The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires
(Communicated to the Thirtieth Anniversary Number of the Electrical World and Engineer, March 5, 1904.)
It is impossible to resist your courteous request extended on an occasion of such moment in the life of your journal. Your letter has vivified the memory of our beginning friendship, of the first imperfect attempts and undeserved successes, of kindnesses and misunderstandings. It has brought painfully to my mind the greatness of early expectations, the quick flight of time, and alas! the smallness of realizations. The following lines which, but for your initiative, might not have been given to the world for a long time yet, are an offering in the friendly spirit of old, and my best wishes for your future success accompany them.
Towards the close of 1898 a systematic research, carried on for a number of years with the object of perfecting a method of transmission of electrical energy through the natural medium, led me to recognize three important necessities: First, to develop a transmitter of great power; second, to perfect means for individualizing and isolating the energy transmitted; and, third, to ascertain the laws of propagation of currents through the earth and the atmosphere. Various reasons, not the least of which was the help proffered by my friend Leonard E. Curtis and the Colorado Springs Electric Company, determined me to select for my experimental investigations the large plateau, two thousand meters above sea-level, in the vicinity of that delightful resort, which I reached late in May, 1899. I had not been there but a few days when I congratulated myself on the happy choice and I began the task, for which I had long trained myself, with a grateful sense and full of inspiring hope. The perfect purity of the air, the unequaled beauty of the sky, the imposing sight of a high mountain range, the quiet and restfulness of the place — all around contributed to make the conditions for scientific observations ideal. To this was added the exhilarating influence of a glorious climate and a singular sharpening of the senses. In those regions the organs undergo perceptible physical changes. The eyes assume an extraordinary limpidity, improving vision; the ears dry out and become more susceptible to sound. Objects can be clearly distinguished there at distances such that I prefer to have them told by someone else, and I have heard — this I can venture to vouch for — the claps of thunder seven and eight hundred kilometers away. I might have done better still, had it not been tedious to wait for the sounds to arrive, in definite intervals, as heralded precisely by an electrical indicating apparatus — nearly an hour before.
In the middle of June, while preparations for other work were going on, I arranged one of my receiving transformers with the view of determining in a novel manner, experimentally, the electric potential of the globe and studying its periodic and casual fluctuations. This formed part of a plan carefully mapped out in advance. A highly sensitive, self-restorative device, controlling a recording instrument, was included in the secondary circuit, while the primary was connected to the ground and an elevated terminal of adjustable capacity. The variations of potential gave rise to electric surgings in the primary; these generated secondary currents, which in turn affected the sensitive device and recorder in proportion to their intensity. The earth was found to be, literally, alive with electrical vibrations, and soon I was deeply absorbed in the interesting investigation. No better opportunities for such observations as I intended to make could be found anywhere. Colorado is a country famous for the natural displays of electric force. In that dry and rarefied atmosphere the sun’s rays beat the objects with fierce intensity. I raised steam, to a dangerous pressure, in barrels filled with concentrated salt solution, and the tin-foil coatings of some of my elevated terminals shriveled up in the fiery blaze. An experimental high-tension transformer, carelessly exposed to the rays of the setting sun, had most of its insulating compound melted out and was rendered useless. Aided by the dryness and rarefaction of the air, the water evaporates as in a boiler, and static electricity is developed in abundance. Lightning discharges are, accordingly, very frequent and sometimes of inconceivable violence. On one occasion approximately twelve thousand discharges occurred in two hours, and all in a radius of certainly less than fifty kilometers from the laboratory. Many of them resembled gigantic trees of fire with the trunks up or down. I never saw fire balls, but as compensation for my disappointment I succeeded later in determining the mode of their formation and producing them artificially.
In the latter part of the same month I noticed several times that my instruments were affected stronger by discharges taking place at great distances than by those near by. This puzzled me very much. What was the cause? A number of observations proved that it could not be due to the differences in the intensity of the individual discharges, and I readily ascertained that the phenomenon was not the result of a varying relation between the periods of my receiving circuits and those of the terrestrial disturbances. One night, as I was walking home with an assistant, meditating over these experiences, I was suddenly staggered by a thought. Years ago, when I wrote a chapter of my lecture before the Franklin Institute and the National Electric Light Association, it had presented itself to me, but I dismissed it as absurd and impossible. I banished it again. Nevertheless, my instinct was aroused and somehow I felt that I was nearing a great revelation.
It was on the third of July — the date I shall never forget — when I obtained the first decisive experimental evidence of a truth of overwhelming importance for the advancement of humanity. A dense mass of strongly charged clouds gathered in the west and towards the evening a violent storm broke loose which, after spending much of its fury in the mountains, was driven away with great velocity over the plains. Heavy and long persisting arcs formed almost in regular time intervals. My observations were now greatly facilitated and rendered more accurate by the experiences already gained. I was able to handle my instruments quickly and I was prepared. The recording apparatus being properly adjusted, its indications became fainter and fainter with the increasing distance of the storm, until they ceased altogether. I was watching in eager expectation. Surely enough, in a little while the indications again began, grew stronger and stronger and, after passing through a maximum, gradually decreased and ceased once more. Many times, in regularly recurring intervals, the same actions were repeated until the storm which, as evident from simple computations, was moving with nearly constant speed, had retreated to a distance of about three hundred kilometers. Nor did these strange actions stop then, but continued to manifest themselves with undiminished force. Subsequently, similar observations were also made by my assistant, Mr. Fritz Lowenstein, and shortly afterward several admirable opportunities presented themselves which brought out, still more forcibly, and unmistakably, the true nature of the wonderful phenomenon. No doubt whatever remained: I was observing stationary waves.
As the source of disturbances moved away the receiving circuit came successively upon their nodes and loops. Impossible as it seemed, this planet, despite its vast extent, behaved like a conductor of limited dimensions. The tremendous significance of this fact in the transmission of energy by my system had already become quite clear to me. Not only was it practicable to send telegraphic messages to any distance without wires, as I recognized long ago, but also to impress upon the entire globe the faint modulations of the human voice, far more still, to transmit power, in unlimited amounts, to any terrestrial distance and almost without loss.
With these stupendous possibilities in sight, with the experimental evidence before me that their realization was henceforth merely a question of expert knowledge, patience and skill, I attacked vigorously the development of my magnifying transmitter, now, however, not so much with the original intention of producing one of great power, as with the object of learning how to construct the best one. This is, essentially, a circuit of very high self-induction and small resistance which in its arrangement, mode of excitation and action, may be said to be the diametrical opposite of a transmitting circuit typical of telegraphy by Hertzian or electromagnetic radiations. It is difficult to form an adequate idea of the marvelous power of this unique appliance, by the aid of which the globe will be transformed. The electromagnetic radiations being reduced to an insignificant quantity, and proper conditions of resonance maintained, the circuit acts like an immense pendulum, storing indefinitely the energy of the primary exciting impulses and impressions upon the earth and its conducting atmosphere uniform harmonic oscillations of intensities which, as actual tests have shown, may be pushed so far as to surpass those attained in the natural displays of static electricity.
Simultaneously with these endeavors, the means of individualization and isolation were gradually improved. Great importance was attached to this, for it was found that simple tuning was not sufficient to meet the vigorous practical requirements. The fundamental idea of employing a number of distinctive elements, co-operatively associated, for the purpose of isolating energy transmitted, I trace directly to my perusal of Spencer’s clear and suggestive exposition of the human nerve mechanism. The influence of this principle on the transmission of intelligence, and electrical energy in general, cannot as yet be estimated, for the art is still in the embryonic stage; but many thousands of simultaneous telegraphic and telephonic messages, through one single conducting channel, natural or artificial, and without serious mutual interference, are certainly practicable, while millions are possible. On the other hand, any desired degree of individualization may be secured by the use of a great number of co-operative elements and arbitrary variation of their distinctive features and order of succession. For obvious reasons, the principle will also be valuable in the extension of the distance of transmission.
Progress though of necessity slow was steady and sure, for the objects aimed at were in a direction of my constant study and exercise. It is, therefore, not astonishing that before the end of 1899 I completed the task undertaken and reached the results which I have announced in my article in the Century Magazine of June, 1900, every word of which was carefully weighed.
Much has already been done towards making my system commercially available, in the transmission of energy in small amounts for specific purposes, as well as on an industrial scale. The results attained by me have made my scheme of intelligence transmission, for which the name of “World Telegraphy” has been suggested, easily realizable. It constitutes, I believe, in its principle of operation, means employed and capacities of application, a radical and fruitful departure from what has been done heretofore. I have no doubt that it will prove very efficient in enlightening the masses, particularly in still uncivilized countries and less accessible regions, and that it will add materially to general safety, comfort and convenience, and maintenance of peaceful relations. It involves the employment of a number of plants, all of which are capable of transmitting individualized signals to the uttermost confines of the earth. Each of them will be preferably located near some important center of civilization and the news it receives through any channel will be flashed to all points of the globe. A cheap and simple device, which might be carried in one’s pocket, may then be set up somewhere on sea or land, and it will record the world’s news or such special messages as may be intended for it. Thus the entire earth will be converted into a huge brain, as it were, capable of response in every one of its parts. Since a single plant of but one hundred horse-power can operate hundreds of millions of instruments, the system will have a virtually infinite working capacity, and it must needs immensely facilitate and cheapen the transmission of intelligence.
The first of these central plants would have been already completed had it not been for unforeseen delays which, fortunately, have nothing to do with its purely technical features. But this loss of time, while vexatious, may, after all, prove to be a blessing in disguise. The best design of which I know has been adopted, and the transmitter will emit a wave complex of total maximum activity of ten million horse-power, one per cent. of which is amply sufficient to “girdle the globe.” This enormous rate of energy delivery, approximately twice that of the combined falls of Niagara, is obtainable only by the use of certain artifices, which I shall make known in due course.
For a large part of the work which I have done so far I am indebted to the noble generosity of Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, which was all the more welcome and stimulating, as it was extended at a time when those, who have since promised most, were the greatest of doubters. I have also to thank my friend, Stanford White, for much unselfish and valuable assistance. This work is now far advanced, and though the results may be tardy, they are sure to come.
Meanwhile, the transmission of energy on an industrial scale is not being neglected. The Canadian Niagara Power Company have offered me a splendid inducement, and next to achieving success for the sake of the art, it will give me the greatest satisfaction to make their concession financially profitable to them. In this first power plant, which I have been designing for a long time, I propose to distribute ten thousand horse-power under a tension of one hundred million volts, which I am now able to produce and handle with safety.
This energy will be collected all over the globe preferably in small amounts, ranging from a fraction of one to a few horse-power. One of its chief uses will be the illumination of isolated homes. I takes very little power to light a dwelling with vacuum tubes operated by high- frequency currents and in each instance a terminal a little above the roof will be sufficient. Another valuable application will be the driving of clocks and other such apparatus. These clocks will be exceedingly simple, will require absolutely no attention and will indicate rigorously correct time. The idea of impressing upon the earth American time is fascinating and very likely to become popular. There are innumerable devices of all kinds which are either now employed or can be supplied, and by operating them in this manner I may be able to offer a great convenience to whole world with a plant of no more than ten thousand horse-power. The introduction of this system will give opportunities for invention and manufacture such as have never presented themselves before.
Knowing the far-reaching importance of this first attempt and its effect upon future development, I shall proceed slowly and carefully. Experience has taught me not to assign a term to enterprises the consummation of which is not wholly dependent on my own abilities and exertions. But I am hopeful that these great realizations are not far off, and I know that when this first work is completed they will follow with mathematical certitude.
When the great truth accidentally revealed and experimentally confirmed is fully recognized, that this planet, with all its appalling immensity, is to electric currents virtually no more than a small metal ball and that by this fact many possibilities, each baffling imagination and of incalculable consequence, are rendered absolutely sure of accomplishment; when the first plant is inaugurated and it is shown that a telegraphic message, almost as secret and non-interferable as a thought, can be transmitted to any terrestrial distance, the sound of the human voice, with all its intonations and inflections, faithfully and instantly reproduced at any other point of the globe, the energy of a waterfall made available for supplying light, heat or motive power, anywhere — on sea, or land, or high in the air — humanity will be like an ant heap stirred up with a stick: See the excitement coming!