The Tesla Lecture in St. Louis
The Tesla lecture was a notable feature of the convention. At first it had been proposed to deliver the lecture in a small hall, but the demand for tickets was so enormous that it was decided, as a matter of sheer necessity, to secure a larger auditorium, and this was found in the Exhibition Theatre, which seats about 4,000 people. It was, of course, practically impossible that all could hear and see, but those who were there could at least say they had seen Mr. Tesla afar off and witnessed some of his most striking experiments. The hall was crowded to suffocation, and the demand for tickets was so great that they were selling briskly for three and five dollars on the steps of the hall. Under such circumstances Mr. Tesla contented himself wisely with showing some of the more “spectacular” of his experiments, and even these were followed at a disadvantage in view of the immense distance from which most of the spectators studied them. After his introduction by Mr. Ayer, the lecturer gave a few minutes to a statement of the conditions involved in his work, and then by means of his high frequency and high voltage currents, aided by disruptive discharge from a condenser through an induction coil — as well as by direct dynamic phenomena, he produced a number of the interesting results that have already made his name famous and have charmed two worlds. He received, unhurt, currents of hundreds of thousands of volts, lit up tubes and lamps through his body, rendered insulated wires several feet long entirely luminous, showed a motor running under the influence of these million-frequency currents, obtained a number of effects with phosphorescent lamps; and also showed how little in such work the high resistance of the filament had to do with the lighting up of ordinary 50 or 110 volt lamps. His ability to produce such effects, either with a single wire and no return, or without any wires at all, aroused the utmost interest and enthusiasm and the concluding demonstration literally brought down the house, when he showed how by simply carrying lamps or tubes into a room or hall where those currents were being developed, illumination was the immediate result.
In his opening remarks Mr. Tesla enlarged upon the grandeur of Nature, and expressed his opinion that the most wonderful of the external influences that affect us is light. Hence it followed that the most wonderful and important of the organs by which these external influences beat in upon us is the eye. Two facts were specially referred to, one of them being that the eye is the only organ capable of being affected directly by the vibrations of the ether. Another fact was that the eye would be able to distinguish objects at almost any distance, were it not for the minute particles and stray gases filling the intervening space. These absorb the energies of the ether vibrations, but in a pure medium they would travel unchecked, and the range of vision would be infinitely greater. Mr. Tesla then alluded to the importance of the part played by the eye in furnishing the race with its ideas and knowledge, and to its vital function in controlling all our motions and actions. From its teaching were derived consciousness, ideas, conceptions that were impossible without images — and images involved sight.
By these interesting stages, Mr. Tesla led up to the subject of light and thence to the part of electricity in giving us light. The general aim of the discourse was to show and explain the phenomena due to electrostatic forces, followed by phenomena produced by electro-dynamic agencies; and, then, as a third class, the light effects, Mr. Tesla’s idea evidently being to give a generalization of these phenomena, and of their relations. It was stated, parenthetically, with regard to the physiological effects produced with the high tension, high frequency currents employed, that a great amount of energy may be sent into the body of a person by their means, merely because the energy was dissipated laterally from the body and was not passed through the body in the direct manner involved in the use of a low frequency current. It was due to this intense rapidity of vibration that the lecturer was able to receive with impunity currents of as high as 250,000 and 800,000 volts, and of an amount which otherwise administered would kill. The lecturer explained that he had so arranged his apparatus that in case of any failure of any part of it, the current would kindly abstain from killing him, and would only knock him down.
Many of the experiments shown have already been seen either in this country or in Europe, yet there were several novel effects introduced, and even the familiar experiments were performed with apparatus different from that used before. In most of the experiments the ordinary alternating and continuous currents from the central station were used, although Mr. Tesla also had his own special generator running in the basement.
A striking new experiment was to show at the beginning of the lecture, the effect of a varying electrostatic stress through the dielectric. This experiment was performed by grasping one terminal of the high tension transformer giving about 200,000 volts pressure, and approaching the other hand, to the opposite terminal. Streams of violet light then issued from the fingers and the whole hand. (At the lecture on the preceding Friday at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Prof. Houston noticed these streams of light coming also from the lecturer’s back, following roughly the line of the vertebral column).
Another experiment was performed showing the action of the air between two condenser plates. By attaching these plates to the high-tension transformer, the whole space between these plates was filled with light, the distance apart being about ten inches. It was pointed out that these streamers consumed considerable energy and developed abundantly ozone and nitrous acid, and it followed that it was necessary to exclude air from high-tension apparatus.
The action of the air was shown in another very striking experiment. Two incandescent lamps exactly alike, one exhausted, the other not, both of the ordinary 50 volt type, were attached in multiple arc, and a current vibrating about one million times a second or thereabouts was passed through the filament. It was demonstrated that the lamp which was exhausted glowed brightly, whereas the other one in which the filament was surrounded by air, at ordinary pressure, did not glow. Yet the latter lamp got hotter than the other. This showed the great importance of the rarefied gas in the heating of a conductor, and it was pointed out that in incandescent lighting a high resistance filament does not at all constitute the really essential element of illumination, along these lines. Also that heavy blocks of metal may be brought to incandescence by minute currents provided they are surrounded by rarefied gas, and provided the potential and frequency of the currents is sufficiently high.
One of the most interesting experiments was the conversion on open circuit. A transformer was taken and the current passed through the high tension winding in such a way that only one terminal was attached to the source of the rapidly alternating current. In spite of this there was a current passing through the primary as though the other terminal was actually attached to the source like an ordinary return circuit. This open circuit transformer contained a secondary low tension winding, and the minute currents passing through the primary were transformed into currents capable of following the ordinary electric wire and lighting up brilliantly an ordinary lamp. It was pointed out that under certain conditions, indeed, such a conversion was quite practicable and that it can be practised with high economy. It was further pointed out that any kind of device such as motors, etc., may be operated in this manner, with one wire or circuit only.
“Mr. Tesla in the course of his lecture dwelt upon his method of conversion by means of disruptive discharges from continuous or alternating station supply. There were two kinds of apparatus on the stage, one operated from the alternating circuit and the other from the regular direct current system. A peculiar form of discharger was used contained in a mica-lined wooden box. The spark-gap was warmed by a small lamp underneath, for the purpose of making the air dielectrically weak. This enabled Mr. Tesla to work with a very long gap, a very sensitive arc, and a comparatively small electromotive force in the gap. The effects obtained were thus augmented very materially. It was pointed out that with this method of conversion, there is no difficulty whatever in obtaining sparks of any length. It becomes simply a question of the energy supplied, through what distance the spark will be visible. During the lecture, lamps were operated by this method of conversion. An ordinary 100-volt, a 50-volt and a two-volt lamp were brought up to full candle-power with equal facility. Then a little motor was run by means of these disruptive discharges, it being a phase-motor comprising simply an iron core with a closed secondary coil in it, and a disc armature arranged to rotate above the core. Mr. Tesla remarked rather naively that if the demonstration were not quite equal to the expectation, the long continued and weary work on the development of the invention, besides the inability of the experimenter, might be the cause. He went on, in connection with this, to refer to the transmission of power from Niagara and gracefully recognized the presence on the platform of Prof. George Forbes, who is so prominently identified with this great work. Mr. Tesla believed that we were about to see such great powers transmitted long distances, and over one wire.
Continuing, Mr. Tesla remarked that he had shown things of a more spectacular nature with reluctance, yet forced thereto by the desire to gratify those who had shown their interest and formed so large an audience. A number of experiments were performed not seen in this country before, though some had been shown in England. For instance, a phosphorescent bulb was lighted up by being merely held in the hand, and this was a most successful experiment. Mr. Tesla prefaced it by relating a little anecdote of Lord Rayleigh. When he was in London, remarked Mr. Tesla, with much feeling, he had the pleasure of performing this experiment privately before Lord Rayleigh, and he would always remember the trembling eagerness and excitement with which that distinguished scientist witnessed the lamp light up. The appreciation of such men, said Mr. Tesla, repaid him fully for the pains he had been at in working out these phenomena.
In this experiment a number of tubes were taken and flourished or flashed in various ways, and with the current made intermittent at longer intervals by adjusting the spark-gap. Wonderfully beautiful effects were thus produced, the light of the whirled tube being made to look like the white spokes of a wheel of glowing moonbeams. Then some rectangular tubes were taken and flashed or whirled so as to produce curious designs of luminous lines.
A bulb was shown by Mr. Tesla said by him to be so highly exhausted that when the bulb was merely attached to one terminal of the disruptive discharge coil, it would send the sparks across the outside of the globe to the other terminal, which was on the opposite end, rather than pass through the bulb. The bulb in question was painted on one side with a phosphorescent powder, or mixture, and threw a most dazzling light, far beyond that yielded by any ordinary phosphorescence. It was pointed out that there was no difficulty whatever in obtaining powerful phosphorescent effect in this way, and that a practical illuminant on these lines needed merely the perfection of the method of conversion above alluded to.
In conclusion the lecturer made fine cotton-covered wires stretched on a frame over the table luminous so that in the dark they looked like attenuated violet caterpillars yards long; and then within a large rectangle formed by such wires he flourished tubes in the interspace, these tubes flashing with light wherever waved.
After the lecture, so great was the desire of the public to see Mr. Tesla closer, an informal reception was held in the lobby when several hundreds of the leading citizens seized the opportunity and Mr. Tesla’s hand in a very vigorous manner.
It should be added that the Electrical Exchange, of St. Louis, presented Mr. Tesla at the beginning of the lecture with a magnificent floral shield, wrought in white carnations with a border of palms and American Beauty roses. It was about four feet in diameter. In the centre was a circle of red carnations bordering a tablet of white ones, beaing the letters in red C = E / R.
Around the circumference were the floral letters: “St. Louis Electrical Exchange 1893.”