J. Mike Rollins [rollins@wfu.edu]
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Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder
May 24, 2008

Warning: Don't try this unless you truly know what you are doing.
High voltage systems can kill you from a distance.

I am fascinated with high voltage electricity. Since I was a kid, I wanted to build a Jacob's ladder. I spent the past few months studying electricity. I finally decided I was ready to build one of these. Don't try this without doing your homework and understanding the risks.

Everybody is familiar with low voltage. A car battery provides only 12 volts, but it can deliver over 500 Amps. I like the waterfall analogy. The car battery is like a very short waterfall that is a mile wide and 20 feet deep. The water falls a short distance, but the volume of water is massive. In this analogy the height of the waterfall represents the voltage and the volume of water represents the current (Amps).

I think it takes 48 volts to pass through normal human skin. The voltage from a 12 volt car battery should not be enough to pass through skin and into the body. But, if you had a scratch on your hand, or were sweaty, it might pass through the skin. This much current is enough to kill over a 1000 people.

A neon sign transformer transformer is like an extremely high waterfall that flows only a trickle of water. However, this should not be underestimated! My transformer produces 15,000 volts at 30 mAmps. Even from a distance, this 15,000 volt system can send the 30 mAmps right through your body. I think 30 mAmps can kill a person.

Respect electricity!
Do your homework before experimenting!

I bought a neon sign transformer from eBay. It generates 15,000 volts with 30 mAmps. I had to attach a power cord. The sales people at home improvement stores looked at me funny when I ask if that had any wire that wire that could safely carry 15,000 volts. This wire is the opposite of Jumper Cables. Jumper Cables carry low voltage but massive current. They are generally a very tick conductor with good insulation. The wire I needed has a fairly thin conductor with very thick insulation. I finally found some at a shop that makes neon signs.

I bought some steel rods with no paint and no protective coating. I bent them using a vice. They are mounted to a board with small metal straps.

Here is a photo of the final project. Click on the photo for a video of the project.

Click for movie
Click for movie

Close-up at Night