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Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

Tesla Fails to Power the World without Wires Barry Manz

All the hoopla about wireless charging doesn’t hold a candle to what Nikola Tesla had in mind: Providing alternating current through the ground and air and into the world’s products, eliminating transmission lines. If this sounds like fantasy, it indeed turned out to be, but the story of his scheme makes interesting reading.

Tesla actually had little to do with the development of radio -- he didn’t believe radio waves existed -- but his primary competition for funding was nevertheless Guglielmo Marconi, who did. Tesla believed that alternating electrical current could be injected into the ground to provide not just communication but also to project electrical power around the world using Earth and its atmosphere as electrical conductors. He called it the World Wireless System. Specifically, he believed that by inducing AC into the Earth, the planet's own electrical charge would resonate at specific a frequency and be amplified, from which power could be extracted anywhere on Earth to power anything that could be powered by electricity.

To get funding for such projects required considerable persuasiveness, even  raving, both of which according to records Tesla displayed in abundance. After intriguing George Westinghouse who later passed on the idea (but loaned Tesla $6,000 in good faith), he eventually convinced J. P. Morgan to boot the bill for construction of a wireless station at Wardenclyffe, in Shoreham on New York’s Long Island.

Tesla also demonstrated his scheme in Colorado Springs, CO, where he had built a “magnifying transmitter” that lit incandescent electric lamps placed as far as 300 feet away from it. This, he said, proved that it could be scaled up to produce the same effects over any distance. Would it have worked? Unlikely, as critics said Tesla wildly overestimated the conductivity of the Earth and its atmosphere and underestimated power loss over distance. Morgan refused to further fund the Wardenclyffe project, which was abandoned in 1906 having never been used.

Tesla later sold the Wardenclyffe Tower property and the tower was dynamited in 1917. The property would later become the home of another failed project – the Shoreham nuclear power plant, which after being built for $6 billion, was halted before operation began after massive opposition.

But the story doesn’t end there. Efforts get the property listed in the National Register of Historic Places or become a national landmark failed, but in 1994 the Tesla Wardenclyffe Project was established have the Wardenclyffe laboratory and tower foundation placed on New York State’s register of historic places. The state approved but the challenge was to raise the money to buy the land. To that end, in 2012 the web cartoon The Oatmeal launched a fundraiser via the Indiegogo crowdfunding site to raise $1.7 million purchase the property in the hope of building a Tesla Science Center there.

A 1925 artist’s conception of Tesla’s system powering aircraft and lighting the city in the background.

It received a quick response, raising $850,000 in six days and ultimately reached $1.37 million, which when added to an equal matching grant from New York State, totaled $2.2 million. In 2013, the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe bought the 15.69-acre laboratory site and began to raise $10 million to fund the science learning center. Elon Musk agreed to provide $1 million and place a Tesla Motors charging station there. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić in 2013 even placed a monument to Tesla at the site. When completed, the center plans to offer science teacher associations, conferences, symposia, field trips, associations with science competitions, and other science programs as well as a Tesla exhibit. Tesla may not have been right about every dream he had, but he invented, patented, developed, or seeded ideas for many applications that we take for granted today, among them alternating current, electric motors, and radar. He may have been off-base about Wardenclyffe, but you cannot argue that the man followed his dreams and accomplished much.

The Wardenclyffe Tower during construction.  

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Barry Manz is president of Manz Communications, Inc., a technical media relations agency he founded in 1987. He has since worked with more than 100 companies in the RF and microwave, defense, test and measurement, semiconductor, embedded systems, lightwave, and other markets. Barry writes articles for print and online trade publications, as well as white papers, application notes, symposium papers, technical references guides, and Web content. He is also a contributing editor for the Journal of Electronic Defense, editor of Military Microwave Digest, co-founder of MilCOTS Digest magazine, and was editor in chief of Microwaves & RF magazine.

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