By MACKENZIE E. ENGLISH
Halloween is just around the corner and we here at the museum are also celebrating in our own way. Just like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we use the sheer power of electricity in our demonstrations. We are making a pickle glow, using plasma to make art, and watching electricity dance in the air above a Tesla coil.
Electricity is made up of charged particles, normally in the form of electrons being stored on atoms. When we talk about electricity we look at three things; voltage, amperage, and wattage.
- Voltage is how fast the electricity is being pushed through a cable.
- Amperage is how much electricity is being pushed through a cable at one time.
- Finally, wattage is the result of combining the voltage and amperage and is how much power the electricity will produce.
We store electricity in batteries and it comes out of the walls we plug our phones into. But when harnessed we are able to do much, much more with it.
Our electrical demonstrations can be shocking to watch but are very illuminating to how they work. Many of the demonstrations use transformers to increase voltage. This allows us to make high voltage electricity to push through a pickle. This causes the sodium (salt) in the pickle to become very “excited”. The extra energy in the sodium is then released as yellowish-orange light and a lot of heat. The pickle is cooked from the inside out as it puts on a light show for us all to enjoy.
When thinking of Frankenstein we often think about the lightning used to bring his monster to life as well as the display of electricity behind him in the movies moving up the metal rods. The electricity seen in both cases is actually the air around us being set on fire by the high voltage electricity. This is known as plasma and is the fourth state of matter. In nature, we see this every time there is lightning, but in the museum, we arch electricity across the air from one metal rod to another. When the electricity arches across it releases large amounts of energy into the air, setting it on fire and turning it into plasma.
Another time we can watch electricity move through the air is with a Tesla Coil. Nikola Tesla originally invented it as a way to light up the world without power lines and cables that we see today. It works by
using transformers to increase the voltage exponentially until the toroid (donut shape at the top) cannot hold any more electricity. It then jumps through the air and dances as it turns the air into a battery and charges it up. The charged air then can power light bulbs and other devices.
Even though electricity can be a lot of fun to watch, it is also very dangerous. One must have the knowledge and respect for it. Please do not attempt any demonstrations you have seen at home. If you would like to see them, come to the museum where we are trained on the safety of use in these applications.
Mackenzie E. English is Laboratory Coordinator for the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery.