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The distributor lives in the ignition system of an engine. The distributor routes high voltage from the ignition coil or coil pack to the spark plugs in the correct firing order. It consists of a rotating arm or rotor inside the distributor cap, on top of the distributor shaft, but insulated from the shaft and the body of the vehicle. The distributor shaft is driven by a gear on the camshaft. Usually the distributor shaft also drives the oil pump. The metal part of the rotor contacts the central high voltage cable from the coil via a spring loaded carbon brush. The metal part of the rotor arm passes close to (but does not touch) the output contacts which connect via high tension cables to the spark plug of each cylinder. As the rotor spins within the distributor, electrical current jumps the small gaps created between the rotor arm and the contacts due to the high voltage created by the ignition coil.
The distributor shaft has a cam that operates the contact breaker. Opening the points causes a high induction voltage in the systems ignition coil. The distributor also houses the centrifugal advance unit: this is a set of hinged weights attached to the distributor shaft, that cause the breaker points mounting plate to slightly rotate and advance the spark timing with higher engine rpm. The distributor also has a vacuum advance unit that advances timing even further as a function of the vacuum in the inlet manifold. Usually there is also a capacitor attached to the distributor. The capacitor is connected parallel to the breaker points, to suppress sparking, and prevent wear of the points.