Purchase Order Program
Check Out Our New And Easy To Use Purchase Order System

Ultra-simple AC Electric Generator

- William Beaty

How Can You Make a Simple AC Generator?

It's easy to build your own simple generator! The "secret ingredients" are:

  • strong magnets
  • lots of fine wire
  • a tiny incandescent light bulb which only requires 1/2 volt

Note: This generator does not use a "commutator"; instead, you will hook the wires directly to the bulb. It's much simpler that way, but the generator will produce AC (alternating current).

This generator is made from an open-ended box (constructed of cardboard, thin wood, or Plexiglas) with a nail through the center. The box has many turns of fine copper wire wound around it, with four large magnets clamped around the nail. When the nail and magnets are spun fast by hand, the little light bulb lights up dimly.

Note Before You Start:

  • You must use the special light bulb in the Parts list; a normal flashlight bulb will not work.
  • You must use the large, strong magnets in the Parts list, as smaller/weaker magnets will not work.
  • The wire must be 30 gauge or thinner.
  • You can make the generator more powerful if you buy plenty of extra wire to wind around the box. Then the bulb will light up even when the generator spins slowly.


  • 4 - 1cm x 2cm x 5cm ceramic magnet (Radio Shack #64-1877)
  • 1 - 30-gauge magnet wire, 200ft (Radio Shack spool kit #278-1345)
  • 1 - miniature incandescent lamp (light bulb), 1.5V/25mA (Radio Shack #272-1139)
  • 1 - cardboard strip (or Plexiglas or thin wood), 8cm x 30cm
  • 1 - large nail, at least 8cm long
  • sandpaper to strip the wires
  • tape to secure wires
  • Optional: hand drill (best) or electric drill to spin the nail/magnets


Keep the magnets away from computers, disks, videotapes, color TV sets, and wallets and purses containing credit cards.


Make the Open-ended Box

Score the cardboard strip (or cut the Plexiglas or wood with an adult's help) where indicated by the vertical dotted lines:
  |     8cm    | 3.5cm  |     8cm     |  3cm  |    7.5cm    |
  |            |        |             |       |             |
  |            |        |             |       |             |
  |            |        |             |       |             |
  |8           |        |             |       |             |
  |cm          |        |             |       |             |
  |            |        |             |       |             |
  |            |        |             |       |             |
  |            |        |             |       |             |
  |            |        |             |       |             |

NOTE: This page must be displayed in COURIER FONT, or these pictures will be unreadable (most browsers do this automatically).

Note: If you build the box from Plexiglas or thin wood instead, don't make it any larger than shown above. The wire should be very close to the spinning magnets, so keep the box as small as possible.

Next, fold the strip like this and tape it securely (or glue the Plexiglas or wood pieces together):
     _|______________ \
    |\      7.5      | \ 3.5
    |3\              |  \
    |  \_____________|___\
    |  |         8        |
    |  |                  |
    |  |                  |
    |  |                  |    
    |  |                  |    
    |  |                  |
    |  |                  |
    |  |                  |
    |  |                  |
     \ |                  |

  • With the open ends of the box at the top and bottom, use the nail to carefully poke a hole perfectly straight through the center of the cardboard box, going through both sides and all three layers of cardboard.
  • Pull the nail out and use it to widen all the holes slightly, so when you put the nail back through, it will be a bit loose and able to spin.
  • If using Plexiglas or wood, get an adult's help to drill a hole through the center of the box as described above.

      _|______________ \
     |\               | \
     | \              |  \    
     |  \_____________|___\   
     |  |                  |  
     |  |                  |  
     |  |                  |  
     |  |       (hole)     |  
     |  |                  |  
     |  |         O        |  
     |  |                  |  
     |  |                  |  
     |  |                  |  
      \ |                  |

Check the Box Size

  • Put the nail through the hole in the box.
  • Stick your four magnets together face-to-face in two pairs.
  • Put the two pairs on either side of the nail (inside the box) so they grab the nail.
  • Give the nail a spin.

Note: The nail and magnets should spin freely. The corners of the magnets should NOT bump the inside of the box as they spin.

If the box is a bit too small, either:

  • Make a new box, a little bit bigger.

  • OR
  • Try a thinner nail.

Wind the Magnet Wire around the Box

  • Position the box so the open ends are on the top and bottom as shown.
  • Pick the spool of 30-gauge magnet wire (the thinnest wire) from the kit of spools.
  • Tape one end of the magnet wire to the side of the box, then wind the entire spool of wire horizontally onto the box as shown (it's OK to cover up the nail hole).
  • Pull the taped end of the wire out, then tape down both of the wires about 10cm from the ends so the coil doesn't unwind.
  • Use the sandpaper to scrape the thin coating off 2cm of the wire ends. Note: Remove every bit of coating, so the wire ends are coppery.
  • Spread the center of the wire bundle away from the nail hole and tape it in place.
  • Stick the nail back through the holes and make sure it can spin.

         _|______________ \      
        |\               | \     
        | \              |  \    
        |  \_____________|___\        NOTE:
        |  |                  |       The five lines of
        \  |                  |       "wire" shown simply
        \\ |                  |       indicate position.
        \\\====================|      Wind the actual   
        \\\====================/___   wire in a bundle    
        |\\====================/   \  around the center
   -----+-\====================/    \ of the box. 
  /     |  ====================      \
 /      |  |                  |       \   
|        \ |                  |        |  
|         \|__________________|        | wire end 
wire end                                         

Place the Magnets around the Nail

  • As when you tested the box size above, again stick the four magnets together face to face in two pairs (see diagram below), then stick the two pairs on either side of the nail (inside the box) so they grab the nail.
  • Push the magnets around until they are somewhat balanced and even, then spin the nail and see if they turn freely.
  • If you wish, you can push 2cm squares of cardboard between the magnet pairs to straighten them.
  • You can also tape the magnets so they don't move around on the nail.

    magnets |_____|                    _____________
            |_____|                   |_____________| 2 magnets
     =================|| Nail         |_____________|
            |_____|                    ______O______
            |_____|                   |_____________| 2 magnets
        SIDE VIEW of the
        Nail and Magnets                  END VIEW

Add the Light Bulb

  • Make sure that each end of the generator's wires is totally cleared of red coating. If there is a bit of coating left, it can act as an insulator, which turns off your light bulb circuit.
  • Twist one of the scraped ends of generator wire securely around the silver tip of one wire from the small light bulb, and the end of the other generator wire around the tip of the other light bulb wire.
    Note: If necessary, use the sandpaper to strip more plastic from the ends of the light bulb wires. In the twisted wires, metal must touch metal with no insulating coating in between.
  • The two twisted wire connections should not touch.

         _|______________ \
        |\               | \
        | \              |  \
        |  \_____________|___\           
        |  |                  |          
        \  |                  |          
        \\ |                  |          
        |\\========(\\)========/   \     
   -----+-\==========(_)=======/    \    
  /     |  ====================      |   
 |      |  |                  |      |   
 |       \ |                  |      |   
 |        \|__________________|      |   
 |                                   |    
  \                                  /      
   \                       twist    /       
    \      {} twist          {}    /              
     \     {}                {}   /           
      \____/\______   _______/\__/                     
                   ( ) tiny                  
                   (_) light bulb

Test Your Generator

  • Spin the nail/magnet combination REALLY fast; the bulb should light dimly.
  • If you don't see the bulb light up, try spinning it in a dark room so you don't miss the dim glow.
  • If needed, adjust the position of the magnets so they don't hit or scrape the sides of the box. The nail/magnet assembly must spin VERY FAST, and it slows down if the magnets hit the box.

Note: If your generator still does not work after trying the above, see "Debugging," below.

  • Once you get it to work, try clamping the point of the nail into the chuck of a hand-cranked drill.
  • Spin the nail/magnet assembly fast with the drill and the bulb will light brightly. Note: Don't go too fast or you'll burn out the bulb or fling magnets all over the room. You can also try an electric drill, although electric drills don't spin as fast.

Note: Your generator produces Alternating Current, not Direct Current. The output voltage is about 2 volts max, so there is no electric shock hazard.

How it Works

Electric Charge

  • All metals contain a movable substance called electric charge.
  • Even uncharged wires are full of charge!
  • The atoms of the metal are made half of positive protons and half of negative electrons.
  • Metals are special because their electrons don't stay connected to the metal atoms; instead they fly around inside the metal and form a type of electric "fluid" inside the wires.
  • All wires are full of this electric fluid. Modern scientists call this the electron sea or electron gas. It is not invisible; it is something like a silvery fluid, and actually gives metals their silvery shine.

A Circuit

  • When a circle of wire surrounds a magnetic field, and the magnetic field then changes, a circular "pressure" called voltage appears.
  • This circular voltage tries to force the movable charges in the wire to rotate around the circle. In other words, moving magnets create electric currents in closed circles of wire.
  • A moving magnet causes a pumping action.
  • If the circuit is not "complete" (if there is a break), then the pumping force will cause no charge flow.
  • If the circuit is "complete" or "closed," then the magnet's pumping action can force the electrons of the coil to begin flowing.
  • This is a basic law of physics, and all coil/magnet electric generators use it.

  • When the circuit is closed and the magnet is moving, charges in the metal are forced to flow, and the charges of the light bulb's filament are pushed along.
  • When the charges within the copper wire pass into the thin light bulb filament, their speed greatly increases.
  • When the charges leave the filament and move back into the larger copper wire, they slow down again.
  • Inside the narrow light bulb filament, the fast-moving charges heat the metal by a sort of electrical "friction." The metal filament gets so hot that it glows.
  • The moving charges also heat the wires of the generator a bit, but since the generator wires are so much thicker, almost all of the heating takes place in the light bulb filament.

Other Things to Try

When you experiment with your Electric Generator, it becomes more of a science project than simply a build-it project. Try the following, then come up with your own ideas.

Feel the Work Required to Light the Bulb

  • Disconnect one wire from the light bulb, then spin the magnet.
  • While still spinning the magnet, have a friend touch the wires together so the bulb lights up again.
  • Is the nail still easy to spin?
  • Keep spinning the magnet while your friend connects and disconnects the bulb.
  • Feel any differences in how hard you must spin the nail?
  • Also try spinning the magnets while your friend connects the generator wires directly together (with no bulb connected).

What's Going On?
  • When you crank the generator and make the light bulb turn on, you are working against electrical friction in order to create the heat and light.
  • You can feel the work you perform, because whenever you connect the bulb, it's suddenly more difficult to crank the generator. When you disconnect the bulb, it gets easier.
Think of it like this:
  • If you rub your hands together lightly, the skin stays cool.
  • If you rub your hands together hard, your skin gets hot.
  • It takes more effort to rub skin hard so that it heats up; it takes work.
  • In a similar way, it's difficult to heat the light bulb filament; it takes work.
  • You twist the generator shaft, the generator pushes the wire's charge through the tiny filament, and if you don't keep spinning the magnet, the magnet will be slowed quickly.

Feel the Electrons

  • When your hand spins the magnet, you can feel the extra work it takes to light the bulb.
  • This happens because your hand is connected to the flowing charge in the bulb, and when you push on it, you can feel it push back on you!

How is your hand connected to the flowing charges?

  • Your hand twists the nail,
  • the nail spins the magnet,
  • the magnet pushes the invisible magnetic fields,
  • the fields push the movable charges,
  • the charges flow slowly through the light bulb filament,
  • and the tiny filament causes friction against the flow of charge and heats up.

But then the reverse happens!

  • The charge can't move much because of the tiny filament,
  • so it resists the pressure from the magnetic fields,
  • which in turn resist the pressure from the magnet,
  • which resists the twisting pressure from the nail,
  • which resists the twisting pressure from your fingers.

So, in a very real way, you can feel the electrons in the light bulb filament. When you push them, you can feel their reluctance to move through the narrow filament!

Turn off the Field

Try changing the magnets' position.

  • Remove the magnets, then tape them around the nail so that the two stacks are clinging side by side, rather than stacked up in a line.
  • Spin the magnets.
  • Does the light bulb still light up? Why not?
      - The N pole of one magnet stack is very close to the S pole of the other, and vice versa.
      - The magnetic field is now stretching between the two stacks of magnets, and isn't spreading outward.
      - Most of the field is trapped between the adjacent magnet poles, so the field doesn't extend out through the coil.

  • On the other hand, when you make a single stack of magnets, the field extends outward for many inches, and if you spin the single magnet stack, the field cuts through the wires and "pumps" their electrons into motion.

Motor Challenge

There is a simple way to convert your generator into a motor:

  • Use paint or tape to insulate a spot on one side of the nail.
  • Use a 6V battery and the generator's wires to touch the nail, forming a switch.
  • The rotating magnets turn the nail, which turns the coil on and off at just the right times.

Can you discover the trick?

Convert Your Generator from AC to DC

The hard way:

    Add a spinning "commutator" switch and sliding metal "brushes," so that each time the magnets turn half way, the switch reverses the generator connections.

The easier way:

    Add a one-way valve!
  • An "electricity valve" is called a diode or rectifier.
  • If you connect a diode in series with one of your motor wires, it will only let the charges flow in one direction.
  • The diode will change the Alternating Current into one-way flow ("pulsating direct current").
  • Try Radio Shack diodes such as 1N4000 or 1N4001.
  • Note: Unfortunately it takes about 3/4 volts to force charges through a diode, and this voltage subtracts from your generator output.
  • Instead, you can try using a special diode with lower voltage, such as 1N5819 from digikey.com.

Note: The voltage is still very low, so it's not very useful. If you spin the motor very fast, you might be able to recharge a tiny 1.2v rechargeable battery. You could try adding many more turns of wire to the coil to increase the voltage.


Spin Your Motor Fast, in the Dark

  • Sometimes your generator is working fine, but you're not spinning it fast enough, or perhaps the dim glow of the light bulb is simply being missed in a brightly lit room.
  • Go into a semi-dark room, then spin it really fast. Try cranking it with an old-fashioned drill, or try sticking a little wheel (such as a toy-car wheel) on the nail, then let it run across the spinning tire of an upside-down bicycle. Note: Don't go too fast or the bulb will burn out.

Did You Use Different Parts than Those Listed?

  • As stated earlier, this generator cannot power a normal flashlight bulb; it needs the special 25-milliamp, 1.5-volt bulb sold by Radio Shack. A normal flashlight bulb requires much more energy before it starts to glow.
  • If you simply cannot find the Radio Shack 25mA bulb, you can use a 1.5V 40mA bulb, but add twice as much magnet wire to your coil (buy two kits of magnet wire).
  • Don't use an LED. While a red LED could work in theory, at least 1-1/2 volts is required to barely light one up (the green or blue kind need even higher volts). The light bulb is better because it lights up at less than 1/2 volt. Note: If you really must use an LED, use the red kind, and also add about three more spools of the 30-gauge wire to your generator coil.
  • Be sure to use the large Radio Shack rectangular magnets in the Parts list. They have no holes through the center. Most other magnets are far too weak and will not work unless you spin the magnets incredibly fast, at thousands of RPM (revolutions per minute).
  • Don't use fewer magnets.

Stack the Magnets So They Strongly Attract

Make sure the magnets are positioned correctly:

  • Stack up all four magnets so their widest faces are clinging together.
  • Jam the nail through the crack in the middle of the stack.
  • Take this apart, and re-assemble it inside the generator in the same way.

Clean the Wire Ends Thoroughly

If the generator refuses to work, inspect the spot where the wires twist together.

  • The coil of wire has a very thin red coating, and you must clean ALL of this coating off the last 2cm of the wire ends before twisting them to the light bulb wires.
  • The tips of the light bulb wires must be stripped clean of all plastic.
  • The metal part of the light bulb wire must touch the metal of the coil.
  • If there is any insulating coating between the metal of the generator wire and the light bulb wire, the circuit will be "open" and no charge will flow.

Be Sure the Wire is Wound Properly

  • Be sure to follow the instructions and diagrams for winding the wire around the box.
  • You MUST wind the coil so the coil goes across the side of the box that has the nail hole.
  • If you wind it so no coil is crossing the nail-hole side of the box, then the magnetic fields won't cut across the wires, and no electric voltage will be created.
  • Also, don't wind the coil over the open end of the box, or you won't be able to get your fingers inside to make changes to the magnet.

Make Sure the Magnets are Spinning Fast Enough

  • If you cannot spin the magnets fast enough with your fingers, try a "twist drill" or hand-crank drill.
  • Clamp the nail in the end of the drill and spin the magnets as fast as you can.
  • An electric drill may work too, but most electric drills don't move as fast as the hand-cranked type.

Test Your Light Bulb

To make sure you don't have a bad bulb:

  • Get a new, fresh 1.5V battery (any size).
  • Disconnect the bulb from the generator.
  • Touch one wire from the bulb to the top of the battery and one wire to the bottom.
  • The light bulb should light up brightly; if not, the bulb is bad.

How to Improve Your Generator

You can make your generator more powerful by using more turns of wire. You used only the spool of 30-gauge wire; with more wire, the magnets don't have to spin as fast to light the bulb.

Note: Be sure to clean all the red coating off the ends of any extra wire before you add it.

  • Connect the thinnest of the remaining spools of wire to one end of the wire that's already wrapped by twisting the wire ends together.
  • Make sure to wind the extra wire in the same direction as the rest of the coil.

If you want to make your light bulb REALLY bright:

  • Buy a second kit of wire.
  • Twist the end of the second 30-gauge spool with the end of the coil you have already made.
  • Wind all the new wire onto the coil.

Used with permission of William Beaty.

While you're here at Discover This, be sure to check out our selection of Science Fair Project Books and Kits. We have plenty of mind-expanding projects and ideas for junior scientists!

Shop by CategoryShop by AgeShop by Price
Like Us on Facebook Watch Us on YouTube Join Us on Google Plus
DiscoverThis Science Kits and Toys is upfront Renaissance Retail, LLC, Internet Shopping, Lake Forest, IL Read Your Store Reviews