After more than a year of research and development, I am excited to finally share my Tesla Hairpin replication and experimental results! I share things that worked, and things that didn’t work, as well as why. This article also contains a detailed parts list, so you can easily replicate my setup and experiments.
This article will be pretty hands on, and assumes you have read my foundational articles, A Brief History of the Tesla Hairpin Circuit and Impedance, the Skin Effect, and their Implications in High Frequency Circuits. If you haven’t, I highly recommend you check them out first, as we will build upon that knowledge here.
Why the Hairpin circuit?
You might rightly ask yourself why I spent so much time researching this seemingly simple circuit. Isn’t it obvious what it does? It clearly isn’t, judging from the lack of proper replications out there and the unsubstantiated claims around this device. But isn’t the Hairpin overshadowed by the much more impressive feats of the Tesla Coil and Magnifying Transmitter? Sure, but these devices have different purposes, and their working cannot be understood properly without first understanding the Hairpin, out of which these more advanced devices evolved. Thoroughly understanding the Magnifying Transmitter, Tesla’s “best invention”, is what made me start this journey, and the Hairpin is the first step of the way.
My journey so far
My journey started when I watched a 10-part series of YouTube videos where Karl Palsness presented his Hairpin replication. He showed single wire energy transmission over a very thin wire, a bulb lit while submerged in water, and Karl touching the copper bars without getting hurt, even though thousands of volts pulsed through the circuit, a result he attributed to “scalar waves”. I was very impressed!
I did my best to find out more about his particular setup, and found an article on Transformacomm in which many practical details were shared. The article mentions the following parts:
- 10kV, 60Hz oven ignition transformer
- 2x UHV-9A 40kV, 2000pF doorknob capacitor
- 2x 9.5mm x 121cm copper bars
- A simple static spark gap
Nothing fancy there! This gave me the confidence to create my own replication, even though all I had seen or read about this circuit was contained in the Transformacomm article and the previously mentioned video series. I purchased the same capacitors Karl used, the first affordable 10kV power supply I could find, copper bars of similar dimensions, and attached a basic spark gap consisting of two bolts facing each other. The end result can be seen in the picture below.
Unfortunately, the circuit did not work. In fact, the spark gap even refused to fire! I asked for help on the Energetic Forum and simultaneously started to perform more research, since I felt my knowledge, even of basic electrical concepts, was severely lacking.
Based on what I learned, I continually tweaked and improved my Hairpin, until I was able to perform a true replication of Tesla’s experimental results, at which point I had upgraded every single part of my initial circuit…
The right power supply for the job
As mentioned previously, Karl Palsness used a 10kV oven transformer, and I naively thought that all transformers are the same, which is why I ended up buying the first affordable 10kV transformer I could find: a Seletti 10kV neon sign transformer (NST).
I was impressed when I connected the transformer to my super simple spark gap and saw sparks flying across, but was sorely disappointed when I added the rest of my Hairpin circuit to the mix, and all sparking ceased. Why did this happen? The main difference between the transformer Karl used versus mine, is that his ran at 60Hz and mine at no less than 34kHz!! This turned out to make all the difference in the world.
Soon after my post on the Energetic Forum about this issue, I came across the concept of capacitive reactance (explained in detail here), which makes capacitors let more current “through” the higher the frequency of that current. This is the same effect high-pass filters use in audio applications.
In other words, the 34kHz current coming from my NST was not charging the capacitors and then discharging these capacitors through the spark gap, but instead, due to capacitive reactance, the high frequency input current directly passed through the capacitors, creating a short circuit, and preventing the gap from firing at all.
My first idea was to try to reduce the 34kHz current to a lower frequency. One of the solutions I came across was to use a full-wave bridge rectifier (FWBR) setup to convert the alternating current to a direct current, and so I purchased some high voltage, high frequency rectifier diodes, which were capable of withstanding 100mA at 30kV. I created my bridge setup, as shown in the image below, and I was excited that my spark gap finally fired, albeit with a deafening noise (DC sparks are apparently louder than AC sparks).
Before my excitement had fully settled in, sparks already started to fly from one side of a diode to the other side, causing it to catch on fire… This wasn’t going to work: the only way forward was a lower frequency power supply.
On AliExpress I found a proper 10kV neon sign transformer which ran at the European power line frequency of 50Hz. This one also specifically mentions “no GFI”, which stands for Ground Fault Interrupter. A GFI shuts off an electric power circuit when it detects that current is flowing along an unintended path. So a GFI makes an NST safer, but in the case of a Tesla circuit, it can also prevent your device from functioning properly, which is why a “no GFI” NST is recommended. This does mean you have to be extra careful of course.
When I received my NST a few weeks later, it turned out they shipped me a 15kV version instead of the 10kV one I ordered. First I was annoyed, because I thought I might now not be able to achieve the same results as Karl Palsness, but then I read the following words by Nikola Tesla:
“A large capacity and small self-inductance is the poorest kind of circuit which can be constructed; it gives a very small resonant effect.”1
“The higher the tension of the generator, the smaller need be the capacity of the condensers, and for this reason, principally, it is of advantage to employ a generator of very high tension.” 2
In other words, a small capacity and large inductance is preferable, and the higher the voltage of an NST, the higher the inductance, since more turns of wire are used. So in the end, a 15kV transformer should actually achieve even better results than a 10kV one. And indeed, it worked like a charm!
Spark gap upgrade
While my new 15kV NST produced beautiful sparks through my simple spark gap, I was not getting the same results Tesla described:
“When a large induction coil is employed it is easy to obtain nodes on the bar, which are rendered evident by the different degree of brilliancy of the lamps.” 3
My Hairpin did not show any nodes; it simply showed a maximum voltage, minimum current near the bottom, and maximum current, minimum voltage near the top of the bars, which is to be expected if you compare the Hairpin to a shorted transmission line.
However, I figured that if the spark hit the other side of the gap with enough force, it would shock the circuit into a higher order resonance, creating the enigmatic “nodes on the bar”. I took one good look at my current spark gap, consisting of two opposing bolts glued to the wooden base, and I knew that this was not a setup worthy to be called a true replication of Tesla’s work.
I knew Tesla had experimented with some advanced spark gap designs, and so I decided to perform a detailed literature analysis to figure out which type of spark gap Tesla used in his original Hairpin demonstrations. After much research, I came to the conclusion that it was most likely an air quenched spark gap, of which I then created a modern replication.
This spark gap functions really well, as long as you keep the tips of the aluminum electrodes clean. I was able to push the spark gap distance to over 25mm, which significantly increased the rate of change of voltage in the circuit, and therefore led to more impressive impedance effects. However, still no nodes on the bar, and so I looked at the next possible culprit: the bars themselves!
Thanks to my new NST and improved spark gap, my Hairpin was functioning quite well, but the “nodes on the bar” Tesla mentioned were still not showing up. By now I had a hunch that the skin effect, also referred to as the “thick wire effect”, might have something to do with the nodes, and so I looked into ways to maximize this phenomenon. It turns out that the ticker you make the bar, the larger its surface area becomes, and the more pronounced the skin effect will be. I then read the following words by Tesla:
“The thicker the copper bar… the better it is for the success of the experiments, as they appear more striking.” 3
I decided that it was time to make a trip to the hardware store for a thicker bar! My original bar was a 12mm copper pipe, which I upgraded to a 22mm copper pipe of about 220cm in total.
While upgrading my Hairpin’s copper bar, I also decided to upgrade some of the wired connections in the circuit, since I was afraid that part of the wave generated by the spark gap was reflected back due to an impedance mismatch. To learn more about impedance mismatches, I strongly recommend you watch the following highly informative video:
I initially used the excess high voltage wires from 10kV Seletti NST to connect each component. However, these wires were not rated for the 80kV surging through my circuit, and so I considered using multiple wires instead of a single wire for some of the connections. While using more wires lowers impedance, it is even more effective to do away with the wires completely, and so I connected my capacitors directly to the base of the bar, similar to the Karl Palsness setup.
While describing the Hairpin experiment during his 1893 lecture, Tesla mentioned that “electrical resonance… has to be always observed in carrying out these experiments.” 2. However, I did not really know what electrical resonance meant and how to achieve it in this circuit, so I sort of skipped over it. Then I started watching some YouTube videos of other experimenters who replicated the Hairpin circuit, and came across the highly informative circuit analysis below by Fred B.
In this video, Fred shows us that the Hairpin circuit can be simplified into an LC circuit, which is a very common type of circuit capable of generating oscillating currents when in resonance!
Resonance occurs at a specific wave frequency, where the inductive reactance of an inductor becomes equal in value to the capacitive reactance of a capacitor, resulting in nearly zero impedance 4.
Pfew!! That’s a lot of terminology being thrown around… just remember that when a circuit is resonating, the current oscillates between the inductor and the capacitor, as explained in the video below.
So to establish resonance in a circuit, there are three essential components to take into account:
- Inductance (L)
- Capacitance (C)
- Frequency (F)
This is captured in the formula for the resonant frequency:
Now, since we are using an off-the-shelf neon sign transformer which runs off of mains power, both the frequency and the inductance of our circuit are unchangeable. Therefore, we will have to find the correct capacitor value that will resonate with the inductance of our coil, at the mains frequency of 50 or 60Hz, depending on where on this beautiful planet you live. This proved to be much harder than I had envisioned…
Finding the ideal capacitor value
Unfortunately, Tesla himself did not specify the specific capacitance values he used in his Hairpin circuit, but in figure 2 we can spot two “six-pack” Leyden Jar capacitors, and from the always trusty Wikipedia we learn that “a typical Leyden jar of one pint size has a capacitance of about 1 nF”, which is equal to 1000pF, while Tesla himself uses 0.003mfd, or 3000pF, as mentioned in his Colorado Springs Notes calculations5.
This suggests that one six-pack of parallel connected Leyden Jars could yield a capacitance of up to 18,000pF. Two of these arrays connected in series, like in the Hairpin circuit, would result in a total series capacitance of 9000pF, which is a lot more than the 17.7pF Lecher used in his circuit, and also way more than the 1000pF my initial UHV-9A caps yielded. The same article also mentions the energy stored in a Leyden Jar “may be as high as 35,000 volts.” If we again place two of these arrays in series, the combined voltage rating of the capacitors could be an impressive 70kV, again, much more than the 24kV Lecher discharged. This makes sense, because while Lecher merely studied resonance effects and therefore did not need as much power, Tesla tried to achieve the highest rate of change possible in his circuit to maximize impedance effects.
Since I had not much to go on, I simply used the same capacitors Karl Palsness used in the first version of my Hairpin replication, which were two UHV-9A caps rated at 40kV 2000pF, without having any clue as to why he used these particular values. Since these two capacitors are placed in series in the Hairpin circuit, the effective total capacitance is 1000pF. So is this the capacitance required to resonate with my 15kV 50Hz NST?
According to the Fred B video discussed earlier, a 15kV 60Hz NST requires ~1.8nF, or 1800pF, to achieve resonance. This was almost twice the amount of capacitance my two caps were providing! However it is not completely clear from the video how he arrived at this figure, and my NST runs at 50Hz instead of 60Hz, which is why I decided to measure the inductance of my NST, so I could calculate the ideal capacitor value myself.
I tried three different ways to measure the inductance of the NST’s secondary coil, but despite numerous attempts, I got such wildly different results that I could not rely on their accuracy. I then bought an LCR meter, but the inductance of my NST appeared to fall outside of the range of the meter, resulting in overload errors on the display.
Finally I thought, why not use one of the available Tesla Coil design calculators out there, since they also include calculations for ideal capacitor size. Below you find the calculators I used and the results:
- DeepFriedNeon Capacitor to Transformer Match calculator: 6300pF
- Tesla Coil Calculator Android app: 6400pF
- TeslaMap: 10300pF (LTR)
Very interesting results, and all way higher than the 1000pF Karl Palsness used and the 1800pF Fred B suggested in his video, even when we take into account that they run their circuits at 60Hz instead of the 50Hz NST I used in these calculations. But why does TeslaMap give us a value that is so much higher than the other two calculators?
This is because the value TeslaMap returns is a so called Larger Than Resonant (LTR) capacitance, which is explained as follows by Kevin Wilson from TeslaCoilDesign.com:
“A resonant sized cap can cause a condition known as resonant rise which causes voltages in the primary circuit to increase far above normal levels. These high voltages can easily damage a NST, so NSTs should only be used with Larger Than Resonant (LTR) primary capacitors. To minimize the risk of a resonant condition in the primary circuit I use a MMC at 1.618 times the resonate size. The ratio of 1:1.618 is known as pi or the golden ratio. Any two numbers in this ratio will have the fewest common multiples which will result in virtually no chance of resonance. ” 6
Wow, “virtually no chance of resonance” is not what we are aiming for here! Of course he has a point, because resonant rise is definitely a real thing, and can result in hundreds of kilovolts running through your circuit, even though your input is “only” 15kV 7. However, the spark gap essentially acts as a current limiting device in the Hairpin circuit, protecting your capacitors from overvoltage, as long as you don’t make the spark gap too wide.
Still, at these enormous pressures, there is always a risk of damaging your NST and capacitors. But if you’re aiming to replicate Tesla’s original experiments, and Tesla says that “electrical resonance… has to be always observed”, it doesn’t make any sense to me to pick a capacitor size “which will result in virtually no chance of resonance”! And I will mention here again what Tesla said about using a large capacitance:
“A large capacity and small self-inductance is the poorest kind of circuit which can be constructed; it gives a very small resonant effect.” 8
Since the LTR size is 1.618 times the actual capacitance required for resonance, this means TeslaMap calculated 10300pF / 1.618 = 6388pF to be the ideal size, which is exactly in between the results of the other two calculators, and so I assumed that this was a good value to aim for.
Finding the ideal capacitor
Now that I knew what value to look for, the next challenge was to find and procure two capacitors with (approximately) this value when placed in series, which could also withstand the extreme voltages present in the circuit. You essentially have three options:
- Purchase two big and expensive capacitors
- Assemble a Multi-Mini Capacitor (MMC)
- Build your own capacitors from scratch (e.g. Leyden Jars or variable capacitors)
A MMC consists of several high voltage capacitors connected in series and parallel to achieve the desired capacitance and voltage rating, and is very popular under Tesla Coilers. TeslaMap has a nice tool to help you create one. However, it seemed like an awful lot of work to create these, and while MMC’s are known to be cheaper than purchasing a single big capacitor, two MMC’s with the capacitance and voltage rating I was looking for would cost me well over $200!
For these reasons I decided to settle for a cheaper and much simpler approach: purchasing two 40kV 10000pF capacitors. This yielded a series capacitance of 5000pF, which is a significant improvement over the 1000pF I was using at the time, and came close enough to the 6300pF we were aiming for to see if it had any positive effects on the results of the experiment. Not ideal, but at least this Less Than Resonant capacitance provided my caps and NST with some extra protection from damage due to voltage spikes caused by extreme resonant rise effects, while heeding Tesla’s advice to use a capacitor that is smaller rather than larger.
However, I did not get to perform many experiments with these brand new caps, because one caught fire after just 10 seconds of operation… Guess polystyrene film capacitors are just not up to the job.
During that brief instant of operation, I noticed that the sparks in my gap were a lot “fatter” when using this larger capacitance (see video below), implying more current was being passed. I do not know, though, if this is preferable, since it appears that the goal is to maximize the time rate of change of voltage, and not necessarily of current. I could be wrong, and more testing is required to confirm this suspicion.
So while I am still unable to tell you what the perfect capacitor value is for a 15kV NST, my capacitor fund was empty after the explosion of my higher value ones, and so I was forced to switch back to using my original UHV-9A capacitors. Luckily, these capacitors perform very well, and easily achieve resonance in the circuit, although an ideal capacitor might offer more power throughput.
Replicating Tesla’s experiments
Now that almost every part of my Hairpin circuit was upgraded, I felt ready to attempt a replication of Tesla’s original experiments as described in his Philadelphia lecture.
“The bars B and B1 were joined at the top by a low-voltage lamp l3 a little lower was placed by means of clamps C C, a 50-volt lamp l2; and still lower another 100-volt lamp l1; and finally, at a certain distance below the latter lamp, an exhausted tube T. By carefully determining the positions of these devices it was found practicable to maintain them all at their proper illuminating power. Yet they were all connected in multiple arc to the two stout copper bars and required widely different pressures. This experiment requires of course some time for adjustment but is quite easily performed.”2
So in this experiment, Tesla used four different incandescent light bulbs:
- “Low-voltage lamp” (l3)
- 50-volt lamp (l2)
- 100-volt lamp (l1)
- Exhausted tube (T)
It was not easy to procure these bulbs, since they have an unusual voltage rating, and because incandescent bulbs are no longer sold in Europe. However, the internet is an amazing place, and I was able to purchase the following bulbs to run this experiment with (same order as listed above):
- 12V, 10W car bulb
- 50-volt, 40W incandescent bulb
- 110-volt, 40W incandescent bulb
- 8W fluorescent tube
I connected the bulbs to the bar using a lamp fitting wired to two car battery charging clamps, which made them easy to move up and down the bar. When I fired up the circuit, the bulbs lit up, and after some careful adjustment I was able to make all four lights light up at full brightness! Success!!
Below you find a video with all the experiments I ran, including Tesla’s original experiments, as well as me touching the bars, lighting a bulb underwater, and single wire energy transmission.
Besides the experiments in the video, I have some other findings to share. For example, it is preferable to use high-wattage bulbs. So if you have the choice between a 110v 25w, or 110v 40w bulb, go for the 40w one, because it will work better in this circuit. Initially I (naively) thought: “40w requires more power than 25w, so it will be easier to light the 25w bulb.” However, a lower wattage only means that the resistance of the filament is higher, letting less current through, and thus resulting in a lower wattage for the same voltage rating. Higher wattage equals lower resistance, and this has worked better in my experiments.
For a successful result, it is also crucial that you adhere to the order Tesla uses for his lamps, so the lower voltage lamp at the top, and the highest voltage lamp at the bottom. If you change the order around, not all lamps will light up.
It is possible to light a fluorescent tube by simply holding it near the bars, or with a single thin wire connected near the capacitor end of the bar. If you move the tube over the bar from the bottom to the top, you notice that it lights up brightly near the capacitors, and turns off near the top. This is because, when the short bar is connected at the top, the Hairpin functions as a quarter wave shorted transmission line, resulting in a half wave standing wave pattern on the bar. This means voltage is maximum near the capacitors, and minimum near the top, while current is minimum near the capacitors, and maximum near the top, due to voltage and current being out of phase with each other.
In other words, we’re dealing with a single node. The “nodes on the bar” Tesla described in his lectures are possibly higher-order standing wave patterns. To achieve this higher-order resonance, I might need to use an even more powerful NST, since Tesla said:
“When a large induction coil is employed it is easy to obtain nodes on the bar.” 3
For this reason, I was very curious to know the frequency of the waves in my Hairpin. I used a simple frequency counter, which showed a frequency between 45 and 60 kHz.
I also measured the inductance of my copper bars with an LCR meter, which turned out to be 182.23uH. Since I used 1000pF total series capacitance, the self-resonant frequency equals:
This is a lot higher than the frequency measured by my frequency counter. Of course, the larger you make the capacitance, the lower becomes the self-resonant frequency, possibly making it easier to push the bars into a harmonic resonance. For example, using 6300pF capacitance lowers the resonant frequency to just 148kHz. This is worth exploring further.
Besides the frequency, I was curious what the wave actually looked like. However, I was unable to find a good way to connect an oscilloscope to an 80kV circuit without frying it, which is why I simply placed a scope probe close to the bar and fired up the circuit, which resulted in the following image:
You can clearly see the 50Hz input current, with a high frequency wave superimposed upon it. This is exactly what Tesla described when he discussed using spark gaps to achieve high frequency currents:
“Most generally there is an oscillation superimposed upon the fundamental vibration of the current.” 2
Those were some of the notable observations I was able to make while testing this circuit.
In case you wish to replicate my setup, here are the parts I used, with links to where I purchased them:
- 15kV, 30mA iron core neon sign transformer (no GFI)
- 2x UHV-9A 40kV, 2000pF doorknob capacitor
- Air quenched spark gap
- 22mm copper bars (2x 100cm with 20cm short bar)
- 2x 22mm brass end pieces
- 2x E27 lamp holder
- 8x car battery charging clamps
- High-voltage connection wires
- 12V 10W incandescent bulb
- 50V 40W E27 incandescent bulb
- 110V 40W E27 incandescent bulb
- 8W fluorescent tube
For the past year I have been working towards publishing this article, so I am stoked to finally be able to make it public. I hope that this article, together with my previous foundational articles, will allow you to replicate Tesla’s Hairpin experiments and save you a lot of time, money, and frustration in the process. My research will now focus on the theory and application of the Tesla Coil, and ultimately of the Tesla Magnifying Transmitter. Exciting stuff ahead!