Who was Nikola Tesla? The strange legacy of a scientist (1977)
Adapted from The Selma Times-Journal (Selma, Alabama) November 9, 1977
Nikola Tesla was the son of a Croatian preacher, who immigrated to America from Belgrade in 1884. On arriving in New York, he had four cents in his pocket, and a vision in his mind that man was superman, if only he allowed himself to be.
In the next 59 years, he became one of the most prolific and remarkable inventors of his time.
According to one writer, Tesla’s accomplishments were like “the dreams of an intoxicated god.” He was responsible for modern radio, he perfected neon and fluorescent lighting, he invented radar 40 years before World War II, and he created robots a century before “Star Wars.” The exact number of his patents is unknown — it is more than 125.
Nikola Tesla’s greatest achievement was the discovery of the rotating magnetic field, the fundamental element of alternating current.
Until Tesla, electricity was confined to direct current, a system that prevented its transmission over any but short distances. Tesla’s AC was to change the whole nature of power.
The change was not without its critics. No less an expert than Thomas Edison said Tesla’s system was dangerous, therefore impractical. Tesla countered that anything is dangerous, if mishandled. To prove the merits of properly applied AC, he gave exhibitions where he passed 1 million volts through his body, and the public was convinced.
Tesla teamed with George Westinghouse to establish the first polyphase alternating current system in America, at Niagara Falls.
For the first time, power was sent over a distance to feed a city, in this case, Buffalo, 30 miles away. Tesla’s biographer, John O’Neill, says every transmission pole in the world is a monument to that moment.
Yet if Tesla was brilliant beyond understanding, he was also suspiciously eccentric. He shunned women, was terrified of germs, and could not be in the same room with round items such as billiard balls. What’s more, he talked incessantly of such things as death rays, impenetrable waves of energy, and other items never produced.
Tesla said he knew how to destroy the Empire State building through electrical vibrations from a palm-sized box. He said he could create a beam of light that could send fuel to ships at sea. He actually began one effort, financed by J.P. Morgan, to create a system that would transmit energy around the world without the aid of wires.
He said the ground “is literally alive with electrical vibrations,” therefore it can be used as a conductor. Tesla said electricity can be driven into the earth at one point, and brought out at any other.
Tesla used a coil of his own invention to prove his hypothesis. He worked in a Frankensteinian laboratory in the Rocky Mountains, complete with regular thunderstorms from above. He reportedly was able to create his own lightning, to bounce wireless current back and forth on the globe, and to illuminate 200 bulbs via earth 26 miles away.
For all of his amazing work and prophecies, the scientist died in New York (in 1943) in near obscurity. The U.S. War Department of the time did assign a man to examine Tesla’s papers for “practical ideas” for the war effort; otherwise, he was hardly remembered in his adopted nation.
One man who does remember Tesla, with fondness, is a scientist named Robert Golka. He heads a research effort called “Project Tesla” at Utah’s Wendover AFB.
Using an “exact replica” of a Tesla apparatus of 1899, Dr. Golka is trying to create “ball lightning,” which can now be done only through the process of nuclear explosion.
Dr. Golka says he is “amazed” that Western science has forgotten Tesla. He feels the man’s works have unlimited possibilities today.
He says, for example, that he is “close to creating ball lightning,” and when he does, it will be “as great a discovery as the laser” — all because of a long-dead man whose name is known to almost no one.
BELOW: CONTEMPORANEOUS ARTICLES ABOUT TESLA
Earth’s electric force: Nikola Tesla’s amazing plan to harness free currents (1896)
The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah) April 5, 1896
The world is on the eve of an astounding revelation. The conditions under which we exist will be changed. The end has come to telegraph and telephone monopolies with a crash. Incidentally, all the other monopolies that depend on power of any kind will come to a sudden stop.
The earth’s currents of electricity are to be harnessed. Nature supplies them free of charge. The cost of power, of light and heat will be practically nothing.
The scientific electricians who have for years been trying to master the mystery of electrical earth currents with which the ground beneath your feet is filled, are on the threshold of success. The success of the experiments they have underway means much to them but vastly more to the people.
It means that if Nikola Tesla succeeds in harnessing the electrical earth currents and putting them to work for man there will be an end to oppressive extortionate monopolies in steam, telephones, telegraphs and the other commercial uses of electricity, and that the grasping millionaires who have for two decades milked the people’s purse with electrical fingers will have to relinquish their monopoly.
Nikola Tesla has discovered the secret of the electric earth currents of nature, and they will be adapted to the uses of man. He has succeeded in transmitting sound by the currents that make an electric net of the earth. The transmission of power will follow.
His experiments reduced to commercially practicable uses will mean that men will be able to tap the electric currents of the earth and make them serve the purpose of industry and of trade just as a well-digger taps water or a miner opens a vein of coal. The mighty electrical energy that has been stored up in the earth for ages will be harnessed and made to move the machinery of man.
Electricity will be as free as the air. For the privileges of its use legislatures will not have to be bribed or men corrupted at the polls, and public boards will not have to be “seen” to bestow exclusive franchises upon corporations organized to use public property for private gain, and make the people pay the original cost of their investment and excessive charges for service in order to squeeze dividends out of copiously watered shares.
Monopolies for purveying steam power too will be forced to capitulate to free electricity, for with the latter, manufacturers will only have to connect their dynamos with the earth current to set their machinery in motion.
The successful adaptation of Tesla’s discovery will administer a death-blow to the most galling slavery that has ever yoked the activities of men to the treadmill of monopoly. Tesla is the wizard who is going to emancipate modern industries from the shackles of corrupting, dividend-grabbing, monopolistic corporations.
The plan for free electrical current
Sound travels with amazing speed, but electrical vibrations travel so swiftly that it is difficult to conjure up a figure which will graphically illustrate their speed. Here is one that will, perhaps, convey a vivid and lucid impression.
Imagine yourself at a table with a revolver in one hand and a finger of the other hand on the key of a telegraph instrument connected with a wire that girdles the globe seven times and laps over on the eighth turn a distance equal to 11,000 miles. Pull the trigger of the pistol and simultaneously press the telegraph key.
While the sound of the report of the revolver is traveling 1,250 feet the electrical impulse imparted by the pressure on the key will pass seven and a half times around the world through the wire with which the key is connected.
Sound travels 1,250 feet a second, an electrical impulse 186,000 miles a second. If the electrical currents with which the earth is filled can be harnessed and put to work, a new era in electricity will have dawned. It is to the mastering of the mystery of these earth currents and their adaptation that scientists like Tesla have been striving.
In the course of Tesla’s experiments it is reported that he found in the vicinity of large cities there were so many conflicting earth currents that satisfactory results could not be obtained. So he went out to Denver, and near there found a better field for experimenting. There he met a friend interested in electrical research. They went to Pike’s Peak. Conspicuous among their baggage were two autoharps.
Tesla and his friend scaled the rugged side of the peak. At an elevation agreed on they separated. Tesla skirted the peak, and on reaching a point precisely opposite the place at which he left his friend he stopped.
The two experimenters, on a line drawn straight through the peak, were thus separated by four miles of stratified rock. The two autoharps had been delicately attuned before the scientists parted, and a time fixed for Mr. Tesla’s comrade to play an air (also agreed upon) on the autoharp.
Tesla waited patiently the arrival of the appointed time. Then he connected his harp with the ground in such a way as to secure harmonic resonance with the earth current. The manner and medium of this connection are secrets. The receiving autoharp was equipped with a microphone. As the time approached for his friend on the other side of the peak to strum the appointed tune Tesla listened with rapt attention.
At last, as the tuning fork responds to its harmonic note sounded on the strings of a piano, the autoharp in Mr Tesla’s hands gave out the harmonic tones of “Ben Bolt,” which his companion at the station four miles away straight through the peak was plucking from the tense wires of his instrument.
The experiment was a success. After many tunes had been played, Tesla and his companion descended the peak. A statement of the facts and results of the experiments was written and attested before a notary public as a matter of scientific record.
The electrical currents are in the earth. Their strength is great enough to furnish all the power and light man needs. Mr Tesla has overcome the initial difficulty and has located and tapped the earth currents. The rest will follow, as followed the telephone Prof. Bell’s discovery of how to transmit speech over a wire.
The topics discussed in this article are exception: He foresees the development of the particle collider, advanced battery technology, the advent of solar power, and underwater telephone cables.
Of course, he was sometimes spectacularly wrong. Below, Tesla states that in the future, all vehicles will be powered and guided by electricity provided from a central source, and that the development of the wireless (commonly known today as “radio”) has been hindered by the “illusion” that those waves die out a short distance from the transmitter — and the signal is transmitted as current through the earth.
Of course, this would mean radio technology as we know it today — including the cell phone — doesn’t actually work. Well, nobody’s perfect. – AJW
Tesla: What’s the future of electricity? (1912)
Dr Nikola Tesla looks forward to the era when one titanic electrical wireless station shall supply power for the world — tells of other developments that we have good reason to expect
“What did the year 1911 contribute to the electrical progress of the world?”
“What does the year 1912 promise in the same direction?”
These questions, asked of Dr Nikola Tesla, brought forth the following response:
“While there has been no fundamental discovery announced during the year just past, progress has been steady and continuous. Almost insensibly great changes have been brought about in various departments. Probably the most important of these is the extension of electric transmission lines from hydro-electric central plants. Although the specter of government restriction has had a deterrent effect on the development of this important industry, it has not inflicted a permanent injury.
“The technical records show that several million horsepower have partly been and will soon entirely be harnessed to the service of man.
“Next in importance is the electrification of the railroads, the advantages of which are now thoroughly appreciated, even by the most conservative of railroad men. That which has been achieved in this field has conferred countless benefits on the community.
“Electric lighting has been greatly advanced through the introduction of the new type of incandescent lamp, which has been considerably improved in the last year and offers greater possibilities.”
“The storage battery is still waiting for some discoverer who will open up a new path; but while this is true, improvements have been made in the mechanical construction and arrangement of the elements, rendering the cells more suitable for practical service.
“Equally gratifying strides in telegraphy and telephony have been made, both in the extension of distance and improvement of transmission. Greater progress would have been made long ago had it not been for erroneous theories that have taken hold of the minds of electricians.
“Wireless communication has developed and has been considerably extended also, but here, too, progress is still hampered by the hypnotizing effect of the Hertzian wave theory. Some of the most able experts are still laboring under the illusion that messages are transmitted by these waves.
“As a matter of fact, it is the currents through the ground that affect the receiver. The Hertzian waves are extinguished within a small radius from the transmitter. Investigators in radio-activity have also yielded tangible results, though it must be stated that they have been drowned by impossible forecasts.
“Still another branch of applied electricity, electro-therapy — more particularly through the instrumentality of currents of high frequency — has been much enhanced, the most valuable results being the eradication of cancer and like malignant growths.
Looking toward the future
In discussing the possibilities of 1912, Dr Tesla said:
“I suppose that just at this time aviation commands the attention of the world more than any other field. For ages it has been the passionate desire of man to invade the domain of the bird, and finally it has materialized! The advent of a new motor, simpler, lighter, more powerful and efficient, and absolutely reliable in its operation, will convert the flying machine from a boy or a show apparatus to a practical and useful vehicle.”
A promising departure has already been made by Dr Tesla in this line, a description of his new motor having been given in scientific journals recently.
“Almost as fascinating,” Dr Tesla continued, “are the possibilities of the discoveries that have been made by Mme. Curie. Though it may be safely predicted that the dreams of the enthusiasts will not be realized, enough has been achieved already to justify great expectations for this coming year.”
“What do you think of wireless art in its various applications?” he was asked.
“The sensational exploitation of wireless telegraphy and telephony has naturally created in the public mind the idea that this is the chief if not the only field of its use. As a matter of fact, the world has not even at this moment the faintest conception of the really great and valuable results in other fields that are sure to be obtained in the near future.
“Far more important than communication is the transmission of power wirelessly, which will be done for innumerable purposes.
“To mention one comparatively insignificant application, a plant might be provided that would enable every vessel or vehicle either on land or the water or in the air to safely travel without compass or any other means of direction such as has heretofore been known. One such wireless plant would be sufficient for the needs of the whole world and the means of saving property and human lives.
One central plant
“Remember,” Dr Tesla emphasized, “that I am now only mentioning one of the minor applications of wireless power. Just think what benefits could be derived in this particular phase of aerial development by the construction of one single plant from which all the flying machines of the world could be operated without fuel or other energy of any kind.
Turning to other subjects he said: “Entirely new fields have already been opened up to scientific research and inventive application, but still greater possibilities lie before us.
“Since advancing this idea I have spent much time attempting to realize it by the application of great electrical forces but although I have attained tensions of 20,000,000 volts, sufficient to tear off particles from the toughest steel, they were found inadequate to break up the atomic structure. I am confident, though, that it will be done eventually.
“Think only what it would mean to disintegrate matter into its primary constituents, thus giving rise to new effects and phenomena and liberating forces heretofore unknown! One of the consequences, perhaps not the most important, would be the inexhaustible supply of radium emanations.
“Another realm of infinite promise is that of intense cold, so ably and successfully explored by Sir James Dewar. The production of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, if economically effected, will be revolutionizing in its influence on industry and manufacture.
“Even some of the older electrical arts are still undeveloped. Take the storage battery, for instance. No radical departure has been made since the original demonstrations of Ritter and Plante. The time is ripe for a signal improvement. One can confidently announce the coming, and very soon, of a new principle which will mark an epoch in the development of this branch of electricity.
“Electrical progress,” continued Dr Tesla, in reply to a question, “may be said to have begun with Gilbert and Leyden, respectively the discoverers of the earth’s magnetism and the electrical condenser. From that period on the advancement, although very slow at first, was nevertheless continuous.
“It was greatly accelerated by the discovery of Galvan and the researches of Faraday, but the rapid growth comparable to that of the present day can be traced back only a quarter of a century.
“Nevertheless there are many facts indicating that at some earlier period electrical science was far more advanced than would appear from historical records. There is a large interval of unproductivity, but only in so far as it concerns actual accomplishment. The intellectual progress must-have been more or less continuous.
“As to the utilization of fuel energy, I am glad to say that I have recently made a decided step forward through the perfection of my new gas turbine, or rotary engine, which will permit a much more economical use of fuel than heretofore possible.
Improving the telephone
“The energy supplied to the earth through the sun’s rays is so great that if it could be cheaply stored and converted it would meet all our wants. But, although engines have already been operated by power so derived, all undertakings to this end have proved practical failures, chiefly because of the periodic character of the supply. I have long recognized that the true solution lies in a different direction.
“Telephoning through long submarine cables is possible and would hare been accomplished long ago had the efforts of electricians been turned in the proper direction. The trouble lies in the transmitting and receiving instruments, especially the latter, which are still crude and require strong currents for operation, entailing great loss in the wire, as well as the surrounding insulating medium, and causing weakening and distortion of the impulses.
“Following the suggestion of the great mathematician Heaviside, the telephone lines are now being made of heavy wire and provided with induction coils, which have the effect of raising the tension and reducing the frictional waste in the wire.”
“A further extension in the transmission has been effected by the use of the so-called phantom circuit, consisting of two separated lines. This is an ingenious and practical expedient, but the use of induction coils is only necessitated by the crudity of the instruments. In employing very sensitive receiving devices, speech can be transmitted distinctly through the longest aerial lines and submarine cables without any change in their construction.”
What about television?
“How about the possibility of making that visible which is going on at the end of a wire?”
“We must distinguish between transmission of pictures and what has been termed television, or seeing at distance. The former is a comparatively old art now well established. Some of the early work in this direction was done in this country by Mr Amstutz, an American engineer. Quite recently Professor Korn, of Munich, has perfected apparatus which is now being used with success.
“As regards the transmission of images, it is incomparably more difficult chiefly because of the complexity it involves. By the means which have been so far proposed thousands of wires would be necessary between two stations. An invention of mine permits the reduction of this number to but a few, or even to a single wire, so that there is a fair prospect of practical achievement at no remote date. What is more, I believe that seeing at a distance will be accomplished without wires.”
“Will it be possible for electrical science to discover some means whereby such accidents as that of the Olympic and the Hawke can be avoided?
“A perfect means for this purpose has been afforded through the discovery of the stationary waves, but unfortunately there is no plant as yet in operation with these waves, which, as I have shown, pass from one to the other end of the globe without diminution of intensity, producing stationary loops and nodes, the danger of collisions at sea will be greatly reduced.”
“We’ll telephone to stars!” declares scientist Nikola Tesla in interview
By Harry Payne Burton – The Day Book.(Chicago, Ill.) October 13, 1915
New York, Oct 13  — The future of the transmission of the human voice will not be confined to this planet, but will be projected through the ether until its vibrations strike all the other planets that swung dizzily in space!
This authorized statement, of far greater importance than the amazing event which occasioned it, was unequivocally made today by the world-famous scientist and discoverer of the wireless principle, Nikola Tesla.
The distinguished inventor gave it exclusively to The Day Book as the direct result of the announcement by the United States Navy department that its experts had recently succeeded in projecting the human voice by wireless from Arlington, Virginia, to Mare Island, California — a distance of 4,000 miles.
“This, in itself, was, of course, a brilliant experiment,” declared Tesla, “and the experts are entitled to a great credit, but believe me when I say it is only the beginning.”
Nikola Tesla long ago predicted tech like Skype and iPad/tablets
“Very soon, it will be possible for us to see each other at distances of thousands of miles; we shall be enabled to hear an opera, sermon or scientific lecture, and be visually present in all kinds of meetings and transactions, wherever they may be taking place, and without regard to where we ourselves happen to be at the time.
“This will become a daily business experience, not only to transmit with unerring precision a signature to an important document, but enable the recipient in a distant country to see it affixed by the sender.
“My demonstrations in Colorado Springs in 1899 proved that not only telegraphic signals could be sent across the globe, as I predicted in 1892, but that the faintest modulations of the human voice could be impressed upon the planet as a whole and reproduced at any point, irrespective of distance.
“The result just attained by the navy department proves, in a practical way, what my scientific experiment showed to be a fact 15 years ago.”
“How soon do you expect a full commercial demonstration of your prophetic scientific experiments of 15 years ago?”
“I cannot, of course, answer in what state the work of others might be, but, so far as I am concerned, I would have no technical difficulty in establishing telephonic communication to the chief centers of the world inside of a few months, for I have already built a plant for this very purpose.
“When it is completed, it will be possible for any telephone subscriber to call up and talk to any other telephone subscriber in the world who is connected with a central. This plan I have developed long ago, and it has been called my ‘world system.’
“In this plan, there will be no change whatever in the present telephone apparatus. Everything in the municipal exchanges, as well as in individual installations, remains intact.”
Nikola Tesla on radio & GPS
“For if we are to get the full benefits of a system of the sort, wireless telephonic transmission must be practically achieved, and when this is an accomplished fact the only apparatus necessary for the reception of perfectly intelligible, spoken messages, would be very inexpensive telephonic receivers.
“Imagine not only the value, but the comfort, which would accrue to dwellers in the isolated spots of the United States if, at certain hours each day, they knew that they could listen, through such instruments to weather reports, crop advice, important general news, and, at stated intervals and times, through the same means could find relaxation.
“Operas, speeches, sermons — anything which can be made perceptible through the ear and is desirable, could be conveyed to them from the most remote centers of civilization and culture, at a trifling cost.
“The educational effect of such service, alone, could not fail to bring about within a few years what would amount to an educational and psychological revolution in the rural districts of this country. This takes no account whatever of the immense commercial value and domestic convenience which as a matter of course would result from the use of such a system.
“And if a plan of this kind would do much for safety upon land, imagine what it would accomplish toward safety upon the oceans and the great lakes.
“We are now in a position to erect a plant which, when required, would emit peculiar waves, by means of which any navigator, no matter where his ship might be, could determine accurately his distance from and position in relation to any given point.
‘The general installation and use of such devices on shore and at sea would enable seamen to exactly steer their courses, without dependence upon compasses or observations of the sun and stars.
“Once such a system is in operation it will be possible by laws to closely define such navigation routes as will be certain to reduce to a minimum the dangers of marine adventure.
Nikola Tesla interview: On flying cars, no wars, cheap electricity
“But the greatest and most revolutionary of all these advances on earth will be the transmission of electrical energy in large amounts, for all industrial purposes. Once a power plant is in operation, it will be possible to operate flying machines in any part of the world without fuel, and light isolated homes, in an ideally simple and economical manner!
“When world wireless telephony, the transport of bodies and materials and the transmission of energy for all industrial and commercial purposes become facts, the earth will have shrunken in size so as to put nations in close touch and make international complications and wars an impossibility!
“It is already practicable to project from a machine made by man, electrical impulses of such intensity as to affect other planets,” said Tesla.
“There is no difficulty in producing a machine which would cause a disturbance on Venus or Mars, sufficient for any expert, if he exists there, to detect.
Tesla’s experiments with electricity (1919)
Tesla’s worldwide wireless transmission of electrical signals, as well as light and power, is here illustrated in theory, analogy and realization.
Tesla’s experiments with 100-foot discharges at potentials of millions of volts have demonstrated that the hertz warn are infinitesimal in effect and unrecoverable: the recoverable ground waves of tesla fly “Thru the earth.”
Radio engineers are gradually beginning to see the light and that the laws of propagation laid down by Tesla over a quarter of a century ago form the real and true basis of all wireless transmission today.