Noble Gases Turn into a Light Up Rainbow with a Tesla Coil

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Noble Gases Turn into a Light Up Rainbow with a Tesla Coil
Photography by Alanna Brake
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Have you seen the century-old photo of Nikola Tesla wirelessly powering a light bulb? Two Colorado-based artists took this classic, mind-blowing experiment and made it Technicolor. Joe Pawelski built the Tesla coil. Aaron Ristau contributed the randomized rainbow of color, including his collection of vintage salesman sample tubes as well as his hand-built, curvaceous noble gas tubes. The beautiful sculptures at the core of this piece were a byproduct of Ristau’s explorations in building custom bulbs for his fine art.

Ristau started working with glass lathe operators in 2011 to create sculptures that could hold the noble gases (specifically neon, argon, and xenon). He wanted bulbs that would last, just as classic 20th-century neon signs have survived for decades with their careful craftsmanship.

As in the original photo of Tesla, the only thing powering Ristau’s dozens of gas-filled bulbs is Pawelski’s Tesla coil. Ristau thinks of his collaboration with Pawelski as a performance piece, as each show they presented at NoCo (Northern Colorado) Mini Maker Faire only lasted 15–20 seconds every 5 minutes or so. They didn’t want to flood fairegoers with too much ozone!


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Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

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