The Elusive Wimshurst Machine
Model Engineer|4624
The Elusive Wimshurst Machine
It eluded me for 80+ years and not many interesting things do - everybody should have at least one.
Alan Pickering

They are a wonderful talking point in the lounge, attracting lots of stupid questions like ‘is it a rotary ironer’? Well, it’s rotary and will certainly iron out wrinkles in a flash given the chance - it can even seek you out to do so. My initial interest goes back a lightyear to school days, around about the age of the wheel.

I unexpectedly passed the 11+ exam to qualify for a technical college engineering course - my passion! Great, but it was what all the other entrants with higher pass marks also wanted. A case of Hobson’s choice - a bricklayer or out! I was not consulted, just enrolled, the theory being that the lack of education was the same for every trade, just the practical changed. How true.

The weekly highlight was the woodworking shop or the annual visit to the science lab. and it was here that I first spotted the Wimshurst machine, safely locked behind glass doors. I was told that it was never let out, presumably just in case somebody actually learnt something (learning was against school policy) never even dreaming that 68 years later I would actually make one.

Anyway, at the tender age of 15 I escaped to begin my self-education. The trowel was useful for planting snowdrops. I never even learnt how a knife and fork worked but was a world expert at cleaning off used bricks. I was blessed with an enquiring mind and a love of the new-fangled electricity and soon started building crystal sets, one valve radios eventually leading to the five valve superheterodyne.

Who could imagine that adding a second additional cat’s whisker to the germanium crystal would change the world for ever, ending the domain of the valve (my world) and eventually sending us to the moon. In those days the mere thought of today’s technology would have had you certified and the key thrown away. This missed development set science back 20 years.

Many years later model engineering was discovered and life was never the same again (search my history page on Google). Recently I built three large scale Stirling show engines (all of which have graced these hallowed pages) and was looking for something spectacular for them to drive that didn’t require much torque. Dynamos and water pumps have all been done but – wow - not a Wimshurst machine. This ticked all the boxes and must be researched.

I read the 1908 book by R. Marshall and all the excellent explanations/animations on YouTube. I found that each contradicted the other, leaving my brain cell desperate for company. There are pages of higher maths to prove it so somebody knows but can’t simply explain at my level of understanding without waffling over the difficult bits, like neutralising rods are supposed to be +ve at one end and -ve at the other - they are simply copper rods, for heaven’s sake!

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