Who Invented Lichtenberg (Fractal) Wood Burning?

Fractal wood burning of a table with lichtenberg electrical patterns

Have you ever seen a tree-like pattern (fractal) on a piece of wood? These patterns are drawn by an embellishing technique known as Lichtenberg (Fractal) Wood Burning.

The technique utilizes a high-voltage electric current to burn the layers of wood and expose the fractal patterns buried inside. Do you wonder who invented this dangerous technique and why it is named so?

Lichtenberg (Fractal) Wood Burning was invented by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg— a physicist who made tree-like (fractal) patterns on wood to create an astonishing appearance using the burning electrical discharge in 1777. The technique was also named after this German physicist. The first figure he drew using the fractal wood burning technique was a 2D dust figure, which resulted from the settling of dust particles on charged resin plates.

Fractal burning patterns can look aesthetically pleasing but the process of fractal wood burning itself is very dangerous! As per the American Association of Woodturners (AAW), the process of fractal burning is banned in all events conducted or sponsored by AAW. However, learning about it will cause you no harm. [1]

Warning: Please use this article only for informational and entertainment purposes. Fractal burning is dangerous and can be lethal if done incorrectly. The website holds no liability and is not responsible for any actions taken by the reader. If the reader attempts any wood burning, they do so at their own risk.

Fractal Burning: How was It Invented and Carried Out?

Wondering how Lichtenberg Fractal burning was invented and why this is its name? Let’s delve into the details.

History of Fractal Patterns

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg first discovered the fractal burning process in 1777 when he built a large electrophorus device to produce a high-intensity burning current. The electrophorus is designed to generate high voltage static electricity discharged on the insulator surface.

Lichtenberg successfully produced the fractal patterns and recorded them by pressing a sheet of paper onto the wood surface. Lichtenberg then studied the technique further and explored 2D structures on the insulating materials.

Want to learn more about the history of fractals? Check out my post covering the complete fractal history!

Specifications of Lichtenberg Fractal Burning Generator

SpecificationValue
Power supply20A
Wattage100 Watts
Voltage/Frequency120V- 60Hz or 220V-50Hz

Formation of Fractal Patterns:

A non-conducting plate made up of glass or resin is placed with a sharp-pointed needle on top of it. The sharp-pointed needle must be perpendicular to the insulating surface, and the point must be very close to it. A high voltage is applied to the needle via a static electricity generator.

A small electric discharge runs through the needle to the plate’s surface. This results in an accumulation of charge onto the surface of the plate, causing the formation of stranded or tree-like patterns known as Fractal Patterns.

Lightning showing the Lichtenberg Fractal pattern
Lightning showing the Lichtenberg Fractal pattern

Want to know more about natural fractals? Check out my post covering all the common fractals in nature!

Once the pattern is formed, sulfur and red lead are sprinkled on the surface of the plates. The red lead carries a positive charge and attaches to the negatively charged surface on the plate, while the sulfur carries a negative charge and attaches to the positively charged points on the surface of the plate.

Other conductive liquids may be used to form Lichtenberg patterns.

Fractal Burning Can Kill You: Dangerous Since Invention

Since Lichtenberg invented the fractal burning technique, it has proved dangerous to practice. The high voltage static current could become an invisible killer if you don’t follow all the precautionary measures.

Moreover, many deaths have occurred due to fractal burning in the past, some of which are not even reported in the media.

If you would rather learn about positive influences fractals have had in science and technology, check out my post covering all the main uses of fractals in technology!

How is Lichtenberg Fractal Burning Taking Lives Since Its Invention?

The Lichtenberg fractal burning technique uses high voltage electric current to craft patterns. Thus, the electric current discharges from the generator and passes between the two electrodes.

Furthermore, an electrolyte solution is poured onto the surface of a wood or acrylic plate where the designs need to be crafted.

A circular piece of wood with Fractal-style burns
A circular piece of wood with Fractal-style burns

Electrocution can happen during the crafting and designing process when the current passes from your body. This can happen for many reasons:

  • If you touch the electrode directly with your hand while the generator is ON.
  • If the current faces resistance inflow towards the plate.
  • If any part of your body accidentally comes in between the two electrodes.

Moreover, voltage is not the only culprit taking lives since the invention of the Lichtenberg technique. The amperage level (a current measure) is another factor that enhances usage risk.

It must be noted that buying or making a DIY Lichtenberg generator with a low voltage or amperage level will not solve the problem as if a minor voltage or current can burn the wood; it can surely kill you.

ESA Warns People About Lichtenberg Generators.

The Electrical Safety Authority of Ontario has reported that there have been five casualties in the last seven years within the province, and ESA would like to warn everyone of the danger of high voltage electric current generators, i.e., called Lichtenberg generators.

The generators contain live wiring that discharges the high voltage onto the surface of the plate and hence can kill someone if not handled carefully.

A Van der Graaf Machine generating electricity
A Van der Graaf Machine generating electricity

ESA also added that the generators might have electrical safety approval stickers on them, but both the homemade and commercially available Lichtenberg generators are not safe to use.

Moreover, the Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) has warned customers that everything we see on the internet is safe to practice at home.

Additionally, keeping in mind the working operations of the Lichtenberg generator, it must be comprehended that such types of instruments cannot be approved for safety. [2]

Fractal Burning – An Emerging Health Problem:

Pyrography is an art where the artists make a burning wood design, especially the fractal patterns on the wood or any other insulating material. The technique has emerged as serious health due to getting more fame and people trying it with no precautions.

Want to know more about fractals in art? Check out my post doing a deep dive on fractal art!

As per the media, there were 25 deaths due to fractal burning only in 2020. Out of 25, five individuals carried normal injuries while the remaining 20 died.

The age rank of affected individuals is from 17 to 60 years. A female was also included in the list of affected individuals. [3]

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Fractal zoom canvas wall art of the Mandelbrot set

ESA issues a warning to manufacture Lichtenberg equipment

Not only buying, but the Electrical Safety Authority of Ontario has also warned citizens of using high voltage equipment to manufacture a device similar to the Lichtenberg generator at home. Several deaths have been reported with these types of devices.

ESA also added that such electrical devices producing high voltage discharge to carve the patterns on the surface like wood or acrylic plate are not safe to use.

ESA further assures that the instruments are not approved according to safety standards and are not backed up by any electrical safety remarks. [4]

A circular piece of wood with Lichtenberg-style patterns
A circular piece of wood with Lichtenberg-style patterns

Lichtenberg Fractal Burning— Another Death [August 2017]

 The fractal burning technique is getting fame due to amateurs crafting patterns on wood and acrylic plates in many YouTube videos without any PPE or preventive measures.

While unaware of the dangers, people have started practicing Lichtenberg fractal burning without proper guidance, lack of insulation material, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and no training.

Two casualties were reported in August 2017, to which the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) responded as follows:

As the American Association of Woodturners, we adopt the policy of prohibited use of Fractal burning— which is a process of designing patterns on wood or glass— in the event catered or sponsored by AAW. Moreover, the process/technique of Lichtenberg fractal burning will not be endorsed by any writing in AAW publications.

American Association of Woodturners

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Charged Conclusion

We hope you are now aware of the danger of the Lichtenberg fractal wood-burning process and what precautions you need to follow to avoid the dangers. Authorities like AAW and ESA have already taken action against this process involving high electrocution chances.

However, there should be more efforts to be aware of the dangers of this technique to avoid potential deaths and injuries in this regard.

Moreover, fractal burning must not be practiced at home via the DIY Lichtenberg generator producing high-voltage current. Both commercial as well as homemade devices are not safe to use.

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    References

    1. “Safety: Fractal Burning / Lichtenburg Burning.” AAW Main Homepage, https://www.woodturner.org/Woodturner/Resources/Safety-Materials/Safety-Fractal-Burning-Lichtenburg-Burning.aspx.
    2. “ESA Issues Warning on the Dangers of Lichtenberg Generators.” Electrical Line Magazine, 25 Sept. 2022, https://electricalline.com/esa-issues-warning-dangers-lichtenberg-generators.
    3. FN;, Campbell H; Nizamani R; Jones SW; Williams. “Death Due to Fractal Wood Burning: An Emerging Public Health Problem.” Journal of Burn Care & Research : Official Publication of the American Burn Association, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32353877/.
    4. Esa. “Electrical Products.” Search for an Approval Mark – Electrical Safety Authority (ESA), https://esasafe.com/electrical-products/recognized-certification-marks/.

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