Musical lightning strikes at RMSC

06:53 AM, Aug 11, 2013

Nikola Tesla used his coils to conduct radio transmission experiments, and now a circuit like the one at the heart of his invention is used in every radio. (CARLOS ORTIZ//staff photographer)/


Written By | Caurie Putnam

If you goWhat: “Electricity Theater,” a new permanent exhibit.
When: Showtimes through Aug. 31 are 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. Sunday. New shows will be added in the fall.
Where: Rochester Museum & Science Center, 657 East Ave.
Admission: $13; $12 for seniors and college students; $11 for youths.
Important note: “Electricity Theater” is recommended for ages 9 and older as the show is relatively loud. Earplugs are available.
For information: (585) 271-4320 or rmsc.org.

What is a Tesla coil?A Tesla coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit used to produce high-voltage, low-current and high-frequency alternating-current electricity. Nikola Tesla, a man ahead of his time, invented his coil in the early 1890s with the intention of transmitting electricity wirelessly through the air.

Is that electricity real?

It’s a question that Timothy Cawley, head of theater and outreach at the Rochester Museum & Science Center has been hearing since the museum opened its new permanent “Electricity Theater” exhibit.

After all, how many times have you seen bolts of electricity “sing” Ozzy Osbourne or Taylor Swift tunes?

The exhibit is so different that it puts RMSC in an elite tier of institutions such as the Boston Museum of Science, which is renowned for its educational exhibit on electricity.

At the center of RMSC’s “Electricity Theater” is state-of-the-art technology rooted in the earliest days of electricity: two custom-built, six-foot Tesla coils, named after Nikola Tesla, who invented them in 1891 with the intention of transmitting electricity wirelessly through the air.

Add some star power with technological prowess, and you’ve got something few others have — coils modified to play musical notes.

Experts say the exhibit is as unique as the force behind it, ArcAttack, a Texas performance group that was a semifinalist on Season 5 of NBC’s America’s Got Talent.

We’ve knocked it out of the ballpark,” says ArcAttack founder Joe DiPrima in an interview from his Austin home, about the RMSC exhibit that the group installed in June. “This is something we’ve been talking about doing for years, but weren’t sure if we could for a small space like a museum. We came up with a system that’s power-efficient, reliable, compact and one-of-a-kind.”

This is the first permanent Tesla coil museum exhibit in the nation.

The new exhibit is one of the ways the museum marked its 100th anniversary year. The “Big Bang” centennial gala that marked the Sept. 13, 2012, anniversary raised many of the funds for the project, and Patrick and JoEll Cunningham matched other contributions.

We wanted to celebrate our 100th birthday in a unique way, and singing Tesla coils are a fairly new technology that no other museum is doing,” says Calvin Uzelmeier, director of education at the RMSC. “We feel confident these are the most sophisticated Tesla coils ever.”

RMSC built a 60-by-30-foot 75-seat theater on the museum’s third floor to house the two twin solid-state Tesla coils. The coils, which run at only 30 percent capacity, have electromagnetic interference, or EMI, filters so that the audience is never in any danger of being electrocuted, Uzelmeier says.

By controlling the pressure waves radiating from the coils, pre-loaded music formatted specifically for the coils by ArcAttack or RMSC staff member Zoë McLaughlin plays and six- to eight-foot bolts of lightning are produced just a few feet away from audience members.

The musical lightning can also be produced live by selected audience members via a keyboard.

We don’t just plug an iPod into the coils and get music,” Cawley says. “It’s a labor-intensive process to transfer a song from a typical format to something that can be played by the Tesla coils. It takes about two days of work.”

But that work is worth it for onlookers, who on a recent day left mesmerized by the experience.

It’s pretty cool to see lightning make music,” says Isac Latoski, 9, of Rochester. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He enjoyed the first show of the day so much, he brought a friend of his along to see the second.

Rachel Coan, 18, of Penfield was also impressed.

It was interesting to learn how wireless electricity works,” Coan says. “I enjoyed it.”

This excitement about science is the ultimate goal of the exhibit, museum staffers say.

One of the biggest things we can do here is make science more accessible and real to kids,” Cawley says. “We want them to leave excited, and they are. They all love it and think it’s really cool.”

The music changes for each performance. RMSC also incorporates a human element of science with vignettes about Tesla between songs. RMSC staff member Mark Almekinder takes on the role of the brilliant and eccentric Tesla during many of the six shows each day.

He was a true visionary,” Uzelmeier says. “We look to make Tesla a household name — at least here.”

Tesla used the coils to experiment with radio transmission, and now a circuit like the one at the heart of the coils is used in every radio. His coil experiments also led him to experiment in fields ahead of his time such as X-rays, radar, remote controls and neon lights.

Interestingly enough, although Tesla was born in Serbia and spent most of his life in Europe, Colorado Springs or New York City (where he once worked for Thomas Edison before a bitter rivalry developed between the two), he does have a western New York connection.

Tesla and George Westinghouse built the world’s first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls in 1895. Statues of Tesla still stand in his honor on both the American and Canadian sides of the falls.

Now, less than 90 miles away, music played by electricity rings out in a loud, funky pipe organ-sounding tribute to Tesla daily.

He didn’t envision his coils playing concerts,” Cawley says. “But we think he’d be pleased with what we’ve done. He gave us a lot to work with.”