Belittled for more than half a century, the mystical genius of electricity has at last found a following
On an otherwise fine day in 1898, the ground in New York City’s Lower East Side suddenly began to tremble While buildings shook, the good citizens of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho poured into the streets, shouting in confusion, certain that either the wrath of nature or the wrath of God had been visited upon them.
There was more to Tesla than parlor magic. By 1898 he’d given mankind two inventions that would change the world: alternating current and the high-frequency coil.
The experimenter’s name was Nikola Tesla, and he would later boast that his little oscillator could “split the earth like an apple.” He would further claim that he could transmit electricity around the world without wires, control the weather, and receive messages from Mars. At that time, however, he was perhaps better known for his personal eccentricities and flamboyant behavior. He insisted on having exactly 18 napkins before him at every dinner, regardless of the number of guests, and he would not stay in the same room with a woman wearing pearl earrings. His startling lab demonstrations, in which he would let 2 million volts of electricity envelop him In a glowing halo, were considered better entertainment than an evening at the theater.
But there was a good deal more to Tesla than easy bombast and parlor magic. By 1898 he had already created two inventions that would change the world; alternating current, which made the widespread distribution of electricity possible; and the high-frequency coil, which helped lay the groundwork for every broadcasting system from radio to radar. His radical and imaginative thinking foreshadowed and, to some degree, provided the conceptual basis for a remarkable variety of modern technologies.
By the middle of this century, however, Tesla had been all but forgotten. Many of his inventions were attributed to others, and his ideas were often dismissed as the ramblings of a madman. Now, after decades of being considered on the lunatic fringe of science, Tesla and his more futuristic ideas are enjoying a revival. His work has been taken up by a new generation of inventors, researchers, and tinkerers. Like Tesla himself, they defy easy classification: They seem to run the gamut from hardheaded, practical engineers to wild-eyed fanatics The range of their ideas is equally broad. They are working on everything from more efficient pumps and more powerful jet engines to the secret of time travel.
The man responsible for this was born in 1856 in the tiny village of Smiljan, Croatia (now part of Yugoslavia). From his childhood on, he demonstrated a fondness for outrageously ingenious ideas. As a student he dreamed of sending intercontinental mail via a huge sub-Atlantic tunnel. By age twenty-eight he had already designed a prototype for the motor that would change the world.
In the 1800′s electricity was direct current, or DC, and was a purely local phenomenon. Without expensive generators to boost its power over long distances, it could be transmitted only a few miles. Tesla designed a generator that produced current in alternating pulses. These could sustain high-voltage transmission over long distances. With this AC, or alternating current, system, electricity could be sent cheaply anywhere wires could be strung.
The design for his AC motor and a recommendation to Thomas Edison in his pocket. Tesla left Europe in 1884 for New York. Edison hired him as a lab assistant, and that began a brief and stormy partnership. By nature the two men were completely unsuited for each other. Tesla was elegant, cultured, a brilliant mathematician. He solved problems in his head before ever lifting a tool. Edison was a blue-collar inventor, a man for whom trial and error was the only path to innovation. More to the point, Edison was committed to commercializing direct current.
Three years later the two geniuses parted company. Tesla then enlisted the support of industrialist George Westinghouse to develop his AC system. Edison counterattacked. To scare people away from using Tesla’s invention, Edison mounted a campaign in which he publicly electrocuted dogs and calves with AC current. He told horrified audiences the animals had been “Westinghoused.” It did no good. The AC system beat out DC, and Tesla received royalties of $216,000 — an immense sum of money in those days but one that he would run through in just a few years.
Before he did, Tesla had outlined a scheme for another invention that would change the world. In 1890 he invented a hollow-core transformer, an electrical coil that could transmit and receive radio signals at extremely high frequencies. By 1893 he had sketched out a system that would use these “Tesla coils.” The result, Tesla suspected, would be the wireless transmission of high-frequency electromagnetic waves: the radio. And eight years later Guglielmo Marconi sent his famous S signal across the Atlantic. Hearing of the feat, Tesla reportedly sniffed, “Let him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents.”
Perhaps made overconfident by his stature as a certified genius, Tesla set his sights on grander schemes. He was fascinated with the possibility of transmitting electric power without wires and envisioned the way to do it: giant Tesla coils that would shoot electricity straight up into the sky and then around the world, traveling through the earth’s ionosphere.
His eccentric nature began to overshadow his gem us. He insisted on having 18 napkins set before him at dinner and would not stay in a room with a woman wearing pearl earrings.
In the early 1900′s he built a set of mammoth, 52-foot-high coils and transmitting towers near Colorado Springs and later on Long Island, New York. Although he was able to generate 135-foot-long lightning bolts with his giant coils — and black out the town of Colorado Springs — he never managed to transmit electric power. This costly failure marked the beginning of Tesla’s creative decline. Afterward his ideas grew more and more perversely grandiose: He talked of transmitting low-frequency energy through the core of the earth. He said he could control the weather. But obviously nothing ever came of his claims. Frustrated by his failures, he eventually withdrew from life and in January 1943 died in a shabby New York City hotel room, surrounded by wounded pigeons he had taken to treating.
Long after he slipped from view, his reputation has been revived. Nobel prize-winning scientists Robert Millikan and Arthur Compton cited his work as a source of personal inspiration, and in 1974 the prestigious Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) inducted him into its Inventors Hall of Fame. Today it is considerably easier than in the past to find respectable scientists who are willing to acknowledge Tesla’s contributions.
One of Tesla’s visions may soon be dramatically vindicated inside a large facility near the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colorado. There Robert Golka, a feisty, ambitious inventor, consulting engineer, and scientist, is trying to do what even some Teslaphiles admit is a far-out idea: wireless transmission through the atmosphere of electricity to any point on the globe, using air as the conductor. Golka’s schoolhouse-turned-laboratory in Brockton, Massachusetts, where he does some of his work, is an inventor’s dream and a housekeeper’s nightmare. Rows of metal-and-wood filing cabinets are jammed into every available space not taken up by dead jukeboxes and disemboweled pianos. Scattered over the ample workbenches are Tesla coils of all sizes and descriptions. The tin ceiling of the room bears telltale scorch marks, the scars from his persistent experiments with man-made lightning.
Golka is a short, powerfully built man in his mid-forties, balding slightly, but with an unmistakably boyish glint in his eyes. Yet as he talks about his work, he is guarded. This tension, it becomes apparent after a few minutes, is not so much a matter of personality as, rather, the wariness of a man used to being misunderstood.
As a youngster, Golka made himself useful to local neon sign shops by squeezing in behind signs and making repairs. “They paid me off in neon,” he recalls. “I used to take the tubes home and put together little light shows in my attic.” By age thirteen he was fixing the relay circuits in neighborhood pinball machines.
An early devotion to things that lit up eventually evolved into an adult interest in ball lightning — a phenomenon in which lightning coalesces into a strange glowing orb with erratic movements. Golka became fascinated by the idea that the energy from ball lightning, once harnessed, could help generate controlled fusion reactions. First, though, he’d have to create the lightning on command.
While doing his research, Golka came across a reference to Tesla and his Colorado Springs experiments. A patent search revealed that he had managed to generate ball lightning with his 52-foot coil. Wasting no time, Golka took off for Yugoslavia and headed to the Tesla Museum. There he gradually persuaded suspicious officials to let him rummage through Tesla’s handwritten — and nearly illegible — papers. Eventually the officials became convinced Golka was a spy and shut the door on him, but not before he had managed to come away with 29 pages of notes and sketches of the Colorado Springs coil.
He returned home and built a ten-foot scale model of the Tesla coil in his Brockton lab — with no results. The only thing to do, he knew, was to re-create the original machine in its entirety. In 1970 he traveled to the salt flats of Utah looking for a spot to erect his coil. The site had to be isolated and have good ground conductivity. Eventually he found his spot: an abandoned warehouse at Wendover Air Force Base, which he rented for a dollar a year.
Eventually the officials decided that Golka was a spy and shut the door on him, but not before he’d managed to come away with 29 pages of notes and sketches on the Colorado Springs coils.
Working with salvaged equipment and a donated 150-kilowatt generator, Golka built a 52-foot Tesla coil. By July of 1974 the coil was generating 12 million volts of electricity and shooting out sparks 40 feet long. Over the next nine years, Golka says, he created shimmering globes of ball lightning at least five times. “But it was a fleeting effect,” he admits, “and I could never control it.” By 1982 he had run out of money. He closed up his Wendover operation, disassembled the giant coil, and stored the parts in a Montana warehouse.
In the meantime Golka had become interested in the application for which Tesla had intended the call. Tesla knew that the ionosphere. the upper layer of the earth’s atmosphere rich in charged particles, is a natural conductor of electricity. He theorized that if he could beam up electricity to the ionosphere in eight-second pulses (eight seconds being the time required for an electron to circumnavigate the earth), then he could set in motion a continuous electron wave of tremendous amplitude that could be transmitted anywhere on the globe without wires and with an efficiency of 90 percent. (By comparison, copper wire, the power industry’s standard conductor of electricity, has an efficiency rating of only about 70 percent.)
With a new infusion of money, Golka has taken his Tesla call out of mothballs and has rebuilt it on the Leadville site. He hopes to transmit electricity through the air.
Golka acknowledges that even if he can make the transmission work, he has yet to figure out how to receive It. One option: Use nitrogen lasers to punch holes in the atmosphere. The holes would act as conduits through which electricity would descend to receiving stations on the ground. If Golka is successful, a glowing purple corona around his Colorado transmission tower will signal his own triumph and will further vindicate the vision of the much maligned Tesla.
Although many experts pooh-pooh the idea, there are a few who are cautiously interested. “There may be something to it,” says Caltech associate professor of engineering Slobidan Cuk, “although the practical applications do seem farfetched.”
Golka himself is making no grand promises. “It might work, and it might not,” he says. “If it does, it could be the power transmission system of the future.”
His scheme may not be as harebrained as it might seem. Others with weightier credentials have suggested far more sweeping uses for airborne electricity. This past summer physicist Bernard Eastlund patented a system that could beam huge amounts of electromagnetic energy to selected regions of the upper atmosphere. By doing this, he maintains, one could perform some truly spectacular feats: fry enemy missiles in mid-trajectory, disrupt world communications, even change global weather patterns.
One thing should be made clear: Eastlund is no wirehaired madman but instead a soft-spoken, highly reputable scientist with physics degrees from MIT and Columbia. He worked for eight years in the Atomic Energy Commission’s controlled-fusion program and in the early Seventies coinvented the “fusion torch” concept, a device that would make practical use of leftover plasma from fusion reactors for recycling solid waste.
Eastlund is now president of Production Technologies International in Houston and a former consultant to the oil megacorporation ARCO. It was a problem ARCO experienced in the late Seventies that set him thinking on such a global scale. The company was sitting on an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (that’s a year’s supply of gas for the entire United States) on Alaska’s North Slope. Because of the remote location, the gas was too expensive to contain and ship out. Wasn’t there some way, ARCO wanted to know, to put all that gas to work on the spot?
Eastlund saw almost immediately that if ARCO used the power-generating potential of all that gas, it could produce an immense amount of energy. But what would you do with all that energy?
As it happened, he also knew that several research laboratories were doing experiments bouncing low-power radio waves off the ionosphere. Why not, he suggested, take the North Slope gas and convert it into a form of energy you could beam into the upper atmosphere?
He envisioned using the gas to power a large generator, which in turn would produce electromagnetic energy as radio waves. Using a gigantic antenna measuring some 40 miles on a side, the waves could be beamed in focus to the upper atmosphere. The antenna itself could be a simple affair. “You could build one out of irrigation pipe,” Eastlund says.
As he did his computations, he realized the amount of energy he was dealing with was enormous. He calculated that once the waves reached the ionosphere, they would interact powerfully with the charged particles trapped there. The result would be a magnetic phenomenon known as the mirror force. Essentially, what would happen is that a huge section of the charged atmosphere would be pushed upward and outward from Earth by this electromagnetic force. “You can,” says Eastlund, “virtually lift part of the upper atmosphere. You can make it move, do things to it.”
What kinds of “things”? For one, he says, you could block or scramble global communications systems, including transmissions to and from satellites. While you were blocking everyone else’s transmissions, you could carry on your own communications uninterrupted.
Eastlund thinks the technique also has applications as an antimissile system. By moving parts of the atmosphere, one could create upper-atmospheric drag where there wasn’t any before. This would both heat the missile and deflect its trajectory. Alternatively, one could create what Eastlund calls “high-energy electrons” in the ionosphere. As a missile is surrounded by these electrons, they could penetrate and scramble its electronics and cause it to detonate prematurely.
All this has become of interest to ARCO, which supported Eastlund’s unusual analysis and holds the patent to the concept in Eastlund’s name. Right now the company is looking into the feasibility of the technique. “His suggestions are interesting,” says ARCO scientist Robert Hirsch, “but there’s a big difference between an idea and its practical use.”
Why would an oil company even be interested in a scheme like this? Hirsch explains: “If this idea turns out to be feasible and desirable, then presumably the government would build a facility [in Alaska]. If the government does that, then they might be buying their gas from ARCO.”
The Pentagon has also expressed interest. Hirsch indicates that the military had been involved in discussions about Eastlund’s idea with ARCO and had itself spent several hundred thousand dollars “evaluating” it, but he says the military’s interest appears to be limited.
Though he acknowledges many of his applications have a distinctly warlike character. Eastlund also envisions more benign uses for his idea. Being able to lift selected patches of the upper atmosphere, for example, means one could reroute the jet stream, which plays a major role in shaping global weather. In another weather-control scenario, Eastlund says, you could construct “plumes of atmospheric particles to act as a lens or focusing device” for sunlight. By being able to intensify and control light, one could heat a specific part of the earth and learn to manipulate local wind patterns.
What this means, he says, is that by controlling local weather patterns, one could, say, bring rain to Ethiopia or alter the summer storm pattern in the Caribbean. His device might even help regenerate the depleted ozone layer, patch the ozone hole over Antarctica, or break up atmospheric industrial pollutants like carbon monoxide or nitrous oxide.
All this may sound good, but the big question remains, Will the technique work? Opinion is divided so far, but Richard Williams, a physicist at the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey, thinks it would. Because the upper atmosphere is extremely sensitive to small changes in its composition, however, Williams thinks merely testing an Eastlund device could cause irreversible damage. His concern is compounded by the possibility that the world may never know if and when the device gets tested.
Eastlund will not discuss potential military applications beyond what’s stated on his patent. This suggests that many of the tests could be done in secret, “and you can do a lot of damage before anyone knows what is going on,” says Williams.
Not all Tesla-inspired schemes are as cosmic as Golka’s and Eastlund’s. In California, engineer and inventor C. R. “Jake” Possell is using some of the inventor’s ideas to build a new generation of ingenious mechanical devices. One is nothing more glamorous than a pump. Years ago, while reading a biography of Tesla, Possell discovered that Tesla had been interested in something called boundary-layer drag. Air flowing over a moving surface exerts a tug or pull on that surface. To aeronautical engineers the phenomenon is a nuisance because it slows an aircraft down. But Tesla saw that he could put this drag to good use. By spinning a disc in a vertical chamber, he realized he could deliberately create this boundary-layer drag and use it to generate a powerful suction.
“He got two patents on it and then dropped it,” Possell explains. “It languished for many, many years until I stumbled across It.”
Possell decided to revive Tesla’s idea. His “Tesla pump” has no lifting parts to pit or wear out, and its ability to operate under conditions of intense heat makes it ideal for use in high-stress conditions — inside a nuclear reactor, for instance. Equally important, Possell’s pump design is strong enough to retrieve crude oil so thick it is, in Possell’s words, considered “unpumpable.” After experimenting with various working models, he came up with one that was strong enough to do the job. There are now more modern versions of Tesla’s pump working in oil fields in both the United States and Canada.
Possell has also been trying to update another Tesla invention: the bladeless turbine. Currently used to do everything from generating electricity to powering jet engines, conventional turbines cannot be pushed beyond a certain limit because of their blades. The heat of high speed stresses and eventually destroys them.
He already has working models of his bladeless turbines producing electricity. A geothermal project now being constructed in the Nevada desert uses Tesla-style turbines, powered by steam from the inner earth, to generate electricity. It’s a perfect application of the design, says Possell. “With an ordinary bladed-type turbine, even the tiniest amount of water is strictly verboten,” he explains. “It destroys the turbine blades. But our turbines can tolerate a tremendous amount of water.”
His equipment can also produce about 60 percent more horsepower than his competitors’ designs, and because it’s a simpler mechanism, the turbine is less expensive to build. The result: cheaper geothermal electricity. “Out in the Imperial Valley [of California] a power company built a geothermal power plant, and it costs them four million dollars a megawatt. Our plant costs us only one million dollars a megawatt,” says Possell.
Finally, the turbine produces cleaner power, according to Possell: “We have fewer environmental problems. The other types release a lot of water vapor and smells into the atmosphere, and of course, Jane Fonda doesn’t like that.”
The bladeless turbine design could also transform the world of aviation. Today’s jet engines are limited in the horsepower they can produce because the metals used in turbine blades can withstand only a certain amount of stress. Removing these blades à la Tesla would remove that limitation. In theory, a small bladeless turbine engine, Possell says, could produce up to three times the horsepower of a conventional jet engine.
Now, after 35 years of research, Possell has built a working model of just such an engine with William Mood of the California-based Phalanx Organization. And everyone from aircraft manufacturers to Department of Defense officials has been making discreet inquiries about it. “It will:” Possell declares flat out, “change the aeronautics industry completely.”
As extreme as some of these ideas seem, at least they are confined to the realm of the possible. But among those trying to revive Tesla’s ideas are some whose claims stretch the borders of the credible. A typical member of the radical fringe is Tom Bearden, a retired lieutenant colonel who works as a weapons analyst for an aerospace company. For years he has been collecting reports of unexplained explosions such as a 1976 sighting in Afghanistan of “gigantic, expanding spheres of light” emanating from “deep within the Soviet Union.” Bearden claims there has been a “Soviet weaponization” of one of Tesla’s pet notions, which he himself has dubbed “scalar electronics.” By combining and focusing electromagnetic and gravity waves, he says, one can make incredibly potent weapons. He is certain this is what Nikita Khrushchev was referring to 25 years ago when he announced the Russians had a fantastic weapon that could destroy life on Earth.
Today, Bearden says, the Soviets have a whole arsenal of scalar armaments. These include a scalar howitzer, which is supposed to have generated a series of loud booms off the east coast of the United States in the late Seventies, and something resembling an ultrapowerful laser, which Bearden holds responsible for the temporary blinding of several American satellites. He’s among a number who claim that an enormous mushroom cloud and dome of light seen over the Pacific in 1984 by the crews of three commercial airliners was not the aftermath of a Soviet rocket launch but was made by something else — perhaps a scalar weapons test.
Bearden’s ideas have attracted little interest and less sympathy from knowledgeable mainstream scientists. “Yes, I wasted an evening listening to him once,” admits physicist John Rather, a pioneer star-wars researcher. “His physics is pure nonsense. And so are his ideas about the Russians.”
Bearden readily admits that “most government scientists think I’m insane” and acknowledges that neither the National Security Agency nor the Defense Department has beaten a path to his door. Even so, he remains undeterred. “I’m just a concerned citizen trying to do his duty,” he says with a shrug. “They’ve been warned: What they do with it is up to them.”
Even his claims seem perfectly reasonable compared with some others that Teslaphiles are trying to propagate: that Tesla had mysteriously been plugged into the same world energy system responsible for the powers of the pyramids; or that Tesla’s ideas about electromagnetism may hold the key to time travel.
Putting forth notions like these in the inventor’s name makes those who subscribe to some of Tesla’s ideas decidedly uncomfortable. Even the outspoken Robert Golka shies away from talk of time travel and pyramid power. Ultimately, however, it could be foolish to dismiss even the wildest of the Teslaphiles’ ideas. The history of science has shown all too often that wildly imaginative thinkers ridiculed by their contemporaries have been vindicated later. Even in the midst of his struggles, Tesla predicted he would someday have the last laugh on his detractors. “The present is theirs,” he said. “The future, for which I really worked, is mine.”