Back in the days when electricity was still being poked and prodded to discover what exactly it was, (e.g. the early to mid 1800s) James Wimshurst developed a somewhat crude means of generating high voltages through induction around the year 1831. The high voltage, low amperage electricity generated by the machine is the same type of electrostatic pop that one can induce by shuffling one's feet across the carpet on a cold, dry winter morning and then touching a grounded metal object, albeit on a somewhat larger scale.

The machine is comprised of two roughly dinner plate sized discs set vertically a short distance apart that rotate in opposite directions. Four copper brushes, two on the outside of either disc, gather electrons from the plates which are moved by mechanical means, usually a crank handle. The brush connectors feed into two Leyden jars, one on either side, and work as higher voltage capacitors. When sufficient charge is built up, a small bolt usually around one to three inches long will discharge across the two opposing spherical leads which connect from the leyden jars.

On the machine that I myself own, the discs are acrylic with inlaid foils spaced out like thick spokes every half inch or so. The machines are still used today to teach principles of electrostatic induction in high schools or universities. The low current of the electricity makes it (mostly) safe to work with and/or get zapped by. Those with heart problems or pacemakers are advised to skip this experience.

Oh...and no matter how used to getting shocked by static electricity you are, nothing can prepare you for the time that you get drunk and curious and clutch a wire in your teeth near one of the leads. Ouch.

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