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 rudimentary cylinder machine is incomplete, missing the rubbing pad and charge collector. The construction appears very crude without the detailing or polish seen on a commercially-made device. Two U.S. coins were used as retaining washers on the crank axle. 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. There is almost no background information about this object that came into the collections from the Merrimac Valley Textile Museum in 1975.
Currently not on view
Object Name
cylinder-type frictional electrostatic machine
electrostatic generator
date made
ca 1850
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
glass (overall material)
steel (overall material)
overall: 25 1/4 in x 32 in x 14 1/2 in; 64.135 cm x 81.28 cm x 36.83 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Science & Mathematics
Electrostatic Machines
See more items in
Work and Industry: Electricity
Electrostatic Machines
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
from the Merrimac Valley Textile Museum
Additional Media

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