Jeff Larson

Jeff  Larson
  • BS Electrical Engineering 1996
  • AAS Electrical Engineering 1996

Lights, Music, Action!

Jeff Larson has always felt he had an advantage in life: exposure to his passion, electronics, early on—in his case, as a tot.

He was taking things apart when he was 4; he experimented with a small Tesla coil when he was in grade school; he built a bigger one when in high school; and he crafts outsized ones these days to put on light shows, for which he and two colleagues are famous. "The phenomenon has always been very interesting to me," he says.

A Tesla coil is a device that transmits electrical energy and discharges a man-made, wireless spark into the air like so much lightning. The capability has been around more than 100 years and has been used in science, as well as in special effects in venues such as opera and cinema. The coil is named after Nikola Tesla, who has been called "the genius who lit the world."

The phenomenon attracts hobbyists, called "coilers," and Larson is one. He and his two partners have established an enterprise called "Master of Lightning"—a light show comprised of "sounds and sights," for they not only evoke lightning from electronics but also produce music from the lightning.

"Spectacular music comes out of the sparks," Larson says. "The technology is pretty new." Their machines have been named Zeusaphones, after Zeus, the Greek god of lightning, and as a play on words, the sousaphone.

This high-voltage show is a stellar study in sparks that are digitally manipulated to make music. Picture two coils, both like man-sized toadstools, twenty feet apart; a person, clad in a protective metal costume, in the middle with two lighted wands, brandished like sabers; and all of it surrounded by fireworks that are ten feet long and that elicit music.

"The best way to think about it—it's like putting baseball cards in the spokes of your bicycle; the faster you go, the higher the pitch. Similarly, turn the Tesla coils on and off at a fast rate, and it produces a tone. Changing the rate changes the pitch. We can hit a musical note very accurately—concert A is 440 times a second. We can do flats and sharps."

In a recent show, they played Bach's "Toccata and Fugue," "William Tell's 1812 Overture," and "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." The show is continually evolving—"different music, different stunts," Larson says.

They've put on 12 shows over the last three years. They started this hobby in 2000 and have been staging shows since 2001. It takes three hours to set up a one-hour show. They recently performed at a science fiction convention in Illinois.

Larson is a native of Powers, Michigan, who was attracted to Tech after attending the Summer Youth Program at age 13. "A pretty nice school, close to home, and economical," he says. "And engineering was my interest." His father was a high school science teacher, so, he says, "I had some access to knowledge," which rubbed off on him readily.

He graduated in 1996 with both an associate's and a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering technology. While at Tech, he worked for Sound and Lighting Services (SLS), a student organization that operates lights and sound for shows performed on and around campus—from the Calumet Theatre to the Memorial Union Building. On campus he was the safety and equipment manager for SLS.

Larson has worked at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab for seven years. The facility houses the world's second-largest particle accelerator, called Tevatron, which is one mile in diameter. The accelerator is used to study subatomic particles. Larson works in the high-energy physics lab. The outfit comprises ten square miles of facilities and a workforce of 2,500, with scientists from all over the world. "It's a big operation," he says, and he's glad to be a part of it. He attributes his success to determination, effort and a little bit of luck. "It also helps to meet the right people sometimes," he says.

His life is grounded in family (he and his wife have two children) and curiosity. "I'm always curious," he says. "Learn more and discover more. What I always fall back on--I don't know who said it—'the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know.'"
He has a machine shop in his garage, where he tinkers with electronics and robotics. "I've always been interested in things a lot of people wouldn't think were normal."

He has built many components of his lightning show. Expensive? "To some people it would be." But zeal trumps restraint. "It's a lot of fun and a tremendous amount of work," he says. "It's exciting, but it can be stressful." It's also the spark of an otherworldly undertaking.

Photographed by Tim Koeth