A Natural History: Devin Corbin


A Natural History of My Static Electricity

By Devin Corbin

Touch the steel file cabinet first, then the keyboard. Winter has finally come to Wisconsin, and with it lessons in physics. Dew point:  -18 °F. In this hibernal dryness, my body sloughs electrons like dead skin, the day’s subtle frictions (my shoulder sweeping past curtains, my arms sliding from the sleeves of my jacket. . . ) buffing me to an ionic polish.  Our furnace greets Orion with a sigh, and I imagine myself growing faintly luminous, like the starlit snow beyond my window.  Polyester yearns for me.  I can feel its elfin fingers teasing the hair of my arms, can feel much of what surrounds me, in fact, as a jumble of nudging and straining, a crowd of competing desires. No more puling about sub-zero weather, please. Please. This is winter as I love and remember it, animate and magical with cold.

Here is summer in Wisconsin:  A cloud of gnats orbits a person’s head.  Then another person approaches, and the cloud stretches to meet the newcomer, including her; when she leaves, some of the gnats will go with her.  In winter it is the same, only instead of gnats it is electrons.  Matter draws near to matter, and electrons change rides.  Some people attract more gnats than others, I have noticed, and certain materials, too, trump others at drawing electrons.  The result is that meeting and parting produce electrical imbalance, what physicists call “triboelectrification”:  electrification through rubbing.  Electrons are always pulling free, of course, but in summer one doesn’t notice.  Humid air allows gnats and electrons alike to roam freely, so charges quickly dissipate on the static breeze. Come winter, however, moisture freezes from the atmosphere, making the air a better insulator. The result is a world of impromptu batteries, of bodies and objects suddenly able to carry a mounting glut (or dearth) of electrons until a suitable conductor approaches and—snap!—electrons funnel into a gust of heat and light, restoring electrical balance.

Over two hundred years ago, a Swede named Johan Carl Wilcke, whose exposure to cold northern winters may be of note here, published an influential study of static charges, including what is now known as the first “triboelectric series,” a list of sundry materials ranked according to how likely they are to lose or gain electrons through contact with other substances. Many such lists have been generated since, and they are typically organized with materials that most easily lose electrons placed at the top and materials that gain electrons at the bottom.  The farther two substances are from one another on the list, therefore, the more potent the charge they will generate when rubbed together.  Mischievous children take note.

There is something delightful to me about these lists—the way seemingly disparate materials land next to each other via the arcane logic of atomic bonds, the way each list reflects the material culture of its historical moment. From Wilcke’s original list, for example, we learn that a writer’s quill tends to lose electrons to paper.  Or consider this triboelectric series from the Smithsonian Physical Tables, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1921, in which asbestos precedes rabbit’s fur:

According to this table, rubbing a sheet of asbestos with “indiarubber” should produce the best static charge; I can’t recommend it.

Amber, item #24 on the Smithsonian list, appears in most triboelectric series, thanks to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who found that amber—called elektron in Greek—took on a charge when rubbed.  This discovery may have been less random than it seems, for amber, a fossilized plant resin long used in jewelry, would often have been rubbed to give it the high gloss that best reveals its rich, honey-colored translucence.  My Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains that the word elektron itself derives from the Greek word elektor, which translates to “the beaming sun.”  This is a reference, no doubt, to the material’s lambency as a polished gem, but it’s also a pleasant fortuity given amber’s role as the etymological root for electricity.  Imagine:  ancient globs of resin burnished into little suns charged not only with light from the same old star that created them but also with electrons filched from a jeweler’s flannel and hands.

* * *

Just before bed, I shuffle into our upstairs bathroom to brush my teeth, the house already steeped in the long darkness of a boreal winter’s night.  In the gloom, my hand misses the switch on the small fluorescent lamp over the sink, my fingers instead brushing the bulb itself, and for an instant the glass tube flickers under my touch like a guttering candle.  I am befuddled, then pleased.

Later, in the bedroom, I pull off my thermal shirt with a sound like fire moving through pine boughs, then strain my eyes to make out the delicate whorls of my sleeping wife’s ear.  When my lips draw close enough, there is a glint, an electric pinch, and my wife starts.  “We are touching now,” I whisper.  “If we don’t let go, we will be fine.”

Notes on Sources

what physicists call “triboelectrification”: A. G. Bailey, “Static Electricity,” McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 367; Lawrence B. Schein and G. S. P. Castle, “Triboelectricity,” Wiley Encyclopedia of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999), 574.  Etymology from the entry for “tribo-” in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 2002.

a Swede named Johan Carl Wilcke. . . the first “triboelectric series: J. L. Heilbron, “Wilcke, Johan Carl,” Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York: Scribner’s, 1976), 352–353.  Heilbron notes that another of Wilcke’s major scientific contributions was the discovery of latent heat while trying to use hot water to melt  snow from a courtyard (353).

organized with materials that most easily lose electrons placed at the top: For information on the organization of a triboelectric series, see Schein and Castle, “Triboelectricity,” 580, and the entry for “triboelectric series” in McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978).

a writer’s quill tends to lose electrons to paper: Heilbron, “Wilcke, Johan Carl,” 353.  In the centuries since Wilcke, triboelectrification has only become more central to writing technology; its primary industrial use is currently in laser printer and photocopier technology, wherein charged toner particles are drawn to their proper places by an electrostatic template.  See Schein and Castle, “Triboelectricity,” 575.

this triboelectric series from the Smithsonian Physical Tables: Table 395 from Smithsonian Physical Tables, ed. Frederick E. Fowle, reprint of 7th revised ed. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1921), 322.  Accessed electronically 5 January 2010 through Google Books.

Thales of Miletus: Bailey, “Static Electricity,” 367; Peter J. Nolan, Fundamentals of College Physics, 2nd ed. (Dubuque, IA: Brown. 1995), 517.

translates to “the beaming sun”: Robert K. Barnhart, ed., “electric,” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (New York:  Chambers, 1988).

“We are touching now,” I whisper.  “If we don’t let go, we will be fine”: Okay, actually I didn’t say this.  I think I just laughed and hopped into bed.  But maybe I should have said it.  I mean I kind of wish I had, but perhaps my wife would only have found it strange.


Devin Corbin is in and of northern Wisconsin, where he takes care to ground himself at the gas pumps.


“A Natural History of My Static Electricity” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

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  1. [...] Devin Corbin wrote “A Natural History of My Electricity” [...]

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