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....

Incorrect readings from a voltmeter

A voltmeter is really an ammeter with an internal resistor. When we measure the voltage difference across a resistor, (a), we are really constructing a parallel resistance circuit, (b).

A voltmeter is really just an ammeter with an internal resistor, and we use a voltmeter in parallel with the thing that we're trying to measure the voltage difference across. This means that any time we measure the voltage drop across a resistor, we're essentially putting two resistors in parallel. The ammeter inside the voltmeter can be ignored for the purpose of analyzing what how current flows in the circuit, since it is essentially just some coiledup wire with a very low resistance.

Now if we are carrying out this measurement on a resistor that is part of a larger circuit, we have changed the behavior of the circuit through our act of measuring. It is as though we had modified the circuit by replacing the resistance R with the smaller equivalent resistance of R and Rv in parallel. It is for this reason that voltmeters are built with the largest possible internal resistance. As a numerical example, if we use a voltmeter with an internal resistance of 1 MΩ to measure the voltage drop across a one-ohm resistor, the equivalent resistance is 0.999999 Ω, which is not different enough to matter. But if we tried to use the same voltmeter to measure the voltage drop across a 2-MΩ resistor, we would be reducing the resistance of that part of the circuit by a factor of three, which would produce a drastic change in the behavior of the whole circuit.

This is the reason why you can't use a voltmeter to measure the voltage difference between two different points in midair, or between the ends of a piece of wood. This is by no means a stupid thing to want to do, since the world around us is not a constant-voltage environment, the most extreme example being when an electrical storm is brewing. But it will not work with an ordinary voltmeter because the resistance of the air or the wood is many gigaohms. The effect of waving a pair of voltmeter probes around in the air is that we provide a reuniting path for the positive and negative charges that have been separated - through the voltmeter itself, which is a good conductor compared to the air. This reduces to zero the voltage difference we were trying to measure.

In general, a voltmeter that has been set up with an open circuit (or a very large resistance) between its probes is said to be "floating." An old-fashioned analog voltmeter of the type described here will read zero when left floating, the same as when it was sitting on the shelf. A floating digital voltmeter usually shows an error message.

Last Update: 2010-11-11