Use that built-up static electricity to create a shocking work of art

Illustration for article titled Use that built-up static electricity to create a shocking work of art

To mortal eyes, when an electric current hits an insulator, it stops. But actually it often creates art - it's just art that we can't see. Lichtenberg figures are branching patterns, like frozen lightning, that appear when electric discharge runs up against an insulator. You can make one of your own with static electricity and basic art supplies.


In the late 1700s, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was doing some eighteenth century science; zapping various things with electricity to see if he could create gold or a Frankenstein monster or possibly discover a new law of physics. He was not having a lot of luck zapping plates covered with resin, and so he moved on. The work room he was in was dusty. When he wandered back to his plates, they had acquired a layer of grit. In that layer was the frozen impression of lightning bolts. He experimented further. It seemed the electric current, while not moving through the insulator, left regions of positive and negative charge on the surface. When he sprinkled positively or negatively charged powders onto the plates, they clung to differently charged pieces of the plates, making intricate figures. Overjoyed, he wrote about the strange figures, and modestly gave them his own name.

Illustration for article titled Use that built-up static electricity to create a shocking work of art

You too can make Lichtenberg Figures, with relatively little trouble. You'll need a sheet of acrylic, a metal prong like a straightened-out paper clip or the point of a compass, and copier toner. If you have a generator of some kind, you can use it. If you don't, you need something to rub against, and a high tolerance for pain.

Lay the sheet of acrylic out. Prop up the metal object to it is just touching the acrylic with its point. Now get zapping. The generator will only need a quick zap to get the work done. If you don't have one, it's time to rub a cat, or a shag carpet, or something else that will get you charged up. Then touch the metal object. The surface is now Lichtenberged. Since no one can see charge, you'll need a little help to observe the results. This is where the copier toner comes in. Gently blow the particles across the surface, and you should see them cling to the different regions of the plate. They'll end up showing the figure beautifully, and if you want you can capture it by pressing a piece of paper to the acrylic.

(If, on the other hand, you do create a Frankenstein monster, please write in and let me know.)

Top Image: Teslamania

Second Image: Drawing of original Lichtenberg Figure - Captured Lightning

Via Captured Lighting and



Terry D. Johnson

I used to work with an electron beam (to crosslink polymers) - the fellow running the facility had oodles of these in large blocks of what I think was acrylic. Very attractive.