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 large electrostatic cylinder machine from the estate of Joseph Priestley was made around 1800 by Edward Nairne of Britain. Restored for exhibition in 1959, the machine and collector stand comprise most of the parts identified as belonging to the machine. Four additional collectors and parts of another stand are also associated with this object. 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.
Natural philosopher and free-thinker Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), emigrated from Britain to the United States in 1794. Among other accomplishments, Priestley is remembered for chemical and electrical research. Years after his death, his daughter sent an assortment of material to the Smithsonian, most of which was in poor condition. Curators at the time were uncertain how important the equipment may have been to Priestley’s research but preserved many of the items as examples of the type of equipment available in that era.
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