An alum of the class of 1973 writes, "Invented by Nikola Tesla, the plasma lamp was later developed and popularized by Bill Parker (Class of 1974). As an MIT undergrad, Parker accidentally rediscovered the glowing gas phenomenon, and explored it further as the youngest Fellow at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS). He then became an Artist-in-Residence at the San Francisco Exploratorium, and pioneered the commercialization of the technology (as did Larry Albright, a Southern California artist). Another contemporary, Boston neon artist and former CAVS Fellow Alejandro Sina, created the glowing needles installation at the Alewife terminus of the Red Line subway, one of the largest permanent public art installations using plasma light.

The torch was also taken up by Wayne Strattman, a Boston artist/engineer who taught many courses on glassblowing and high-voltage glowing gas (including a stint at MIT). Strattman also edited "Neon Techniques" (4th ed.), a technical handbook that has become the "bible" of the field, and developed his own patented Luminglas glowing panel displays.

Today, luminescent plasma globes, tubes, and panels are prominently featured at theme parks and other entertainment venues, and have appeared in numerous movies and TV series, such as "Star Trek". The MIT Compton Gallery mounted a popular exhibition of plasma globes in the mid 1980s, as did the MIT Museum in the mid 1990s.

The MIT Museum has displayed an assortment of plasma globes developed by Bill Parker (MIT '74, MIT CAVS Fellow). Alejandro Sina, also a former MIT CAVS Fellow, remains active in Boston. Wayne Strattman, a currently active plasma artist in Boston, has taught at MIT."

Photo by Jean-Jacques Milan used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.
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  • Thanks for the nomination. My observation of subtle interactions between certain rarefied gas mixtures and high frequency electrical fields became the basis for the plasma sphere. Thirty eight years and a lot of focused studies later it is still exciting to make beautiful works from these invisible and elusive components. And it all started in MIT’s building 20 – the exact same lab that produced radar during WWII and molecular beam experiments that enabled the invention of the atomic clock.

    If anyone wants more information or some very cool photos of my artwork – please feel free to contact me. BTW – 2011 will be the 40th anniversary of the plasma sphere!

    A favor to ask – can someone provide me with a reference to N. Tesla’s invention of the plasma sphere? I’ve read everything I can find, but still haven’t seen anything that indicates he actually made a plasma sphere. Lots of light bulb type things, but nothing about moving streamers of plasma. I’m beginning to think this might be an urban legend or someone’s idea of a way to avoid my patents.

    Bill Parker

    18 Jul 09 at 11:29 pm

  • My late husband purchased one of your globes in 1986. It is signed amd numbered. It is 13/250 (1984). It is a “Starsculpture”.

    I wonder what it would be worth today and the best way to market it.

    Any information would be greatly appreciated.

    Karen Thompson
    St. George Island, FL

    Karen Thompson

    13 Sep 09 at 6:34 pm

  • And how do we go about contacting you if this really is Bill Parker?

    Michael Sparks

    5 Nov 09 at 4:25 pm

  • here is the link to teslas patent you can see the electrical lead and the discharge ball it’s obvious he was experimenting with plasma discharge
    there were also about a half dozen other people who made plasma devices between teslas time and when you made wonderful toys for the public

    congrats on your nomination


    22 Jan 10 at 10:58 pm

  • Tesla describes the odd glow patterns inside a single-electrode gas bulb having a glass-insulated center electrode. This is his “sensitive brush” globe where a plasma filament responded to human presence and to nearby magnets. (To see the latter effect, try placing a magnet inside a “Plasma Mug” from Spencer Gifts.)

    See Tesla’s 1892 UK lecture before the Royal Society, “Experiments with alternate currents of high potential and high frequency”

    Note that Tesla also patented single-electrode lamps, where the uninsulated conductive electrode was heated to incandescent temperatures by gas discharge at low pressure. These weren’t “plasma globes,” but more like a cross between an incandescent bulb and a carbon arc lamp.

    bill beaty

    26 Jul 10 at 5:33 am

  • I am having trouble finding a replacement fuse’ 6amp 32volt — can you inform me where I can obtain fuses and contact information?

    Would really appreciate a prompt reply….thank you


    David Pedersen

    23 Nov 10 at 11:04 am