.e., B is perpendicular to ( is the horizontal component of the Earth's magnetic field), the needle rests along the resultant. From tangent law, , i.e.
The value of is taken at 45 degrees for maximum accuracy.
Since the 1980s, galvanometer-type analog meter movements may be displaced by analog to digital converters (ADCs) for some uses. A digital panel meter (DPM) contains an analog to digital converter and numeric display. The advantages of a digital instrument are higher precision and accuracy, but factors such as power consumption or cost may still favor application of analog meter movements.
Most modern uses for the galvanometer mechanism are in positioning and control systems. These are used in laser marking and projection, and in imaging application such as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) retinal scanning. Mirror galvanometer systems are used as beam positioning elements in laser optical systems. These are typically high power galvanometer mechanisms used with closed loop servo control systems. The newest generation of galvanometers designed for beam steering applications can have frequency responses over 10 kHz with appropriate servo technology. Examples of manufacturers of such systems are Cambridge Technology Inc. (www.camtech.com) and General Scanning (www.gsig.com).