19 December 2012

Author Lesley Taker

Originally invented with the intention of transmitting electricity wirelessly, Tesla coils have been built and used for an incredibly variety of purposes including: making music, a very novel (and dangerous!) method of car defence, the staging of Mortal Komat-esque showdowns, truly alarming Halloween costumes, weapons straight from comic books, the most mystifying or shocking illusions, and artworks such as Alexandre Burton's Impacts in Gallery 2 in FACT as part of the Winter Sparks exhibition (view an interview with Alexandre about his work in the Related Media section on this page).

Tesla spent the majority of his career attempting to achieve wireless power via the use of these coils. His setup was simple. He proposed using a few coils spread across the globe to transmit electrical energy through the earth. Wherever power was needed, you only would need a receiving coil to convert the power into a useful form.

Tesla had some successes in this area but his investors found this "World Wireless System" impractical and refused to support further research, at which point Tesla's obsession with the coil begins to become a little more science-fiction than actual science. Tesla claimed that he could harness his work with the high-frequency, high-voltage transformers to create various fantastical inventions, including a death ray. A claim which will in fact turn out to be entirely possible nearly 100 years later in a suburban garage in Seattle…

As well as the transmission of electrical energy without wires, Tesla used the coils to conduct endless innovative experiments into areas such as electrical lighting, phosphorescence, x-ray generation, high frequency alternating current phenomena, and electrotherapy. This invention also assisted him in experimentation with radio transmission, and until the 1950's, Tesla coils were used as spark radio transmitters, and today have been miniaturised to sit at the heart of every television, radio (and for the more retro amongst us) VCR.

Although Marconi is widely regarded as the inventor of radio, in 1943, the United States Supreme Court overturned Marconi's patent on radio because Tesla's work with the transmission uses of the coils had predated Marconi's. Sadly, Nikola Tesla died at the beginning of 1943, so never lived to see his work in this field vindicated: which is the story of  the scientist's life, really…

Winter Sparks is now open and runs until Sunday 24 February. Opening times are Monday - Sunday 12pm - 6pm (Saturdays 11am - 6pm) and entry is FREE.