Cylinder-type Electrostatic Machine

Cylinder-type Electrostatic Machine

<< >>
Usage conditions apply
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 machine, made around 1785, has a hand-cranked cylinder and a leather pad with silk cloth to mounted on one side. The mount is adjustable by means of the wooden screw set in the base. A prime conductor would be mounted opposite the rubbing pad but is missing from this unit. 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 no extant maker's mark on the machine although it is of the type designed by Edward Nairne in the 1780s. Nairne (1726-1806) of England made electrical and other scientific devices.
Currently not on view
Object Name
electrostatic generator
electrostatic machine
Other Terms
galvanometer; Measuring Devices
date made
ca 1785
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
glass (overall material)
brass (overall material)
leather (overall material)
cloth (overall material)
overall: 25 1/2 in x 25 3/4 in x 16 1/4 in; 64.77 cm x 65.405 cm x 41.275 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
from Wabash College, Physics Department
See more items in
Work and Industry: Electricity
Science & Mathematics
Electrostatic Machines
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.


Add a comment about this object