Julian's Science Experiments
  • Famous Experiments and Inventions
  • The Scientific Method
  • Home Electricity Experiments Electronics Experiments Electricity Projects Electronics Projects Resources Books Warning!

    K-12 Experiments & Background Information
    For Science Labs, Lesson Plans, Class Activities, Homework Help & Science Fair Projects
    For Middle and High School Students and Teachers

    Electroscope Experiments

    Electroscope Background Information


    An electroscope is a scientific instrument that is used to detect the presence and magnitude of electric charge on a body.


    See also Electrometer

    An electroscope is an early scientific instrument that is used to detect the presence and magnitude of electric charge on a body. It was the first electrical measuring instrument. The first electroscope, a pivoted needle called the versorium, was invented by British physician William Gilbert around 1600. The pith-ball electroscope and the gold-leaf electroscope are two classical types of electroscope that are still used to demonstrate electrostatics. A type of electroscope is also used in the quartz fiber radiation dosimeter.

    Electroscopes detect electric charge by the motion of a test object due to the Coulomb electrostatic force. The electric potential or voltage of an object equals its charge divided by its capacitance, so electroscopes can be regarded as crude voltmeters. The accumulation of enough charge to detect with an electroscope requires hundreds or thousands of volts, so electroscopes are only used with high voltage sources such as static electricity and electrostatic machines.

    Pith-ball electroscope

    A pith-ball electroscope, invented by British weaver's apprentice John Canton in 1754, consists of a small ball of some lightweight nonconductive substance, originally pith, suspended by a silk thread from the hook of an insulated stand. In order to test the presence and magnitude of a charge on an object, the object is brought near to the uncharged pith ball. If the object is charged, the pith ball will be attracted to it.

    The attraction occurs because of induced polarization of the atoms inside the pith ball. The pith is a nonconductor, so the electrons are not free to leave their atoms and move about in the ball, but they can move a little within the atoms. If, for example, a positively charged object is brought near the ball, the negative electrons in each atom will be attracted and move slightly toward the side of the atom nearer the object. The positively charged nuclei will move slightly away. Since the negative charges are now nearer the object than the positive charges, their attraction is greater than the repulsion of the positive charges, resulting in a net attractive force. This separation of charge is microscopic, but since there are so many atoms, the tiny forces add up to a large enough force to move a light pith ball.

    The pith ball can be charged by touching it to a charged object. Then the ball can be used to distinguish the polarity of charge on other objects, because it will be repelled by objects charged with the same polarity or sign it has, but attracted to charges of the opposite polarity.

    Often the electroscope will have a pair of suspended pith balls. This allows one to tell at a glance whether the pith balls are charged. If one of the pith balls is touched to a charged object, charging it, the second one will be attracted and touch it, communicating some of the charge. Now both balls have the same polarity charge, so they repel each other, and hang in an inverted 'V' shape with the balls spread apart. The distance between the balls will give a rough idea of the magnitude of the charge.

    Gold-leaf electroscope

    The gold-leaf electroscope was developed in 1787 by British clergyman and physicist Abraham Bennet, as a more sensitive instrument than pith ball or straw blade electroscopes then in use. It consists of a vertical metal rod, usually brass, from the end of which hang two parallel strips of thin flexible gold leaf. A disk or ball terminal is attached to the top of the rod, where the charge to be tested is applied. To protect the gold leaves from drafts of air they are enclosed in a glass bottle, usually open at the bottom and mounted over a conductive base. Often there are grounded metal plates or foil strips in the bottle flanking the gold leaves on either side. These are a safety measure; if an excessive charge is applied to the delicate gold leaves, they will touch the grounding plates and discharge before tearing. They also capture charge leaking through the air that could accumulate on the glass walls, and increase the sensitivity of the instrument. In precision instruments the inside of the bottle was occasionally evacuated, to prevent the charge on the terminal from leaking off through ionization of the air.

    When the metal terminal is touched with a charged object, the gold leaves spread apart in a 'V'. This is because some of the charge on the object is conducted through the terminal and metal rod to the leaves. Since they receive the same sign charge they repel each other and thus diverge. If the terminal is grounded by touching it with a finger, the charge is transferred through the human body into the earth and the gold leaves close together.

    The electroscope can also be charged without touching it to a charged object, by electrostatic induction. If a charged object is brought near the electroscope terminal, the leaves also diverge, because the electric field of the object causes the charges in the electroscope rod to separate. Charges of the opposite polarity to the charged object are attracted to the terminal, while charges with the same polarity are repelled to the leaves, causing them to spread. If the electroscope terminal is grounded while the charged object is nearby, by touching it momentarily with a finger, the same polarity charges in the leaves drain away to ground, leaving the electroscope with a net charge of opposite polarity to the object. The leaves close because the charge is all concentrated at the terminal end. When the charged object is moved away, the charge at the terminal spreads into the leaves, causing them to spread apart again.

    Experiments with an electroscope

    • Touch the terminal with a charged conductor. Electrons flow into or out of the electroscope until its potential equals that of the conductor. The net surplus or deficit of electrons on the leaves causes them to repel each other. The charge that transfers, and therefore the deflection, are functions of the original potential difference between the conductor and the uncharged electroscope.
    • Place an isolated, charged conductor in contact with the terminal. The proportion of the conductor's charge that ends up on the terminal depends on their relative capacitances. This charge remains on the electroscope when you take the conductor away. The electroscope indicates this charge.
    • Bring a charged insulator near to the terminal but don't allow any charge to transfer between them. In this case, the deflection indicates the net charge on the electrons that have been temporarily pushed towards or away from the leaves. This charge is related to the charge density on the part of the insulator near to the terminal, and the relative shapes and positions of the two. What the electroscope is measuring in this case is quite vague, because there is no sharp boundary between the electron-rich and electron-depleted regions of the electroscope.
    • Place a charged insulator on or near the terminal, ground the terminal and then withdraw the insulator. This leaves the electroscope with a net charge. The electrons redistribute themselves over the terminal and the leaves, causing the leaves to repel each other. The deflection is monotonically related to the net charge left behind on the electroscope, in a similar way to the previous case.

    Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)

    Useful Links
    Science Fair Projects Resources [Resource]
    Electricity and Magnetism Resources [Resource]
    Electrical Safety [Resource] [Resource]
    Electricity Science Fair Projects Books


    My Dog Kelly

    Follow Us On:

    Privacy Policy - Site Map - About Us - Letters to the Editor

    Comments and inquiries could be addressed to:

    Last updated: June 2013
    Copyright © 2003-2013 Julian Rubin