Keith Wilson - Electrical engineer
Double exposed publicity photo of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla in December 1899 sitting in his laboratory in Colorado Springs next to his magnifying transmitter high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity.
Image use courtesy of Wikipedia Public Domain library.
Ominously born during a lightening storm in modern day Croatia, Nikola Tesla is credited with numerous inventions and scientific discoveries. It has been claimed that his inquisitive mind and thirst for knowledge fuelled the discovery of AC current (as a cheaper and safer alternative to Edison’s DC), the predecessors of fluorescent light bulbs, electromagnetic and ionizing radiation (x-rays), the radio, the remote control, the laser – just to name a few. It is only fair to say that many of these claims are disputed, but nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Tesla was a true genius.
Tesla’s most controversial development was the “Tesla Coil,” which he devised in 1891, and which is believed to have paved the way for many of today’s wireless technologies.
A Tesla Coil is a resonant transformer circuit used to produce high voltage, high-frequency alternating current electricity. Tesla used these coils to conduct innovative experiments in electrical lighting, X-ray generation, electrotherapy and, most significantly, wireless transmission of electrical energy. His ultimate aim was to be able to deliver electrical power from power stations to consumers without the need for wired connections. In other words, he wanted to eliminate what we would now call the transmission and distribution grids.
Understanding the potential of Tesla’s research, J.P. Morgan backed him with $150,000 in 1900 to build a tower (later known as Wardenclyffe Tower) that would allow large-scale practical experiments to be carried out into wireless power transmission.
Around this time, Tesla was, in fact, achieving some limited success – he was able, for example, to light three incandescent light bulbs at a distance of about 30 m with no wired connection. Unfortunately, these results were achieved using near-field effects, where the energy transmitted falls off very rapidly as the distance between the transmitter and receiver increases. This makes it impossible to scale the results to work over the larger distances necessary for practical wireless power distribution.
These technical difficulties were only a part of Tesla’s problems. The Wardenclyffe Tower took incredible amounts of money and resources to build and that, together with the economic crash of 1900, meant that it became increasingly difficult for him to source the funds he needed to continue his work.
As if the situation wasn’t bad enough for Tesla and his team, another inventor – Guglielmo Marconi – managed to steal much of the limelight from Tesla by successfully receiving the world’s first trans-Atlantic wireless telegraph signal. He did this using no less than seventeen of Tesla’s patents and although wireless telegraphy was a much-needed invention, it was far less ambitious than Tesla’s idea of transmitting power without wires.
Tesla’s financial supporters were now becoming very anxious because of Marconi’s development. Though his plans were considerably smaller scale than Tesla’s, Marconi’s apparatus was also considerably less expensive.
The Wardenclyffe tower project continued, and it was even tested a few times during construction with encouraging results. But Tesla realised that his competitor’s success with simple wireless telegraphy had greatly diminished his own chances of attracting any more investors. Ultimately, Wardenclyffe was abandoned even though Tesla himself remained convinced for the rest of his life that the dream of wireless power transmission would have been within his grasp if only it had been possible to raise the finance needed to continue his researches.
In the event, he went on to patent many great inventions, as well as predict social, economical and scientific developments he believed to take place in the future. One such successful prediction was the envisaging of modern day smartphones. With uncanny accuracy, Tesla claimed that his work would lay the foundations for the development of communication devices “a man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket”.
He foresaw the existence of the devices we use today that allow us to “witness and hear events - the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle - just as though we were present”. He also said that, “when the wireless transmission of power is made commercial, transport and transmission will be revolutionized.” No doubt he was right, but even today we’re still waiting for this to be achieved.
Tesla’s intellect, his ethos and will to create a better future for all mankind are indubitable. His legacy, evidenced by almost 300 patents, has paved the way for many of the modern conveniences we enjoy today. I leave you with this thought that sums up his idea of progress and his undefeated belief that science will improve the lives of everyone if given free reign:
“All that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combatted, suppressed — only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle.”