Jacob's Ladder (Climbing Arc) Construction

Version 1.29

(Note by Don: Go Here for Version 1.36, updated in 2006.

Copyright (C) 1994,1995,1996,1997,1998
Samuel M. Goldwasser
--- All Rights Reserved ---

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    Table of Contents

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    A Jacob's Ladder is the type of high voltage display seen in many old (and usually bad) sci-fi movies. Jacob's Ladder come in all shapes, styles, and sizes. Here is info on a common type that is easy to construct with readily available parts. However, read the section: Jacob's Ladder SAFETY before attempting to power any high voltage project of this type.

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    Jacob's Ladder SAFETY

    WARNING: See Safety Guidelines for High Voltage and/or Line Powered Equipment before firing up any Jacob's Ladder or other high voltage or line powered project!

    Make sure that no one can come in contact with this - particularly curious onlookers. Separating the potential victims from any possible contact with the high voltage is really the only foolproof way of protecting against fools or the unaware - and you from a lawsuit. People not familiar with high voltage phenomena (or aware only through grade-C sci-fi movies) can be incredibly naive.

    A GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) is of no use in protecting against HV contact since the secondary of a neon sign transformer is isolated from the line but its centertap is usually connected to the case - which should be grounded. However, a GFCI would be a good idea in any case when you are working with line connected equipment.

    12,000 volts will jump approximately anywhere from 3/8 to 3/4 inch in dry air, with sharp points and edges generally but maybe not quite always favoring longer distances. This distance occaisionally varies unpredictably with humidity. Don't forget that 12,000 VAC is approximately 17,000 V peak. Neon sign transformers have current limited outputs - 30 mA is typical - but that is still highly dangerous - lethal under the wrong conditions.

    You can build a small Jacob's Ladder using a high voltage transformer of lower capacity or a DC-AC inverter using a TV flyback transformer. While these would be less dangerous, there is little room for carelessness when working with any type of high voltage device. Even if there is no resistive path, the stray capacitance can permit enough AC current to flow to give you a painful experience!

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    Basic Components

    There are only two major parts to a basic Jacob's Ladder: a high voltage power source and a pair of wires or rods arranged in a narrow V configuration on an insulated and fire proof support. You will need 12 to 15 KV AC at 20 to 30 mA. However, the exact values are not at all critical. A neon sign (luminous tube) transformer is the usual source for this power though an oil burner ignition transformer will work in a pinch (some say better and cheaper) or you could build an inverter type power supply.

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    Take a pair of thick wires - the steel wire from old metal coat hangers works pretty well - straighten them out and mount them with a gap of about 1/4 inch at the bottom and 1-3 inches at the top. Of course, all on an insulated non-flammable material! Connect the high tension output of the transformer to the two wires and you should be all set. Some adjustment of the spacing at the bottom (to get the arc started) and at the top (to determine when the arc is extinguished and how fast it rises) may be required (but do so only with the power off!). Depending on the voltage and power rating of your high voltage source, these dimensions may vary considerably. Spirals and other more creative configurations are also possible.
                                ___   1-3 inch gap or more at top.
                                 ^  \     /
                        2-3 feet |   \   /
                         or more |    \ / 1/4 inch gap at bottom.
                                _v_   / \
                              +------'   '------+
                              |   Insulated,    |       
                          HV  |  non-flammable  |
                         +----+  mounting base  |
                      ||(                       |
            Hot o---+ ||(                       |
                     )||(       Luminous tube   |
                     )||( CT     transformer    |
       AC Line       )|| +---+   (12 KV, 30 mA, |
                     )||(    |   typical)       |
                     )||(    |                  |
        Neutral o---+ ||(    |                  |
                      ||( HV |                  |
                 Case |  +----------------------+
                      |      |
    Safety Ground o---+------+   
    IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE: Essential line fuse, power switch, and power indicator lamp not shown. Centertap (case) MUST be connected to Safety (earth) Ground!!

    A Jacob's Ladder works on the principle that the ionized air in the arc is a lower resistance than the air around it and heated air rises. The arc strikes at the point of lowest breakdown voltage - the small gap at the bottom. The heated plasma rises and even when it is an inch or more in width is an easier path for the current to follow. Eventually, the gap becomes too wide, the arc extinguishes and is reestablished at the bottom. For best results, shield the whole thing from drafts but don't use anything that can catch fire!

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    Why NOT to use Microwave Oven Transformers

    Using multiple high voltage transformers from microwave ovens to construct a Jacob's Ladder is a very bad idea for several reasons: I bet you are also going to try to run them on 220 VAC to double the output voltage as well, huh??

    Similar comments apply to the use of utility pole or substation transformers.

    A word to the wise: at some point, bigger is just stupid. Sorry.

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    Notes on Really BIG Jacob's Ladders

    (From: Steve Roberts (osteven@en.com)).

    Microwave oven transformers make excellent Jacob's Ladders and Tesla Coil drivers with a properly chosen series cap in the primary for power factor correction. One of the major problems with the hollow "E" core current limited neon sign and furnace ignition transformers is that they do not source enough current to maintain a plasma on larger Jacob's Ladders, and the current limiting makes them lousy as pulsed laser drivers as well.

    However, the high current from a microwave oven transformer will source a 10" inch arc in nitrogen/oxygen mixtures once it has been started at about 1/2". There are several European web sites that show back to back microwave oven transformer powered ladders. A key problem is that you have to mount the transformers on Lucite or Lexan because the center tap is grounded on the secondary side. For a advanced safety conscious experimenter it is not a problem to use these, provided you use either 1" diameter rods of copper or carbon rods for the ladder rails. While I would not approve of just anybody playing with these either, it can be done and produces spectacular results, if you don't mind the electric meter spinning at Mach 1!

    They also make nice stable cores for high current low voltage transformers when rewound, I use them to power 25 amp 3.2 volt laser tube filaments all the time with out blowing breakers.

    Snock's High Voltage Page has a number of articles and links relating to large Jacob's Ladders and other high voltage projects.

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    And Now for the Audio Feed

    (From: Norman E. Litsche (nlitsche@worldnet.att.net)).

    One of those old(bad) movies had a huge Jacob's Ladder inside a large transparent (glass, I assume - Plexiglass wasn't around then) hollow column resonant at 60 Hz. Unbelievable sound! Always wanted to build one like this but never had the time, the big resonant column or the really huge neon sign transformer that would have been needed.

    (Assuming 1,100 feet per second for the speed of sound in air, a column closed at one end would be a 1/4 wavelength resonator resulting in an actual height of about 4.6 feet for a 60 Hz fundamental. --- sam)

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    About Ozone Production

    (From: Pamela Hughes (phughes@omnilinx.net)).

    The arc is a plasma of hot ionized gas. Molecules like O2 are broken down to the atomic level and ionized. when these ions collide with the surrounding air, they cause chemical reactions... the O can combine with nitrogen and form small amounts of nitrogen oxides, and with O2 to form ozone (O3). However, the high temps in an arc also tend to destroy these molecules too so you'd probably only produce trace amounts if it weren't for the UV given off by the arc. Ultraviolet seems to be the main mechanism for producing O3 as it can ionize in the air far enough from the arc that it will be cool enough for ozone to exist (a spark gives off UV and ionizes the air around it) A glow discharge is better at generating ozone than an arc though, since it maximizes the UV and the pressures and temps are much lower (i.e., put a conductive coating on the outside of a glass tube and a wire down the center of it, then apply enough voltage to produce a glow discharge inside the tube as you pump oxygen at low pressure through the tube. Shortwave UV lamps will produce it too (they use these as sterilizers in dairy barns).

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    Jacob's Ladders and the FCC

    Operating Jacob's Ladders (as well as Tesla coils) are broad-band RF sources and can interfere with radio, TV, maybe cell phone, cordless phone, and other communications equipment. There have been reports of the FCC tracking down and fining people for this interference - I don't know if these stories are true but it is definitely something to think about before running your creation for an extended period of time, at least. The FCC would probably confiscate your setup as well - which would likely be more traumatic than the fine (as hefty as it might be!) Perhaps, consider a Faraday cage in addition to the Plexiglass ozone shield :-).

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    -- end V1.29 --

    Above written by Sam Goldwasser (sam@stdavids.picker.com)

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