arc, in electricity, highly luminous and intensely hot discharge of electricity between two electrodes. The arc was discovered early in the 19th cent. by the English scientist Sir Humphry Davy, who so named it because of its shape. An arc is characterized by a high current, low voltage, and indefinite duration. It is usually started when two electrodes carrying an electric current are drawn apart. At the instant the electrodes are parted, strong electric forces draw electrons from one electrode to the other, initiating the arc. The discharge consists of a current composed of these electrons and charged gas particles, called ions, that form between the electrodes. The first practical electric light, the arc lamp, made use of the arc formed between two carbon rods (see lighting). Today the use of the arc lamp is limited to special purposes, e.g., in searchlights and in research applications. The principle of the electric arc is employed in welding (as in the hydrogen arc, where hydrogen is introduced between tungsten electrodes) and also in generating heat in the electric furnace. A spark, like an arc, is a discharge of electricity between two points, but it has a high voltage and a short duration. Lightning is an example of a spark.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.