In the event of a government shutdown, American History will remain OPEN through at least Saturday, October 7, by using prior year funds. Visit for updates.

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 was made in London by Edward Palmer (1803–1872) about 1840. The leather rubbing pad with a silk flap rides against one side of the cylinder and a brass prime conductor on the other side collects the charge with a brass comb. Both are mounted on insulating glass rods. A screw mechanism at the bottom adjusts the tension of the rubbing pad more precisely. 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. Palmer sold microscopes and other scientific supplies from his shop on Newgate Street from about 1837 to about 1845 when he sold his business.
Currently not on view
Object Name
cylinder-type frictional electrostatic machine
electrostatic generator
Other Terms
cylinder-type frictional electrostatic machine; Electrostatic Devices
date made
ca 1840
Palmer, E.
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
glass (overall material)
brass (overall material)
cloth (overall material)
steel (overall material)
overall: 15 1/2 in x 19 1/2 in x 10 in; 39.37 cm x 49.53 cm x 25.4 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
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.

Note: Comment submission is temporarily unavailable while we make improvements to the site. We apologize for the interruption. If you have a question relating to the museum's collections, please first check our Collections FAQ. If you require a personal response, please use our Contact page.