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What Happens When Century Old Technology Meets Modern Engineering?

The first thought that crosses most folks’ minds when music is mentioned is the way it sounds. Gentle guitar strums and a drum set or two come to mind when someone asks about a favorite song. But what if music was visible?

With a little help from Nikolai Tesla and lot of his own ingenuity, Penn State student Alex Yuan has blended a 100-year-old invention with modern day music.

Nikolai Tesla was a scientist with an immense knowledge of the electrical world in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. One offshoot of his creative drive is named, fittingly, Tesla Coils. While a senior in high school, Yuan took a trip to MIT to explore engineering options. One course he took was an electrical engineering course, his major now. There, he was taught how to make a Tesla Coil.

Tesla didn’t have any electronic music in the early 20th century so the invention was never intended to play specific sounds. “They were supposed to transmit power to homes but that proved to be inefficient and if you walked near a tower you could get shocked. Obviously it’s not used today,” Yuan said.

While Yuan didn’t invent the Tesla Coil and he wasn’t the first to make one that emits sparks, he did something new. By combining a very detailed graph of a song with the electrical output from the coils, he creates sound waves.

The electrical sparks that fly from the Tesla Coils are similar to miniature lightning and the sound waves we hear are akin to thunder. With his laptop plugged in to the machine the graph tells the coils exactly when to start or stop producing electricity and how high or low the frequency should be to match the song — the higher the musical frequency, the higher the electrical frequency.

The cause of the coloring in the electricity is gas in the air. “The colors depend on what’s in the air, right now there’s nitrogen and oxygen so its purple and a little blue. You could put salt on it and it would turn green. It’s the same concept as fireworks, if you put different materials on it the color will change,” he said.

Whenever Yuan pulls the Tesla Coils out and hooks his laptop up, a crowd is sure to show up and stay awhile. Whether it’s his upstairs neighbors wondering what’s going on outside their door or strangers walking down the alley who can’t help but stop to ask him questions, his blend of science and music is just something you have to see.




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About the Author

James Turchick

James is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism, James enjoys writing about anything weird and is deadly allergic to bees. Onward State people are very nice to him.


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