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WHAT A SHOCKING CAREER

LONGTIME PLAYING-ABOUT WITH ELECTROSTATIC PHYSICS

(c)1999 William J. Beaty

How did I get involved with "static" electricity? What is my level of expertise? Why should you trust what I say, since many of my statements contradict your textbooks? Here's my "Electrostatics Timeline."

I started out normal, at least somewhat normal. I only turned into a raving Electrostatics Freak over many years. As 4-yr old kids long ago, my little brother and I spent lots of time chasing each other in slow motion while scuffing on the livingroom rug and dueling with zapping fingers. Cat noses did not go unnoticed.

A few years of living on Guam was an interruption, since Guam (pacific, Marianas Islands) is an alien, high-humidity zero-electrification zone as far as environmental high-voltage effects are concerned. However, I had one memorable experience when I was 6. My father was a grade school teacher, and at one point I was with him in an empty classroom for a few hours while he was doing paperwork. Drawing on the chalkboard wore thin, so I asked about this box of strange science-stuff on his desk. It was test-tubes full of grey metallic-looking stuff called "pith," black shiny rods, and fur. I don't remember what he called it, but he said it didn't work. I tried rubbing the rod on the fur, and found that the rod would CAUSE MOTION IN THE PITH FRAGMENTS FROM AN INCH AWAY!!! For a 6-yr old, this was profoundly stunning magic. Also, the real world contradicted my father's statements, and I discovered this on my own. Knowing what I know now, I see that the experiment shouldn't have worked. Guam is way too humid for static-electricity demonstrations. However, we were in a heavily-airconditioned building, and all the moisture-exuding students had been gone for hours. The air conditioner must have finally been able to lower the tropical jungle r.h. to barely within the range where rabbit fur can electrify a hard-rubber rod. I think my father tried the demonstration the next day, and said it still didn't work. (A classroom full of kids creates lots of humidity.) Heh heh. The world can talk to little kids, and show us a secret.

Back in upstate New York, in 7th grade gym class, there was a small "wrestling/weights room" with padded walls, Sorbothane floor pads, and a weight-lifting set. This was nerd heaven, since the coach would leave us alone in order to supervise the basketball jocks. The rest of the kids would practice "weightlifting" by grabbing 2lb iron weight-disks, then walking slowly around the perimiter of the room while leaning and dragging our shoulders on the plastic pads. Yes, gym class can be fun! :) We "dueled" with the iron disks, and the resulting sparks were NASTY. Even if they lept from disk to disk, we could feel our arm-muscles significantly twitch. (Looking back on this, I see that our body-voltages must have been relatively astronomical when compared with the voltage range of normal rug-scuffing.) I quickly noticed that two electrified kids could not deliver shocks, and if EVERYBODY was electrified, nobody could zap each other. However, *I* still could! I would step off the Sorbothane pads for a moment, lose my charge imbalance to the conductive concrete floor, then go around delivering painful zaps because of my "grounded" state. I became skilled at tracking who was carrying charge imbalances and who was not, trying to almost "see" the voltage state of all the individual kids (the better to zap you with, my dear.) Obviously a powerful childhood experience, eh? :)

When I was 13, I received a much-coveted subscription to Popular Science for my birthday, and was having delerious visions of all the cool stuff I was going to build when someday I had money. Then I got the 1972 April and May and issues. Motors. Plastic motors. Plastic motors which can be POWERED BY THE SKY! Dr. Oleg D. Jefimenko's famous Electrostatic Motor articles were in those issues; describing all sorts of exotic rotating devices made from foil layers and gleaming polished plexiglas. The Elmira Flood of 1972 hit a week later, wiping out my room, and I thought I'd never see those magazine issues again. Yet what bizarre things lurk just under the thin crust of our ordinary mundane everyday reality, squirrled away in places few people ever look, and if they do look they don't see it. Motors powered by the sky.

In 8th grade physical science class, there was a VandeGraaff machine in the rear storage room. This was used for higher grades, and I never saw it run. However, while waiting for class to begin, I would sneak back there and spin the motor drive by hand, which caused the VDG sphere to suck in the ground-ball on it's spring-loaded rod, until a 2-inch spark would go "bap!"

Disgusted by the arrogant scientific dispargement of Kirlian Photography and Pyramid Power, I went to college and became an electrical engineer instead of a physicist.

Decades later I finally encountered an electrostatic voltmeter, and for the first time I was able to verify the actual human body-voltage values which arise from rug-scuffing. I had always imagined that people could easily develop 30KV with respect to the earth. I was working at Sykes Datatronics (Ra cha cha, NY!) when the production line was down because of fried motherboards (pre-Apple-II, 6502, 8" floppies.) Electrostatic damage was judged to be the culprit, and the new and expensive conveyor system had to be modified. The engineering department rented a couple of "Electrometers" (Electrostatic Voltmeters,) so I immediately got hold of one and went scuffing around upon various carpets. I was amazed to find that my measured body voltage WRT ground would only hit 4.0KV at max, even though I was able to create 5mm sparks from fingertip to ground. My biased perception of voltage values created by that sorbothane-padded weight-room came to an end. Later I used that voltmeter extensively for FCC testing of modem transformers. Some tech people have Black Bakelite "VOM" meters in their early electronics experience. I have a thousand-billion ohm electronic voltmeter with a 10,000v full-scale range. Truely an "alternate mental toolbox."

I stumbled across an ad for "Electronics Dept. Head" for the Boston Museum of Science, and actually landed the job. Effing Incredible!!! The best techi job in the entire world. (low pay though.) Boston has Dr. VandeGraaff's original gigantic particle-accelerator, and uses it to give lightning shows. The small museum library also had an extensive collection of electrostatics books, including those long-lost E-motor articles from Pop. Electronics, as well as feet thick of article clippings, build-it projects for bizarre-o kilovoltage devices of all kinds, ancient dusty physics journal articles, etc. Over one stretch of weeks I must have spent four hours a day there, swallowing it all. Then the musuem embarked on its Electricity/Electronics exhibit.


Dr. Jefimenko missed something huge: a powerful social effect, as well as an opportunity to harness it. Why wasn't the world already crawling with electrostatic motors? Simple: nobody ever messes with them and gets interested in them. But what about Jefimenko's incredible motors? Well, we need lathes, milling machines, and precision machine-shop skills to build those heavy-duty sky-voltage motors in his articles. They are elegant and impressive museum pieces, but what child would ever look at an impressive museum piece and think "hey... *I* could build that!" ? "Impressive" cancels out their inspiration. But that's what our upcoming electronics exhibit might end up looking like: elegant and impressive barriers to learning. Like hell it would.

I got to try my hand at electrostatic motor design, and came up with a nice, high-speed 3-sector disk motor built from the requisite gleaming plexiglas, as well as unique voltage-viewers panels, attempts at electrostatic levitation demos, visible e-beams and magnets, exposing the museum visitors to AC kilovoltage, and other seriously cool stuff which was necessarily compatible with national museum esthetic standards. (The excess material is now on my Electrostatics page!) But I also included something aimed at the modern versions of my long-ago 6-yr-old self: an exotic electrostatic motor made from garbage. The Hall of Electricity even now has one case containing a hand-cranked VandeGraaff machine, and also in that case is my subtle and subversive message aimed at all those weirdo kids who might be a bit like I once was. Look! A motor made from old pop cans and tinfoil, which turns by itself because of invisible magic. Science is supposed to be impressive, important, and horrendously complicated, right? The better to stroke mankind's overblown ego with. But ANYBODY could build such a thing. Your parents turn the crank and walk on to the next exhibit unit. But *YOU* know what that crude little device implies, don't you. I can feel you out there, looking at it.

Well, the internet arrives and all that is moot. Everyone and his (little) brother can now stumble into this expanding nest of High Voltage shennanigans, and go off to build bottle motors, VDG machines, create lightning from water, perform strange high-voltage demonstrations... or just learn the secret skill for scuffing up a really big zap. Cool ideas spread by the same dynamics which control disease epidemics. I just wanna be a "Typhoid Mary" of electrostatics. But this is a disease which has a chance of IMPROVING the infected population, eh? :)

Me, I'm still out here working at a normal 9-5 programming job (although once I did get to play "Professional ESD Remediation Expert" by tracking down mysterious resetting in a microprocessor-array "smart conveyor" system using nothing but a Radio Shack cliplead and a 50-cent voltage sniffer.) Perhaps I could do more if I pursued funding, but the pursuit of funding is crawling with petty politics and timesucking bureaucratic paper shuffling. Perhaps the pursuit of funding would wreck all of this webpage stuff, since webpage stuff only needs time, not money. With a good job and time for a hobby on the side, what more do I need?

If there's one thing I want you to get from all this, it's the fact that this world is totally jam-packed full of profound depths of unplumbed mysteries, hidden just below the surface. But there is a problem. We are blind. We can't see them. And any people who don't believe in those mysteries cannot feel them out there, waiting for them, hovering just around the next corner out of sight. "Normal" people know for a fact that science has discovered EVERYTHING. They are convinced that, maybe a few decades ago, there were still some interesting things left to discover, but today they're all gone. Star Trek technology? Don't make them laugh. Their physics proves that it's all impossible. Humankind is a self-centered predator whose highest goal is to steal success from his fellows, humankind will never reach the stars, any other belief is unscientific Sci-fi fantasy.

And the famous American astronomer/skeptic Simon Newcomb proved in 1904 that flying machines were impossible. Hence all researchers exept the crackpots were convinced to drop any flying-machine research, and to loudly ridicule the Wright Brothers for years after their successful flights; during the years they were giving public demonstrations in Dayton, OH, and no scientist, reporter, or government official ever showed up. Some rare people suspect that there MIGHT be a small lesson in that. The majority never learn.

"New and stirring things are belittled because if they are not belittled, the humiliating question arises, 'Why then are you not taking part in them?' " - H. G. Wells
 
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