– By Tony Schmidt, exhibit designer
Imagine your home equipped with a small receiver that intercepts wireless power and then further distributes that power wirelessly to every device in your house. – i.e. no power outlets. Could there be a day when our cars are powered by energy transmitted merely through the air?
Meet Nikola Tesla, born in 1856 in Smiljan, Croatia and whom immigrated to the United States in 1884. He’s been nicknamed with such titles as The Sorcerer of Serbia, The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, the Father of Electricity, Master of Lightning, the Wizard with Lightning in His Hands, and the Forgotten Genius, just to name a few. Within the preface of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla, Marc Seifer describes a text entitled Return of the Dove:
“which claimed that there was a man not born of this planet who landed as a baby in the mountains of Croatia in 1856. Raised by ‘Earth parents,’ an avatar had arrived for the sole purpose of inaugurating the New Age. By providing humans with a veritable cornucopia of inventions, he had created, in essence, the technological backbone of the modern era.”
Nikola Tesla’s life work as an inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist led to roughly 300 patents worldwide with such contributions as fluorescent and neon lighting, the AC motor, x-rays, robotics, remote control, the laser, the speedometer, an earthquake machine, an obscure death ray device, wireless communication, and wireless power transfer, just to name a few. Let’s rewind a few words – did you read that right – Wireless power?
To appreciate how far advanced Tesla’s concepts for wireless power were, first imagine the late 1880’s; where up to that time, homes were being lit by candlelight and direct current (DC) power was becoming commercially available as the new thing. Thomas Edison was driving distribution of the DC current electrical system and building power plants roughly every square mile to enable DC to travel its short distances. Not efficient! Tesla recognized the inadequacies of this system and in 1887 established patents for his polyphase alternating current (AC) induction motor and transformer designs, which enabled power to travel over much longer distances. Industrialist George Westinghouse recognized the potential of AC power and purchased the patents from Tesla. With Westinghouse driving commercial distribution of AC power, a full-scale industrial war over AC versus DC power ensued. Check out this fun Tesla versus Edison video, from Epic Rap Battles of History – Season Two, regarding battles between AC and DC.
It is thought that when Tesla designed the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls in 1895, the final victory of AC had arrived. Thanks Tesla! But this was still a wired world…
It was the Tesla Coil, invented in 1891, which paved the way for his future explorations in wireless power. A Tesla Coil is an electrical resonant transformer circuit with the ability to take the 110 volt electricity (U.S.A.) from your house and convert it rapidly into a tremendous amount of high-voltage, high-frequency, low-amperage power. The high-frequency output of a small Tesla Coil, for instance, can illuminate fluorescent tubes held several feet away without any wire connections.
As part of the CREATE 2013 PGAV staff gallery show, I built a small Tesla Coil to witness wireless power for myself; and amazingly, it worked! Check out my recorded demonstration here.The endeavor was not only the opportunity to explore electrical systems, but to investigate electricity itself. The experience became a journey through such things as doorknob capacitors and salt water filled leyden jars, magnet wire, a thing called a ‘spark gap,’ induction and resonant circuits, primary and secondary coils, voltage regulators, bluish corona arcs, and a fluorescent tube that illuminated before my eyes without a wired connection of any kind. What can you do with this?
At his laboratory in Colorado Springs 1899-1900, Tesla made what he regarded as his most important discovery – terrestrial stationary waves. According to the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, “by this discovery he proved that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would be as responsive as a tuning fork to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency. He also lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles and created man-made lightning.” Speaking of Colorado Springs, David Bowie portrays Tesla from this time period in the 2006 Oscar-nominated film, The Prestige, where Tesla’s Magnifying (Power) Transmitter (advanced version of a Tesla Coil) is featured numerous times when he builds a mysterious contraption for a magician portrayed by Hugh Jackman. Some of Tesla’s most dramatic experiments were held in Colorado Springs.
On a grander scale, Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island, NY was erected in 1901 to serve as a trans-Atlantic wireless communications tower and as a demonstration of wireless power transmission. As described by the Tesla Science Center:
“During the last week of July 1903, residents around the Shoreham site experienced what was to be the only testing of Tesla’s equipment at this facility. A thunder-like noise was heard throughout the area. Light displays were seen emanating from the tower on several nights. These were seen as far away as the south shore of Connecticut. Several days after these tests, his dream was destroyed when creditors from Westinghouse confiscated his heavier equipment for nonpayment for services rendered.”
The 187-foot tower, which looked like “a large lattice-like wooden oil derrick with a mushroom cap” according to Melvin Saunders, was further destroyed in 1917 by dynamite explosion as ordered by the U.S. government when it was considered a security risk. This became Tesla’s greatest defeat until his death on January 7th, 1943. Thanks in a large part to the efforts of Matthew Inman, Seattle cartoonist behind theoatmeal.com, who succeeded in raising $1.3 million to restore Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower and lab with his promotional piece called “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived.” Because of his fundraising efforts, this historic site has been saved and purchased by the recently formed Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe with the financing to not only restore the former lab facilities, but to equip it as a science center with “exploratorium-type exhibits” as well.
What would the world be like if Tesla’s vision for wireless power had been successful? Small examples of wireless power transmission are beginning to become available today such as those utilizing inductive coupling (your electric toothbrush and power mats which transmit power to a device’s batteries). The February 2013 issue of PGAV’s Destinology included an article titled “Forecasting the Tomorrow of Destinations.” In this article there is a concluding segment on personal power and batteries with “a massive amount of power, and away from wired electricity.” To read an example of this developing technology, check out this research being done at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “New lithium-ion battery design that’s 2,000 times more powerful, recharges 1,000 times faster.”
Will improvements to batteries and devices equipped with power receivers begin to bring us towards a global wireless power transmission system? What if our exhibits, often packed with mechanical interactives, digital media, theatrical lighting, and all of the base level facility services – were powered totally without wires? Is it really possible that EVERYTHING could be wirelessly powered? How would this effect the way in which we approach our designs? Power/data points would not be part of the planning. Interactives could seem to almost have a life of their own – imagine the impact to robotics? Most importantly, would we simply think about electric power differently? Perhaps it is already happening every time we replace incandescent bulbs for fluorescent ones…predicted by Tesla in 1930 in Science & Invention magazine: “Tesla Maps Our Electrical Future.”
Another of Tesla’s predictions that I am eager to see come true:
“One of the most important uses of wireless energy will be undoubtedly for the propulsion of flying machines to which power can be readily supplied without ground connection, for although the flow of the currents is confined to the Earth an electro magnetic field is created in the atmosphere surrounding it. If conductors or circuits accurately attuned and properly positioned are carried by the plane, energy is drawn into these circuits much the same as a fluid will pass through a hole created in the container. With an industrial plant of great capacity sufficient power can be derived in this manner to propel any kind of aerial machine. This I have always considered as the best and permanent solution of the problems of flight. No fuel of any kind will be required as the propulsion will be accomplished by light electric motors operated at great speed. Nevertheless, anticipating slow progress, I am developing a novel type of flying machine which seems to be well suited for meeting the present necessity of a safe, small and compact “aerial flyer” capable of rising and descending vertically.”
-Nikola Tesla, October 16, 1927, “World System of Wireless Transmission of Energy,” Telegraph & Telegraph Age