A magnetic compass doesn’t make a very convenient meter. It has to be lying flat, and the coil has to be aligned with the compass needle when there is no current. But of course, electrical and electronic devices aren’t all oriented so as to be aligned with the north geomagnetic pole! But the external magnetic field doesn’t have to come from the earth. It can be provided by a permanent magnet near or inside the meter. This supplies a stronger magnetic force than does the earth’s magnetic field, and therefore makes it possible to make a meter that can detect much weaker currents. Such a meter can be turned in any direction, and its operation is not affected. The coil can be attached directly to the meter pointer, and suspended by means of a spring in the field of the magnet. This type of metering scheme, called the D’Arsonval movement, has been around since the earliest days of electricity, but it is still used in some metering devices today. The assembly is shown in following figure. This is the basic principle of the ammeter.


A variation of the D’Arsonval movement can be obtained by attaching the meter needle to a permanent magnet, and winding the coil in a fixed form around the magnet. Current in the coil produces a magnetic field, and this in turn generates a force if the coil and magnet are aligned correctly
with respect to each other. This works all right, but the mass of the permanent magnet causes a slower needle response. This type of meter is also more prone to overshoot than the true D’Arsonval movement; the inertia of the magnet’s mass, once overcome by the magnetic force, causes the needle to fly past the actual point for the current reading, and then to wag back and forth a couple of times before coming to rest in the right place.

It is possible to use an electromagnet in place of the permanent magnet in the meter assembly. This electromagnet can be operated by the same current that flows in the coil attached to the meter needle. This gets rid of the need for a massive, permanent magnet inside the meter. It also eliminates the possibility that the meter sensitivity will change in case the strength of the permanent magnet deteriorates (such as might be caused by heat, or by severe mechanical vibration). The electromagnet can be either in series with, or in parallel with, the meter movement coil.

The sensitivity of the D’Arsonval-type meter, and of similar designs, depends on several factors. First is the strength of the permanent magnet (if the meter uses a permanent magnet). Second is the number of turns in the coil. The stronger the magnet, and the larger the number of turns in he coil, the less current is needed in order to produce a given magnetic force. If the meter is of the electromagnet type, the combined number of coil turns affects the sensitivity. Remember that the strength of a magnetomotive force is given in terms of ampere-turns. For a given current (number of amperes), the force increases in direct proportion to the number of coil turns. The more force in a meter, the greater the needle deflection for a given amount of current, and the smaller the current necessary to cause a certain amount of needle movement. The most sensitive ammeters can detect currents of just a microampere or two. The amount of current for full-scale deflection (the needle goes all the way up without
banging against the stop pin) can be as little as about 50 μA in commonly available meters.

Sometimes, it is desirable to have an ammeter that will allow for a wide range of current measurements. The full-scale deflection of a meter assembly cannot easily be changed, because that would mean changing the number of coil turns and/or the strength of the magnet. But all ammeters
have a certain amount of internal resistance. If a resistor, having the same internal resistance as the meter, is connected in parallel with the meter, the resistor will draw half the current. Then it will take twice the current through the assembly to deflect the meter to full scale, as compared with the meter alone. By choosing a resistor of just the right value, the full-scale deflection of an ammeter can be increased by a large factor, such as 10, or 100, or 1000. This resistor must be capable of carrying the current without burning up. It might have to draw practically all of the current flowing through the assembly, leaving the meter to carry only 1/10, or 1/100, or 1/1000 of the current. This is called a shunt resistance or meter shunt (following figure). Meter shunts are used when it is necessary to measure very large currents, such as hundreds of amperes. They also allow microammeters or milliammeters to be used in a versatile multimeter, with many current ranges.