Newspaper and magazine articles related to Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla Articles

Newspaper and magazine articles related to Nikola Tesla


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Electrifying Science Meets Rock’N’Roll

ArcAttack, an Austin, Texas-based performance group, has made singing Tesla coils famous, appearing at Maker Faires, on television’s America’s Got Talent, and around the world. Their show constantly evolves and improves, thanks to the inspiration and hard work of a rotating cast and crew. We spoke with three of ArcAttack’s longest-standing members - Joe DiPrima, brother Giovanni (John) DiPrima, and Steve Ward - to get the story behind the spectacle.

1. How did you come up with the idea for musically controlled Tesla coils?

Steve: I first met Joe in Michigan at a Geek Group meeting, and the idea came up pretty fast. I was playing around with solid state Tesla coil technology, pretty new at the time, and I could control the pitch with a potentiometer. The first time Joe saw this thing, he immediately wanted to control it musically.

2. How does it work?

Joe: A standard Tesla coil used to have two knobs: pulse rate and pulse width. So I got rid of the interrupter circuit, made a pulse rate modulator out of a keyboard, and played it like a piano.

Steve: The coils we bring to Maker Faire are 14kW outputting 600,000V, and each one makes 10-foot bolts of lightning, which produces the sound. Each time the air is energized it heats up and makes a pressure wave, producing a tick sound. We control the rate, the audio pitch, like 440 snaps a second corresponds to concert A. Anything that can source MIDI will work, whether a computer, keyboard, or MIDI guitar. Joe brewed up some custom hardware, a MIDI player/MP3 player and controller. We compose a MIDI track to be played on the coils while the audio tracks play on the PA system.

ArcAttack group members (from left to right) Sam McFadden, King Beat (robot drummer), Steve Ward, and the Brothers Arc: Giovanni and Joe DiPrima.

3. How do you develop music to fit the medium?

John: Well, it’s strange. There are a couple of caveats to what we do. No matter what, people are going to like it. Chicken Dance? People are going to freak out. But there’s not much of a tonality range to use with the coils. You write every song like the lead instrument was a heavily distorted trumpet, and try to make it as pleasing as possible for as long as possible.

I was living in Michigan when Joe called me with this awesome idea, so I’d write the music, sequence it, and send it to him to test it out. I had to compose not knowing how it would work. Like, we didn’t have a lot of time when they’d book a show. I’d email it to them while they were on the road; they’d pick it up on wi-fi at McDonald’s, test it out, and phone in the changes.

4. Let’s go back. What got you started?

ArcAttack's four-coil setup at World Maker Faire 2011 at the New York Hall of Science.

Joe: I’m self taught in electronics. Dad, a biomedical technician, taught me a lot and I picked it up hands-on. I always made a habit of taking on projects, using it as a form of education. I was building rudimentary electronics projects by the time I was six or seven, but didn’t understand it that well. I took a good interest in electronics until I was 15 or 16, then put four or five years into computer programming. I graduated from high school, needed a job, and got one at a TV repair shop. Then for the next seven or eight years I worked in consumer electronics repairs.

Steve: I had a friend who built a Tesla coil for the 8th grade science fair. I saw it, got hooked on the idea, and started tinkering. I played with high voltage stuff, ways of generating sparks with static electricity. Then in about a year I built my first Tesla coil, slowly pieced together from scrap. I was 13, and got fascinated with making sparks.

John: I always wanted to be a rock star, but never thought it was plausible and studied sound instead.

“There’s never anything specific we have to do ... so we build the things we want to build.”

5. Who else works on ArcAttack’s show?

John: These guys are our show brains. I've been trying to convince people the show controller (right) was an iPod prototype from the 80s, but no one believes me. It takes show data from an SD card and outputs from four RCA jacks, and MIDI through a fiber out, and lives next to the sound board far away from the Tesla coils so that EMI from the coils will not be an issue. We then run a fiber from the show controller all the way back to the stage. With this setup we can get our audio to the sound guy without having any physical connections from the stage to the sound board. The remote (left) links up wirelessly to the show controller via XBee, allowing us to pick songs from the stage without any physical connections. It's totally independent from the show controller so if it screws up around the Tesla coils (it hasn't as of yet), the show controller will still continue to operate.

Joe: We’ve had a few people in and out of our crew and had a lot of people work with us who don’t actually travel with us. But let’s see. Andrew Mansberger goes on a lot of tours with us, plays guitar and keyboards. Craig Newswanger is pretty much awesome at building anything and built our drum robot. Christian Miller is a computer science guy at UT [University of Texas at Austin], and works with us on a lot of our code. Pat Sullivan’s an electrician, goes out with us on shows. He built the Faraday cages.

6. Any close calls?

Joe: We’ve never had a dangerous close call; we’re generally pretty safe. We’ve never almost killed anybody! Oh wait, except this one time. We were at Art Outside in Austin.

Steve: At one show there was a girl, excited to see her friend in the Faraday cage - so excited she hopped our safety fence and ran toward the Tesla coil. Safety engineer Sam McFadden shut the system off; Joe tackled her.

Joe: She just had no idea what was going on, didn’t know what she was seeing.

7. What would have happened?

Joe: We think the arc is probably equivalent to getting hit by a stun gun. I don’t think it would kill you instantly. Could put your eyes out or, I don’t know, burn you badly. Scare the pants off you. We hope to not find that out.

8. So what does it feel like with the Faraday suit?

Joe: Nothing.

9. No tingle? The chainmail doesn’t get warm?

Joe: It feels like nothing at all. If I couldn’t see the arcs hitting me, I wouldn’t even know it was on.

10. Want to add anything - a good story?

Joe: We hold a world record for the Tesla coils running during the David Blaine stunt, a million volts on for 72 hours straight. That’s funny; when we first started out, we were just thinking of how to make machines last a week, then two weeks, then machines that would survive shipping.

At Maker Faire Bay Area 2012: Adam Savage dances in ArcAttack's custom Faraday cage, which directs the flow of electricity around its enclosure and allows the band to invite the audience safely into the act.

John: It’s extremely difficult to explain what I do in a loud bar. There was an incident where I was trying to describe my seven-foot-tall Tesla coils, but the girl misheard me.

Steve: There is one question I get. If you’re really into the Tesla coils, where do you go to learn more? There’s no one good place. A Google search will show you lots of stuff. I kind of fumble around on the internet until I find the information. But Tesla himself was limited to the simple spark gap coil - start with that and work your way toward more advanced stuff.

Joe: I’ve probably built 20 Tesla coils. Every time we build one we think, “All right, this is it; it doesn’t have to be any better.” But then, it could be better, so we make it better. ArcAttack is fun because there’s never anything specific we have to do. We just have to do something, and it generally works out, so we build the things we want to build.


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