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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

28/03/22 - The Wimshurst Build & Other Electrical Options

Without giving to much away (I was advised to limit what I share about my ideas/research with the world... not that the world reads this) I have been thinking about the equipment that could possibly help me achieve my desired outcomes. Since my research evolves around landscape, natural forms and other materials, I have been wanting to explore how a natural material can produce an outcome. One material that I have always had an interest with is electricity. Why electricity? I could say it was those science lessons in school where I built circuits to switch on a small light bulb, or maybe it was my electrician (maintenance tech... he preferred that name) dad who inspired me via how he made machines "come to life", or it could possibly be the ultimate power of God, raining down lightning forks on a summer's eve that thrilled the hell out of me! Whichever it was, there is something really cool about electricity and the dangerously violent but aesthetically pleasing spark events that occur.

From an artistic perspective, all one needs to do is to take a look at Walter De Maria's 'The Lightning Field '(1977) located in the New Mexico desert. A minimal land art, simplistic in conception but ultimately phenomenologically insane. This work is a clear indication of allowing nature to take control of a live landscape 'painting' that consistently changes each day without any human involvement. The environmental aesthetics is brought to a sublime version via the use of electricity. De Maria captures a terrifying and deadly natural power which is harnessed into a form of artistic representation boarding on parallels with earlier sublime works such as Loutherbourg's 'Alpine Avalanche' and Martin's 'The Great Day of His Wrath'.

'The Lightning Field ' - Walter De Maria (1977)

Alpine Avalanche” - Philip James de Loutherbourg (1803)

'The Great Day of His Wrath' - John Martin (1853)

To produce such a material I need to find the right machine or find the components to build a device. I searched the internet for many suggestions and came across several different options, but the one's that seemed purposeful were the Wimshurst machine, the Tesla coil and the Marx generator. Each one of these machines were available to buy or build and many people had made their own DIY version, which I am going to build for the Marx generator (once I have sourced the capacitors and resistors).

Tesla Coil

Marx Generator

The Wimshurst was the one that stood out for me and seemed a bit more reliable and safer. Many people advised that the Marx generator is highly dangerous but I suppose that goes without saying when working with electricity. One only has to hook oneself up to a live circuit when removing the kitchen socket (I did cut the downstairs power, but my house is a death trap... previous owners) to understand the awful pain an electrical shock can have on the human body. It is without saying that working with such a dangerous material you must always follow all safety precautions.

The Wimshurst machine is an electrostatic generator, a machine for generating high voltages and developed between 1880 and 1883 by British inventor James Wimshurst (see image at the top of the page). In a Wimshurst machine, the two insulated discs and their metal sectors rotate in opposite directions passing the crossed metal neutraliser bars and their brushes. An imbalance of charges is induced, amplified, and collected by two pairs of metal combs with points placed near the surfaces of each disc. These collectors are mounted on insulating supports and connected to the output terminals. The positive feedback increases the accumulating charges exponentially until the dielectric breakdown voltage of the air is reached and an electric spark jumps across the gap. Sounds straight forward enough to create electrical sparks.

I managed to source a reasonable priced Wimshurst for around £50 from a science shop (Widescreen Centre - link below) based in Cambridge. Now I thought the WM was pre-built or some building was required and those materials would be of a sturdy kind. When the WM arrived, I was surprised to find out it was made of card and aluminium foil, with the exception of some wooden and metal parts. I was very optimistic and a little disappointed at spending £50 on cardboard, I did not want to be let down as I really needed this machine to work. There were a lot of small components and the instructions stated that it was an eight to sixteen hour build and I followed that build time to the latter stages. It was not an easy build and at a lot of times complex and confusing, with not many diagrams found within the instruction booklet. I found that ticking/crossing off each instruction section as I moved along helped keep me a little more focussed and in tune to where my build was.

I used superglue to construct the WM as I wanted to speed up the build process however, using so much superglue did start to get to me. I would have to step outside every so often to receive some fresh air and because of the fiddly nature of the build my fingers would be coated in superglue. This did become a menace and not an enjoyable experience for me.

The earlier stages of the build were quite straight forward, building the base and stands as well as sticking the aluminium sheets to the clear perspex discs when really well. Issues started to occur when I had to build the plastic layden jars whilst trying to "tape" down with aluminium foil (as instructed) the conductor rods to spacing bar, whilst keeping it perfectly horizontal, balanced and without removing the jars from the base. Many times I swore at this section and I believe (spoiler alert) is the reason why my WM does not produce static currents. Other complex issues that I worked with was the spacing between the disc wheels and keeping them evenly spaced at 2mm apart. My wheels liked to moved in and out as they turn... very annoying. The drive belt that required a half turn in the rubber did not want to sit on the drive wheel and in so created a lot of tension when trying to turn the handle. Due to the tension the wheel would spin before the cardboard would removed itself from the driveshaft. Even when releasing the tension the drive wheels would unstick themselves after turning, creating a shifting effect for powering up the WM.

I tried to contact Astro Media, the company who supplied the WM kits but unfortunately I was un successful. I did find advice on Twitter off people who had more success than me with their WM but I could not put their advice to practice as I still had no success. I think the morale of this is not to buy cheap cardboard machines and instead payout the £80+ for a pre-built plastic/metal WM. I am however conscious that the latter versions are Chinese Ebay finds and may also be of a lesser quality. Either way, I will continue to look towards sourcing a prebuilt WM and make a Marx generator. Below I have included the stages of the WM build.


Elderfield, J. (2021). Light and Lightning: Wonder Reactions At Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field . Available: . Last accessed 28th March 2022.

Nilsen, R. (2021). On the Sublime. Available: Last accessed 28th March 2022.

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