Nikola Tesla became famous in part as a result of his inventions for wired power distribution. He knew successful products were first to market, provided economical services and needed adequate funding for development. He conquered all technical challenges. Yet poised to deliver a wireless power system, forces combined to leave both Tesla's Tower and his dream of supplying the world with abundant power in ruins.
What did Tesla discover in his laboratory at Pikes Peak, Colorado that made him think his disruptive technology would work? Let’s take a look.
A Transmission Tower
The Wardenclyffe Tower, built in Shoreham, New York near James Warden’s resort, Wardenclyffe-on-Sound, wasn't originally meant to be used for wireless power transfer. Initially, John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan intended to use it as part of an investment into a wireless communications system.
At the time, Guglielmo Marconi was transmitting yachting race results from ocean liners. Morgan thought having race results and news transmitted from America to London would be the next step. He wanted a better system than Marconi’s—and Tesla was happy to have the backing of such an influential person.
In 1899, Tesla was experimenting in Colorado while Marconi was actively demonstrating wireless radio in England and America. The New York Herald newspaper invited Marconi to report on the America’s Cup international yacht race being held in New York that year. Meanwhile, Tesla had been promised land and free power for an experimental lab in Pikes Peak, Colorado.
When Tesla relocated to Colorado, he was already a celebrity. He had successfully collaborated with George Westinghouse to show the promise of alternating current (AC) by providing power and lighting for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They teamed up again in 1896 to provide a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls.
Tesla’s AC poly-phase power is the de facto power distribution for the wired power systems that we take for granted today. Tesla beat out Thomas Edison and his direct current (DC) system for large scale power distribution because the technology was more efficient.
Relying on Tesla's patents, Westinghouse was able to supply abundant electric power for equipment, trains, and cities, laying the foundation for much of our power infrastructure today.
Nicola Tesla in his Pikes Peak Iaboratory. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library [CC BY 4.0]
Tesla and Wireless Power Transmission
Despite the success he'd found with power generators and distribution systems he had a hand in designing, Tesla was interested in wireless electrical power transmission. Putting this in perspective, it was only 11 years earlier, in 1888, that Heinrich Hertz had confirmed James Clerk Maxwell's theories known as Maxwell’s Equations.
Doing his own experiments, Tesla invented an electrical resonating transformer in 1891, known as the Tesla coil, or Tesla’s coil. Tesla expected that his transformers could deliver power, as well. Tesla stated in his patent application for an electrical transformer in 1897 that it was actually a device for the "transmission of energy over long distances." Note that if Tesla succeeded in his effort, power distribution would have been totally revolutionized in human history.
At Pikes Peak, the combination of the weather (lots of lightning storms), free power from the El Paso Power Company of Colorado Springs, and funding from John J. Astor provided Tesla with the perfect laboratory setting to both observe natural lightning and create "his own" using his transformers.
Tesla was able to observe how natural lightning acted and how it traveled over ground in some instances. He noted how the air remained charged afterward. He experimented with his transformer, observing the arcs and how discharges were reflected. Even discharges from a small Tesla coil would have been fascinating at Pikes Peak and Tesla did not do a small one!
Tesla's Colorado lab had one of the largest coils ever built. Electrical discharges from the lab could be seen for miles. Enough was advertised about Tesla's experiments that J.P. Morgan, the financier responsible for the merger that formed General Electric, invested in Tesla's company, providing the funds to bring Tesla back to the East Coast and begin work on the Wardenclyffe Tower.
As of this move, Morgan had a stake in a wireless communication company. This would complement all the other industries he was invested in at the time. Based on Tesla's reputation and what Tesla presented, both men were sure Tesla's system would outperform Marconi's. Morgan signed a contract with Tesla in March 1901 for a wireless communications system.
An example of a modern Tesla coil experiment
Wardenclyffe Tower and Marconi's Accomplishments
Tesla immediately began work on the system, acquiring land, and building the tower. The design called for a tower which was 187 feet tall and grounded into the Earth 300 feet.
Then, in December of that year, Marconi surprised the world by transmitting the Morse code letter ‘S’ across the Atlantic Ocean. With equipment much simpler than the enormous tower Tesla was building, Marconi was transmitting signals across the ocean.
With Marconi already claiming revolutionary strides in wireless communication, Tesla realized that future investors would not be interested in his wireless communication system if they could accomplish the same things with Marconi's technology. Tesla also suspected that Marconi was using equipment that Tesla held patents on, but he had no money to pursue the matter.
Without consulting Morgan, Tesla upscaled the tower design and included power distribution in the specs. His goal was for the Tower to become a complete system: an integrated power and communications hub.
Morgan was not happy when he realized that (1) the communication system he invested in was not being built and (2) the redesigned system would cost much more. In a perfect storm of uncertainty, Morgan was caught up in the economic Panic of 1901 with the stock market crashing in May. Then, President McKinley was assassinated in September of that year. Within months of signing Tesla’s contract, the entire financial landscape had changed. Morgan refused Tesla’s request to invest more money and the relationship between the two men did not continue amicably.
Whatever the relationship between Tesla and Marconi had been previously, it became contentious when Marconi (along with Karl Ferdinand Braun) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909. Their relationship then devolved into one of litigants, fraught with patent battles and counter claims. The abandoned Tower was finally torn down in 1917 and any assets used to pay Tesla's debts.
But what did Tesla learn at his Colorado lab that had him convinced he could supply power wirelessly at Wardenclyffe?
Lessons from Pikes Peak
In Colorado, Tesla's laboratory had a center mast—142 feet tall—with a copper sphere on top. While fairly massive, it was still smaller than the Wardenclyffe Tower.
The transformer portion had a winding described as over 50 feet in diameter. Tesla could transmit large electrical arcs as well as electrify the surrounding ground. Tesla’s observations and experiments led him to conclude the following:
- The Earth acts as a conductor. Electrifying the Earth provides a means of transmitting electrical energy. This seems to be how Tesla was able to light electric bulbs placed on the ground at some distance from the power generator.
- There are standing electrical waves left in the wake of a lightning strike.
- The ionosphere can reflect certain electrical waves. They don't necessarily travel through the ionosphere and continue propagating.
- The surface of the Earth and the ionosphere form a channel where very low-frequency radio waves (in the range of 3 kHz to 30 kHz) travel with minimal loss. These waves continuously travel around the Earth, reflecting back and forth between the Earth’s surface and the ionosphere. Tesla suggested there was a natural frequency of 8 Hz to these oscillations.
There was some background for Tesla’s ideas. In 1872, both Mahlon Loomis and William Henry Ward had applied for patents mentioning atmospheric electricity and an atmospheric electrical layer that could carry signals.
With this knowledge, it's easy to see how Tesla could envision a huge electrical system where the Earth and ionosphere provided potential for homes and businesses to tap into a universal grid for electricity. Using his transformer to supply massive amounts of electricity, and with the Earth and ionosphere acting as a conducting layer, any residence or building with suitable receptors and grounding could become a branch fed by the grid.
Graphical representation of Wardenclyffe Tower
How Did Tesla Do?
In his book, Wireless Telegraphy, the translated version published in 1915, Dr. Jonathan Zenneck discussed the field of electromagnetic waves at the Earth's surface. Zenneck was interested in Maxwell's Equations at surface boundaries and mentions in the book that the Earth is conductive.
German physicist Winfried Otto Schumann predicted that electromagnetic standing waves existed in the cavity between the surface of the Earth and the ionosphere. In 1954, this theory was confirmed. This "Schumann resonance" was found to occur at a fundamental frequency of 7.83 Hz. Today, ham radio operators depend on the reflection of the ionosphere to make contact over long distances.
All of these discoveries show that Tesla's understanding of the phenomena he witnessed and explored at his Pikes Peak Lab have been validated.
Would his Tower have followed his other successes had the money not run out? That question is still being debated. In one sense, the Tower was not a failure. Tesla's notes on the results of his Colorado experiments are sketchy because he relied on his memory rather than written records. However, in order to build the Pikes Peak tower, he had to document his plans, the equipment needed, and the patents he applied for, leaving a trail for future researchers.
As to whether Tesla was correct in what he envisioned for a world incorporating wireless power transfer, there may still be time to tell. Crowdfunding efforts are underway with the goal of re-creating Tesla’s Tower.
Tesla advanced the knowledge of electricity and power distribution in ways we still benefit from today. His experiments with induction motors, fluorescent lighting, and AC power form the basis of our technical landscape.
Today, his vision of wireless power is only being realized in a small way. Although Tesla's Tower never accomplished what he hoped, because he documented his plans and patents in preparation for the Tower, we're able to see his vision of a world with abundant power.