We hope that during a recent visit to Discovery World you’ve gazed in wonder at some of our most memorable exhibits and interactive experiences. Perhaps petting a stingray or virtually exploring the bottom of the ocean will be something you don’t soon forget. But it’s safe to say that most of us have seen something at the museum that is truly…shocking. And I’m not just talking about the weather in the back half of April.
Maybe you’ve heard it referred to as the “shock machine”. Or to move away from the scientific and into the more colloquial, the “shocky thing”. Or “that thing that makes your hair stand up”. I am, of course, referring to the Van de Graaff generator which resides in the second floor of Discovery World’s technology wing.
When activated, the Van de Graaff generator creates an electrical current that runs alongside the outside of the silver metal section, achieving various effects. But while the basic operation seems fairly simple, there is a lot of subtlety and history to it that can easily be missed.
- You may have come to visit your all-time favorite exhibit and found that it simply wasn’t giving you that buzz you so craved, or that it simply wasn’t giving you that “mad scientist hair” you dreamed about as a child. Don’t worry, the exhibit isn’t broken! The higher the humidity, the worse the Van de Graaff generator is at creating crazy effects to your hair and clothes. As a great conductor, moisture can weaken the charge and make your experience less hair-raising. We suggest visiting during the cold winter months as the best time to zap yourself!
- With a name like Van de Graaff in the mix, your mind certainly conjures images of vast Germanic castles full of crackling scientific devices and bubbling beakers. Or at least it does for me (too much Hammer Horror). But in truth, Robert Jemison Van de Graaff was born in, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A brilliant scientist in the fields of mechanical engineering and particle physics, Van de Graaff built his first prototype for the machine in 1929, demonstrating various models for years before his patent was approved in 1935.
- While used for various amusements and education today, the Van de Graaff generator was originally built for much loftier purposes. It was constructed as an “electrostatic accelerator” for use in particle physics. The prototype actually generated electricity using the static from a silk ribbon purchased at the five-and-dime store! Van de Graaff’s various prototypes drew admirers, copycats and even praise from scientific luminary Nikola Tesla.
- Despite finally gaining the patent for his device to generate current using static in 1935, Van de Graaff was hardly the first person to theorize the possibility of using static for study of electrical current. As early as the 1660s, Otto von Guericke was using a sulfur globe rotated by hand as a primitive electrical frictional device.
- In various forms, versions of the electrostatic generator developed by Van de Graaff have been used for medical treatments, industrial science and of course, education! They have also found extensive use in study of particles in nuclear physics. They are actually used in particle accelerators, like the famous one at the CERN institute.
This blog was written by Discovery World’s Leif Mogren. Over the next few months Leif will dive into some of the most popular exhibits at Discovery World and share their interesting stories.