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The Collector’s Minute: The Wimshurst Machine

by Mike Wilcox (03/16/10).

This Wimshurst Machine is an electrostatic device for generating high voltages developed between 1880 and 1883.

This Wimshurst Machine is an electrostatic device for generating high voltages developed between 1880 and 1883.

This old looking reject from a science fiction/monster movie is in fact not the result of the mind of an overactive Hollywood script writer, nor is it a perpetual motion machine. It is actually a legitimate demonstration device used a great deal during the late-19th- to early 20th-century in universities all over the world called a “Wimshurst Machine.” The Wimshurst Machine is an electrostatic device for generating high voltages developed between 1880 and 1883 by British inventor James Wimshurst (1832-1903).

There is a purpose to all the odd-looking components. The two large plates rotate in opposite directions when the handle is cranked. The metallic brushes pick up the static charge from the disks—much like shuffling across a carpet with wool socks, which, as we know, creates quite a spark when you reach for the brass door knob. The two cylinders act as accumulators, storing the charge until it is strong enough to jump the gap between the two metal balls, in some cases the gap being more than six inches across. Cranking the machine will create a series of sharp cracks of miniature thunder and lightning, filling the air with a fresh Ozone scent.

Wimshurst was not the first to make such machines. Earlier machines in this type were developed by Wilhelm Holtz (1865 and 1867), August Toepler (1865) and J. Robert Voss (1880). As Wimshurst’s design was the most advanced and more widely produced, his name has become generic for electrostatic machines of this type.

Values for these electrostatic generators vary by size, condition and vintage. The vast majority of these machines appear far older than they really are—even though they look like a prop from a Jules Verne story—and most, like above example, date from the turn of the 19th century to World War One. In the current market, comparable machines have a replacement value in the $1,000 to $1,500 range.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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