A galvanometer is an instrument for detecting and measuring small electric currents. Or use this long answer: galvanometer , instrument used to determine the presence, direction, and strength of an electric current in a conductor. All galvanometers are based upon the discovery by Hans C. Oersted that a magnetic needle is deflected by the presence of an electric current in a nearby conductor. When an electric current is passing through the conductor, the magnetic needle tends to turn at right angles to the conductor so that its direction is parallel to the lines of induction around the conductor and its north pole points in the direction in which these lines of induction flow. In general, the extent to which the needle turns is dependent upon the strength of the current. In the first galvanometers, a freely turning magnetic needle was hung in a coil of wire; in later versions the magnet was fixed and the coil made movable. Modern galvanometers are of this movable-coil type and are called d'Arsonval galvanometers (after Arsène d'Arsonval, a French physicist). If a pointer is attached to the moving coil so that it passes over a suitably calibrated scale, the galvanometer can be used to measure quantitatively the current passing through it. Such calibrated galvanometers are used in many electrical measuring devices. The DC ammeter , an instrument for measuring direct current, often consists of a calibrated galvanometer through which the current to be measured is made to pass. Since heavy currents would damage the galvanometer, a bypass, or shunt, is provided so that only a certain known percentage of the current passes through the galvanometer. By measuring the known percentage of the current, one arrives at the total current. The DC voltmeter , which can measure direct voltage, consists of a calibrated galvanometer connected in series with a high resistance. To measure the voltage between two points, one connects the voltmeter between them. The current through the galvanometer (and hence the pointer reading) is then proportional to the voltage.

Operation

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 charge) 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.

Types

Today the main type of galvanometer mechanism still used is the moving coil D'Arsonval/Weston mechanism, which is used in traditional analog meters.

Tangent galvanometer

Tangent galvanometer made by J.H.Bunnell Co. around 1890.

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 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.

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