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Harnessing the storm

In answer to the question in our previous issue, it was not a character from an old horror movie, but Nikola Tesla who was born as lightning cracked the sky at the stroke of midnight on 9 July 1856, in what is now Croatia. And although at the end of his career he was working on “death rays,” Tesla was also a genius who contributed greatly to the creation of the modern world.

Nikola Tesla’s vision of the future


Nikola Tesla (1856–1943) was the son of a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. He became a US citizen in 1891 and lived most of his life in New York.

Tesla Memorial Society of New York (

Alternative power

After moving to the United States in 1884, Tesla at first worked for Thomas Edison. They were opposites in outlook, and Tesla eventually resigned. One of their disagreements concerned the best type of electric current to power modern inventions. Tesla saw the advantages of alternating current (AC), rather than Edison’s favoured direct current (DC). Tesla went on to use AC in the world’s first electric induction motor, which he patented in 1888. But it was the wireless use of electromagnetic waves that truly interested him.

Radiating energy

A focus of Tesla’s work was investigating how to achieve very high electrical voltages and frequencies. In 1891, he patented an alternator for creating current at some 10 000 Hz. This apparatus was also one of the first to reliably produce long wave radio frequencies. In 1892, Tesla demonstrated in London a device that transmitted radio signals. The technology was primarily aimed at transmitting electrical energy without wires, but Tesla noted that another possible application was for sending information wirelessly. The following year, he gave similar demonstrations in the United States. And in 1897, Tesla filed a patent in the United States for a System of Transmission of Electrical Energy. In it he stated that “the apparatus which I have shown will obviously have many other valuable uses — as, for instance, when it is desired to transmit intelligible messages to great distances.” And despite a gap from 1904 to 1943 when it was taken over by Guglielmo Marconi, the US patent for the invention of radio is held by Tesla.

The origin of robotics can also be seen in Tesla’s work. The world’s first device to be manoeuvred by wireless remote control, a 1.2-metre boat that he called a teleautomaton, was demonstrated by the scientist in 1898 at Madison Square Garden in New York. He envisaged that “the art of teleautomatics” would go on to “create a revolution in many commercial and industrial departments.”

Simon Morris

Tesla Memorial Society of New York


Lightning carries an enormous electrical charge Artificial lightning is created in the scientist’s laboratory in Colorado Springs, 1900  

Laboratory lightning

To continue his research on high-voltage electricity and its transmission, in 1899 Tesla opened a laboratory in Colorado Springs, in the US State of Colorado. There he built the biggest version yet of a device he had been working on: a high frequency, high voltage AC air core transformer. More than 16 metres in diameter, it was said to be capable of generating 300 000 watts of power and give off an artificial bolt of lightning some 40 metres long.

Now known in his honour as a Tesla coil, the inventor called the device a “magnifying transmitter.” Its revolutionary feature was the use of a double-wire coil, which could store much more energy than a conventional, single-wire coil. In addition, Tesla added a helical resonator, known as the extra coil. In his experiments at Colorado Springs, Tesla is said to have successfully transmitted some 40 000 watts of electricity, without wires. The magnifying transmitter was also a radio-frequency oscillator and used the same principles as modern radio transmitters.


Wardenclyffe Tower was to be the first element in a world system of wireless communications

Tesla Memorial Society of New York (

Worldwide wireless communications

Tesla aimed to tap the immense electrical force in Earth’s upper atmosphere, or part of what he called “cosmic energy.” Through his wireless technique, homes (even in remote areas) could be supplied with electricity over long distances through a ground wave method, used with a spherical antenna on each roof. And with his magnifying transmitter, Tesla planned to not only send electricity; he also wanted to build a system of transmitters for the worldwide, wireless transmission of information.

A project to construct the first of these sites was begun in 1901 at Wardenclyffe, on Long Island in the US State of New York, with backing from the financier J.P. Morgan. Tesla wanted the site to include research facilities, equipment factories and homes for more than 2000 workers. He imagined that Wardenclyffe would eventually provide a global navigation system, secure wireless communications and a global broadcasting service. Unfortunately, the building costs had been underestimated and the project could not be completed. In 1905, the facility was closed.

Death rays and world peace

  “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!”
(Nikola Tesla, on his "World System" of communications.)

The type of tower that had been constructed at Wardenclyffe was also envisaged by Tesla as the origin of a macroscopic particle beam that he named teleforce. It is ironic that commentators called this a “death ray,” since in Tesla’s terminology it was a “peace ray” that would help to put an end to war. His idea was that the beam would act as a shield, dissuading any attackers.

Tesla died, poor and alone, at the age of 86. This article merely skims the surface of a complex man who held patents for many important inventions. He introduced, for example, a system involving what are now called logic gates in computer circuits. The associated idea of breaking signals into separated parts is the basis of modern systems of cybersecurity. But it was electricity that fascinated Tesla above all. Born a “child of the storm,” he truly harnessed the power seen in lightning, and tried to bring to reality his vision of a freely powered and connected world.


Question for next month:

What is the connection between telegraphy and the concertina?
For the answer, read Pioneers’ Page in the next issue of ITU News.



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