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A Wimshurst Machine, Queen Elizabeth II,
Prince Phillip & The Bishop of Durham

The Queen may have required a change of underwear after an
electrostatic demonstration during her Silver Jubilee in 1977

In 1977 the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, was celebrating a reign of 25 years.
A couple of years earlier, I`d constructed a large Wimshurst Machine as a school project.
Machine & Queen were destined to meet.

A Wimshurst Machine in Operation
click here for enlarged detail of painting
The Wimshurst

Shown left, an innocuous,
harmless electrical machine
for electrostatic experiments.

A larger version,
with a 2 cubic foot capacitor,
frightened the Royals

The Wimshurst Machine is a self starting high voltage electrostatic generator. It uses electrostatic induction to multiply charge, and plate separation to increase voltage. It is known as an "influence machine", as no friction is used to generate charges.

Invented by James Wimshurst in 1878, it was the culmination of years of electrostatic engineering by the likes of Bohnenburger, Toepler and (if you believe this) Glitch.

Two Wimshurst Machines, ancient & not so ancient
Electrostatic generators, ancient & 'modern'. Note six inch rule on base

In 1974, aged fifteen, I designed & constructed the above version of a Wimshurst using "modern" materials. It had glass-fibre laminate (PCB stock) discs, neoprene 'O' ring belts etc.
Max. spark length 11.25 cm. I designed it for 15cm.

As part of her Jubilee tour, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were visiting the North East of England. The Bishop of Durham was with them, presumably to ensure there was no bother. At county hall in Durham city, they must have been underwhelmed to see a long line of school craft projects with attendant teenagers.

I was part of this group. We had been plucked from various County Durham schools, and had been lectured by a Royal flunkey on the correct way to address Liz and various other instantly forgettable rules of etiquette. During this monologue I remember wondering if high energy electrical detonations would be acceptable.

The Royals and the Bishop were looking bored as they wandered down the line, looking at craft work and asking inane questions. The pottery, paintings and wooden objects must have seemed interminable.

Then they arrived at my position. QE2 unwisely asked me me what my machine was, although the Bish knew (apparently a family tie with Wimshurst existed) and wisely moved back to let Phil in.

I switched the Wimshurst on. I think I detected a flutter of interest as the machine`s discs rotated up and began to crackle with electrostatic energy. Even Prince Phil moved closer, muttering something quite unintelligible.

I was telling Liz about electrostatics while things got interesting. I`d connected up a large (2 cubic feet) glass, foil & resin multiple parallel plate capacitor to the wimshurst. This was it`s first public demonstration. Exceedingly dangerous, and easily capable of killing, the Queen was a couple of feet from it`s bare terminations. (Thank goodness she didn`t turn violent) It discharged with a huge detonation. Even I got a fright.

The security people started talking down their sleeves and the Royals were hurriedly moved on, possibly with distressed underclothes. I had a good talk to the Bish though, I`m sure he thought it quite amusing.

Electrostatic Ultra High Voltage Generator

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