How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1060

How does a "touch lamp" work? — LAM, Enosburg Falls, VT
A touch lamp detects your touch by looking for changes in the electric properties of the lamp's surfaces. It monitors these properties by putting a fluctuating electric charge on them. As electric current flows toward the bulb through the lamp's wires, it passes through an electronic device that places a high frequency (about 60 kHz) alternating current onto those wires. This added current causes the lamp's surfaces to take on a small fluctuating electric charge—first positive, then negative, then positive, over and over again. This surface charging involves electrostatic forces, which extend long distances between charged objects, and occurs even though the lamp's surfaces aren't directly connected to the lamp's wires. The more surface the lamp has, the more easily it can hold that electric charge—the greater the lamp's electric capacitance.

When you plug the lamp in, the electronic device uses its fluctuating charge to determine how easy it is to add or subtract charge from the lamp's surfaces. In other words, it measures the lamp's capacitance. It then begins to look for changes in that capacitance. When you touch the lamp, or even come close to its surfaces, your body effectively adds to the lamp's surface and its capacitance increases significantly. The electronic device detects this increase in capacitance and switches the lamp's state from on to off or from off to on. The fact that you don't have to touch the lamp to affect its capacitance means that a touch lamp can have insulating paint on its metal surfaces yet still detect your touch. You can also buy touch lamp modules that plug into the wall and turn the lamp that's connected to them into a touch lamp. These modules are so sensitive to capacitance changes in the lamp that you can trigger them just by touching the lamp cord.


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