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Greg Leyh: An Engineer with an Artistic Framework (Part 1)

Updated: May 22, 2020

I first met Greg Leyh in 1997 while Producing a Sci-Fi Channel shoot for Paramount TV. We were filming with Mark Pauline’s notorious San Francisco machine performance art group Survival Research Laboratories, and Greg was tasked with operating the smoke machine during our shoot. On a documentary TV budget, DGA Director John Jopson wanted to create a post-apocalyptic look and feel in an industrial warehouse wasteland under the highway in San Francisco’s Mission District. On that day, we filmed interviews with SRL Founder Mark Pauline, Computer Scientists Eric Paulos and Karen Marcelo, and we filmed several of the SRL machines cavorting about the yard. Eric Paulos gave us a demonstration of a telepresence robot that was designed to be operated remotely over the internet, alluding to the scary and very real possibility of not knowing who is behind the controls in a war of the future.

As we were wrapping our shoot, Greg approached me in his nondescript manner, “I’m building this really big tesla coil for an eccentric and very wealthy patron of the arts in New Zealand who wants to put it on his Farm.” Greg continued, “It’s gonna be the biggest tesla coil in the world, even bigger than the one Tesla built in Colorado.”

Considering Greg’s background collaborating with Survival Research Labs he was the obvious choice for the task.

Alberta Chu: Greg, can you tell us about your first significant tesla coil. How big was it? Where’d you get the parts? 

Greg Leyh: My first coil project was inspired by an accidental collection of parts I came across at a salvage yard in 1989.  Sifting through palettes of used pulse capacitors, transformers and busbars from a demolished particle accelerator, I realized that the whole lot could make a decent-sized Tesla Coil.  I brought the parts over to Survival Research Labs, and in a few months we assembled what was the world’s largest operating Tesla Coil at the time.  We christened the coil by shipping it to Seattle and using it in the ‘Carnival of Misplaced Devotion’ performance. It stood 17 feet tall.

Photo caption: (Seattle, WA 1990) Setting up the coil for "A Carnival of Misplaced Devotion" Survival Research Labs show

AC: Tell us about your favorite SRL show.

GL: The most interesting show was the one where it actually exploded – the Seattle show in 1990, its first SRL performance. In fact the coil was shipped to that show in pieces, untested, and we were feverishly throwing it together during the few days before the show. We finished assembling everything just before the show, so I spent the first 10 minutes of the performance tuning the coil and ramping power until it was running at full bore. The coil then began to reveal some of its unexpected abilities. For instance I didn’t expect the arcs to be able to strike the ground, but they did so quite readily. We also discovered that the arcs happily punch through pneumatic tires on mobile machines. One of the robots, the Running Machine, also displayed an interesting survival trait; when it was struck by an arc, the radio control would glitch and the machine would immediately start marching in reverse. During the show I continued ramping the power, and before long the rotary gap was running well beyond it’s max speed. Near the end of the show when everything usually starts catching fire and blowing up, I discovered that in my haste I forgot to install two critical bolts holding up a large insulator between the rotors… An errant arc reached down and struck the primary winding, jolting the insulator into the high-speed rotors and transforming the gap into a swirling explosion of fire of shrapnel. The coil committed suicide just as everything else in the show was expoding and dying; I couldn’t have planned it any better.


Engineer Greg Leyh will be appearing in-person at the Boston Museum of Science on November 7th, 2012 @ 6:45 pm to present the world premiere of filmmaker Alberta Chu’s documentary “Lightning Dreams: The Electrum at Gibbs Farm.” Greg will give a presentation about the proposed Lightning Foundry project, followed by a reception in the Theater of Electricity afterwards. Buy your tickets in advance:

Photo Caption, Top of Page:  (San Francisco, 1990) The 17ft Tesla Coil at the Palace of Fine Arts, sponsored by the Exploratorium Museum

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