The Wheatstone Motor

An innovation from a different time

In a special report to the Tribune-Star of Terre Haute, Ind., Caleb Wright recently reflected on a special kind of electric motor. The Wheatstone electric motor, from the mid-1800s, was a true innovation in its time.

As Wright explains it:

With a height of about 11 inches, it rests on a base with several “electric poles.” These poles are then connected to a central brass rod that leads to a steel cylinder. Inside the cylinder, held by brass braces and an axle, is a pair of copper solenoids.

When a battery was attached to the base, the steel cylinder became polarized. Then the copper solenoids, being in opposite magnetic field, began to spin rapidly. This was a great leap forward for the scientific community. Because of its small size and relatively simple design, the Wheatstone electric motor found a home in major universities around the globe for the next 50 years, including Terre Haute’s own Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology), which is where our Wheatstone Motor was originated. The motor was used to show students the basics of electricity and magnetics simultaneously. It was donated to the Vigo County Historical Society in 1948 by Robert Drummond, professor of geography at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University).

The wonder of the Wheatstone Motor was amplified when combined with Geissler Tubes. These were glass tubes, often made with beautiful spiral designs, which were filled with a mixture of gases and liquids that produced a bright glowing effect. They were the predecessors to what we know now as neon lights. These tubes could be attached to solenoids so that they could spin rapidly causing a light display that was sure to stun students and spark a world of curiosity in their minds.

Notable for the range as well as scope of his Victorian inventions, Charles Wheatstone is credited with the first free-reed concertina musical instrument, and the stereoscope, a double viewed slide projector that was the precursor to the twentieth century Viewmaster toy and today’s smartphone enabled View Master Virtual Reality devices. His best known electromechanical innovations are the linear motor, and his contributions toward what was ultimately named the Wheatstone bridge, which can precisely measure an unknown electrical resistance.

For those in the Midwest who might like to see one of Wheatstone’s original creations, the Tribune-Star’s article was inspired by an exhibit at Terre Haute’s Vigo County Historical Society Museum, 1411 S. 6th Street. A non-operational Wheatstone Electric Motor will be on display in the Museum’s second floor School Room through February.

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