For example, if you
bring your arm within a
couple feet of the
generator all the hair will
stand on end. The feeling
this creates is hard to
describe, but it’s quite
odd. So, a hidden
generator at a safe
demonstrate this for trick-or-treaters or party
Of course, a classic
piece of Van de Graaff
magic is to stand on an
insulator, keep your hand
on the sphere, and let it
gradually charge your
body till your hair stands
on end. Long dry hair
Briefly running your
generator can create
endlessly entertaining short “pops” to a finger. There
really is no limit to what will suggest itself. Just keep in
mind when doing any stunt that you’ll want a plan to
discharge yourself afterward without getting zapped.
A great way to discharge yourself is to hold a metal
object at all times (keys are fine) and to then touch that
object to a ground source when you are done to remove
the charge from your person painlessly.
Remember, NEVER hook up any capacitors (or the
leyden jar) to the generator if you or anyone else plans
to touch it.
■ FIGURE 10.
■ FIGURE 11.
computer program calculations. I’ll be sure to feature
those, and my favorite tips and tricks for Nuts & Volts
readers on my page at www.noonco.com/van I hope
you’ll send me photos of your high voltage Halloween!
The question always comes up ... just how far can
you “size up” a Van de Graaff?
I’ll wrap up with Figures 10 and 11, which are two of
my favorite pictures. The enormous Van de Graaffs
shown were so large that they were placed on railroad
tracks and oppositely charged. Potentials of over 10
million volts were said to have been achieved.
I was lucky enough to know Larry White of the
Boston Museum of Science. Larry told me that after
hours, Dr. Van de Graaff himself used to come in and
they would run a one million Van de Graaff (which is still
at the museum) for their own pleasure long into the night
... just to watch the sparks and chat. It’s nice to know
that even the inventor himself never tired of watching his
There are many ways to get more power and
experiments from your generator, and some useful
Robert Jemison Van de Graaff was born
at the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion in
Tuscaloosa, AL from Dutch descent. In
Tuscaloosa, he received his BS and Masters
degrees from The University of Alabama
where he was a member of The Castle Club
(later became Mu Chapter of Theta Tau). After
a year at the Alabama Power Company, Van
de Graaff studied at the Sorbonne. In 1926,
he earned a second BS at Oxford University
on a Rhodes Scholarship, completing his PhD
Van de Graaff was the designer of the Van de Graaff
generator — a device which produces high voltages. In 1929,
Van de Graaff developed his first generator (producing 80,000
volts) with help from Nicholas Burke at Princeton University.
By 1931, he had constructed a larger generator, generating
seven million volts. He was a National Research Fellow, and from
1931 to 1934 a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT). He became an associate professor in 1934
(staying there until 1960). He was awarded the Elliott Cresson
Medal in 1936.
During WWII, Van de Graaff was director of the High
Voltage Radiographic Project. After WWII, he co-founded the
High Voltage Engineering Corporation (HVEC). During the 1950s,
he invented the insulating-core transformer (producing high
voltage direct current). He also developed tandem generator
technology. The American Physical Society awarded him the
T. Bonner prize (1965) for the development of electrostatic
Van de Graaff died January 16, 1967 in Boston, MA.
September 2012 47