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The Straight Dope




Your reply to Rodney Franko concerning broadcast power [May 4] was, if you'll forgive the pun, "off the beam." I think what Rodney was referring to was not the SPS/microwave downlink system, but rather Nikola Tesla's broadcast power system.

Best known for the insights that put the alternating current system associated with Westinghouse on a working basis, Tesla was a brilliant experimenter in electricity. He devised a system for broadcasting electrical power in the first decade of this century that, among other things, could (and did) light lightbulbs at a distance of 25 miles without their being connected by wires to a source of electricity. His broadcast power system indisputably worked, both in Colorado and Long Island--but only for Tesla. No one has been able to duplicate this effect, even working from Tesla's notes; like many geniuses, he seems not to have bothered to write things down that, while "obvious" to him, were in fact quantum leaps of knowledge.

With Tesla's death we lost a man whose brilliance in many ways surpassed that of Edison and Steinmetz. Scientists today are still combing his notes and journals looking for new insights into physics and electricity. But because of his reputation as a crackpot genius, Tesla's proven power transmission system has never been explored. It's a shame when official perceptions get in the way of progress. --R.A. Jaruk, Stamford, Connecticut

Cecil is well acquainted with the inventor of the Tesla coil, an artificial-lightning device familiar to high school physics students. But he had forgotten about Tesla's global ambitions for his invention. Just as well. Tesla's broacast power scheme was even wilder than the satellite power system.

The peak of Tesla's career came in his early 30s, when he sold his alternating-current patents to George Westinghouse for big bucks. (He later got cuffed out of part of it.) He also did pioneering work in radio and other fields. But thereafter he frittered away his genius and hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people's money on one harebrained scheme after another. Broadcast power was one such idea.

You considerably overstate the success of this project. Tesla did build a giant Tesla coil in Colorado Springs in an effort to broadcast power across the globe. The coil could generate extremely high voltages and emit huge lightninglike sparks from a big copper ball atop a tall tower. Tesla's idea was that the earth was aquiver with electrical energy, like a taut violin string. If one plucked the string at any point, the vibrations would be transmitted throughout its length. Same with the globe. The giant coil was to be Tesla's bow.

In his first test of the coil Tesla burned out a generator at the Colorado Springs electric plant. Later there were reports that he managed to light 200 incandescent bulbs at a distance of 26 miles. But this was never confirmed and it is damned hard to believe. (Tesla coils, in my experience, can illuminate fluorescent bulbs, but usually at a distance of only a few feet.) Tesla never published a thorough description of his work and electrical engineers scratch their heads when told of his ideas today. Even if the thing worked it's hard to see how you'd avoid wasting huge amounts of energy.

Tesla later moved his operations to Long Island. With $150,000 from J.P. Morgan, he set about building an even larger coil. But the machine was never completed, and in 1905 the project was abandoned. Virtually everything he worked on after this time met with a similar fate. By the 1930s he was reduced to making wild pronouncements about death rays and feeding the pigeons near his hotel. He died alone in 1943.

Many people excuse Tesla's failures by saying he was too far ahead of his time. I doubt it. His understanding of the medium in which he worked was primitive. He refused to accept the complex nature of the atom and for years denied Einstein's theories. His problems arose largely from the fact that he was an eccentric who was unable to work with (and consequently to learn from) other people, and the increasing unreality of his ideas shows it. Broadcast power is exhibit A.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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