The Conductive Paper That Sparked a Revolution

Legendary electrical engineer and linear IC trailblazer Bob Widlar was just like you. What I mean is that he would use everything available to him to mock up circuits, create prototypes, and make things work. One of the simplest and coolest tools he used was a conductive paper called Teledeltos. This wonderful stuff allowed him to define and test various configurations for the oddly-shaped ballast resistors he used in some of his high-performance circuit designs. But it wasn’t created for people like you and Bob. Teledeltos paper was created and trademarked by communications giant Western Union to drastically improve the convenience of telegrams.

Development of the electric telegraph ushered in the era of global communication. Suddenly, people could send messages to the other side of the world in a fraction of the time it took by post. The telegraph absolutely revolutionized human communication. It was the e-mail and the Twitter of its time. The telegraph’s efficiency made the Pony Express pretty much obsolete by the 1860s. And for a very long time it was much cheaper for people to send a telegram than make a long-distance phone call.

The Advantages of Facsimile

Translated from ancient Greek, ‘teledeltos’ basically means writing tablet at a distance. Western Union began developing Teledeltos paper in the 1930s for the purpose of transmitting telegrams by facsimile, a method that would greatly reduce the time it took to input messages into the system and get them out on the other side. As long as both the sender and the receiver had facsimile machines, a handwritten telegram could be transmitted without having to be typed by a clerk or translated into code. Teledeltos paper was also used in a variety of chart recorders, like seismographs and map plotters. The ability to feed a handwritten message, a photograph, or a map of enemy territory into a machine that transmitted an exact copy was a real game changer.

Because of its composition, Teledeltos paper could be easily marked without an electrolyte. It marked so well that photographs and other graphic information could be transmitted, and no processing was required on the receiving end. A dry recording paper is also much less sensitive to light and to temperature extremes. More importantly, properly stored dry paper is impervious to fungal growth. Teledeltos paper could sit around indefinitely without becoming useless. The only real disadvantage to this type of paper was the somewhat laborious process that went into achieving the desired resistance. Fax machines eventually moved on to digital transmission and thermal printing technology.

Image credit: MIT

Sparking a Revolution

Teledeltos paper has a light gray electro-sensitive coating on one side, and the other side is carbon black. When a current is applied with a stylus to the coated side of the paper, the coating is instantly burned away, revealing the carbon black. Teledeltos paper could be marked using either AC or DC. Polarity didn’t matter, either, but the boys in the lab at Western Union had better luck when they used a positive stylus with DC rather than a negative one.

Teledeltos paper was made in two types—“L” for low resistance and “H” for high. The resistivity of a roll of Teledeltos paper depended on the quality of the conductive fibers that went into it. The paper’s electrical characteristics were also influenced by the fiber beating process and the distribution of the conductive fibers by the supercalender, a system of hard rollers used in papermaking and other processes that press and smooth paper and other materials to increase the density.

Teledeltos to the Rescue

The Western Union Telecar printed telegrams on the go and delivered them to homes and businesses.
The Western Union Telecar printed telegrams on the go and delivered them to homes and businesses. Image credit: Modern Mechanix

Western Union was eager to extend its reach into private businesses and public places so that patrons who weren’t heavy telegram users didn’t have to visit a telegram office in order to share a bit of good news or to send their condolences. The company’s Telefax division came up with several types of machines to serve different business needs.

Some messages continued to be delivered by hand, but they weren’t printed at the central office. Western Union created a Telecar service to print telegrams transmitted to the car by the central office and deliver them to people’s homes. Messages were printed onto recording blanks that were cut automatically by a Telefax recorder situated in the car’s passenger area. The Telecar’s radio and amplification equipment was in the trunk.

The standard Telefax machine for office use was fairly large, like an early microwave oven. A smaller version called the DeskFax was only about the size of a breadbox, and these units occupied the desks of many businessmen and secretaries because of their convenience.

A Western Union DeskFax unit. Image from [B. Hilpert]
A Western Union DeskFax unit. Image from [B. Hilpert]
Both the Telefax and the DeskFax scanned and recorded telegrams using a rotary drum mechanism. A message could either be typed or handwritten onto a telegram blank. The sender then wrapped the telegram around a drum and set the machine to send. The machine would scan the message optically and then transmit it to the central office.

Before sending it on to the recipient, an attendant at the telegram office had to remove the incoming message and wrap it around the drum of a transmitting machine. Once connected to the receiving party’s line, the far end unit would buzz to arouse attention. The receiving patron would then load a blank on to their DeskFax’s roller and set their machine to receive.

Teledeltos for Hacking and Education

Measuring potential differences. Image from
Measuring potential differences.
Image from UCSD

Conductive paper like Teledeltos has many applications aside from fax machines and Fathometers. For starters, it’s great for making one-offs of both standard and variable resistors. Conductive paint can be used as connection points for wires. The paper is also well-suited for simulating current flow through circuits using a fraction of the current intended in production. Vacuum tube designers used Teledeltos for modeling potentials. Teledeltos can also be used to visualize electromagnetic potentials and perform field plotting.

We’re sure that at least a few of our readers out there used Teledeltos or something like it in school or on the job. Did you know you can still buy it? Teledeltos paper itself is still available from two companies in the UK, Better Equipped and Timstar. In the US, you can get it from Pasco in packs of 50 and 100 sheets, with and without a grid pattern.

[Teledeltos paper image is a product photo from Better Equipped]

3D Printed Wimshurst Machine

Steampunk extraordinaire [Jake von Slatt] has released his latest creation. This time he’s built a Wimshurst machine from mostly 3D printed parts. The Wimshurst machine is an electrostatic generator and was originally invented in the late 1800’s by James Wimshurst. It uses two counter-rotating disks to generate an electrostatic charge which is then stored in two Leyden jars. These jars are also connected to a spark gap. When the voltage raises high enough, the jars can discharge all at once by flashing a spark across the gap.

[Jake’s] machine has a sort of Gothic theme to it. He designed the parts using Autodesk’s 123D Design. They were initially printed in PLA. Skate bearings were used in the center of the disks to ensure a smooth rotation. The axle was made from the fiberglass shaft of a driveway reflector. The vertical supports were attached the base with machine screws.

The Leyden jars were made from sections of clear plastic tube. The caps for the jars were 3D printed and are designed to accept a short length of threaded 1/8″ pipe. Copper wire was used for the interior contacts and are held in place with electrical tape. The metal sectors on each disk were made from pieces of cut aluminum tape.

You may be wondering how this machine works if it’s almost entirely made out of plastic. [Jake] actually painted most of the parts with a carbon paint. This makes them electrically conductive and he can then use the parts to complete electrical circuits. Unfortunately he found this to be rather ineffective. The machine does work, but it only produces sparks up to 1/2″ in length. For comparison, his other machine is capable of 6″ sparks using similar sized Leyden jars.

[Jake] actually tried rebuilding this project using ABS, thinking that the PLA may have been collecting moisture from his breath, but the result is still only 1/2″ sparks. He suspects that the bumpy surface of the plastic parts may be causing the charge to slowly leak away, preventing a nice build up. He’s released all of his designs on Thingiverse in case any other hackers want to give it a whirl.

Whimsical Homemade Wimshurst Machine


Got some empty plastic bottles in your recycling bin or cluttering up your desk? Then you’ve got a large portion of the material you need for building your own Wimshurst machine like [Thomas Kim] did. This demonstration and build video is one of the many treasures of his YouTube channel. He shows the machine in operation and then spends several real-time minutes showing how he made the heart of it using plastic bottles, the conductive brush from a laser printer, discarded CDs, and a bunch of copper wire. As a bonus, he removes the conductive material and paint from a CD with a homemade taser. As a super special bonus, there’s no EDM soundtrack to this video, just the sounds of productivity.

The Wimshurst machine is an electrostatic generator that slightly predates the Tesla coil. It works by passing a charge from one spinning disk to another disk spinning in the opposite direction. When the charge reaches the collecting comb, it is stored in Leyden jars. Finally, it gets discharged in a pretty spark and the cycle begins anew. Once you’re over shocking your friends, use your Wimshurst machine to make an electrostatic precipitator.

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Producing Ozone at 3500 RPM


Motors are fun, and high voltage even more so. We’re guessing that’s what went through [brazilero2008]’s mind when he put together an electrostatic motor using upcycled parts he found lying around.

The electrostatic rotor works by connecting a very high voltage, low current power supply – in this case an industrial air ionizer – to a set or rotors surrounding a plastic rotor. The hot electrodes spray electrons onto the rotor, which are picked up by the ground electrodes. If the system doesn’t arc too much, you have yourself a plastic rotor that spins very, very fast.

[brazilero]’s device is made out of an aluminum turkey pan, a few acrylic tubes, and a few cardboard disks; all stuff you can find in a well-stocked trash can. After completing the device, it was taken apart and finished and screwed onto a beautiful painted jewelry box. Very cool for something you can make out of trash, and dangerous enough to be very interesting.

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Make any scrap of paper sticky with 2000 volts

Who needs chemistry when a little bit of physics will do? Instead of brewing up a batch of weak adhesive to make his own post-it notes, [Valentin] built this handheld device to add an electrostatic charge to bits of paper. Just give them a couple of seconds to charge and they’ll stick to the wall with ease.

The charging circuit is pretty simple, involving a transformer, transistor, resistor, and four diodes for rectification. He walks us through the build process, free forming the circuit using the transformer housing as a base. Once the circuit is fully assembled, a 9 volt battery connector is added and the fragile parts are hot-glued in place. It boosts the output voltage all the way up to 2 kV, but it’s still safe because it’s at a very low current.

The concept is akin to the high-voltage bulletin board seen last month. We wonder how long the notes will stay in place without an active electrical connection to keep the charge?

20 kilovolts replaces push pins on this bulletin board

Electrical Engineers don’t need push pins. That’s because they know how to control electrons! [Sven] put his knowledge of these subatomic particles to use when building his high voltage bulletin board. It uses a set of vertically strung wires to keep paper pinned against the board. The wires have high voltage at low current travelling through them. They’re in front of the board, but not touching it, and the board is serving as a ground plane. In this way an electrostatic charge pushes (or should that be pulls?) against the paper to keep each sheet right where he places it.

In the video after the break [Sven] gives us a tour of the hardware at work here. It starts with a 12V psu which feeds a buck converter. The regulated feed is patched into a high voltage supply which was designed as a CCFL driver. Finally, a voltage doubler is used to reach the final voltage, measuring about 20 kV per wire.

Don’t worry, [Sven] says the bare wire is “almost completely safe” because of the low current being conducted.

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Electrostatic computer interface

[Justin] sent in his 1st place winning project from Northeastern’s Electrical Engineering Senior Design Capstone. It’s an interface that uses electrostatics to detect your hand position above it. As you can see in the video, it has decent resolution and can detect position on all 3 axes. When they uncover it, you can see the sensors arranged in a grid. They point out that each sensor isn’t just like a button, but rather detects a range of motion. They are using a pic 18×4550 to handle the sensors, which then communicates to the PC via USB. This could be pretty useful for musical performances as well as an alternative interface for people who can’t use a mouse.EO