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The Lords of Lightning

Lord of Lightning

When the two performers stretch their arms towards each other the sparks fly between them, creating brilliant electrical discharges.

By Stephen Luntz

The Big Day Out music festival this year hosted two performers using Tesla coils to hurl lightning bolts at each other.

Along with the bands, patrons of the Big Day Out music festival this year were treated to the sight of two men in metal suits hurling bolts of lightning at each other. While most may have simply gasped at the show, the inventor of the idea believes that the show offers plenty of opportunity to teach the public about electricity in a truly memorable way.

The show relies on two Tesla coils that sit inside platforms raised above a stage. Two performers start in front of the platforms back-to-back like knights about to engage in combat. When the coils are turned on the platforms discharge into the air with sparks jumping in all directions.

As each performer raises his hands the sparks, finding an easier path to ground, jump from the platforms to the chainmail of the suit, with electricity flowing through the suit and into the stage. The presence of a receiving conductor makes the sparks longer and stronger, so they do indeed look more like natural lightning than a simple spark.

After an initial display of pyrotechnics on the stage, the suited performers climb ladders to the platforms. The electricity is drawn up through their suits and jumps from their gloves or the horns on their helmets to the air around them. When the two stretch their arms towards each other the sparks fly between them, creating brilliant electrical discharges.

Lords of Lightning, as the show is known, is the creation of New Zealand electrician Carlos Van Camp. “I was always attracted to the idea of lightning,” Van Camp says.

After producing 2.5 cm arcs with a car battery, Van Camp’s grandfather suggested that he might do better with a Tesla coil. From there, he says, “I never looked back”.

After his first coil 20 years ago it took Van Camp a while to build up to performing shows, but for more than a decade he has been wowing audiences at New Zealand festivals. At one of these he was approached by an agent of the Big Day Out, who commissioned a machine that allowed Van Camp to take the shows to a new level.

Van Camp has built most of the equipment used in the show himself, although he no longer performs, instead managing the equipment while the show is on – raising and lowering the voltage produced to give a rhythm to the performance.

The machine draws 20–25,000 Watts. Measuring the sparks’ voltage is harder, but Van Camp estimates the 5 metre arcs are around 3 million Volts. Natural lightning runs to 20–50 million Volts.

Lightning can be visible when jumping many times further than Van Camp’s arc because it has a much larger current, he explains. “It creates an ionised path which allows it to stretch over large distances because the voltage doesn’t bleed away.”

When not running shows Van Camp is an electrical technician specialising in yachts and motor boats. He has no formal background in physics, although he has learned plenty about electricity – both for interest and safety. Being self-employed provides him with the opportunity to travel for festivals.

The biggest danger, Van Camp thinks, is not in the show itself but in working on the equipment at other times. “The power supply that charges the capacitor is 20–25,000 Volts, so you must make sure it is completely disconnected before doing work on the machine,” he says. “We also need to make sure the suits are integral, with no bad connections, and that when people bend and stretch they don’t pull open connections.”

The metal suits are much better conductors than the human body, so as long as they remain intact electricity will flow through them rather than the wearer, even if the performer’s skin touches the suit. Nevertheless, a layer of clothing separates the suit from the skin across most of the body, with clips holding the headpiece to a metal helmet and away from the face.

Van Camp says there is no danger of electrocution even in wet weather, but one of the performers says he got a tingling sensation in his toes during a particularly humid festival. The only accident occurred very early in the show’s history when a performer went for a dance beforehand to attract an audience to the show. He knocked some wires loose so that when he climbed onto the pedestal the current found him a better conducting path than the interrupted suit. “That was with a smaller coil and it knocked him flat,” Van Camp says. “If it happened today he would not be standing.”

Van Camp is always seeking ways to expand his shows. One experiment he tried was standing on a platform shooting a water pistol filled with salt water. The sparks ran along the path of the spray, the sodium producing an orange-coloured bolt. “With different solutions you could get different colours,” he says.

However, the water pistol was not designed for this purpose and leaked onto his hand, giving him an unpleasant, although not life-threatening, shock. Moreover, the charge causes the spray to separate more quickly than in ordinary use, so the bolt was limited to 2 metres. “I’m interested in experimenting further, but would need a water pistol with less leakage and a larger reservoir,” Van Camp says.

Another possibility is to introduce sound to the shows, feeding audio signals into the machine so that the sparks occur at sound-producing frequencies.

The sight of physics put to such dramatic uses may inspire a few potential scientists, but Van Camp is disappointed that so far he has not had the chance to use the technology for science education. “I think it would be an excellent way to teach physics,” he says. “There are so many aspects to how we operate it.”

However, he says that “funding is the issue. A lot of time and effort is involved in doing the shows, and schools don’t seem to be able to afford us.”