1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leyden Jar

LEYDEN JAR, or Condenser, an electrical appliance consisting in one form of a thin glass jar partly coated inside and outside with tin foil, or in another of a number of glass plates similarly coated. When the two metal surfaces are connected for a short time with the terminals of some source of electromotive force, such as an electric machine, an induction coil or a voltaic battery, electric energy is stored up in the condenser in the form of electric strain in the glass, and can be recovered again in the form of an electric discharge.

The earliest form of Leyden jar consisted of a glass vial or thin Florence flask, partly full of water, having a metallic nail inserted through the cork which touched the water. The bottle was held in the hand, and the nail presented to the prime conductor of an electrical machine. If Early
the person holding the bottle subsequently touched the nail, he experienced an electric shock. This experiment was first made by E. G. von Kleist of Kammin in Pomerania in 1745,[1] and it was repeated in another form in 1746 by Cunaeus and P. van Musschenbroek, of the university of Leyden (Leiden), whence the term Leyden jar.[2] J. H. Winkler discovered that an iron chain wound round the bottle could be substituted for the hand, and Sir William Watson in England shortly afterward showed that iron filings or mercury could replace the water within the jar. Dr John Bevis of London suggested, in 1746, the use of sheet lead coatings within and without the jar, and subsequently the use of tin foil or silver leaf made closely adherent to the glass. Benjamin Franklin and Bevis devised independently the form of condenser known as a Franklin or Leyden pane, which consists of a sheet of glass, partly coated on both sides with tin foil or silver leaf, a margin of glass all round being left to insulate the two tin foils from each other. Franklin in 1747 and 1748 made numerous investigations on the Leyden jar, and devised a method of charging jars in series as well as in parallel. In the former method, now commonly known as charging in cascade, the jars are insulated and the outside coating of one jar is connected to the inside coating of the next and so on for a whole series, the inside coating of the first jar and the outside coating of the last jar being the terminals of the condenser. For charging in parallel a number of jars are collected in a box, and all the outside coatings are connected together metallically and all the inside coatings brought to one common terminal. This arrangement is commonly called a battery of Leyden jars. To Franklin also we owe the important knowledge that the electric charge resides really in the glass and not in the metal coatings, and that when a condenser has been charged the metallic coatings can be exchanged for fresh ones and yet the electric charge of the condenser remains.

In its modern form the Leyden jar consists of a wide-mouthed bottle of thin English flint glass of uniform thickness, free from flaws. About half the outside and half the inside surface is coated smoothly with tin foil, and the remainder of the glazed surface is painted with shellac varnish. A Modern construction. wooden stopper closes the mouth of the jar, and through it a brass rod passes which terminates in a chain, or better still, three elastic brass springs, which make good contact with the inner coating. The rod terminates externally in a knob or screw terminal. The jar has a certain capacity C which is best expressed in microfarads or electrostatic units (see Electrostatics), and is determined by the surface of the tin foil and thickness and quality of the glass. The jar can be charged so that a certain potential difference V, reckoned in volts, exists between the two coatings. If a certain critical potential is exceeded, the glass gives way under the electric strain and is pierced. The safe voltage for most glass jars is about 20,000 volts for glass 1/10th in. in thickness; this corresponds with an electric spark of about 7 millimetres in length. When the jar is charged, it is usually discharged through a metallic arc called the discharging tongs, and this discharge is in the form of an oscillatory current (see Electrokinetics). The energy stored up in the jar in joules is expressed by the value of 1/2 CV2, where C is the capacity measured in farads and V the potential difference of the coatings in volts. If the capacity C is reckoned in microfarads then the energy storage is equal to CV2/2 × 106 joules or 0.737 CV2/2 × 106 foot-pounds. The size of jar commonly known as a quart size may have a capacity from 1/400th to 1/800th of a microfarad, and if charged to 20,000 volts stores up energy from a quarter to half a joule or from 3/16ths to 3/8ths of a foot-pound.

Leyden jars are now much employed for the production of the high frequency electric currents used in wireless telegraphy (see Telegraphy, Wireless). For this purpose they are made by Moscicki in the form of glass tubes partly coated by silver chemically deposited on the glass on the inner and outer surfaces. The tubes have walls thicker at the ends than in the middle, as the tendency to puncture the glass is greatest at the edges of the coatings. In other cases, Leyden jars or condensers take the form of sheets of mica or micanite or ebonite partly coated with tin foil or silver leaf on both sides; or a pile of sheets of alternate tin foil and mica may be built up, the tin foil sheets having lugs projecting out first on one side and then on the other. All the lugs on one side are connected together, and so also are all the lugs on the other side, and the two sets of tin foils separated by sheets of mica constitute the two metallic surfaces of the Leyden jar condenser. For the purposes of wireless telegraphy, when large condensers are required, the ordinary Leyden High tension condensers. jar occupies too much space in comparison with its electrical capacity, and hence the best form of condenser consists of a number of sheets of crown glass, each partly coated on both sides with tin foil. The tin foil sheets have lugs attached which project beyond the glass. The plates are placed in a vessel full of insulating oil which prevents the glow or brush discharge taking place over their edges. All the tin foils on one side of the glass plates are connected together and all the tin foils on the opposite sides, so as to construct a condenser of any required capacity. The box should be of glass or stoneware or other non-conducting material. When glass tubes are used it is better to employ tubes thicker at the ends than in the middle, as it has been found that when the safe voltage is exceeded and the glass gives way under electric strain, the piercing of the glass nearly always takes place at the edges of the tin foil.

Glass is still commonly used as a dielectric because of its cheapness, high dielectric strength or resistance to electric puncture, and its high dielectric constant (see Electrostatics). It has been found, however, that very efficient condensers can be made with compressed air Compressed air condensers. as dielectric. If a number of metal plates separated by small distance pieces are enclosed in an iron box which is pumped full of air to a pressure, say, of 100 ℔. to 1 sq. in., the dielectric strength of the air is greatly increased, and the plates may therefore be brought very near to one another without causing a spark to pass under such voltage as would cause discharge in air at normal pressure. Condensers of this kind have been employed by R. A. Fessenden in wireless telegraphy, and they form a very excellent arrangement for standard condensers with which to compare the capacity of other Leyden jars. Owing to the variation in the value of the dielectric constant of glass with the temperature and with the frequency of the applied electromotive force, and also owing to electric glow discharge from the edges of the tin foil coatings, the capacity of an ordinary Leyden jar is not an absolutely fixed quantity, but its numerical value varies somewhat with the method by which it is measured, and with the other circumstances above mentioned. For the purpose of a standard condenser a number of concentric metal tubes may be arranged on an insulating stand, alternate tubes being connected together. One coating of the condenser is formed by one set of tubes and the other by the other set, the air between being the dielectric. Paraffin oil or any liquid dielectric of constant inductivity may replace the air.

See J. A. Fleming, Electric Wave Telegraphy (London, 1906); R. A. Fessenden, “Compressed Air for Condensers,” Electrician, 1905, 55, p. 795; Moscicki, “Construction of High Tension Condensers,” L’Éclairage électrique, 1904, 41, p. 14, or Engineering, 1904, p. 865.  (J. A. F.) 

  1. Park Benjamin, The Intellectual Rise in Electricity, p. 512.
  2. Ibid. p. 519.