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Masters of Lightning Featured in Chicago Tribune Article

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Our friends and fellow TU members Terry Blake, Jeff Larson and Steve Ward make up a group they call “Masters of Lightning.” The group was featured in an impressive and well-written Chicago Tribune article yesterday. Here's an excerpt:

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 YouTube.

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 complained.

To 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.”