It consists of a rotating arm or rotor inside the distributor cap, on top of the distributor shaft. The rotor contacts the central high voltage cable from the coil via a spring loaded carbon brush. 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. Within the distributor, the high voltage energy is able to jump the small gap from the rotor arm to the contact.
The distributor also houses the centrifugal advance unit: 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. In addition, the distributor has a vacuum advance unit that advances the 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.
Around the 1970s the primary breaker points were largely replaced with Hall effect sensors. As this is a non-contacting device and the primary circuit is controlled by solid-state electronics, a great amount of maintenance in point adjustment and replacement was eliminated. This also eliminates any problem with breaker follower or cam wear, and by eliminating a side load extends distributor shaft bearing life. The remaining secondary (high voltage) circuit was as described above, using a single coil and a rotary distributor.
Modern engine designs are tending to do away with the distributor and coil, instead performing the distribution function in the primary circuit electronically and applying the primary pulse to individual coils on top of each spark plug (Direct Ignition or coil-on-plug). This avoids the need to switch very high voltages, which is very often a source of trouble, especially in damp conditions.