How do an ammeter and voltmeter work? Why must the former be connected in series while the latter goes in parallel? — SK, New Haven, CT
The answer is somewhat different for older electromechanical meters than for modern electronic meters. I’ll start with the electromechanical ones and then briefly describe the electronic ones. An electromechanical meter has a coil of wire that pivots in a nearly friction-free bearing and has a needle attached to it. This coil also has a spring attached to it and that spring tends to restore the coil and needle to their zero orientation. Because the spring opposes any rotation of the coil and needle, the orientation of the needle depends on any other torque (twist) experienced by the coil of wire—the more torque the spring-loaded coil experiences, the farther the coil and needle will turn away from the zero orientation. The needle’s angle of deflection is proportional to the extra torque on the coil.
The extra torque exerted on the spring-load coil comes from magnetic forces. There is a permanent magnet surrounding the coil, so that when current flows through the coil it experiences a torque. Because a current-carrying coil is magnetic, the coil’s magnetic poles and the permanent magnet’s magnetic poles exert forces on one another and the coil experiences a torque. This magnetic torque is exactly proportional to the current flowing through the coil. Because the torque on the coil is proportional to the current and the needle’s angle of deflection is proportional to this torque, the needle’s angle of deflection is exactly proportional to the current in the wire.
To use such a meter as a current meter (an ammeter), you must allow the current flowing through your circuit to pass through the meter. You must open the circuit and insert this ammeter in series with the rest of the circuit. That way, the current flowing through the circuit will also flow through the meter and its needle will move to indicate how much current is flowing.
To use such a meter as a voltage meter (a voltmeter), some current is divert from the circuit to the meter through an electric resistor and then returned to the circuit. The amount of current that follows this bypass and flows through the electric resistor is proportional to the voltage difference across that resistor (a natural phenomenon described by Ohm’s law). The voltmeter system thus diverts from the circuit an amount of current that is exactly proportional to the voltage difference between the place at which current enters the voltmeter and where it returns to the circuit. The needle’s movement thus reflects this voltage difference.
In an electronic voltmeter, sensitive electronic components directly measure the voltage difference between two wires. Virtually no current flows between those two wires, so that the meter simply makes a measurement of the charge differences on the two wires. An electron ammeter uses an electronic voltmeter to measure the tiny voltage difference across a wire that is carrying the current. Since the wire also obeys Ohm’s law, this voltage difference is proportional to the current passing through the wire.