Great Influencers in Energy: Nikola Tesla: Master of Energy

July 10, 2018

 

By: Keri Bailey

We chose Nikola Tesla as one of our Great Influencers in Energy for not only his incredible intellect and acumen with developing the alternating current, but also for his way-before-his-time advancement of conservation initiatives.

Nikola Tesla was born amid a Summer lightning storm* at midnight on July 10, 1856 in the mountainous region of the Balkan Peninsula known as Lika. From a young age, he was passionate about mathematics as well as science and had his heart set on becoming an engineer. His eidetic memory allowed him to memorize novels and learn to speak eight languages fluently. He claimed that many of his best ideas came to him in flashes, images he would retain and build to spec from and at age 24, one such flash occurred during a sunset stroll. Tesla remarked, “…The idea came like a flash of lightning, and in an instant, the truth was revealed. I drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.” That diagram, drawn impermanently in the sand, was for the alternating current (AC) induction motor, a technological advance that would change the world from a man whose vision and genius would also do the same.

Tesla came to New York with little more than four cents to his name. After a few failed starts, he was finally able to set up a laboratory in Manhattan, where he developed his induction motor. Tesla filed for seven U.S. patents in the field of polyphase AC motors and power transmission. These consisted of a complete system of generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors, and lighting. When George Westinghouse, inventor, and owner of the Westinghouse Electric Company, heard of Tesla’s invention, he made Tesla an offer to purchase the patents and license the technology, providing an upfront payment and royalties on each horsepower of electricity generated and sold.

The World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago was set to be the first all-electric fair in history. Tesla helped illuminate the fair with more light bulbs than could be found in all of Chicago, and wowed audiences with a variety of demonstrations, including lighting a wireless bulb from across a stage. These displays featuring AC impressed fair patron Lord Kelvin and would help garner Westinghouse and Tesla a contract to generate electrical power at Niagara Falls, the first large-scale AC power plant in the world (read more here). According to Marc Seifer, author of Wizard: Life and Times of Nicola Tesla, “People aren’t aware that Tesla was close friends with conservationist John Muir. One of the founders of the Sierra Club, Muir loved that Tesla’s hydroelectric power system was a clean energy system.” Or as Tesla put it, “running on the wheelwork of nature.”

After Niagara, Tesla returned to working on experiments in his lab in New York City and became engrossed in the exploration of high-frequency electricity. Tesla knew that higher frequencies could hold technological advantages: lamps could glow brighter and energy could be transmitted more efficiently. His experiments lead him to create the Tesla coil, which could generate both high frequencies and extremely high voltages. During his time working with high frequencies, Tesla developed some of the first neon and fluorescent lighting, took the first x-ray photos, and discovered that his coils could transmit and receive radio signals when they were tuned to resonate at the same frequency. These experiments marked the beginning of Tesla’s lifelong obsession—the wireless transmission of energy.

Tesla hypothesized that he could wirelessly transmit unlimited amounts of energy to any location on earth at high altitudes; theorizing that the thinner air would be more conductive. To test his theory, he would require the ideal high-altitude location and power supply as he would need to create electrical effects on a grand scale. His friend and patent attorney, Leonard Curtis, offered to find land and power for the research; he tapped the El Paso Power Company of Colorado Springs.

For nine months Tesla conducted experiments in Colorado. On the evening of one his experiments, huge arcs of blue human-made lightning more than a 130-feet in length shot out from the lab. Residents reported lightbulbs illuminating when off, sparks coming off metal fixtures, and horses bolting from stalls due to their metal shoes sparking. Tesla’s experiment ultimately burned out the dynamo at the El Paso Electric Company and the entire city lost power. The power station manager was livid. Though Tesla kept a detailed journal, to this day, it is still unclear if any of his experiments were truly successful, but he returned to New York convinced wireless transmission was possible.

When Tesla returned to New York City, he wrote an article detailing his futuristic vision for energy. He chronicled a means of tapping the sun’s energy with an antenna, he suggested that it would be possible to control the weather with electricity, and he proposed a global system of wireless communications. To most, his ideas were almost incomprehensible, but Tesla’s vision of the future was clear. In interviews, he spoke of the necessities of clean energy, the conservation of natural resources, and the protection and clean-up of the environment. Tesla’s close friend, Robert Underwood Johnson, shared his views and in his autobiography, Remembered Yesterdays, talks of his friends and acquaintances such as notable conservationists Theodore Roosevelt, John Burroughs, and John Muir. Johnson was editor of Century Magazine and one of the driving forces, alongside Mr. Muir, behind the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890.

Today the name Tesla is ever-present. The magnetic field strength of MRI scanners is measured in Teslas. His name graces schools and institutions, he has an airport dedicated to him, he is celebrated in museums, numerous plaques and statutes pay him tribute, and even world’s best-known electric car bears his name. Though his vision for wireless power has yet to be realized, his hope for energy efficiency is actively being implemented across transportation, manufacturing, and in residential and commercial buildings on a global scale. Opinion Dynamics conducts energy efficiency program evaluations for clients across North America. Just like Tesla’s holistic view of energy, we value a multidisciplinary approach that blends our engineering, statistical analysis, and technical capabilities with techniques from fields such as sociology, economics, psychology, and anthropology to provide an in-depth, human-focused perspective on energy evaluation and efficiency.

*Favorite Tesla fact of Spencer Kates (age 11) along with Tesla’s complete dislike of pearl jewelry!

To Be Continued…