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Electromagnetic Emission Art 198

mr_lithic writes "The artist Richard Box has used the electromagnetic field generated by overhead transmission cables to power 1300 fluorescent lightbulbs positioned underneath. Some pictures available. Professor Denis Harshaw at Bristol University explains "There's an interactive element to all this, too, for those who go to the site itself. 'You affect the lights by your proximity', explains Richard Box, 'because you're a much better conductor than a glass tube. And there's sound as well as light - a crackling that corresponds to the flashing of the lights. There's a certain smell too, and your hair stands slightly on end.'" Sounds cool and it is on until February 29th. Directons here."
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Electromagnetic Emission Art

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  • by FePe ( 720693 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:32AM (#8355516)
    This is what the future is going to be like. []

    Yeah, yeah chips in your hair. 2000.

    A3 x 30. Taken in the studio this series of photographs depicts the artist fending off a swarm of silicon chips as if they were flying insects. The work deals with the effect, intended or not, of technology on the individual.

  • Wrong physics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:32AM (#8355520)
    The bulbs will be 'planted' across the site at the foot of an electricity pylon, and will pick up the waste emission from the overhead power line.

    Not really. Lighting the bulbs most certainly reduces the power on the lines. The inductance of the power lines change because of the presence of the bulbs.
    • Re:Wrong physics (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:48AM (#8355587)
      Its called mutual inductance. The changing magnetic field in the power lines causes a changing magnetic field in the 'pylons'(which are most likely a coil oriented correctly). This causes a current in the coil due to Faraday's law. This current itself then generates its own EMF which Lenz's law then shows will have the opposite polarity of the power line magnetic field. Thus, this new magnetic field attempts to generate a current in the opposite direction in the power lines, increasing their resistance.
      In short, he's using the power companies' power to light his bulbs. There are no 'waste emmisions'.
      • Re:Wrong physics (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SloWave ( 52801 )
        I suspect the lights are lighted by the electric field instead of the magnetic field required for mutual inductance.
        • Re:Wrong physics (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Doug Neal ( 195160 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:40AM (#8355884)
          They are both interdependant, you can't have one without the other. Mutual inductance will most definitely be happening in this case. It's all about conservation of energy as well - if all the energy that's going into lighting up those bulbs was just being radiated out and wasted anyway, don't you think there'd be a hell of a lot of energy going to waste? There is some loss on power transmission lines but it's not as much as that!
        • Re:Wrong physics (Score:3, Interesting)

          Your correct - the tubes light because the electric field excites mercury ions inside the tube - AND energy that the tubes use is NOT free, the tubes with their little pins all sticking in the air create lower impedance paths to ground for the energy in the power lines to bleed off to - that is the points creates a high distribution of electrons tha nthe surrounding area and thus a high voltage.
    • by smchris ( 464899 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:44AM (#8355904)
      So the moral is: instead of tin hats, people who live under power lines should coat their houses in light bulbs?
  • Science and Art (Score:5, Interesting)

    by apirkle ( 40268 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:35AM (#8355530)
    I think it's very interesting that the artist, Richard Box, is an artist in residence with the Physics department at the University of Bristol.

    It's cool to see art and science actively collaborating. From the article:

    The Physics Department at the University of Bristol has played host to a number of artist residencies. In 2002 artist, Richard Box was awarded a Leverhulme Grant to become the department's third artist in residence. Whilst the starting point for other artists have varied, Richard's main interest was in the specialist glass blowing workshop that is integrated alongside the rest of the physics research activities. His interest in glass has always required him to have objects made by others, this residency offered him the chance to begin to learn how to develop his own glass blowing skills and so have greater authority over his own work.
    • Re:Science and Art (Score:5, Interesting)

      by colmore ( 56499 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:09AM (#8355682) Journal
      I think it's really interesting that the physics department over there seems make this sort of thing a habit. Universities are so often extremely tight penny penchers, I'm impressed that someone was able to convince the bean counters that this is worthwhile.

      I think the sculpture itself is really pretty, it reminds me of De Maria's Lightning Field [], another large scale installation that uses the surrounding environment.

      • The Lightning Field is protected by copyright. Photography of the sculpture and the cabin is not permitted.

        Since when could you copyright 400 metal poles in a 1 mile by 1 kilometer field?

        Copyright law is out of control.

        • I was just about to post a comment like this. I'm trying to find an email address so I can tell them how ludicrous this is. Copyright? Sorry. IANAL, but copyright would only cover me redistributing their pictures. If I want my own, and take them, that's legal. Sure you can refuse to let my camera on the premisis, but you can't say I'm infringing on their copyright. /me is off to New Mexico with my watch camera :)
          • Re:Science and Art (Score:5, Informative)

            by jrockway ( 229604 ) * <> on Sunday February 22, 2004 @09:02PM (#8358922) Homepage Journal
            OK. Done. I emailed them this message:


            Hello. I recently happened upon your page for "The Lightning Field". I
            was curious about how you could protect your metal poles from being
            photographed by copyright law. Copyright law prevents the
            redistribution of one's original work, but not the creation of new
            work. If I sold pictures that you took, I would be in violation of your
            copyright. Unfortunately, there is no law that prevents me from
            photographing anything.

            If there were, perhaps you would consider suing Microsoft and the USGS
            for the infringing aerial photograph at

            On second thought, perhaps you shouldn't consider that. Because if you did, you would be laughed out of court.

            Jonathan Rockway
            • Funny, yes, but sheesh. Could you possibly be any more condescending?

              If you're trying to change someone's opinion here, you might get better results if you watch the snide attitude. Just a thought.
            • Actually yes there are laws, such as privacy laws, or indeed copyright laws, that prevent the taking of pictures even in public areas. In most Western countries you can't assume that just because something is visible you automatically have a right to take a picture of it, much less that you can sell the proceeds or even give them away. Try taking pictures of paintings in a museum for example, even for your own enjoyment, and see if you can get away with it.

              If you took your own picture of Mona Lisa in the L
    • And I think it's very interesting that parents would be so cruel as to name their child "Dick Box".
  • free power (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mistered ( 28404 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:37AM (#8355543)
    This technique of using the field from high voltage transmission lines has reportedly been used by farmers to power lights in a barn or electrify a fence as this anecdote [] suggests. The power utilities supposedly have gone after those using the "free" power. I'm not sure how truthful any of these stories are though.

    Also, check out some of his other art []. "A rotating, pulsating, elevating, sound and movement activated, life-size neon brain." Now that's just strange.

    • Re:free power (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Hao Wu ( 652581 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:58AM (#8355646) Homepage
      Isn't this what the Navy used to spy on Soviet sea cables?

      ref: Operation Ivy Bells []

      • This was during the spy era of the Cold War, and it was Operation Ivy Bells. The submarine responsible was the specially outfitted USS Halibut.

        As for how they actually listened in, it was not exactly picking up EMF from outside the cable. Rather, they simply tapped the copper wire by physically inserting some new wire into the cable right alongside the old wire and planting a recording device.

        It's not very difficult to do, and you won't easily be detected when you do it (unlike tapping fiber cable, whic
    • Re:free power (Score:3, Interesting)

      by SloWave ( 52801 )
      You can get quite a bit of power with just a few loops of wire in the right place under the high tension lines. It would be stealing since you are putting additional load on the power lines. However the lights in the article are being by the electric field driven by leakage current which is lost anyway.

      • Stupid Touch Pad!!!

        >>>However the lights in the article are being by the electric field driven by leakage current which is lost anyway.

    • by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @12:59PM (#8356297) Journal
      The power company ought to claim that the power is encrypted, and that, by not using the authorized wired delivery system, the artist is stealing.

      I am not allowed to use all the electromagnetic waves that pass thru my property.

  • directions (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:38AM (#8355547)
    What? No GPS coordinates?
    • Re:directions (Score:2, Informative)

      by Soruk ( 225361 )
      What? No GPS coordinates?

      The car park is at ST 756 778 (in OSGB notation), or 51deg 29min 52sec north, 2deg 21min 7sec west.

      From there, walk as per the directions on the website [].
  • by digitalchinky ( 650880 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:38AM (#8355548)
    I toyed with ideas of free lighting (living close to high tension power lines)... seems a little pointless considering thousands of locals run jumper leads of the damn things anyway, with complete immunity from Meralco (Elec company)

    Easier to jumper someone elses jumper leads anyway.
    • by mistered ( 28404 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:53AM (#8355614)
      One of my friends had some trouble with his underground power connection. The utility inspected it while he was at work, and phoned him and told him they'd need to jumper his neighbour's power. When you're used to jumpers being little plastic caps that go over .1" spacing header pins, it's a little bit of a shock to come home and see a trio of 1/2" wires coming out of your meter, tied to the fence, and then running into the neighbour's.

    • Nobody is running jumper leads to multihundred kV transmission lines. That would be outrageoulsy dangerous and difficult to do.

      Even attaching to a 7 kV local HT line is beyond what most people could survive doing unless they were EXTREMELY lucky and had a decent amount of knowledge.

  • Stealing energy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:41AM (#8355562)
    The artist Richard Box has used the electromagnetic field generated by overhead transmission cables to power 1300 fluorescent lightbulbs positioned underneath

    Technically, he scoops out energy from overhead lines. True, it's insignificant, but still he could be charged with theft. Of course, since it's art, I doubt anybody at the power company will say anything, but I wouldn't be surprised if they told him to take his art somewhere else.

    A well know, similar "application", was demonstrated when wireless transmission technologies boomed in the 30s in Paris : the first antennas had been installed on top of the Eiffel tower and were putting out dozens of kilowatts. Some smart guy started selling battery-less flashlights under the tower, and a lot of gullible people bought them, amazed that they indeed created light magically without batteries. Little did they know the magic flashlights had a little coil inside that used the Eiffel tower antennas' HF power to light up the bulb, and therefore could only work under the tower. The flashlight seller was eventually caught and, far from being charged for scamming people, was charged for stealing TDF (French wireless authority) energy, which was apparently much worse.

    But anyway, pretty cool art I say. The cows in the field nearby must have fun watching that every night.
    • True, it's insignificant, but still he could be charged with theft.

      Man who did your brainwash job? I've got some supermodels that need a similar degree of manipulation :) Whatever sucking up EM fields is, it sure isn't theft, no matter what the french say :)

      • Re:Stealing energy (Score:5, Informative)

        by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:01AM (#8355655)
        Whatever sucking up EM fields is, it sure isn't theft, no matter what the french say

        You shouldn't have slept through your EE classes.

        Having a coil under the Eiffel tower is exactly similar to having a secondary coil in a transformer : whenever you have a load drawing current on the secondary coil, the primary coil (in this case, the Eiffel tower's antennas) have to provide that power, despite the fact that there's no physical connection between the 2 coils. So if you have antennas putting out 50kW and a coil drawing 10W nearby, that's 10 less Watts in radio power.

        This guy's art also draws energy from the power line. The tubes don't light up for free do they?

        But I'll tell you what : if sucking up EM fields isn't theft, tell me where you live and I'll coil a long copper wire around a mile-long stretch of the powerline that goes to your house and power my trailer with it. I'm sure you won't mind the higher bill from the power company in your mailbox, since I'm not stealing anything...
        • I think that the courts would probably err on the side of you (and this guy) being able to have your coils wherever you want to have them as long as it's legal. Farting in the wind probably causes increased resistance for trucks driving down the road but no one would call it stealing.
        • by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd.bandrowsky@ ... minus bsd> on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:30AM (#8355823) Homepage Journal
          I think the piece is more of an artistic rebuttal of the assertion that these high energy transmission lines are safe for humans and animals.

          If you've got an EM field that is powerful enough to light up 1000 light bulbs, it seems intuitive that there is enough energy to cause harm to humans living at similar distances.
          • AC said it but I felt it was important enough to repost since a lot of people filter 0's:

            Just goes to show you how wrong intuition is about these sorts of things.
        • Actually, I don't disgree with the physics of the situation, just the philisophical implications :)

          If having an inductor under a power line is theft -- what isn't?

          • by benjamindees ( 441808 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @12:19PM (#8356064) Homepage
            Breathing: you're taking oxygen that clearly was produced on a farm somewhere or maybe in the Amazon.

            Tinfoil hats: these devices intercept electromagnetic waves and cause transmission losses.

            Heat pumps: you didn't really think you could take all that "free" heat out of the air, did you?
          • If having an inductor under a power line is theft -- what isn't?

            How is it *not* theft? You're siphoning power from the line, just as much as if you'd put a cable and transformer up on the thing. Exactly as if you'd done that, in fact.

            The lack of a direct connection does not imply that no connection exists between the two. It's theft because you're taking something that doesn't belong to you without paying for it. Power. There no "waste" from those lines in that way. If nothing uses that EM field, then th
        • Re:Stealing energy (Score:2, Informative)

          by RandyOo ( 61821 )
          You said:
          "But I'll tell you what : if sucking up EM fields isn't theft, tell me where you live and I'll coil a long copper wire around a mile-long stretch of the powerline that goes to your house and power my trailer with it. I'm sure you won't mind the higher bill from the power company in your mailbox, since I'm not stealing anything..."

          Since the meter is normally located at/inside the residence, he wouldn't get a higher bill from the power company, would he?
        • Re:Stealing energy (Score:3, Insightful)

          by geekoid ( 135745 )
          If it's being sent through the air, then anybody should be able to use it, regardless of frquency.

          Sorry, but really, you run an item near someones home, and it gives of energy, the people in the home should be able to use it. If you don't like it, find another way to deliever your energy.

          If you are not connected to the power, then you are not stealing. tresspassing, maybe.

    • Re:Stealing energy (Score:4, Insightful)

      by BroncoInCalifornia ( 605476 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @01:07PM (#8356341)
      I can see this scenario:
      Farmer who lives close to power line makes some big coils to nab some of the energy in the air around his house.

      Power company: You are stealing our power. Stop.

      Farmer: What are your E fields and H fields doing on my property. Get them off or let me use them as I see fit.


      This could turn into quite a pissing contest!

  • by Chilliwilli ( 114962 ) <> on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:51AM (#8355604)
    Will be headed out there with a camera ASAP. Perhaps local /.ers should arrange a meeting time and all go at once.
  • []

    There is a copy of the article and the picture covered by the Daily Mail.
  • Theft? (Score:5, Funny)

    by DAldredge ( 2353 ) <SlashdotEmail@GMail.Com> on Sunday February 22, 2004 @10:54AM (#8355623) Journal
    Is this theft? I ask because in the past, before the current overkill laws againts computer crime, crackers where charged with theft of electricy. Could he be charged?
  • by G4from128k ( 686170 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:01AM (#8355658)
    Microwaving chocolate [] is a fun way to both measure the speed of light and get some edible artifacts of the patterns of the electromagnetic fields inside a microwave oven.
    • The problem is that you not measure the speed of light but the wavelength of microwaves. To get to the speed of light, you'll have to know the frequency of the microwaves.
    • Yeah, that came up on Slashdot quite a while ago... I seem to recall that it only works with a very specific type of microwave (one that doesn't have a fan in it to scatter the microwaves - they're very rare, only found in really old ones).
    • by ahoehn ( 301327 ) * <andrew@h o e .hn> on Sunday February 22, 2004 @12:58PM (#8356286) Homepage
      I was grading papers for a college writing class the other day when I came across a paper that a student had written about measuring the speed of light using the microwaving chacolate method. At first I thought he was just making shit up, but then I looked it up on the interweb, and lo and behold, he hadn't made it up.

      Granted, he had copied his paper almost word for word from the interweb and I failed him for that, which just goes to show that it's dangerous to write papers that interest the graders.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:08AM (#8355680)
    The power company deserves to have their power stolen because they are too cheap to reconfigure their lines to reduce the electromagentic output:
    • Let me guess: People deserve to have their cars stolen because they are too cheap to install expensive anti-theft devices?

      Or is it only large corporations which deserve to be stolen from?
      • I don't advocate stealing from corporations, but we shouldn't talk about the moral treatment of corporations as if it's equivalent to the moral treatment of human beings. Corporations are amoral, inanimate objects and thus have no right to moral treatment - they don't "deserve" to be stolen from, and they don't "deserve" not to be stolen from. Morals describe how you should act towards other sentient beings, not towards inanimate objects.

        Of course every corporation has human owners, and it could be argued

      • No, but people who leave their windows down and their keys in the ignition deserve to have their cars stolen.

        Much more fair comparison, that.
    • The article references using "passive loop shields" - sounds like additional wires running the length of the transmission line. Those wires are expensive! In school we once did a project similar to this. It turns out that the minimum time-varying flux (voltage) is created below the lines when the three lines are in the equilateral-triangle orientation with the point towards the ground. That way you get some cancellation for free. I remember my power lab TA from some South American country telling us an

  • The inductance of the power lines change because of the presence of the bulbs.

    A new spin on the "Tree falling in the forest" enigma, isn't it? :-)


    • Re:Forest (Score:2, Interesting)

      by frause ( 234486 ) *

      A new spin on the "Tree falling in the forest" enigma, isn't it? :-)

      No, more like a new spin on "fair use" (or something).
      If you walk under the powerline and thus happens to draw current from it without paying, is it then theft?
  • Reminds me of school (Score:5, Interesting)

    by panurge ( 573432 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @11:33AM (#8355841)
    This is a true story. I was there, I saw it.

    Our physics teacher was using the Van der Graaf for an experiment (in fact, he was intending to measure the current it produced). Over the demonstrator's bench, a fluorescent tube was flickering. He got annoyed. He climbed on a stool to remove the offending fluorescent.

    You can guess the rest. The remote end of the tube dropped towards the van der Graaf. About 10cm from the dome, there was a spark. The dome discharged through the tube, which flashed, the physicist, and the stool. Most impressive.

    The tube survived falling on the bench. We learned several things from this:

    • Contrary to belief, our teacher knew the f-word.
    • The current was actually so small, as it had to pass down a wooden stool, that he was unhurt.
    • Given enough volts, wood conducts.
    • Wood doesn't have to conduct. It's enough it polarizes; the wooden stool then acted as a dielectric in a capacitor. Capacitors can make pretty flashes, both when you charge them with high-enough voltage source, and when they discharge. Hint: Don't touch a high-voltage capacitor before you shorted its terminals with a screwdriver; if the device you just opened was powered off just a while ago, you may avoid a sparkly surprise.

      Capacitors also make good coupling between AC lines and other wires in their vi

    • > * Given enough volts, wood conducts.

      Corollary: if you see a downed power line, don't try moving it with a wooden pole. In fact, just wait for the power company's technicians to arrive. They're trained, equipped, and they're covered by workmen's compensation.
  • I mean, with the latest research on electromagnetical radiation in my mind [], and this being a high-level electromagnetical field, I certainly do not want to take the risk to get back from that site with a rotten brain...
  • by enosys ( 705759 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @12:11PM (#8356019) Homepage
    A while ago I searched for info about this sort of thing online. It seems that farmers using fences or long wires to get power have been sued for it. I've even read about people who lived close to high power transmitters running fluorescent tubes from small antennas and being sued for it. This is mainly just from usenet posts but I feel there's enough info out there to show that at least some of this was real.

    I also remember one of my high school teachers talking about how he used to work for hydro and look for this sort of thing while flying in a helicopter and inspecting power lines.

    Really it shouldn't be that hard to find this sort of thing. You can just use a time domain reflectometer, and power companies have these for finding cable faults.

    • Okay, you got me with the "time domain reflectometer." That sounds like something Professor Frink might mention on The Simpsons.

      Seriously, though, how about a little detail on what that does? I suppose I could Google it, but here's my guess:

      The device measures the distance along the line to an increased area of inductive load by timing the reflection of a signal from that part of the line. The helicopter then flies out that far and looks for an antenna.

      Here's another question: Why are British power compani

      • by enosys ( 705759 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @01:33PM (#8356500) Homepage
        The time domain reflectometer (TDR) injects a signal into a wire and then gives you some info about reflections that happen. It essentially measures impedance along the line and so it will show anything inductive, resistive or capacitive on it.

        I'm sure a lot of people here have heard about TDRs being used to troubleshoot network cables.

        As for electric companies being called hydro, I'm in Canada (A former British colony and in the Commonwealth) and it's the same here. It really doesn't make that much sense anymore because most power comes from other sources.

        • " I'm in Canada (A former British colony and in the Commonwealth) and it's the same here, "

          What this poster meant to say is he's from Ontario, probably Toronto (aka "the centre of the known universe"), and everyone he knows calls it Hydro, as in the companies Ontario Hydro and Hydro-Quebec.

          The other half of the population in Canada (aka "savages") call it Power, just like it's commonly called in the US and the UK.
      • You asked two questions, and gave two possible answers, and both are surprisingly 100% correct.

      • > Why are British power companies referred to as 'hydro?'

        Um, they aren't. Or if they are, I've never noticed in all my years of existence in the U.K. We also tend to have "secondary schools" not "high schools", so I'm pretty sure the grandparent poster wasn't British.

        Hydro isn't the main method of production over here in the U.K. The figures for England and Wales are:
        35% - Gas
        34% - Coal
        15% - Nuclear
        7% - Pumped Storage & Renewables
        5% - Interconnectors
        4% - Oil
        (Source: []

    • Really it shouldn't be that hard to find this sort of thing. You can just use a time domain reflectometer, and power companies have these for finding cable faults.

      Out of curiosity, how do you hook up a TDR to a hundred kilovolt power line? For example, how do you generate an impulse big enough for its reflection to be detected above the massive noise on the line?

  • by Tandoori Haggis ( 662404 ) on Sunday February 22, 2004 @02:48PM (#8356869)
    During a visit to a power station, we were shown the
    12 Mega Watt output cables. Asides from the crackling noise due to a light drizzle falling on the cables, there were other effects too.

    Having stood under the cables for a couple of minutes, I felt no adverse effect... until I started to walk away. That's when I started to get a headache...

  • most likely Ozone.

The goal of science is to build better mousetraps. The goal of nature is to build better mice.