This has a lot more significance than might be first assumed, as control of static electricity plays a large part in modern electronics and other professions. An ElectroStatic Discharge event is when a static charge is bled off in an uncontrolled fashion, and will be referred to as ESD hereafter.
ESD comes in many forms, it can be as small as 50 volts of electricity being equalized up to many millions of volts. The actual power is extremely small, so small that no danger is generally offered to someone who is in the discharge path of ESD. It usually takes several thousand volts for a person to even notice ESD in the form of a spark and the familiar zap that accompanies it. The problem with ESD is even a small discharge that can go completely unnoticed can ruin semiconductors. A static charge of millions of volts is common, however the reason it is not a threat is there is no current capacity behind it. These extreme voltages do allow ionization of the air and allow o her materials to break down, which is the root of where the damage comes from.
ESD is not a new problem. Black powder manufacturing and other pyrotechnic industries have always been dangerous if an ESD event occurs in the wrong circumstance. During the era of tubes (AKA valves) ESD was a nonexistent issue for electronics, but with the advent of semiconductors, and the increase in miniaturization, it has become much more serious.
Damage to components can, and usually do, occur when the part is in the ESD path. Many parts, such as power diodes, are very robust and can handle the discharge, but if a part has a small or thin geometry as part of their physical structure then the voltage can break down that part of the semiconductor. Currents during these events become quite high, but are in the nanosecond to microsecond time frame. Part of the component is left permanently damaged by this, which can cause two types of failure modes. Catastrophic is the easy one, leaving the part completely nonfunctional. The other can be much more serious. Latent damage may allow the problem component to work for hours, days or even months after the initial damage before catastrophic failure. Many times these parts are referred to as “walking wounded”, since they are working but bad. Figure is shown an example of latent (“walking wounded”) ESD damage. If these components end up in a life support role, such as medical or military use, then the consequences can be grim. For most hobbyists it is an inconvenience, but it can be an expensive one.
Even components that are considered fairly rugged can be damaged by ESD. Bipolar transistors, the earliest of the solid state amplifiers, are not immune, though less susceptible. Some of the newer high speed components can be ruined with as little as 3 volts. There are components that might not be considered at risk, such as some specialized resistors and capacitors manufactured using MOS (Metal Oxide Semiconductor) technology, that can be damaged via ESD.