Electrostatic generators are classically separated on two kinds: friction machines and influence machines.
The first electrostatic generators are called friction machines because of the friction in the generation process. A primitive form of frictional electrical machine was constructed around 1663 by Otto von Guericke, using a sulphur globe that could be rotated and rubbed by hand. It may not actually have been rotated during use. , but inspired many later machines that used rotating globes. Isaac Newton suggested the use of a glass globe instead of a sulphur one (Optics, 8th Query). F. Hawksbee improved the basic design .
Generators were further advanced when G. M. Bose of Wittenberg added a collecting conductor (an insulated tube or cylinder supported on silk strings). In 1746, Watson's machine had a large wheel turning several glass globes with a sword and a gun barrel suspended from silk cords for its prime conductors. J. H. Winkler, professor of physics at Leipzig, substituted a leather cushion for the hand. Andreas Gordon of Erfurt, a Scottish Benedictine monk, used a glass cylinder in place of a sphere. Jesse Ramsden, in 1768, constructed a widely used version of a plate electrical generator. By 1784, the van Marum machine could produce voltage with either polarity. Martin van Marum constructed a large electrostatic machine of high quality for his experiments (currently on display at the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands).
In 1785, N. Rouland constructed a silk belted machine which rubbed two grounded hare fur covered tubes. Edward Nairne developed an electrostatic generator for medical purposes in 1787 which had the ability to generate either positive or negative electricity, the first named being collected from the prime conductor carrying the collecting points and the second from another prime conductor carrying the friction pad. The Winter machine possessed higher efficiency than earlier friction machines. In the 1830s, Georg Ohm possessed a machine similar to the van Marum machine for his research (which is now at the Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany). In 1840, the Woodward machine was developed from improving the Ramsden machine (placing the prime conductor above the disk(s)). Also in 1840, the Armstrong hydroelectric machine was developed and used steam as a charge carrier.
Others, including T. Cavallo (who developed the "Cavallo multiplier", a charge multiplier using simple addition, in 1795), John Read, Charles Bernard Desormes, and Jean Nicolas Pierre Hachette, developed further various forms of rotating doublers. In 1798, The German scientist and preacher Gottlieb Christoph Bohnenberger, described the Bohnenberger machine, along with several other doublers of Bennet and Nicholson types in a book. The most interesting of these were described in the "Annalen der Physik" (1801). Giuseppe Belli, in 1831, developed a simple symmetrical doubler which consisted of two curved metal plates between which revolved a pair of plates carried on an insulating stem. It was the first symmetrical influence machine, with identical structures for both terminals. This apparatus was similar to Lord Kelvin's "replenisher" (1867). Lord Kelvin also devised a combined influence machine and electromagnetic machine, commonly called a mouse mill, for electrifying the ink in connection with his siphon recorder. Lord Kelvin also developed, between 1858 and 1867, a water-drop electrostatic generator, which he called the "water-dropping condenser".
In 1860, C. F. Varley patented a more modern type of influence machine. Between 1864 and 1880, W. T. B. Holtz constructed and described a large number of influence machines which were considered the most advanced developments of the time. In one form, the Holtz machine consisted of a glass disk mounted on a horizontal axis which could be made to rotate at a considerable speed by a multiplying gear, interacting with induction plates mounted in a fixed disk close to it. In 1865, August J. I. Toepler developed an influence machine that consisted of two disks fixed on the same shaft and rotating in the same direction. In 1868, the Schwedoff machine had a curious structure to increase the output current. Also in 1868, several mixed friction-influence machine were developed, including the Kundt machine and the Carré machine. In 1866, the Piche machine (or Bertsch machine) was developed. In 1869, H. Julius Smith received the American patent for a portable and airtight device that was designed to ignite powder. Also in 1869, sectorless machines in Germany were investigated by Poggendorff.
The action and efficiency of influence machines were further investigated by F. Rossetti, A. Righi, and F. W. G. Kohlrausch. E. E. N. Mascart, A. Roiti, and E. Bouchotte also examined the efficiency and current producing power of influence machines. In 1871, sectorless machines were investigated by Musaeus. In 1872, Righi's electrometer was developed and was one of the first antecedents of the Van de Graaff generator. In 1873, Leyser developed the Leyser machine, a variation of the Holtz machine. In 1880, Robert Voss (a Berlin instrument maker) devised a form of machine in which he claimed that the principles of Toepler and Holtz were combined. The same structure become also known as the Toepler-Holtz machine. In 1878, the British inventor James Wimshurst started his studies about electrostatic generators, improving the Holtz machine, in a powerful version with multiple disks. The classical Wimshurst machine, that become the most popular form of influence machine, was reported to the scientific community by 1883, although revious machines with very similar structures were previously described by Holtz and Musaeus. In 1885, one of the largest-ever Wimshurst machines was built in England (it is now at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry). In 1887, Weinhold modified the Leyser machine with a system of vertical metal bar inductors with wooden cylinders close to the disk for avoiding polarity reversals. M. L. Lebiez described the Lebiez machine, that was essentially a simplified Voss machine (L'Électricien, April 1895, pp. 225-227). In 1894, Bonetti designed a machine with the structure of the Wimshurst machine, but without metal sectors in the disks. This machine is significantly more powerful than the sectored version, but it must usually be started with an externally-applied charge.
In 1898, the Pidgeon machine was developed with a unique setup by W. R. Pidgeon. In October 28 of that year, Pidgeon presented this machine to the Physical Society after several years of investigation into influence machines (beginning at the start of the decade). The device was later reported in the Philosophical Magazine (Dec. 1898, pg. 564) and the Electrical Review (Vol. XLV, pg. 748). A Pidgeon machine possesses fixed inductors arranged in a manner that increases the electrical induction effect (and its electrical output is at least double that of typical machines of this type [except when it is overtaxed]). The essential features of the Pidgeon machine are, one, the combination of the rotating support and the fixed support for inducing charge, and, two, the improved insulation of all parts of the machine (but more especially of the generator's carriers). Pidgeon machines are a combination of a Wimshurst Machine and Voss Machine, with special features adapted to reduce the amount of charge leakage. Pidgeon machines excite themselves more readily than the best of these types of machines. In addition, Pidgeon investigated higher current "triplex" section machines (or "double machines with a single central disk") with enclosed sectors (and went on to receive British Patent 22517 (1899) for this type of machine).
Multiple disk machines and "triplex" electrostatic machines (generators with three disks) were also developed extensively around the turn of the century. In 1900, F. Tudsbury discovered that enclosing a generator in a metallic chamber containing compressed air, or better, carbon dioxide, the insulating properties of compressed gases enabled a greatly improved effect to be obtained owing to the increase in the breakdown voltage of the compressed gas, and reduction of the leakage across the plates and insulating supports. In 1903, Alfred Wehrsen patented an ebonite rotating disk possessing embedded sectors with button contacts at the disk surface. In 1907, Heinrich Wommelsdorf reported a variation of the Holtz machine using this disk and inductors embedded in celluloid plates (DE154175; "Wehrsen machine"). Wommelsdorf also developed several high-performance electrostatic generators, of which the best known were his "Condenser machines" (1920). These were single disk machines, using disks with embedded sectors that were accessed at the edges.
Electrostatic generators had a fundamental role in the investigations about the structure of matter, starting at the end of the 19th century. By the 1920s, it was evident that machines able to produce greater voltage were needed. The Van de Graaff generator was developed, starting in 1929, at MIT. The first model was demonstrated in October 1929. The basic idea was to use an insulating belt to transport electric charge to the interior of an insulated hollow terminal, where it could be discharged regardless of the potential already present on the terminal, that does not produce any electric field in its interior. The idea was not new, but the implementation using an electronic power supply to charge the belt was a fundamental innovation that made the old machines obsolete. The first machine used a silk ribbon bought at a five and dime store as the charge transport belt. In 1931 a version able to produce 1,000,000 volts was described in a patent disclosure. Nikola Tesla wrote a Scientific American article, "Possibilities of Electro-Static Generators" in 1934 concerning the Van de Graaff generator (pp. 132-134 and 163-165). Tesla stated, "I believe that when new types [of Van de Graaff generators] are developed and sufficiently improved a great future will be assured to them". High-power machines were soon developed, working on pressurized containers to allow greater charge concentration on the surfaces without ionization. Variations of the Van de Graaff generator were also developed for Physics research, as the Pelletron, that uses a chain with alternating insulating and conducting links for charge transport. Simplified Van de Graaff generators are commonly seen in demonstrations about static electricity, due to its high-voltage capability, producing the curious effect of making the hair of people touching the terminal, standing over an insulating support, stand up.
Between 1945 and 1960, the French researcher Noël Felici developed a series of high-power electrostatic generators, based on electronic excitation and using cylinders rotating at high speed and hydrogen in pressurized containers.