Cylinder-type Electrostatic Machine

Description (Brief)
People from ancient times knew that rubbing certain materials and then touching something caused a spark. Studying what is called electrostatics laid the groundwork for understanding electricity and magnetism. Natural philosophers, scientists, and instrument makers created many ingenious devices to generate electrostatic charges starting in the 1600s. These machines varied in size and technique but all involved rotary motion to generate a charge, and a means of transferring the charge to a storage device for use.
This incomplete unit shows the basic design of a typical 19th century cylinder machine, although the rubbing pad and collector are missing. Little is known of this machine’s background but it does demonstrate the international nature of scientific research. A label on the unit reads: “Swiss Section / Department III / Classe 300 / No. [104?] / Erziehungsdirection des Cantons / Bern.” A second label reads: “Exhibitor: The Board of Education of the Canton / of Bern” and the equivalent text in German and French. Stamped on the end of the base may be a reference to a maker: "G. Kupfer".
During the 1750s electrical researchers refined the design of electrostatic machines by replacing earlier spherical globes with a glass cylinder, a design used for many years. This change increased the surface area of the glass in contact with the rubbing pad and improved the efficiency of the generator.
Currently not on view
Object Name
cylinder-type frictional electrostatic machine
electrostatic generator
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
glass (overall material)
brass (overall material)
paper (overall material)
steel (overall material)
felt (overall material)
overall: 15 1/2 in x 30 3/4 in x 11 1/2 in; 39.37 cm x 78.105 cm x 29.21 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Work and Industry: Electricity
Science & Mathematics
Electrostatic Machines
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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