High-Resolution print version of the article from Chicago Tribune newspaper.
Web version with additional photos follows.
Version of the article published on the web.
Tesla coil enthusiasts: Danger and drama part of allure
By Steve Schmadeke
December 02, 2009
Under a starry Saturday sky behind a Lake Zurich warehouse, three men
unload a small flamethrower, electric cabling, neon-tube "light
sabers," about 80 pounds of chain mail and two 7-foot devices that look
like monster-movie props. Terry Blake, 48, Jeff Larson, 39, and Steve
Ward, 24, call themselves the Masters of Lightning and are members of a
small sect within the hobbyist world: Tesla coil enthusiasts. Their
coils -- which generate beautiful, lethal electrical sparks up to 12
feet long -- are a much-modified version of the device Nikola Tesla
invented to wirelessly transport electricity.
There are likely
only about 1,000 Tesla coil hobbyists worldwide, but they have a
growing following as parts have become more readily available over eBay
and videos have gone up on YouTube. For obvious reasons, Tesla coils
are popular among electrical engineers. And now their appeal is seeping
into pop culture, most recently with a fan making a video of a new
Flaming Lips song using a musical Tesla coil that the band posted on
its Web site.
The Masters of Lightning have won their own
measure of fame. Videos of their performances, typically before crowds
of 50 to a few hundred, have been viewed more than 2 million times on
The three use advanced industrial transistors to
produce what is essentially 1.6 million volts of lightning to play
music from Bach's Toccata and Fugue to the 8-bit theme from Super Mario
Brothers. It works by precisely controlling the firing rate of the
sparks, using them like a speaker to make music so ear-splittingly loud
that last summer people living a half-mile away from the warehouse
top it off, Blake stands between the coils wearing a metal suit of
layered chain mail, sometimes carrying a lit flamethrower. On this
night, they are testing a new homemade helmet that Blake, a Motorola
engineer from Palatine who performs as Dr. Zeus, hopes will look good
but also keep him as safe as a modified flamethrower with a glass
insulator to showcase the sparks.
"When I first started making
sparks, most people I know just thought that was insane," says Blake,
laughing. " 'Why are you messing with lightning bolts in your
backyard?' When I started putting on the suit and playing around with
(the sparks), they were speechless. That was beyond crazy."
the deadly violet sparks, the smell of ozone and pizza, and the Zelda
theme music played at rock-concert levels, the hobby offers technical
challenges and the chance to briefly step into a sort of alternate
"The plasma looks really beautiful up close," says
Blake of the man-made lightning. "There's all sorts of fractal patterns
and all sorts of detail in there that you can't make out if you're
scared of it."
Not that you shouldn't be scared. Chip Atkinson,
of Colorado, who runs a Tesla coil mailing list that has grown from 700
to 900 in recent years, has a nearly 7,000-word warning about the
hobby's perils on his Web site. Among them: "Explosions can and do
occur with Tesla coils!"
"It's one of those things where if you
don't know what you're doing, it can be fatal," says Bert Hickman, 62,
a retired Woodridge engineer and former Tesla coil hobbyist.
three men have years of experience. Larson and Ward are Fermilab
employees and Streamwood residents. Ward started building Tesla coils
as an eighth-grader in Oak Forest. They experimented to create better
shows. Blake setting two-by-fours on fire by channeling the sparks with
his finger got a good response. Another favorite involves Blake holding
up orange neon tubes that glow like light sabers amid sparks that play
the "Imperial March" from "Star Wars."
"We're sort of learning as we go," Ward says.
Tesla coils are ready to fire. Ward and Larson stand at a folding table
about 20 feet away, using a series of knobs and sliders to control the
sparks. The music comes from Ward's laptop. A large red "emergency off"
button sits at the table's center.
Part of the competition among coilers is the length of their sparks.
"It's sort of bragging rights," Larson says.
really sort of lacking right now, actually," says Ward after running
the coils for a couple of minutes. He and Larson add wooden spacers
under the coils. "We're trying to make them a little bigger."
their coils can shoot sparks of up to 12 feet, no hobbyist has
replicated the 135-foot ones reportedly generated by a massive coil
Tesla built 110 years ago in Colorado Springs, the three say. That man
built a 122-foot coil to test his theory that electricity could be sent
wirelessly through the Earth's ionosphere, but the length of his sparks
is viewed skeptically today.
On this night, the Masters of
Lightning just want to make sure Blake's new helmet is safe. It's
tested first without Blake inside, then with him wearing it and lifting
his hands to low-voltage sparks from a coil.
With nowhere to run
their coils over the winter, the men work on new ideas. Blake already
has a project -- "re-engineering" his chain metal pants to allow more
freedom of movement. Then they wait until they can once again see the
looks on people's faces as their fantastic apparatus roars to life.
"People start freaking out," Blake says.
Masters of Lightning - Photo Gallery & Video
Tribune photos by Chris Sweda / November 10, 2009
Steve Ward puts together pieces of equipment that make up a Tesla coil
as a group of electrical whizzes, called Masters of Lightning test
their electricity-producing devices at an industrial park in suburban Lake Zurich.
As Jeff Larson, left, holds a flashlight, Blake puts on his specially
designed metal suit, which allows him to move among Tesla coils and
live to tell the tale.
Jeff Larson makes some adjustments on one of his Tesla coils prior to an electricity demonstration.
Terry Blake, who is also known as Dr. Zeus, wears his group's t-shirt as as they gather to make lightning.
Terry Blake shows off his specially designed metal suit that allows him
to walk through electricity produced between Tesla coils.
Terry Blake, wearing a specially designed metal suit, demonstrates fun with Tesla coils and incandescent bulbs in Lake Zurich. "The plasma looks really beautiful up close," he says of the man-made lightning.
Terry Blake watches from a distance as Jeff Larson and Steve Ward test the electricity between two Tesla coils.
Terry Blake's special metal suit lets him walk between Tesla coils and
guide electricity through his movements. Blake and his fellow Masters
of Lightning can shoot sparks of up to 12 feet.
Terry Blake guides electricity through the use of his movements during a demonstration.
Terry Blake wears a specially designed metal suit to allow him to walk
between Tesla coils and guide electricity through the use of a flame