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Mid-America Science Museum fires up coil for Tesla Fest

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Photographs by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/MARCIA SCHNEDLER

At Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, the 20-minute Tesla show takes place several times a day.

HOT SPRINGS -- Say "Tesla" most places, and you're likely talking about a pioneering 21st-century maker of electric automobiles. Or perhaps a longtime rock band on tour again this summer.

Say "Tesla" at the Mid-America Science Museum, and you're almost surely talking about the prized exhibit the Guinness Book of World Records honors as "the world's most powerful conical Tesla coil." It produces 1.5 million volts of power.

This Arkansas superlative will be celebrated Saturday during the second annual "Tesla Fest" at the museum on the Spa City's western outskirts. It honors what would have been the 161st birthday (two days later) of Nikola Tesla, a visionary Serbian-American electrical engineer, physicist, inventor and futurist.

Tesla, who died in New York at age 86, made major contributions to the design of the alternating current (AC) system that supplies electrical power around the world. He claimed to sleep no more than two hours per night, though he did admit to "dozing" to "recharge my batteries." He is said to have once worked in his laboratory for 84 hours without sleep or rest.

His namesake coil is described at teslasociety.com as "essentially a high-frequency air-core transformer. ... Tesla coils are unique in the fact that they create extremely powerful electrical fields. Large coils have been known to wirelessly light up fluorescent lights up to 50 feet away, and because of the fact it is an electric field that goes directly into the light and doesn't use the electrodes, even burned-out fluorescent lights will glow."

RoadsideAmerica.com gives a lively account of the museum's Tesla coil:

"Caged Lightning is the star of the Mid-America Science Museum, and in 2007 it was certified by Guinness as the World's Most Powerful Tesla Coil -- a lightning-bolt-spitting invention first perfected by the crazed genius Nikola Tesla.

"The Tesla Coil stands inside a floor-to-ceiling, 2.5-ton Faraday cage (thus the name Caged Lightning), which is lined with metal screens to protect the museum's thrill-seeking visitors from being incinerated.

"The operator turns a key, a transformer hums to life, and purple bolts of plasma suddenly explode with ear-splitting crackles and crashes, flinging themselves to all corners of the cage, probing for a weak point. It's like a lightning storm inside a cage inside a building.

"Whooping and cheering audiences are left with a one-of-a-kind memory, the smell of fresh ozone, and a sense of hearing that will probably never be quite as good as when they arrived."

There was whooping and cheering galore in the 150-seat theater at a recent Tesla show, which lasts about 20 minutes and costs $3 above the museum admission prices. The good-humored moderator encouraged audience participation, including the chance for youngsters to be the electrical conductor for lighting up bulbs. The presentation was both entertaining and (ahem) illuminating.

Saturday's Tesla Fest will include demonstrations of the inventor's work at locations around the museum, along with the regular shows in the theater. The day's 161st paying visitor will receive a gift. The museum's array of hands-on exhibits will be in operation as usual for children and adults.

Mid-America Science Museum, 500 Mid-America Blvd, Hot Springs, is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday through Labor Day. Admission is $10 ($8 for visitors over 64 and youngsters 3-12, free for kids under 3).

For details, visit midamericamuseum.org or call (501) 767-3461.

Weekend on 07/06/2017

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