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Technology museum

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The high-voltage terminals of two or more Leyden jars that carried charges of opposite polarity were positioned to graze the thimbles on opposite sides of the rotating wheel. The motor was started by hand. Thereafter a spark would jump from the high-voltage terminal to each passing thimble and impart to it a charge of the same polarity as that of the terminal. The force of repulsion between the like charges imparted momentum to the wheel.

Conversely, the thimbles were attracted by the oppositely charged electrode of the Leyden jar Franklin placed on the opposite side of the wheel. As the thimbles grazed that jar, a spark would again transfer charge, which was of opposite polarity. Thus the thimbles were simultaneously pushed and pulled by the high-voltage terminals exactly as was needed to accelerate the wheel.

Franklin was not altogether happy with his motor. The reason was that running it required, in his words, "a foreign force, to wit, that of the bottles". He made a second version of the machine without Leyden jars.

In this design the rotor consisted principally of a 17-inch disk of glass mounted to rotate in the horizontal plane on low-friction bearings. Both surfaces of the disk were coated with a film of gold, except for a boundary around the edge. The rotor was thus constructed much like a modern flat-plate capacitor.

Twelve evenly spaced metal spheres, cemented to the edge of the disk, were connected alternately to the top and bottom gold films. Twelve stationary thimbles supported by insulating columns were spaced around the disk to graze the rotating metal spheres. When Franklin placed opposite charges on the top and bottom films and gave the rotor a push, the machine ran just as well as his first design, and for the same reason. According to Franklin, this machine would make up to 50 turns a minute and would run for 30 minutes on a single charge.

Jefimenko gives both motors an initial charge from a 20 000 volt generator. They consume current at the rate of about a millionth of an ampere when they are running at full speed. The rate is equivalent to .02 watt, which is the power required to lift a 20 gram weight 10 centimeters (or an ounce 2.9 inches) in one second.

Jefimenko wondered if Franklin's motor could be made more powerful. As Jefimenko explains, the force can be increased by adding both moving and fixed electrodes. This stratagem is limited by the available space. If the electrodes are spaced too close, sparks tend to jump from electrode to electrode around the rotor, thereby in effect short-circuiting the machine. Alternatively the rotor could be made cylindrical to carry electrodes in the form of long strips or plates. This scheme could perhaps increase the output power by a factor of 1 000.

Reviewing the history of electrostatic machines, Jefimenko came across a paper 3 published in 1870 by Johann Christoff Poggendorff, a German physicist. It described an electrostatic motor fitted with a rotor that carried no electrodes. The machine consisted of an uncoated disk of glass that rotated in the vertical plane on low-friction bearings between opposing crosses of ebonite. Each insulating arm of the crosses supported a comblike row of sharp needle points that grazed the glass.

When opposing combs on opposite sides of the glass were charged in opposite polarity to potentials in excess of 2 000 volts, air in the vicinity of the points on both sides of the glass was ionized. A bluish glow surrounded the points, which emitted a faint hissing sound. The effect, which is variously known as St. Elmo's fire and corona discharge, deposited static charges on both sides of the rotor.

Almost the entire surface of the glass acquired a coating of either positive or negative fixed charges, depending on the polarity of the combs. The forces of repulsion and attraction between glass so charged and the combs were substantially larger than they were in Franklin's charged thimbles. The forces were also steadier, because in effect the distances between the combs and the charged areas remained constant. It should be noted that adjacent combs on the same side of the glass carried charges of opposite polarity, so that the resulting forces of attraction and repulsion acted in unison to impart momentum to the disk, as they did in Franklin's motor.

By continued experimentation Poggendorff learned that he should slant the teeth of the combs to spray charge on the glass at an angle. The resulting asymmetrical force made the motor self-starting and unidirectional. When the teeth were perpendicular to the glass surface, the forces were symmetrical, as they were in Franklin's motor. When the machine was started by hand, it ran equally well in either direction.

Poggendorff was immensely pleased by the rate at which his machine converted charge into mechanical motion. He concluded his paper with a faintly odious reference to Franklin's device. "That such a quantity of electricity must produce a far greater force than that in the [Franklin] electric roasting spit," he wrote, "is perfectly obvious and nowadays would not be denied by Franklin himself. With one grain of gunpowder one cannot achieve so much as with one hundred pounds".

Electrostatic motors are now classified in general by the method by which charge is either stored in the machine or transferred to the rotor. Poggendorff's machine belongs to the corona type, which has attracted the most attention in recent years. Although its measured efficiency is better than 50 percent, Poggendorff regarded it merely as an apparatus for investigating electrical phenomena. He wrote that "it would be a sanguine hope if one wanted to believe that any useful mechanical effect could be achieved with it".