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If it spontaneously discharges, then you've got a short somewhere. Either you've got metal from the lid contacting the inner foil, or a hole through the container or something.
Remember that a capacitor works by having two disconnected sheets of metal separated by a dielectric. If there is a current path connecting the metals, you don't have a capacitor any more.
The voltage is given by Q = CV, if you know the total charge stored (e.g., current supplied multiplied by time) and the capacitance (calculable in theory if you know the areas of the plates, their separation, and the dielectric constant), then you can get the voltage. More reasonably, you can use a voltmeter to measure the voltage once you're able to charge it up.
You need to get your device to hold a charge before you do anything else. You need to find and eliminate the short. Once you've done that, you should be fine. But please be careful! If your Leyden jar works correctly, it can store enough total charge to kill you.
For measuring the voltage, it doesn't really matter which way you put the leads. If you have them the "wrong" way, the meter will read negative voltage.
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Posted:Aug 26, 2010
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