Tesla and wireless energy: The power that could have been

Learn about the man who invented our modern power system, and what our world could have been like today if his plans were fully realized. Photo: http://www.teslasociety.com

NEW YORK, July 15, 2012 — Tesla. He’s not in most history books. You didn’t hear about him growing up as a kid. He was super and a hero, but they didn’t make superhero comic books about him.  

Most people live their entire lives without knowing his name, while simultaneously using and relying on his inventions nearly every moment of their conscious lives. He was issued over 250 patents across 24 countries, many of which are still utilized today. Without his inventions our society would be at a technological standstill.

How significant were his inventions?  Every time you flip on a switch at home to turn on a light, you can thank him. When you listen to the radio in your car, you can give him double props for his radio and his “electric igniter,” more commonly called a “spark plug.” Any time you use your television remote, smile at the convenience and praise his intellect. When you make a call over your cell phone, say with conviction: “Thank you Nikola Tesla!”  

Those are just some of the modern conveniences we enjoy as a result of his labors, but remarkably, most of these “modern” conveniences were fully functional and patented before the turn of the 20th century.

Wireless power transmission, Tesla’s most important invention, was never fully implemented. Why not?

In 1893, George Westinghouse was awarded the contract to electrify the World’s Columbian Exposition, a sort of World’s Fair, in Chicago.  As Westinghouse’s lead engineer, Tesla was given complete control over the project.  He not only demonstrated the safety of his alternating current platform by illuminating the entire grounds with a wired AC lighting system, he also (more incredibly) demonstrated his wireless alternating current system in one of the electrical exhibition rooms. Using high voltage, high frequency alternating current, he illuminated his wireless gas-discharge lamps. To the amazement of the fair-goers, lamps with no wires connected to them lit up once the field of energy was activated. People held these lamps in their hands and walked about the room as the lamps glowed victoriously.  Tesla had proven that power could be produced, transmitted, and consumed with no wires by means of electrical resonance. When modern day Tesla enthusiasts replicate this experiment today, people are as shocked now as they were then.

As news spread of Westinghouse’s amazing demonstration of wired and wireless alternating current, society accepted that alternating current was superior to Edison’s direct current, and Westinghouse used Tesla’s system at Niagara to build the first AC power station to power Buffalo, New York. Westinghouse invested considerable capital into Tesla’s system, which could be metered and invoiced.

After a short period of operations, the royalties owed to Tesla from the system started to accumulate and put Westinghouse in jeopardy of financial collapse. These royalties would have made him the world’s first billionaire while bankrupting Westinghouse. Tesla’s vision was an electrified world, so he tore up the contract and released Westinghouse from the patent royalties. The modern electric grid was then cemented in history, and today is the largest, most complicated system ever devised by mankind.

In 1899, Tesla moved his research lab to Colorado Springs, where he began to study on a very broad scale all forms of wireless transmission of energy and three years later in 1902, Tesla moved his laboratory to Shoreham, Long Island where he built the Wardenclyffe Tower facility, largely funded by J.P. Morgan. This facility was to be the transmitter for his wireless power transmission system, and his plans were to send power all the way across the Atlantic to prove its capabilities. The idea was simple: anything that used electricity could be fitted with a “receiver” and made to run wirelessly. 

However, money dried up due to an economic crisis, and patent royalties from Europe also started to diminish.  JP Morgan refused to invest further, and Westinghouse would not invest in a technology that would make the new electric grid obsolete. Also since there was no means to meter the wireless consumption at the time, there was no means to collect monies from any devices that used the technology. Tesla’s plans were never realized, and in 1917 the Tower was demolished due to fears Germany might use it against the U.S.

We have been using Tesla’s AC electrical system for the last hundred years. Giant towers with high voltage wires (up to 765,000 volts) hanging from them cross the landscape, and we stick flimsy wood poles with wires strung to them in our neighborhoods. These “barbaric” structures are vulnerable to weather, damage from falling objects, terrorism, corrosion and overuse. Infrastructure costs associated with building and maintaining power lines and substations are staggering.

We have seen weather wreak havoc with our power systems, from massive hurricanes to freak thunderstorm systems. Just recently storms sent 3.8 million customers in the Mid-Atlantic States back to the 19th century for several days. Many in the hills of West Virginia and Virginia are still without power.  

Imagine what could have been. Power transmitters fed from generating plants could send megawatts of power at millions of volts at gigahertz frequencies into the atmosphere as radio waves, and portable devices like cell phones could grab it from the air, no batteries needed. All cars could be electric with zero emissions, and depending on the number of transmitters and the power output of these transmitters, one could theoretically drive across the country without requiring large batteries. Homes would have antennae to connect them to the power grid rather than wires. Power losses would be minimal unlike today.  Our power grids routinely see 8 percent power losses. There would be no transmission line congestion, which creates large spikes in locational pricing in wholesale electricity markets due to transmission line limitations.  Infrastructure costs to safely transmit power would be eliminated.  Your electric bill would be cut in half, since the transmission and distribution charges would be eliminated.  In short, we could be living like the Jetson’s and the economic benefits would be a boon to our nation.

Nikola Tesla was one of the most brilliant engineering minds ever.  His inventions shaped our modern society and have inspired the minds of those who are lucky enough to learn about him.  The person or company who perfects Tesla’s wireless power transmission system and implements the system on a large scale will change the world on a scale hardly seen in human history.

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Michael Jaeger

Mike Jaeger's column, Greater than Energy (">Energy") can be found under the Health and Science area of the Washington Times Communities and he has been writing this column since July of 2012.  He occasionally writes pieces on economics and politics as well.  He has expertise in energy, energy markets and energy production and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Applied Science and Technology in Nuclear Engineering Technology.


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