Potentiometer as a rheostat


6 volt battery
Potentiometer, single turn, 5 kΩ, linear taper (Radio Shack catalog # 271-1714)
Small “hobby” motor, permanent-magnet type (Radio Shack catalog # 273-223 or equivalent)

For this experiment, you will need a relatively low-value potentiometer, certainly not more than 5 kΩ.


Rheostat use
Wiring a potentiometer as a rheostat
Simple motor speed control
Use of voltmeter over ammeter to verify a continuous circuit




Potentiometers find their most sophisticated application as voltage dividers, where shaft position determines a secific voltage division ratio. However, there are applications where we don’t necessarily need a variable voltage divider, but merely a variable resistor: a two-terminal device. Technically, a variable resistor is known as a rheostat, but potentiometers can be made to function as rheostats quite easily.

In its simplest configuration, a potentiometer may be used as a rheostat by simply using the wiper terminal and one of the other terminals, the third terminal left unconnected and unused:

Moving the potentiometer control in the direction that brings the wiper closest to the other used terminal results in a lower resistance. The direction of motion required to increase or decrease resistance may be changed by using a different set of terminals:

Be careful, though, that you don’t use the two outer terminals, as this will result in no change in resistance as the potentiometer shaft is turned. In other words, it will no longer function as a variable resistance:

Build the circuit as shown in the schematic and illustration, using just two terminals on the potentiometer, and see how motor speed may be controlled by adjusting shaft position. Experiment with different terminal connections on the potentiometer, noting the changes in motor speed control. If your potentiometer has a high resistance (as measured between the two outer terminals), the motor might not move at all until the wiper is brought very close to the connected outer terminal.

As you can see, motor speed may be made variable using a series-connected rheostat to change total circuit resistance and limit total current. This simple method of motor speed control, however, is inefficient, as it results in substantial amounts of power being dissipated (wasted) by the rheostat. A much more efficient means of motor control relies on fast “pulsing” of power to the motor, using a high-speed switching device such as a transistor. A similar method of power control is used in household light “dimmer” switches. Unfortunately, these techniques are much too sophisticated to explore at this point in the experiments.

When a potentiometer is used as a rheostat, the “unused” terminal is often connected to the wiper terminal, like this:

At first, this seems rather pointless, as it has no impact on resistance control. You may verify this fact for yourself by inserting another wire in your circuit and comparing motor behavior before and after the change:

If the potentiometer is in good working order, this additional wire makes no difference whatsoever. However, if the wiper ever loses contact with the resistive strip inside the potentiometer, this connection ensures the circuit does not completely open: that there will still be a resistive path for current through the motor. In some applications, this may be an important. Old potentiometers tend to suffer from intermittent losses of contact between the wiper and the resistive strip, and if a circuit cannot tolerate the complete loss of continuity (infinite resistance) created by this condition, that “extra” wire provides a measure of protection by maintaining circuit continuity.

You may simulate such a wiper contact “failure” by disconnecting the potentiometer’s middle terminal from the terminal strip, measuring voltage across the motor to ensure there is still power getting to it, however small:

It would have been valid to measure circuit current instead of motor voltage to verify a completed circuit, but this is a safer method because it does not involve breaking the circuit to insert an ammeter in series. Whenever an ammeter is used, there is risk of causing a short circuit by connecting it across a substantial voltage source, possily resulting in instrument damage or personal injury. Voltmeters lack this inherent safety risk, and so whenever a voltage measurement may be made instead of a current measurement to verify the same thing, it is the wiser choice.



  1. radha

    In a potentiometer, taper refers to how the resistance varies as the pot’s armature is rotated (or, for a slide pot, as its wiper slides; or for a solid state pot like the DS1802, as its input voltage is varied).
    For a pot with a linear taper, the resistance varies linearly as the wiper moves.

    For a pot with a logarithmic (log) taper, the resistance varies logarithmically with the wiper’s motion. When used in an amplifier circuit, the output varies slowly as the pot is operated at the low end and varies more and more rapidly as the pot is operated toward the high end.

    This is also called an audio taper because it is most commonly used for audio volume controls. The ear responds logarithmically (each doubling in signal is perceived as an equal step in volume). The ear is more sensitive to changes at lower volumes, so an audio volume control varies the signal slowly at lower settings and more rapidly at higher settings. The net effect is that the sound seems to vary smoothly through the pot’s range.