A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Now that's serious metal music

04/01/08

Tesla coils always draw crowds, and the DucKon science fiction convention in Naperville, Illinois, was no exception. People gathered around the seven-foot-tall metal transformer tower and awaited its monotone crackle, purple sparks, and thrilling flashes of artificial lightning.

Now that's serious metal music

photo
Photo: Jeff Larson, Fermilab

Tesla coils always draw crowds, and the DucKon science fiction convention in Naperville, Illinois, was no exception. People gathered around the seven-foot-tall metal transformer tower and awaited its monotone crackle, purple sparks, and thrilling flashes of artificial lightning.

But this coil had other plans.

As it fired up, the pitch of its crackle began to rise and fall. A tune emerged. People in the crowd started to cheer and clap. They began to dance. Someone held up a lighter. A listener shouted a request: “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Thanks to Steve Ward, electricity lovers had a soundtrack.

Tesla coils were invented about 100 years ago in a quest to transfer electricity wirelessly. Today they're known mostly for their entertainment value, used in science projects, haunted houses, and conventions, as well as for movie props.

Ward studies electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A YouTube video of his coil's June DucKon performance has received more than a million hits. And a friend of his, Jeff Larson, a senior technician at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, has built another singing coil so they could perform duets.

Larson estimates that fewer than a few dozen Tesla coils make music. “Our setup got so much attention because it was so big,” he says. “Most musical Tesla coils are only a few feet high and shoot sparks that are a couple of feet long. We can produce 13 feet of spark with ours.”

The music starts when a laptop computer signals the coil to emit a spark. The spark heats the air, making a popping noise; when sparks are emitted in rapid succession their sound merges into a musical note. The faster the sparks emerge, the higher pitched the note.

Ward has written music for this bizarre new instrument. Together, the Tesla twins can be heard humming anything from the theme of the Mario Bros. video game to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from theNutcracker ballet.

Haley Bridger

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