Imagine you could climb out the window, up a ladder, all the way to outer space! Picture traveling aboard a gigantic ring built to orbit the Earth! A young boy named Nikola Tesla imagined fantastic futures like this one, growing up in the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula. Tesla would grow up to realize many childhood dreams, from befriending his favorite author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to generate electricity.
As a young man, Tesla came to New York to work for Thomas Edison. He improved Edison's distribution system for direct current electricity. Tesla went on to invent his own system for generating and distributing alternating current electricity. Working with Pittsburgh industrialist George Westinghouse, he solved the problem of long-distance power distribution, making possible our modern electric world.
Tesla's legacy is seen today in radios, robots and remote controls. In 1891 he invented the Tesla Coil for the unrealized goal of "world wireless" electricity. This "steam punk" contraption emits high voltage, high frequency alternating current electricity. It fired the imaginations of the next generation of inventors, including a Ben Avon teenager named George Kaufman. In 1911 Kaufman built a 1 million volt Tesla Coil from 6,000 feet of copper wire for $125.
Like Tesla, Kaufman was a theatric showman. Standing on the tower in a copper suit, he would dazzle audiences with a display of electric arcs, complete with glowing light bulbs on his head. And like Tesla, Kaufman became an inventor in his own right. He graduated from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) and earned more than 100 patents as chief electrical engineer for J&L Steel.
In 1950 Kaufman's Tesla Coil was donated to the Buhl Planetarium. You can see his Tesla Coil in action as it crackles and sparks into its second century in the Works Theater show "High Voltage" at Carnegie Science Center.