Newspaper and magazine articles related to Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla Articles

Newspaper and magazine articles related to Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla’s Crackpotism?

October, 2007
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The peak of Tesla’s career came in his early 30s, when he sold his alternating-current patents to George Westinghouse for big bucks. (He later got cuffed out of part of it.) He also did pioneering work in radio and other fields. But thereafter he frittered away his genius and hundreds of thousands of dollars of other people’s money on one hairbrained scheme after another. Broadcast power was one such idea.
-Cecil Adams The Straight Dope: Tesla and broadcast power

Before His Time...

Nikola Tesla essentially invented the modern AC power grid. Westinghouse Corp’s success was based on Tesla’s patents. Tesla invented the brushess AC motor, the step-up/step-down power distribution system, and also the kilowatt radio transmitter that let Marconi communicate across the Atlantic. But then in his later years he supposedly descended into crackpotism. Let’s look at the details.

Wireless Transmission of Power

Academia accused Tesla of crackpotism for, (among other things,) his claim that the whole Earth could resonate electrically at 7Hz, 14Hz, 21Hz, etc., all the way up into the tens of kilohertz. He claimed to have discovered this phenomenon during his radio observations of lightning strikes. Balderdash! Obvious lunacy! (grin!)

The letterhead on Tesla’s stationary highlighted many of his achievements.

The physicists of the time would have none of it. But then decades later, in the 1950s after Tesla was safely dead, during investigations of the VLF radio signals produced by lightning, it was discovered that... the whole Earth can resonate electrically at 7Hz, 14MHz, etc.

The phenomenon is today known as Schumann resonance (named after its discoverer). But this changes nothing, eh? Tesla is still a crackpot! Tesla also claimed that he could broadcast usable energy worldwide from a single radio transmitter. Garbage! The physicists of 1910 know that radio can’t bend around the Earth. Also, he was using low frequencies (below 10KHz), and everyone knows that your receiving antenna must be immensely long to intercept significant power at those frequencies. Too bad an engineer [James F. Corum] in the 1980s actually sat down and calculated how well Tesla’s scheme would have worked... and found that it was borderline feasible after all.

This photograph of a model shows how the Tesla Tower (Wardenclyffe) built on Long Island in 1901 would have looked completed. From its appearance nobody would infer that it was to be used for great purposes (global transmission of wireless power) which far exceeded “wireless” communications.

It uses the Earth iono-sphere waveguide. Certainly there would be a few megawatts of constant loss to ionospheric heating. However, similar losses appear in any large power grid. Even above that, Corum found that the system would only need to supply extra power whenever distant antennas were tuned correctly, and were actively pulling in energy. The sky would behave like a huge electrical grid, where a certain amount of power is lost to wire-heating, but where customers only draw energy as needed, and only when customer-demand appears do the transmitting generators need to run faster.

Oh, also it turns out that you DON’T need an immense antenna to receive longwave power. The electrical aperture or “virtual diameter” of small receiving antennas can be greatly enlarged by adding a high-Q resonator to the antenna. Particle physicists are familiar with this effect, since it’s the origin of the enhanced virtual cross section for particle collisions at certain frequencies(energies.) And radio amateurs use this trick in order to operate on 160 meters using antennas mounted on cars, antennas which would otherwise be far too short to function. Portable AM radio receivers are even based on the effect.

The Earth-ionosphere cavity

This photograph of a model shows how the Tesla Tower (Wardenclyffe) built on Long Island in 1901 would have looked completed. From its appearance nobody would infer that it was to be used for great purposes (global transmission of wireless power) which far exceeded “wireless” communications.

In first order approximation, the Earth-atmosphere system can be seen from an electromagnetic point of view as a radial shell of three layers of conductivity. The Earth and the ionosphere in about 100-150 km height appear as a perfect conductor with the air of negligible conductivity in between. They form a spherical shell of conductivity, denoted as the Earth-ionosphere cavity, in which electromagnetic radiation is trapped. Lightning strikes within the troposphere radiate energy into this system and the waves are travelling around the Earth. In the case of constructive interference, Earth-ionosphere cavity resonances (aka Schumann resonances) are excited in the frequency range of 6Hz-20KHz.

So Tesla’s broadcast power scheme would have worked, the only question is... HOW WELL? He very probably could have run clocks, radios, small motors, and light bulbs worldwide. But Tesla himself claimed that testing showed that “industrial” amounts of power could be transferred. So, he wasn’t a crackpot regarding the power-transmission idea itself.

Maybe he was right about the high power levels too. Nobody knows, since the actual numbers would have to be determined by experiment (there’s still too many open questions about the theory to make solid predictions.) But that doesn’t matter, Tesla is still a crackpot!

Tesla’s Death Ray

During WWII, Tesla proposed to build a national defense system of “death ray” towers which could supposedly shoot down aircraft many miles away. Utter tripe! The experts need not even listen to the details, since the claim is garbage on the face of it! Right? Too bad that modern researchers later rediscovered Tesla’s ideas independently, and put them to heavy use in the last ten years.

The 2002 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was based on the very thing Tesla used as his death ray, a narrow beam of atomic clusters generated by the “electrospray” effect, and then accelerated electrically in a vacuum. Tesla’s death ray was essentially a water-jet cutter, but a cutter using tiny mercury droplets or tungsten particles rather than tiny water droplets, and he accelerated them electrically rather than using high pressure. It certainly was a “death ray.” The only question is, what was its lethal range?

As early as 1900, Tesla was associated with the Death Ray. Tesla must have gotten a kick out of this drawing from a 1905 Sunday newspaper, as it depicts him using Marconi’s primitive wireless equipment to blow up ships by remote control. Credit: MetaScience Foundation

Modern water-jet cutters are only lethal over a couple feet at most. Tesla claimed that he had built and tested death-ray devices, and insisted that they could take out aircraft over many kilometers range. He put this down to the extremely colinear trajectories of the charged metal droplets, an effect not present with water sprays in water jet cutters.

Ok, so if Tesla wasn’t insane when making claims about the other stuff, possibly he was correct about this too (or possibly not, since someone would still have to replicate Tesla’s devices to verify’ the lethal range experimentally.) But that doesn’t matter, Tesla is still a crackpot... all of the experts know this!.

“Expert” Opinions

Maybe we should start to become suspicious about experts who display a conflict of interest or perhaps even professional jealousy while attacking someone like Nikola Tesla. In all of Tesla’s later work there is a repeating pattern:

First the experts of the time declare that Tesla’s stuff is utter crackpot. Then decades pass, and it turns out that Tesla’s claims were at least partly right (and possibly completely right.)

Then it turns out that the people accusing Tesla of crackpotism hadn’t even studied Tesla’s claims, they were simply judging a “book” that they hadn’t bothered to read.

But then something strange happens. Tesla’s vindication HAS NO EFFECT on the opinions about him... the scoffers don’t change their tune.

They “know” that Tesla was a crackpot, and contrary evidence be damned. They fall back and regroup, never recognizing their own blunder. They still insist that Tesla was a crackpot, even though more and more, of their evidence for this crackpotism is struck down.

Sociologists are familiar with this effect. We’re human. Once a person publicly uses ridicule against another, the scoffer finds it almost impossible to publicly retract their ridicule and to admit that they were wrong. I suspect it’s because scoffers are convinced that they’re fighting on the side of good.

When it turns out that their victim was right after all, it demonstrates that the scoffers were not only wrong, but also were arrogant bullies whose case was based on ignorance. Their victim was the good one, and the scoffer was fighting on the side of evil. How many people could face that about themselves?

Many choose mild insanity instead, and dive into a system of distortion and denial. It’s a classic example of unconscious distortion caused by a “conflict of interest,” but a situation which involves the scoffer’s public reputation rather than involving money.

Descent Into Madness

I think critics such as Cecil Adams should be extremely cautious about running down apparent crackpots. If those crackpots should later turn out to be legit, then the amount of crow he’d need to swallow becomes stunningly huge. Such things are known to send lesser men into fitful silence (while they fiercely hope that everyone somehow forgets their public ridicule of legitimate new ideas.) Sometimes it’s silence, but sometimes they break loose from reality entirely, continuing to justify their ridicule in the face of the clear fact that they were wrong, and their victim was right. The scoffer loses the ability to see the clear fact of their own blunder. But everyone else sees.

I don’t think we’re to this point with Tesla yet. Many of Tesla’s ridiculed ideas have turned out to be perfectly real, but much is still open to question. On the other hand, we should be careful with such issues. We should take a lesson from Samuel Pierpont Langley, the head of the Smithsonian, who fiercely ridiculed the Wright Brothers’ claims in public, and then found himself trapped when their claims later proved to be real.

Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) was a renowned and competent scientist. He was a well known astronomer, scientist, and architect of the international time zone system. He became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887, and used the Smithsonian’s resources to pursue serious research into manned flight.
Albeit with good intentions to advance research into manned flight, his efforts on flight put him in direct competition with Wright Brothers. Unable to subdue his ego, this competition was distorted into a lifetime vendetta to belittle and deny the existence of the Wright Brothers success.
Unfortunately, his position at the Smithsonian permitted his bias to distort the historical record and allowed a national artifact (one of the first Wright flyers) to go elsewhere.

Langley opted for mild insanity rather than owning up to his gigantic mistake. He insisted until his death that the Wright Brothers were liars and frauds. As a result, the Smithsonian displayed no Wright Flyer until after Langley had died. Instead of contributing a significant historical artifact of American technology to the Smithsonian, the Wrights donated the last surviving Flyer to a museum in Britain.

Such is the insanity triggered by public ridicule of “obviously crazy” discoveries which later turn out to be real. Max Planck, on this sort of insanity:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Researchers call this “Planck’s Other Law.” In my opinion, Planck’s law owes its existence to the extreme difficulty we humans have in recanting a public stance of confident ridicule.

An Ounce of Prevention

On one hand, rational opponents of an idea MUST find it easy to change their minds when the evidence shows a need for it. But if an idea’s opponents have indulged in sneering, they now have a major conflict of interest. Major emotions are involved, and their position is no longer rational. They can’t just say that they were wrong, they must also face the fact that they were stupid, arrogant, and perhaps even helped to prevent progress. People in this position tend to opt for delusion rather than eat so much crow.

The way to avoid such things is to investigate issues thoroughly before daring to use name calling such as the “crackpot” label. Maybe Cecil has gained expertise in Tesla’s history, and his conclusions are based on careful study. I suspect the opposite. I suspect that he acquired a negative view of Tesla from descriptions by other scoffers, and now he’s selecting evidence in order to maintain that view. I hope I’m wrong.

“Conflict of interest” can be an immensely powerful force in the sciences, and it is greatly amplified by ignorance: “It’s a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” - Sherlock Holmes (A C Doyle) Maybe Tesla was wrong about broadcast power, etc. It hasn’t been tested by contemporary researchers, so it’s still open to debate. But if we insist that he was not just wrong, but was also a big flaming crackpot, then we put ourselves into a serious bind if those “crackpot” discoveries we’ve been ridiculing in public should ever prove to be sound.

I have fame and untold wealth, more than this, and yet, how many articles have been written in which I was declared to be an impractical unsuccessful man, and how many poor, struggling writers have called me a visionary. Such is the folly and shortsightedness of the world! Nikola Tesla


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