Nevada City, CA — Twice a year at the end of each semester, students at the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning or SAEL [pronounced: sail] take part in “intensives.” Intensives are two-week mini-courses covering various specialty topics like food science, art, robotics, and industrial engineering.
This is the first year SAEL occupies this historic Nevada City Elementary building. The faculty chose a new and novel intensive for the high schoolers this year called “historical electricity.” To that end, the students chose an ambitious project: building a Tesla Tower in under two weeks. Not only did they succeed in building a 100 foot, powered tower, but the school is also now able to offer free electricity to Nevada City and some surrounding areas.
“These students are highly motivated,” said tech-engineering crew leader Seth Farnesberry. “We were just going to build mini-models of Tesla’s experiments, but they wanted to ‘go big or go home.’ And we have a saying around here: fail fast and grow from your mistakes. So although we had a few mistakes, as you can see,” pointing Mr. Farnesberry out the window towards the playground now occupied by a looming, electrified metal tower, “it came out pretty good.”
What is a Tesla Tower Anyway?
For the uninitiated, SAEL 10th grader Daphne Schultz read from her presentation notes explaining what the experiment was about.
“The Tesla Tower, also known as a Wardenclyffe Tower, was an early experimental wireless transmission station designed and built by Nikola Tesla in Shoreham, New York, around 1901 through 1902. Although Tesla used the tower for many transmissions, including telephony, the tower famous for wirelessly transmitting electricity, as popularized in many feature films.”
The students received help and materials from Hills Flat Lumber and some heavy equipment from local contractor Hansen Brothers. When it was completed this past Thursday, students and faculty nervously flipped the power switch on the 100-foot monstrosity.
“PG&E was nice enough to give us a 100,000-volt line right into the school,” continued Mr. Farnesberry. “There’s a main transmission line nearby, so it was easy. Well, sorta easy.”
At the tower site, when Ms. Schultz threw the enormous knife switch on the SAEL playground, sending over 90,000 volts up the tower, bystanders reported seeing lightning shoot out from the tower in all directions. One bolt shot through an old-growth cedar tree, splitting in half. No one was injured. However, the entire area smelled like a car air freshener for several minutes after the blast.
Blocks away in downtown Nevada City several businesses up and down Broad Street claimed their lights dimmed for a few seconds. But it’s what happened next that startled area residents.
“After the lights dimmed, they started glowing brighter and brighter,” said Mineshaft regular Toby “Doob” Carnevale, who was at the popular downtown watering hole at the time. “And they kept getting brighter. Then they started to buzz. And then there was this high-pitched squeal, and then they all blew. Everyone ran out into the street, but I just helped myself to another beer. I left ’em a check.”
Other locals reported similar experiences with their compact fluorescent light bulbs. LED and incandescent lights were not impacted.
After news spread about what had happened, as is with most things in Nevada City, locals laughed and shrugged it off. And although the initial experiment was disruptive, in a council meeting today, Nevada City is considering using what is now called the ‘SAEL Tower’ to power the city once “they get the bugs worked out,” like not starting forest fires.