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Investigation into abundant new forms of energy is not at all a modern phenomenon. For more than a century, researchers have worked to unravel the mysteries of the universe and discover methods to tap into the energy surrounding us. Some of these scientists have had an amazing impact on our modern world. 

Without Nikola Tesla, there would be no AC electricity in your home or office powering your computer or toaster. We have profiled some of the prominent energy researchers from the past to discuss some of the inventions they are credited to have built.

Early Pioneers – Nikola Tesla

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Tesla be,’ and all was light.” 

These words, spoken by B.A. Behrend in 1917, illuminated the respect society held for Nikola Tesla early in this century. Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor and researcher who discovered the rotating magnetic field, which forms the basis of most alternating-current machinery in use today. Born in Croatia (Austria-Hungary) in 1856, Tesla’s father was a Serbian Orthodox priest. His mother was unschooled but highly intelligent. 

It wasn’t long before Tesla’s parents realized that their son was gifted with unusual insight. In her book, “Tesla: Man Out of Time, ” Margaret Cheney, a California science writer, offers an interesting anecdote from Tesla’s childhood. “The child began when only a few years of age to make original inventions. When he was five, he built a small water wheel quite unlike those he had seen in the countryside. It was smooth, without paddles, yet it spun evenly in the current. Years later he was to recall this fact when designing his unique bladeless turbine.”

Later, while training for a career in engineering, he attended the Technical University at Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. At the Technical University, he first observed the Gramme Dynamo, which could operate as a generator or an electric motor. 

After observing the dynamo in action, Tesla first conceived of putting alternating current to practical use. At that time, direct current (D.C.) was considered to be the more applicable electrical energy. Within a short period of time, he visualized the principle of the rotating magnetic field and began developing designs for an induction motor that would prove to be his first step toward successfully utilizing alternating current. 

In 1882, Tesla was hired by the Continental Edison Company, based in Paris. Working on his own time, the following year he constructed his first induction motor. 

In 1884, Tesla immigrated to New York with only a few cents in his pocket, several poems he had written, and the calculations for a flying machine. He got a job working with Thomas Edison in West Orange, New Jersey, but the two inventors diverged in their research styles. Whereas Mr. Edison was a great experimenter, Mr. Tesla was a great theoretician.

Tesla later said of Edison, “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.” 

It wasn’t long before Tesla left Edison to try to find investors in order to construct his own research laboratory. In May 1885, desperate for money, Tesla sold the patent rights to his polyphase system of alternating-current dynamos, transformers, and motors to George Westinghouse, owner of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Westinghouse immediately began developing the alternate-current technology, which precipitated a tremendous power struggle against Edison’s existing direct-current systems. The battle between the two technologies was intense, but today it is obvious that the Tesla-Westinghouse alternating current system eventually won the war. 

Although Tesla was paid $15 million for the patents, more than money was at stake. He said, “George Westinghouse was, in my opinion, the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power. He was a pioneer of imposing stature, one of the world’s true noblemen of whom America may well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude.”

Later, in a paper presented before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1888, Tesla criticized the illogical construction of the D.C. motor. “In our dynamo machines, it is well known that we generate alternate currents which we direct by means of a commutator, a complicated device and, it may be justly said, the source of most of the troubles experienced in the operation of the machines. Now, the currents, so directed cannot be utilized in the motor, but must again of a similar unreliable device be reconverted into their original state of alternating currents. The function of the commutator is entirely external, and in no way does affect the internal workings of the machines. 

“In reality, therefore, all machines are alternate current machines, the currents appearing as continuous only in the external circuit during the transfer from generator to motor. In view simply of this fact, alternate currents would commend themselves as a more direct application of electrical energy, and the employment of continuous currents would only be justified if we had dynamos which would primarily generate, and motors which would be directly actuated by such currents.”

His profound vision stunned the world when Westinghouse installed twelve 1,000 horsepower two-phase generators at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The powerful motors were the highlight of the show and generated enough electricity to illuminate thousands of light bulbs throughout the exhibition. The impressive display removed the last serious doubt of the usefulness to mankind of the polyphase alternating current. 

Few visitors to the exposition realized that they were experiencing a historical moment. Tesla’s technological revolution had begun. Thirty-three years later, Tesla’s polyphase motors were utilized by the Niagara Falls Power Company in their main generating plant on the Niagara River. The machinery used bore Tesla’s name and patent numbers.

Tesla’s imagination ran rampant and his inventions and development of new technologies are legendary. 

At the U.S. Patent Office, there are literally hundreds of patents registered in the name of Nikola Tesla, including a telephone repeater, rotating magnetic field principle, induction motors, alternating-current power transmission, wireless communication, radio, and fluorescent lights. Some researchers have estimated that he could have patented an additional 1,000 or so just from memory. The Tesla Coil Transformer, which he invented in 1891, has been used extensively in radio and television sets and other electronic equipment. He experimented with shadowgraphs that Wilhelm Rontgen would later discover and label X-rays in 1895. 

By the year 1891, Tesla had invented a telephone repeater, wireless communications, fluorescent lighting, the alternating current motor, power generation, and transmission systems – as well as systems of electrical conversion and a generator of high frequency currents. 

Nikola Tesla used ancient Sanskrit terminology to describe natural phenomena. His concept of the universe was that of a kinetic system filled with energy, which could be harnessed at any location. He learned Sanskrit while studying Vedic science, which, according to engineer Toby Grotz, “are a collection of writings consisting of hymns, prayers, myths, historical accounting, dissertations on science, and the nature of reality, which date back at least 5,000 years. The nature of matter, antimatter, and the makeup of atomic structure are described in the Vedas.”

Tesla was also something of a showboat. When scientists or reporters visited his laboratory, he would light lamps without wires by allowing the electricity to flow through his body. In this way, he hoped to allay the prevailing fears about alternating current. 

One visitor described the experience well, “Fancy yourself seated in a large, well-lighted room, with mountains of curious-looking machinery on all sides. A tall, thin young man walks up to you, and by merely snapping his fingers creates instantaneously a ball of leaping red flame, and holds it calmly in his hands. As you gaze you are surprised to see it does not burn his fingers. He lets it fall upon his clothing, on his hair, into your lap, and, finally, puts the ball of flame into a wooden box. You are amazed to see that nowhere does the flame leave the slightest trace, and you rub your eyes to make sure you are not asleep.”

During 1899 and 1900, Tesla was living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when he discovered terrestrial stationary waves, proving that the Earth could be used as a conductor and would respond to electrical vibrations of a certain frequency. It was reported that he lighted 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles and created man-made lightning. The lightning display produced flashes measuring 135 feet. He returned to New York in 1900 where he borrowed $150,000 from American financier J.P. Morgan. 

Tesla claimed that he secured the loan by giving up 51 percent of his patent rights of telephony and telegraphy to Morgan. Tesla began construction of a wireless broadcasting tower on Long Island. He intended to broadcast worldwide communication of photographs, weather warnings, and stock reports. Unfortunately, the project failed when Morgan withdrew his financial support due to a financial panic and labor troubles.

Later, Tesla shifted his focus to turbines and other projects. Unfortunately, Tesla managed his money poorly and his severe lack of funding relegated many of his ideas to mere sketches in his notebooks. In 1917, Tesla was awarded the Edison Medal, the highest honor that the American Institute of Electrical Engineers bestows.

The lack of commercial success for the electric car might have been avoided had Tesla’s technology been adopted when we had the chance decades ago. Electrically powered vehicles were very popular around the turn of the 20th century. Many large department stores in metropolitan areas began purchasing delivery trucks that were electrically powered by D.C. current. They were silent and emitted no pollutants. 

Although the vehicles needed recharging every night and possessed a range of only 100 miles, this was not a problem in the days when cities were small and traffic moved slowly. When consumers became fixated on faster and faster speeds, the slower electrically powered vehicles were abandoned by automobile manufacturers.

In 1931, supported by the Pierce-Arrow Company and General Electric, Tesla apparently took out the gasoline engine from a new Pierce-Arrow automobile and replaced it with an 80-horsepower, 1800 rpm alternating-current electric motor with no external power source. At a local radio shop, he bought 12 vacuum tubes, some wires, and assorted resistors, and assembled them in a small circuit box. 

Getting into the car with the circuit box in the front seat next to him, he pushed the rods in and announced, “We now have power,” and proceeded to test drive the car, often at speeds of up to 90 mph. One week was spent testing the vehicle at the Pierce-Arrow factory proving grounds in Buffalo, N.Y. Several newspapers in Buffalo reported on this test. When asked where the power came from, Tesla replied, “From the ethers all around us.” 

When some witnesses suggested that Tesla was mad and somehow in league with sinister forces of the universe, he became incensed and removed his mysterious box from the vehicle. Although the exact nature of his device remains a mystery, it is speculated that Nikola Tesla was able to somehow harness the earth’s magnetic field that encompasses our planet. 

Despite the mystery, Tesla’s electrically-propelled car apparently did reach speeds of 90 mph, and no recharging was ever necessary!

Although Tesla did not accept many of the tenets of relativity and quantum theory, and never made the connection between matter and energy, he did recognize the possibility of free and unlimited energy. 

B.A. Behrend’s comments on Nikola Tesla offer a fitting epitaph for this great visionary: “Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla’s work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle. Yes, so far reaching is his work that it has become the warp and woof of industry. His name marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science. From that work has sprung a revolution”

From amazing engines to flying machines, the scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked on the edge of traditional science. With little support, they sustained their research through blood, sweat, and tears. 

As is the case today, energy pioneers must brave the very real threats of rich industrialists and energy brokers whose livelihood was threatened by any possible breakthrough. Many of these early research projects are enjoying new respect and scrutiny today. Perhaps soon we will discover what mainstream science has overlooked.