Dr. Austin Richards is the creator of the Dr. MegaVolt character, and has been building Tesla coils since 1981. He has been performing with Tesla coils in a metal suit since March of 1997, and has been interviewed on numerous TV shows and news programs, as well as in over a dozen magazines, both print and on-line. Austin is the media point of contact for Dr. MegaVolt, the designer of the Tesla coils used in our shows, and the technical director for Dr. MegaVolt. He holds a Ph.D. in particle physics from UC Berkeley and a Physics BA from Amherst College, and has worked professionally on high-voltage systems since 1987.

Dr. MegaVolt has its roots in my childhood obsession with Tesla Coils. I first saw a coil in 1976. A neighbor had built a coil that generated an arc that was about 2 inches long. I was impressed by the aesthetics of the device itself: the coil of wire and the ceramic insulator on the top did not look like an electrical device to me, rather, it looked like a sculpture. Tesla coils are strange devices – they shoot electricity off into the air. Electricity is something that we rarely see – it usually stays imprisoned inside electrical wires, like a genie in a bottle. Tesla coils release the genie into the air!

The 8.5-foot Tesla Coil
I built the principal coil we use in Dr. MegaVolt performances in 1991 at UC Berkeley with the help of Paul O’Leary and Greg Leyh. We did an analysis of the coil’s operation with a spectrum analyzer and digital storage scope, and did some fun performances, but there was something missing from the show: A human element. In 1996 members of  Survival Research Laboratory built a cage to protect me from Tesla coil currents, and I got inside the cage as a stunt at a party at Christian Ristow’s warehouse space in SOMA, San Francisco. The result was as expected: I felt no sensation of electricity while in the cage. All the current flows on the outside of a conductor, isolating the interior from potentially dangerous electric fields. Eight months later I decided to shrink the cage down around my body and create a metal suit that would allow mobility. The result is the suit in the picture on the right.

Dr. MegaVolt and Burning Man
In 1998 I was persuaded by my friend Chris Campbell to take the Tesla coil and suit to Burning Man and perform there. The show was marginally successful, but we had a great time and I am forever grateful to Chris!  There were many technical issues facing us, and the coil only ran a total of about 20 minutes. The seed was planted, and the response we got from the crowd convinced us that we should return again the following year. This time, the coil was attached to the roof of a box truck and driven around. A generator towed behind the truck provided 15 kW to power the machine and some lighting. The coil worked perfectly, and we got about 135 minutes of operating time out of the coil, performing four nights in a row for thousands of people. We built a second Tesla coil for Burning Man 2000, and placed it and my upgraded coil on top of an even larger box truck, The result was an amazing spectacle – two coils firing simultaneously and filling a 40-foot-long volume of space with electrical discharges! We returned to Burning Man in 2001, 2002, and 2003. In 2006, we once again performed with the double Tesla Coil setup on the roof of a large box truck. This show featured performances by Dr. and Mistress MegaVolt, who spun fire poi that attracted the discharges from the coils! Mrs. MegaVolt is played by my wife,Victoria Charters, an accomplished actress and filmmaker. We returned to the playa in 2010 and performed Dr. MegaVolt, and Victoria began work on the documentary, filming in HD. We received funding from Burning Man’s arts foundation to do this, the fourth time a Dr. MegaVolt project has been funded by them.  Dr. MegaVolt last appeared at Burning Man in 2011 and camped with Area 51.

– Austin Richards