Pixii plate-type frictional electrostatic generator

Pixii plate-type frictional electrostatic generator

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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.
In the latter 1700s electrical researchers adopted improved electrostatic machines that replaced earlier glass cylinders with a flat glass plate. This increased the machines’ efficiency by passing the glass plate between leather rubbing pads that increased the contact area. Experience with plate machines brought many design variations with sizes ranging from small table-top units for laboratory use to large cabinets that powered early x-ray machines.
This large electrostatic machine was made by instrument maker Hippolyte Pixii (1808–1835) in Paris around 1835. Although referred to as a Ramsden machine, the unit has no direct link to Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800), an early developer of plate machines. According to historian Willem Hackmann, Ramsden’s name became a generic term in France for plate machines.
For many years this machine was displayed in the National Museum of American History in a period setting with three mannequins. The scene, called “The Electric Kiss,” depicted a whimsical parlor game played in the name of science. One gentleman operated the static machine by turning the handle to rotate the glass plate and charge the brass frame called the prime conductor. The lady stood on a small insulated table with one hand on the prime conductor. Her suitor, without the benefit of insulation, provided a path to ground and received an electrical shock as he leaned in for a kiss. This and similar human experiments extended the knowledge of electrical properties such as conduction in an era when the fundamental nature of electricity was poorly understood. Experimenters also used such demonstrations to entertain patrons and elicit support for further experiments.
Currently not on view
Object Name
electrostatic generator
Electrostatic Machine
Date made
associated person
Pixii, Hippolyte
overall: 5 ft x 6 ft x 6 ft; 1.524 m x 1.8288 m x 1.8288 m
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
from Wesleyan University, Department of Physics, thru Ralph Baierlein
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Work and Industry: Electricity
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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