Wimshurst Machines: High Voltage from the Gods

Wimshurst machine demo
Wimshurst machine demo

The Wimshurst machine is one of the oldest and best known electrostatic machines, consisting of its iconic two counter rotating disks and two Leyden jars. Most often you see someone hand cranking it, producing sparks, though we’ve seen it used for much more, including for powering a smoke precipitator for cleaning up smoke and even for powering a laser.

It works through an interesting sequence of events. Most explanations attempt to cram it all into one picture, requiring some major mental gymnastics to visualize. This often means people give up, resigned to assume these work through some mythical mechanics that defy a mortal’s ability to understand.

So instead, let’s do a step-by-step explanation.

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Legit Hack Creates TEA Laser Power by Mr. Wimshurst

It’s a bit scary what you can make with stuff found in the average household, provided you know what you’re doing. How about a TEA laser? Don’t have a high-voltage power supply to run it? Do what [Steven] of rimstar.org did, and power it with a homemade Wimshurst machine.

TEA lasers give off ultraviolet light. In order to see the beam, [Steven] aims it through a glass of water tinted with highlighting-marker juice and onto a sheet of white paper. [Steven] originally used his homemade 30kV DC power supply to light up his TEA laser. He made the laser itself from aluminium foil, angled aluminium, transparency sheets, some basic hardware components, and a 100kΩ resistor.

Although the components are simple, adjusting them so that the laser actually works is quite a feat. [Steven] says he burned holes through several transparencies and pieces of foil before getting it right. Using a Wimshurst machine to power the TEA laser takes another level of patience. It takes about 25 cranks of the static electricity-producing machine to build up enough energy to attempt lasing.

Want to make your own TEA laser, perhaps in a different configuration? [Steven]’s design was based on one of [sparkbangbuzz]’s lasers, which we covered several years ago.

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Bicycle-Powered Wimshurst Machine

A lot of great pieces of real technology were inspired (or, at least, look like) pieces of technology from science fiction of the past. Like the smartphones of today have a surreal resemblance to the Star Trek communicators of the 60s, [Steve] took inspiration from a story about a bicycle racing in space and set out to make his own.

In the story, the bicycle wheels are replaced by electrostatic generators that power a type of (fictional) ion drive. Since an ion drive wouldn’t add much thrust to a bicycle operated on the Earth, [Steve] used the electrostatic generator he built to create a sparking light show. The generator is called a Wimshurst machine and has two counter-rotating discs which collect charge. The charge is dissipated across a spark gap which is placed where the bike light would normally go.

We don’t know if the sparks from the Wimshurst generator are enough for a proper headlight, but it’s definitely a cool effect. [Steve] also points out that it might also work as a bug zapper, but either way you should check out the video after the break to see it in action! While it’s not quite a tricorder it’s still a pretty impressive sci-fi-inspired build, and something that’s definitely unique in the bicycle realm.

There’s quite a collection of these Wimshurst projects beginning to come together. Here’s one made using a trio of soda bottles, and another example which used 3D printing.

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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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