Nikola Tesla and His Discovery of Wireless Technology

April 5, 2012

Nikola Tesla is one of the few individuals in our society that are rarely discussed and or accredited with major technological advancements. In America we are taught about the most famous of all inventors such as Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi and Benjamin Franklin, but unfortunately many people still have no clue as to why Nikola Tesla is just as important during these kinds of discussions as the other inventors.

Google Images
Google Images

 I will explain the concept, discovery and benefit of alternating current, discuss the Marconi patent scandal that changed everything for Tesla and provide examples of how this technology has evolved into being a part of the world’s day to day routine.  This paper will present a link from Nikola Tesla’s discoveries and inventions of alternating current and tuned circuits to its wireless utility in mass communications and media.

Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia in 1856. At the age of twenty-eight Tesla had arrived in New York. Since a very young age, Nikola had demonstrated a gift for memorization and performing complex calculations in his mind. He made many creations using his gift of photographic memorization, which led to his improvement on direct current or DC, to create his AC Circuit Theory and in December 1887, he filed for seven patents in the field of polyphase AC motors and power transmission. (PBS) This was only the first step on the ladder for young Tesla.

 According to PBS, five years later he began his famous Niagara Falls Power Project which was funded by J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Lord Rothschild, and W.K. Vanderbilt. George Westinghouse was awarded the contract to create the powerhouse. The Niagara Falls Project took five years to complete, and on November 1896, the first power reached Buffalo, New York at midnight. What Tesla did was created a generator that caused the flow of the Niagara River to flow uphill. Within a few years the number of generators at Niagara Falls reached the initial plan of ten and eventually even Thomas Edison switched to the now proven more productive alternating current circuits.

According to “Scientific Savant”, an article written by James Rybak, “Aware that the electromagnetic spectrum extends all the way up to visible light and beyond, Tesla now investigated the behavior of his circuits at higher frequencies. Part of his work would result in transformers, which we, today, call ‘Tesla’ coils. Another part of this work would result in tuned circuits.”  Tesla made a prediction which was proven through the course of his experiments and formed the basis for some very useful inventions. Early examples would be wireless telegraphy for transmission of Morse code by radio and wireless telephony which is when voice or music signals is sent. (Richter) These two wireless technologies satisfied the ever-expanding need and desire for communication improvements.

google images
google images

Tesla gave his first public lecture and demonstration of Alternating Current Theory in May of 1891. Shortly later, just about two years, Tesla found himself at a meeting of the Notional Electric Light Association in St. Louis where he would demonstrate for the first time how wireless energy worked. The transmitter was built that consisted of a tuned circuit that was connected to a spark gap and a 5-kVA power-distribution transformer. Atop the device house a vertical wire extended from the coil to the ceiling that acted as an antenna. Facing the transmitter on the opposite side of the stage was the receiver which was identical to the other device with one variable: a gas-filled Geissler tube was connected to this tuned circuit instead of a spark gap. What was so tremendous was that there were no wires connected the transmitter and receiver. Tesla applied power to the transmitter and the Geissler tube in the receiver glowed brightly. This was the world’s first fundamental insight into the future capabilities of wireless energy transmission causing gas-filled tubes to light which led to other inventions such as neon signs and fluorescent lamps. (Gugliotta)

In 1898, Tesla demonstrated the world’s first remote-controlled vessel. According to PBS’ website, this boat was equipped with a “borrowed mind”, as Tesla called it. This device led to advancements in teleautomaton or robotics, which once a signal was received would respond to radio signals and was powered with an internal battery.

In May 1899, Tesla traveled to Colorado Springs to start working on the idea that it might be possible to transmit electrical power without wires at high altitudes where the air in more conductive because it’s thinner. This is the beginning of wireless energy use. Based on a nine-month long experimentation and testing of his theory, Tesla hypothesized that he could transmit extra-low-frequency signals through the space between the surface of the earth and the ionosphere. Tesla calculated the resonant frequency of this area was about 8-hertz. It wasn’t until years later that his hypothesis would prove correct. (PBS)

Through his work at Colorado Springs, Nikola Tesla proposed using large-scale coils to transmit electricity through the troposphere to power homes. He started building in Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island in 1901, the very first telecommunications tower that would also test his idea for wireless power transmission.(PBS)

Scientists pride themselves in the discovery and inventions that their observations and experiments develop and if they’re advanced enough may offer an opportunity to obtain a patent for their work. The Geissler demonstration happened a few years before Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first and received signals across the Atlantic using seventeen of Tesla’s patents on December 1901, which at the time offered no direct threat to Tesla.

It wasn’t until 1904, when the U.S. Patent Office suddenly reversed its previous decision and gave Marconi a patent for the invention of radio, that Tesla felt intimidated. One explanation could be that Marconi had more powerful financial backing in the United States than Tesla, but this hasn’t been proven. Tesla always felt that the decision to award Marconi the patent should’ve been reversed. In 1943, The United States Supreme Court, held Marconi’s radio patent invalid, recognizing Tesla’s more significant contributions as the inventor of radio technology. As we can tell from today’s technology, the understanding of the transmission and receipt of these signals is imperative to our new dependence on mass media and communications. Wireless communications began with the radio medium and has evolved into wireless telephones and wireless internet. It appears, in 2012, our desire to have and utilize wireless technology seems to keep increasing. Our reliance on the media has grown substantially because now more than ever we conduct business using what seems to be an endless supply of wireless energy. Tesla saw this happening long before most of his associates.

The Marconi Patent decision didn’t stop Tesla’s desire to continue forward with his pursuit of science. He had a larger idea, one that would benefit the entire world, and essentially illuminate it. The idea was to build a generator of wireless technology large enough to supply electricity for the entire world. One person who initially decided to fund the Wardenclyffe Project was J.P. Morgan who also decided to halt funding only 3 years later in 1904, after deciding the investment wasn’t worthwhile. Sadly, the ideology for unlimited and unmonitored utility threatened power companies and their owners like J.P. Morgan and others who pulled the funding when they realized there would be no way ensure people would pay for the electricity they were using, and the wired power grid sprang up instead (Robson). Morgan’s response to Tesla’s ideal usage was, “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?”  This could be a potential cause as to why the world didn’t see wireless technology until it could be more controlled and easier to understand which inevitably would lead to honing it into new services and products. An idealist, Tesla wanted nothing more but to utilize energy more efficiently than that of the direct current circuit system that was already invented by Thomas Edison. He envisioned a free and unlimited source wireless energy that would supply “light, heat, or motive power anywhere—on sea, or land, or high in the air,” he told The New York Times in 1904 (Fiore). Ultimately it was the dispute over the final use of the tower that caused Morgan to stop financing the project.

After the invention of radio technology so many electrical advancements were made in communication and media. When radio began not many people thought that wireless communications, in which intangible signals could be sent through the air over long distances, would be competitive enough. Radio is essentially electrons moving through a wire- this creates a magnetic field. “The signal travels between two wires because the magnetic field formed by the first wire–the transmitter–creates an electric field in space, which in turn creates a magnetic field, and so on, moving outward at the speed of light. When the second wire–the receiver–picks up that signal, the field is converted back into the motion of electrons, detectable as an electric current. In order to carry information, the transmitted signal has to vary over time… Roughly speaking, lower frequencies are cheaper to use than higher frequencies because they require less precise equipment, an important consideration for an industry that wanted to market radio receivers to the masses.” (Gugliotta) Point being is if we understand how Tesla’s transmitter and receiver wireless technology works, then we can create better communication devices that will insure faster, consistent and more accurate results. The discovery of wireless utility has created global communications systems and networks that include G.P.S., satellites, internet and cellular phones. The great thing about this technology is the amount of people that can be reached in such a short amount of time.

Nikola Tesla continued to experiment and invent many other things, but it was until after Tesla sent the first wireless telegraph from Virginia to Hawaii in 1915, he told The New York Times that the “transmission through the earth with the proper apparatus is not more difficult than the sending of a message on a wire strung across a room. This wonderful property of the planet that, electrically speaking, is through its very bigness- small, is of incalculable significance for the future of mankind.” (Fiore) Although this quote makes it appear as though it was no big deal for Tesla, the accomplishment is still a measurable account of his greatness and dedication to continue his work after the Marconi radio patent.

Tesla spent the early part of his life seeking and discovering new and useful ways to conduct and produce wireless energy. Tesla laid the foundation for many of the technological advances we see in communication today. Tesla may not have been as well-known as Edison or Franklin, but surely he was as well-respected and most importantly more consistent with his outcomes. His hypotheses have, so far, proved to be true and his experiments justified his words and confidence. Many inventors that have followed have taken their cue from Tesla’s examples. An article from Popular Science said that in early 2011, the Pennsylvania Company, Powercast unveiled several prototypes powered by radio waves from a transmitter hidden inside a household object such as a desk tamp. The system delivers a couple watts over short distances. One of the latest examples of this technology is wireless holiday lights, which were available as of the end of last year.

Nikola Tesla was born into a world that was able to see and use the visions he had. Tesla discovered a means to produce the alternating current circuit motor he has become famous for. In addition, he discovered and invented a way to harness the tremendous energy at Niagara Falls. Lastly, and most importantly, Tesla discovered radio technology and wireless technology that allowed for the mass communications systems we have in place currently. Most businesses as well as individual people use Tesla’s technology everyday without even realizing it. The Marconi Patent Scandal was damaging to Tesla’s ego, but he managed to work through it to produce greater advancements in wireless technology that we have in place today. Nikola Tesla was the one who discovered and found utility in wireless energy.


Photo: Google Images

Works Cited:

1.)    Tesla: Life and Legacy. Tesla-Master of Lightning

2.)    Nikola Tesla: Scientific Savant. By: Rybak, James P., Popular Electronics,   1042170X. Nov99. Vol. 16, Issue 11

3.)    Richter, William A. Radio. 2006, p1-30, 30p

4.)    Gugliotta, Guy. Tireless Wireless, 02747529. Jun2007. Vol. 28, Issue 6

5.)    Robson, David. Bye Bye Power Cords. New Scientist, 02624079. 2/6/2010. Vol. 205, Issue 2746

6.)    Fiore, Kristina. Electronic Design, 9/13/2007, Vol. 55, Issue 20, p23-24

7.)    Power Brokers: Steps Towards a Wireless World. Popular Science, 01617370. Feb2008. Vol. 272, Issue 2


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