As is often the case when it comes to scientific breakthroughs and inventions, the Plasma Globe was invented completely by accident following a mishap in an undergrad’s science lab. Bill Parker is now famous for his invention but as an undergraduate student at the time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was trying to build something entirely different: electric powered rockets.
Working late in his research lab in 1971, Parker was attempted to use gaseous fuels to power electrical rocket engines. This is when the mishap happened, most likely due to being tired, Parker left a valve open and filled the chamber up with neon and argon by mistake. You see he had been ionizing these two gases for his experiments of attempting to create rocket thrusts, his idea was that thrust could be created by putting neon or argon in higher pressure environments.
And when he applied voltage, plasma formed everywhere. Parker advised he had higher colored streamers forming all over the engine. So, of course, he immediately took a glass ball, filled it with his new plasma invention and hooked it up to a power supply. Which he promptly took to his girlfriend’s house, as she was having a party and rave that night.
It was not really until three whole years later that a museum of science and art put up the first plasma globe on display, by Parker. It was an exhibit with the idea to encourage people to learn more about electricity and how it worked. The glass sphere would create dancing light, which Parker had previously been using to encourage people to dance at parties.
Now plasma, an ionized gas is often thought of as the fourth state of matter. And it was used as a way of light long before Parker invented the plasma globe. Nikola Tesla invented the inert gas discharge tube, which he tried to market as competition for Edison’s light bulb in the 1890s. Using high voltage he generated plasma and light by ionizing the gas inside the glass tube.
The color of the plasma light depends on the gas in the globe, multicolored ones generally contain helium, xenon, and krypton. Parker who now runs a laboratory and studio for plasma globes uses a trade secret of gas combinations to create beautiful plasma globes.