So Nikola Tesla eh? The true Father of Electricity. Rumour has it that he hung out with a lightning bolt of loose morals and that’s how he earned his name. Hey, a man has needs. Truth be told, Tesla was a hardcore scientist, inventor and pioneer in light based technologies. We couldn’t watch Game of Thrones on our TVs or listen to Michael Jackson on our iPod if it weren’t for good old Tesla.
In 1983, just 27 years old, he upstaged Edison in the “War of Currents” and revolutionized our lives by building the alternating-current (AC) electrical system that brings power to our homes over long distances.
But he didn’t stop there. No no. After seeing a picture of the Niagara Falls as a kid, he said to himself, and we quote ”Holy shit, I can harness electricity outta that thing!”
By 1890, he got backing from investors and actually built it, sending electricity for the first time over long distances all the way to New York City, lighting up Broadway!
Next up, Tesla was also eager to try his ideas on wireless transmission! In 1895, he almost achieved a long range (50 km) transmission but a fire in his labs spoiled his plan. Marconi, his old student now working with Edison, beat him to it sending and receiving Morse code-based radio signals at distances spanning nearly 6 kilometers in England in 1896, also earning Marconi the Nobel Prize!
Marconi, quite a mad scientist himself, used 17 patents of Tesla to achieve this, the most important patent being encoding a message into a light signal and tuning in a receiver to receive the light signal using two Tesla coils resonating at the same radio frequency. Tesla was only recognized for his work with radio transmission posthumously.
Tesla thought that was baby stuff and wanted to not only transmit information but also power through a ground breaking idea, literally — to use the Earth as a conductor. He was even successful in lighting 200 bulbs from a distance of 40 km! Remember the movie Prestige, that’s Tesla right there helping them magicians!
By 1901 he convinced JP Morgan to fund his wild idea: “When wireless is fully applied the Earth will be converted into a huge brain, capable of response in every one of its parts” And so began the Wardenclyffe project, best described in Tesla’s own words.
He built his laboratory on Long Island and constructed the Wardenclyffe tower, a 57-meter-high wooden tower with steel pipes running hundreds of feet into the ground.
If this experiment was a success, the plan was to set up multiple towers all over the globe giving free access to wireless electricity for everyone at the same time wiping out hang-out joints for crows all over the world.
But Tesla’s project soon ran into many financing problems. Marconi’s system was becoming cheaper and cheaper by the day with transatlantic transmission, and Tesla’s project needed several very expensive design changes. Morgan finally decided to throw in the towel and backed out of the project in 1904. There are no clear accounts on the backstory — and it does seem a bit mysterious to us!
Tesla tried hard to keep his project afloat, but by 1905, his patents expired and he was sorely broke. One by one employees started to quit and join other companies that gave them actual salaries and weekends off. The tower was closed for the first time in 1908. Tesla was still hopeful, as clear from his interview with Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony magazine in 1908.
I’m afraid this story doesn’t have a happy ending or by now we would surely not need to charge our laptops to read on. His hopes were shattered when the media turned against him with the headline “Tesla’s million dollar folly”. His tower structure soon deteriorated with his hopes and by 1911 the tower was completely shut down. This experience took a mental toll on Tesla and he went into severe depression. He battled depression and remained reclusive for the remaining of his days. He died at age 86 in room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel.
Rest in peace. Hero.
Think About It
It’s been more than 100 years — surely someone would have picked up where Tesla left off? Here are some interesting projects to check out: World Wireless Consortium have developed a standard for wireless charging over short ranges called Qi Wireless, Witricity is fast becoming a pioneer in wireless electricity, Powermat has made a strong entrance into the world of wireless charging, and a group of scientists from Russia are trying to recreate Tesla’s work under the Planetary Energy Transmitter Project.
The Earth’s resonance that Tesla intended to exploit is today called Schumann’s resonance, named after German scientist Winfried Otto Schumann, who defined it mathematically in 1952.
About the Authors
Jaya Ramchandani works on several astronomy and physics outreach projects. She is also a co-founder of Sirius Interactive, a language solutions company for researchers.
Jonathan Dias freelances for magazines and papers like Maxim and the Herald, writing about women, food and gadgets. He is also attempting to write a cook book that involves a lot of bacon and beer.