When I was five years old, my dad gave me my first lessons in soldering and playing the piano. Dad was a biomedical technician. Simply put, he’s the guy that fixed all the stuff in the ICU that keeps people alive. As a result, we had no shortage of electronic scrap and parts. At one point, we even had an entire X-ray room in our garage — a decommissioned unit that he eventually donated to a veterinary clinic.
Keep in mind in the 1980s, pre-internet, DIY electronics projects came from books and the sage wisdom of those who came before you. While most kids my age were learning the alphabet, Dad taught me the basics of logic gates and analog circuits. We had access to vintage computers years before they started popping up in our schools. To say he influenced our interests would be a bit of an understatement.
My brother John and I grew up in Michigan. We spent our formative years working with computers and playing music together. The long cold winters kept us indoors and focusing on our crafts. I was more into guitar playing, and he took to the drums and electronic music. When we weren’t playing music, my evenings consisted of dialing into BBSes, learning computer programming, and downing Jolt cola. As a result, I’d spend my days napping through my classes.
The two of us played in several bands throughout those years. We became acquainted with music production and performing at live shows. We were even known to pack a venue from time to time. Even still, it seemed a bit far-fetched that we’d make a career as professional musicians.
Call of the Coil
My electronics education really took shape after high school. Though Dad preferred that I enroll in a university, I opted to learn from experience. In 1999, I got my first job working in consumer electronics repair. I had to fix everything — TVs, VCRs, DVD players, you name it. Being on the receiving end of all this broken stuff, you tend to learn a lot about what makes a great product. Every manufacturer had its quirk, whether it was inadequate heat removal or shoddy solder work.
It was also during this time that I was first introduced to Nikola Tesla. I knew surprisingly little about the inventor. My boss, Bob Strand, from one of the TV shops I worked at, replicated several of his experiments. He had Tesla coils made from homemade capacitors, plasma globes, and all sorts of fun experiments around the shop.
My interest really picked up around 2003 when I met my friend Steve Ward. We were both members of an online forum called The Geek Group. Their headquarters was near my hometown, so I would show up and help out with everything from sorting junk to building experiments.
One day, Steve came to the shop with a small solid-state Tesla coil he’d been working on. It was about 12 inches tall and made a pretty impressive spark. That is, compared to the spark gap units I had become familiar with. The machine had two knobs. One was for controlling the spark length, and the other controlled the spark’s frequency. As a musician, my first instinct was to grab that frequency knob and eke out a frustratingly pitchy rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was at that moment I realized that the Tesla coil needed to be a musical instrument.
Before this, coil hobbyists had experimented with several methods for making high-fidelity sounds — that is, to make the spark sound like a speaker. Focusing on making musical pitches like an instrument, using more straightforward modulation techniques, was not only novel but also much simpler.
High-fidelity audio from sparks takes a lot of power. As a special effect, it’s not very practical or obvious. In comparison, a Tesla coil making giant sparks, producing only basic pitches, is quite the spectacle.
In 2005, things took a turn. A longtime family friend had a data recovery business in Austin, Texas. He worked solo and wanted to take a vacation. Having the necessary skills to jump in and do the work, I decided to take a trip. February in Michigan is brutally cold. Getting picked up from the airport, driving down the Texas highways with the convertible top down was a revelation. After a few weeks in Austin, I decided to stay. After all, I didn’t have that much going on back home. Austin provided a lot of unique opportunities. Being a mecca of technology, music, and art, it seemed like a good fit.
At this point, consumer electronics repair was nearly a thing of the past. Most new consumer items were so specialized that a technician could no longer repair them using off-the-shelf parts. I decided to take a second job working at a local music store. Here I got to fix a lot of cool vintage amplifiers, instruments, and other music gear. A small niche where my skills were still applicable!
Being new in town, with not a lot to do, it was the perfect opportunity to buckle down and develop our first musical Tesla coil. I spent my time learning from the blogs of Richie Burnett, Steve Conner, and other names in the Tesla coil hobby. Steve Ward and I continued to bounce ideas around. By the end of 2005, I had developed our first musical Tesla coil system.
Weird and Winding Road
Our first singing Tesla coil was a basic SSTC (solid-state Tesla coil). It had a simple transistor-based interface to a cheap Casio keyboard. Despite its simplicity, the effect was mesmerizing. The first tune played from our machine was the demo song programmed into the keyboard. Undeniably, the technology needed further development. I continued to modify the coil until it could take input directly from a computer sound card.
In March of 2006, we demonstrated our magnificent machine at an event called Art Outside. John, still in Michigan, arranged a handful of electronic tunes and sent me the music files over email. I’d film them and send back the results. For the next couple of years, we worked on the project over long distance and posted videos on YouTube. As time went on, the technology improved and interest in this niche hobby continued to grow.
By 2008 we saw a steady trickle of gig opportunities. John joined me in Austin, and ArcAttack was officially named. We started off doing small local gigs, and soon we were finding shows all over the world. In 2010, we had a breakout opportunity on NBC’s America’s Got Talent. We didn’t win, but we made it much further than we anticipated.
Shortly after, we were contacted by our agent Keith from Geodesic Management. He suggested that we should use our technological powers to create an educational show. To this day, we have been providing edutainment for school-age kids all over the country, on top of other random opportunities that kept us moving forward — Maker Faires, selling Tesla coils to museums, and other custom projects. In 2012, we zapped magician David Blaine with lightning for three days straight. We even electrified a prosthetic leg for “bionic” artist Viktoria Modesta.
Being a high-tech performance group is hard work. Small-scale entertainers make OK money. For us, the parts, research, and development cut into a lot of that. Not to complain, because our opportunities continued to grow. Without going into a lot of detail, 2020 was going to be our best year ever. It was evident that our patience had paid off: Our tech was flawless, we had assembled a great crew, and possibilities were abundant. Even Dad agreed I was probably better off on the path of self-education.
Crisis and Opportunity
Then came the pandemic. Over the course of three weeks, we saw the entire live performance market crumble. Our friends in the industry were out of work well before restaurants and bars had to close their doors. By May, it was apparent that we needed to pivot. For years we had dabbled with the idea of making a Tesla coil kit, but hadn’t followed through since we were on the road so often. What if we’re too busy to support our customers? Or to get orders out on time?
Now that all these issues had vanished, there was no reason to postpone any longer. John and I knocked out a great design over the next few months. We used all the tricks and features from our years on the road, not to mention my electronic repair experience. I have little doubt that we made the best Tesla coil kit available.
We decided to name our kit the Thundermouse. It’s about 18 inches tall and can make sparks up to 3 feet or more. It connects to your computer with a USB device. It can do everything: make single large sparks, play MIDI music files, you can even plug your guitar into it. Despite its advanced features, we made sure to use only through-hole parts in its construction. Because of this, it’s an excellent project for experts and amateurs.
But to mass-produce something, you need more than a good product. We had to build several jigs to aid in production. We automated everything from twisting wires to bending rings. Among the most complex machines we made is an automated secondary coil winder. It’s capable of winding a 700-turn coil in under 4 minutes. By October, everything was looking good for a small run before Christmas … then Dad got sick.
He was hospitalized with Covid-19 in November. Shortly after being admitted to the ER, the doctors put him on oxygen. All of our progress here stalled. John took off to Chicago to take care of business until he recovered. Sadly, things steadily got worse. Eventually, he required sedation and intubation. Despite receiving the latest drugs and therapies, his condition continued to degrade. Three-fifths of people admitted to the ICU with Covid suffer kidney damage. Dad was no exception. He eventually required dialysis. In the end, the machines he spent his whole life salvaging could not save him. He passed away in mid-December after a drawn-out and isolated hospital stay.
Our dad was in his early 70s. A bit old, he was mentally and physically spry. There is no doubt that he had a lot of quality time left. Life spares no irony because the week he passed was the same week that vaccines began to roll out. As a devout supporter of science, he would have been first in line for an early vaccine.
What a year. Like a lot of people with similar stories, we can only hope 2021 brings better news. There isn’t much to do but continue as planned. We took a small hiatus, but now we’re ready to sell our Tesla coil kit. We hope you enjoy it; we put a lot into it. It may be just the thing you need to keep your family entertained during the pandemic. Stay safe, wear a mask, and keep listening to the experts. If you get too bored, build a Tesla coil.