circuit breaker, electric device that, like a fuse, interrupts an electric current in a circuit when the current becomes too high. The advantage of a circuit breaker is that it can be reset after it has been tripped; a fuse must be replaced after it has been used once. When a current supplies enough energy to operate a trigger device in a breaker, a pair of contacts conducting the current are separated by preloaded springs or some similar mechanism. Generally, a circuit breaker registers the current either by the current's heating effect or by the magnetism it creates in passing through a small coil. Because it is usual for an electric arc to form between the contacts when a breaker opens, some means must be provided for preventing rapid erosion of the contacts. Normally this is done by opening the contacts fast enough to make the arc of short duration.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.