Permanent exhibit sure to wow viewers of all ages with sights and sounds
By Jeff Keeling
It should be more electrifying than any exhibit Hands On! Regional Museum has ever hosted, mesmerizing the curious with pulsating arcs of electricity and wowing them with songs produced, essentially, by rapid-fire miniature thunderclaps.
The first week of July, the museum at 315 E. Main St. in downtown Johnson City will unveil the only bipolar musical Tesla coil in any U.S. museum – and the most powerful such device in the world – Executive Director Andy Marquart said.
“It’s exposing where we’re going to go as a community institution,” Marquart said. “We’re going to bring in new things with our new facility, and this is kind of a sneak peek to more dynamic exhibits, more ways of learning and different things that people might not get to experience.”
Built by Arizona engineer Eric Goodchild and audio specialist Christopher Hooper, the coil will become a permanent exhibit. How a unique $72,000 machine came to be donated to Hands On! is a story in itself, as is the array of plans and hopes Marquart has for its use. So, too, is the interesting life and legacy of Nikola Tesla, and how Tesla influenced the life of Hands On’s benefactor in this case, a retired Arkansan engineer named Richard Mathias.
Finally, there is the story of how the gift, with its 200,000-volt peak power and its eery ability to play songs varying from “Rocky Top” to “Hall of the Mountain King,” might impact the aspirations of area young people.
“It’s about curiosity and everyday awareness, and people looking at the world around them differently,” Marquart said. “That’s what we want to do.”
Seating roughly 30 people, the exhibit will carry a $2 additional charge and take visitors through a 15-minute show. After a video about Tesla, a staff member will explain the science behind electricity in general and Tesla coils in particular. The experience will conclude with an audience member choosing one of 18 songs the coil can play – complete with lightning-like arcs of electricity and notes produced much like natural lightning produces thunder.
When Marquart met him, Richard Mathias was a retired General Electric engineer serving on the board of the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, Ark., and Marquart was a green candidate (27 years old) for the open executive directorship there. Mathias saw something in Marquart and helped push for his hiring. He doesn’t regret it, Mathias said Wednesday.
“I am a firm believer in Andy’s ability to bring great things to life at any museum where he is the director,” Mathias said. “I knew that he would greatly appreciate a Tesla coil exhibit and present it well at your museum.”
Mathias saw his first Tesla coil at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in the 1950s. It inspired him to pursue a career in electrical engineering, and his fascination with the strange and gifted inventor (1856-1943) has persisted. Mathias provides matching funds for a GE program that brings Tesla coils to different museums around the country.
“I hope it leads people to a greater appreciation of Nikola Tesla’s many wonderful contributions to mankind,” Mathias said of the Johnson City coil. Among many other things, Tesla is credited with inventing alternating current electric power (the kind used by the grid) and the concept behind the radio.
“I hope young people are inspired by it to consider science and technology for a career. It will be a state-of-the-art musical coil that will definitely impress the viewing public,” Mathias said.
So just how will eight-foot-high metal rods at either end of the coil topped with odd-looking rings replicate the sound of dueling banjos playing “Rocky Top,” all the while emitting jaw-dropping flashes of electricity?
Mathias said the primary coil resonates at around 55,000 cycles per second, acting like a tuning fork and synching with a secondary coil. Goodchild is developing the modules that generate varying frequencies, which will arc in the air from one toroid to the other, a distance of nearly five feet. The toroids act as capacitors, storing it up very quickly, then releasing it. The varying frequencies produce different levels of air compression around them, which in turn correspond with the “notes” in the music.
If a song is simple enough, the two coils can send out their sound-emitting frequencies, with rapid alterations, without the need for additional “accompaniment.” More complex songs will combine recorded music coming through speakers with the sound from the Tesla coil.
Marquart really believes the exhibit combines the complex and the everyday in a way that can inspire young people.
“You’re around a Tesla coil every day and may not know it. A mini Tesla coil is in your car – it’s called a spark plug. It’s the same principle.”
The museum plans to offer it as an add-on for school field trips. If it can inspire some at-risk kids, including those from a rural poverty “cycle” that he said is less documented but just as real as the urban one, Marquart said he’ll be satisfied.
“Kids don’t have that opportunity a lot of times to think they can be even an auto mechanic or a plumber,” he said. “When they come here, if they can learn that basic idea of putting something together, you are contributing to breaking that cycle and inspiring them to something they probably never thought of before their visit here.”
Marquart also expects a revenue stream from the exhibit that will help Hands On! fund its other features. He’s confident passers by in the museum won’t be able to resist a look behind the vintage steel doors once they hear the weird, loud electrically produced songs and see others flooding out of the exhibit talking about what they’ve just witnessed.