Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Applications of Resistors

Many electrical devices are based on electrical resistance and Ohm's law, even if they do not have little components in them that look like the usual resistor. The following are some examples.


There is nothing special about a lightbulb filament - you can easily make a lightbulb by cutting a narrow waist into a metallic gum wrapper and connecting the wrapper across the terminals of a 9-volt battery. The trouble is that it will instantly burn out. Edison solved this technical challenge by encasing the filament in an evacuated bulb, which prevented burning, since burning requires oxygen.


The polygraph, or "lie detector," is really just a set of meters for recording physical measures of the subject's psychological stress, such as sweating and quickened heartbeat. The real-time sweat measurement works on the principle that dry skin is a good insulator, but sweaty skin is a conductor. Of course a truthful subject may become nervous simply because of the situation, and a practiced liar may not even break a sweat. The method's practitioners claim that they can tell the difference, but you should think twice before allowing yourself to be polygraph tested. Most U.S. courts exclude all polygraph evidence, but some employers attempt to screen out dishonest employees by polygraph testing job applicants, an abuse that ranks with such pseudoscience as handwriting analysis.


A fuse is a device inserted in a circuit tollbooth-style in the same manner as an ammeter. It is simply a piece of wire made of metals having a relatively low melting point. If too much current passes through the fuse, it melts, opening the circuit. The purpose is to make sure that the building's wires do not carry so much current that they themselves will get hot enough to start a fire. Most modern houses use circuit breakers instead of fuses, although fuses are still common in cars and small devices. A circuit breaker is a switch operated by a coiled-wire magnet, which opens the circuit when enough current flows. The advantage is that once you turn off some of the appliances that were sucking up too much current, you can immediately flip the switch closed. In the days of fuses, one might get caught without a replacement fuse, or even be tempted to stuff aluminum foil in as a replacement, defeating the safety feature.


A voltmeter is nothing more than an ammeter with an additional high-value resistor through which the current is also forced to flow. Ohm's law relates the current through the resistor to the voltage difference across it, so the meter can be calibrated in units of volts based on the known value of the resistor. The voltmeter's two probes are touched to the two locations in a circuit between which we wish to measure the voltage difference, (b). Note how cumbersome this type of drawing is, and how difficult it can be to tell what is connected to what. This is why electrical drawing are usually shown in schematic form. Figure (c) is a schematic representation of figure (b).

The setups for measuring current and voltage are different. When we are measuring current, we are finding "how much stuff goes through," so we place the ammeter where all the current is forced to go through it. Voltage, however, is not "stuff that goes through," it is a measure of potential energy. If an ammeter is like the meter that measures your water use, a voltmeter is like a measuring stick that tells you how high a waterfall is, so that you can determine how much energy will be released by each kilogram of falling water. We do not want to force the water to go through the measuring stick! The arrangement in figure (c) is a parallel circuit: one in there are "forks in the road" where some of the current will flow one way and some will flow the other. Figure (d) is said to be wired in series: all the current will visit all the circuit elements one after the other. We will deal with series and parallel circuits in more detail in the following chapter.

If you inserted a voltmeter incorrectly, in series with the bulb and battery, its large internal resistance would cut the current down so low that the bulb would go out. You would have severely disturbed the behavior of the circuit by trying to measure something about it.

Incorrectly placing an ammeter in parallel is likely to be even more disconcerting. The ammeter has nothing but wire inside it to provide resistance, so given the choice, most of the current will flow through it rather than through the bulb. So much current will flow through the ammeter, in fact, that there is a danger of burning out the battery or the meter or both! For this reason, most ammeters have fuses or circuit breakers inside. Some models will trip their circuit breakers and make an audible alarm in this situation, while others will simply blow a fuse and stop working until you replace it.

Last Update: 2009-06-21