Electric Coils; Tesla's Invention Seen in Entertainment

The image of a brilliant scientist, toiling away in an isolated laboratory and unhinged by a gradually descending madness, is a familiar theme in modern entertainment. It is perhaps fitting that Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the Tesla coil which became a staple prop used in countless science fiction and horror movies, embodied the prototypical mad scientist stereotype. Tesla's daring inventions revolutionized the world. He gained notoriety during his earlier career, but became increasingly paranoid and delusional towards the end of his life. He spent his final days penniless and alone, feeding the pigeons outside his room at the New Yorker Hotel.

Invented around 1891, the classic Tesla coil is an air-core transformer. The air between a pair of coils provides a pathway for fluctuating electromagnetic energy, and allows electricity to be transmitted without the need for connecting wires. The coil generates a low-current, high-voltage, high-frequency electric current and creates a powerful electromagnetic field. Some electromagnetic fields can be so powerful that they can light up a burned-out fluorescent light bulb, by stimulating the remaining fluorescent material, up to 50 feet away from the coil. Tesla coils also revolutionized the development of radio transmission technology and can still be found in most modern radio transmitters.

Tesla, ultimately, had dreams of developing a worldwide wireless power system using a network of strategically placed coils in various locations around the world. Tesla also asserted that he had developed the ability to use his coil for more nefarious purposes. Towards the end of his life he claimed to have built a weapon of mass destruction, popularly referred to as a "death ray", by harnessing and focusing the power generated by his coil. The claim was never substantiated, but some conspiracy theorists believe that it was one of Tesla's death rays that created a mysterious explosion, known as the Tunguska event, near Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia on June 30, 1908.

  • Wireless Transmission Theory - How Nikola Tesla influenced wireless transmission on today's radio signals.
  • Build Your Own Radio - This page gives visitors detailed instructions on how they can construct their very own rudimentary radio using Tesla's coiled technology.
  • A Brief History of Tesla Coils - This article, published by the College of Engineering at the University of Utah, gives an in-depth look into the evolution of the Tesla coil and its modern-day applications in both the entertainment and scientific fields.

Throughout cinematic history filmmakers have used electricity as a symbolic representation of the mysterious and sometimes frightening power of scientific progress. A variation of the Tesla coil called a Jacob's Ladder, which conducts a travelling arc of electricity between two electrodes arranged in a v-shape, is a prominent feature of many classic horror and science fiction movies. In the 1931 classic horror movie "Frankenstein" starring Boris Karloff, several Jacob's Ladders can be seen affixed to the machinery Dr. Frankenstein uses to bring his iconic monster to life. Traditional Tesla coils are also sometimes used by special effects technicians to generate lightning-like visual effects for movies and television shows.

Nikola Tesla's complex legacy, much like the simultaneously creative and destructive nature of electricity itself, continues to capture the imagination of both scientists and artists alike. Tesla's genius revolutionized modern science and forever changed the way we interact with our world and with each other. The Tesla coil continues to be both a practical necessity of modern life and a powerful source of creative inspiration and entertainment. For those daring enough to experiment with electricity, Tesla's inventions continue provide a vehicle platform of discovery.

To learn more about Nikola Tesla and Tesla coils, please consult the following links:

  • Tesla Talk - This informative UCLA PowerPoint presentation gives a thorough synopsis of the inventor's life and showcases the worldwide impact of his inventions.
  • Purple Lightning - This link shows photos from a demonstration of a small Tesla coil that generates 600,000 volts of electricity. The small streaks of purple lightning generated by the coil are powerful enough to light up a fluorescent bulb held in the demonstrator's hand.
  • Strange Beauty - This page contains a series of photos of various Tesla coils in action. The dramatic purple and blue lightning arcs are surprisingly beautiful.
  • Safety Considerations - This article written by the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCRIPP) at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) explains the safety considerations when working around lighting generated by their Tesla coil.
  • For the Brave and the Curious- This link contains detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to build your own working Tesla coil. Proceed at your own risk!
  • Understanding Electric Components - An in-depth page on electric coils and how they work; shows formulas and writter explanations.
  • Induction Coils - Explanations on what induction coils are and how they were used; various pictures of different coils over time.
  • Research Meda and Cybernetics: Tesla Coils - An article on the Tesla coil and brief history of the man himself.
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