Nikola Tesla was a visionary inventor who devoted his life to making an abundant, clean energy supply for humanity. Among his inventions toward that end were alternating current (AC) power transmission, the AC motor, and the bladeless turbine.1 He also invented radio, neon & fluorescent lighting, x-ray imaging, robotics, wireless remote control, wireless energy transmission and more. And in 1900, he described his World-System of wireless communications, which has a notable likeness to the Internet.2
Invention, and capacity for work, ran in Tesla’s family. He writes:3
My mother descended from … a line of inventors. … [She] was an inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multifold opportunities. She invented and constructed all kinds of tools and devices and wove the finest designs from thread which was spun by her. … She worked indefatigably, from break of day till late at night, and most of the wearing apparel and furnishings of the home were the product of her hands. …
Tesla gladly worked much:
… I am credited with being one of the hardest workers and perhaps I am, if thought is the equivalent of labor, for I have devoted to it almost all of my waking hours. But if work is interpreted to be a definite performance in a specified time according to a rigid rule, then I may be the worst of idlers. Every effort under compulsion demands a sacrifice of life-energy. I never paid such a price. On the contrary, I have thrived on my thoughts.
… and slept little:4
I sleep about one and one-half hours a night. I think that is enough for any man. … There are so many things to do I do not want to spend time sleeping needlessly. In my family all were poor sleepers. Time spent in sleep is lost time, we always felt.
Tesla had a photographic memory, which, in his childhood, gave him trouble:3
… In my boyhood I suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, often accompanied by strong flashes of light, which marred the sight of real objects and interfered with my thought and action. They were pictures of things and scenes which I had really seen, never of those I imagined. When a word was spoken to me the image of the object it designated would present itself vividly to my vision and sometimes I was quite unable to distinguish whether what I saw was tangible or not. This caused me great discomfort and anxiety. … Sometimes it would even remain fixt in space tho I pushed my hand thru it.
Tesla learned to control his unbidden photographic visions by concentration and imagination:
Every night (and sometimes during the day), when alone, I would start on my [mental] journeys—see new places, cities and countries—live there, meet people and make friendships and acquaintances and, however unbelievable, it is a fact that they were just as dear to me as those in actual life and not a bit less intense in their manifestations.
He later used his skill at concentration and his photographic memory for inventing. He tells how he invented the AC motor, which his professor told him was impossible:5
… I started by first picturing in my mind a direct-current machine, running it and following the changing flow of the currents in the armature. Then I would imagine an alternator and investigate the progresses taking place in a similar manner. Next I would visualize systems comprising motors and generators and operate them in various ways.
The images I saw were to me perfectly real and tangible. All my remaining term in Gratz was passed in intense but fruitless efforts of this kind, and I almost came to the conclusion that the problem was insolvable. …
In 1880 I went to Prague, Bohemia, …. It was in that city that I made a decided advance, which consisted in detaching the commutator from the machine and studying the phenomena in this new aspect, but still without result. …
After taking a job in Budapest, Tesla suffered a “complete breakdown of the nerves”:
What I experienced during the period of that illness surpasses all belief. …
… In Budapest I could hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between me and the time-piece. A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance of a few miles fairly shook my whole body. The whistle of a locomotive twenty or thirty miles away made the bench or chair on which I sat vibrate so strongly that the pain was unbearable. The ground under my feet trembled continuously. …
But, after he regained his health, he felt he would succeed:
In attacking the problem again, I almost regretted that the struggle was soon to end. I had so much energy to spare. ,,, Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could net yet give it outward expression.
A flash of inspiration gave him the answer:
One afternoon, which is ever present in my recollection, I was enjoying a walk with my friend in the City Park and reciting poetry. … The sun was just setting and reminded me of the glorious passage [from Goethe’s Faust]:
Sie ruckt und weicht, der Tag ist uberlebt,
Dort eilt sie hin und fordert neues Leben.
Oh, dass kein Flugel mich vom Boden hebt
Ihr nach und immer nach zu streben!
[The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!]11
As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightening 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, and my companion understood them perfectly. The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal and stone, so much so that I told him, “See my motor here; watch me reverse it.” … A thousand secrets of nature which I might have stumbled upon accidentally, I would have given for that one which I had wrested from her against all odds and at the peril of my existence..
A year or so passed before Tesla got a chance to build the motor:6
… I finally had the satisfaction of seeing the rotation effected by alternating currents of different phase, and without sliding contacts or commutator, as I had conceived a year before. It was an exquisite pleasure but not to compare with the delirium of joy following the first revelation.
Constantly working, and finding a cause for every effect, Tesla came to feel that he was an automaton, and to believe that true of every being:3
… I became aware, to my surprise, that every thought I conceived was suggested by an external impression. Not only this but all my actions were prompted in a similar way. In the course of time it became perfectly evident to me that I was merely an automaton endowed with power of movement, responding to the stimuli of the sense organs and thinking and acting accordingly. …
This led Tesla to invent a robot. Though it was remotely controlled, Tesla foresaw a robot that could, on its own, think and react:
… The practical result of this was the art of telautomatics which has been so far carried out only in an imperfect manner. Its latent possibilities will, however, be eventually shown. I have been since years planning self-controlled automata and believe that mechanisms can be produced which will act as if possest of reason, to a limited degree, and will create a revolution in many commercial and industrial departments.
Tesla strove for human progress, and pictured it in mechanical terms:7
Life is and will ever remain an equation incapable of solution, but it contains certain known factors. We may definitely say that it is a movement even if we do not fully understand its nature. Movement implies a body which is being moved and a force which propels it against resistance. Man, in the large, is a mass urged on by a force. Hence the general laws governing movement in the realm of mechanics are applicable to humanity.
There are three ways by which the energy which determines human progress can be increased: First, we may increase the mass. This, in the case of humanity, would mean the improvement of living conditions, health, eugenics, etc. Second, we may reduce the frictional forces which impede progress, such as ignorance, insanity, and religious fanaticism. Third, we may multiply the energy of the human mass by enchaining the forces of the universe, like those of the sun, the ocean, the winds and tides.
The first method increases food and well-being. The second tends to bring peace. The third enhances our ability to work and to achieve. There can be no progress that is not constantly directed toward increasing well-being, peace, and achievement. Here the mechanistic conception of life is one with the teachings of Buddha and the Sermon on the Mount.
Tesla aimed at the third way of human progress: multiplying the energy supply “by enchaining the forces of the universe” — but without burning fuel:8
[W]hatever our resources:of primary energy may be in the future, we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material. Long ago I came to this conclusion, and to arrive at this result only two ways … appeared possible—either to turn to use the energy of the sun stored in the ambient medium, or to transmit, through the medium, the sun’s energy to distant places from some locality where it was obtainable without consumption of material.
Tesla particularly worked on wireless energy transmission, with the idea of beaming energy across the world. He built a tower on Long Island for the purpose, but was not successful before his funding ran out:2
A plant was built on Long Island with a tower 187 feet high, having a spherical terminal about 68 feet in diameter. These dimensions were adequate for the transmission of virtually any amount of energy. Originally only from 200 to 300 K.W. were provided but I intended to employ later several thousand horsepower. The transmitter was to emit a wave complex of special characteristics and I had devised a unique method of telephonic control of any amount of energy.
Tesla warned against an energy supply that would be centrally controlled:9
‘If we were to release the energy of atoms or discover some other way of developing cheap and unlimited power at any point on the globe, this accomplishment, instead of being a blessing, might bring disaster to mankind in giving rise to dissension and anarchy, which would ultimately result in the enthronement of the hated regime of force.
At the turn of the 20th century, Tesla gave a rundown of energy sources and their prospects for the 1900’s. Tesla saw coal, oil and gas as wasteful and limited:8
[T]o burn coal, however efficiently … would be ,,, a phase in the evolution toward something much more perfect. After all, in generating electricity in this manner, we should be destroying material, and this would be a barbarous process. We ought to be able to obtain the energy we need without consumption of material. … The man who should stop this senseless waste would be a great benefactor of humanity, though the solution he would offer could not be a permanent one, since it would ultimately lead to the exhaustion of the store of material.
Tesla saw water power as the best:
Evidently all electrical energy obtained from a waterfall … is a net gain to mankind, which is all the more effective as it is secured with little expenditure of human effort …
… and favored use of wind:
… [S]ince time immemorial man has had at his disposal a fairly good machine which has enabled him to utilize the energy of the ambient medium. This machine is the windmill. Contrary to popular belief, the power obtainable from wind is very considerable. …
Tesla saw promise in solar …
A far better way, however, to obtain power would be to avail ourselves of the sun’s rays, which beat the earth incessantly and supply energy at a maximum rate of over four million horsepower per square mile. … [A]n inexhaustible source of power would be opened up by the discovery of some efficient method of utilizing the energy of the rays.
… and geothermal:
Another way of getting motive power from the medium without consuming any material would be to utilize the heat contained in the earth, the water, or the air for driving an engine. It is a well-known fact that the interior portions of the globe are very hot, the temperature rising, as observations show, with the approach to the center at the rate of approximately 1 degree C. for every hundred feet of depth. The difficulties of sinking shafts and placing boilers at depths of, say, twelve thousand feet, corresponding to an increase in temperature of about 120 degrees C., are not insuperable, and we could certainly avail ourselves in this way of the internal heat of the globe.
Tesla saw the central task of energy development to be the invention of a way to get more use out of wind, solar and geothermal:
The windmill, the solar engine, the engine driven by terrestrial heat, had their limitations in the amount of power obtainable. Some new way had to be discovered which would enable us to get more energy. There was enough heat-energy in the medium, but only a small part of it was available for the operation of an engine in the ways then known. Besides, the energy was obtainable only at a very slow rate. Clearly, then, the problem was to discover some new method which would make it possible both to utilize more of the heat-energy of the medium and also to draw it away from the same at a more rapid rate.
Tesla did not live to see a clean primary energy source for humanity — and, as of yet, neither have we. But Tesla kept pushing toward it. In 1931, at the age of 75, he wrote:10
It was clear to me many years ago that a new and better source of power had to be discovered to meet the ever increasing demands of mankind. In a lecture delivered before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia University May 20, 1891, I said: “We are whirling through endless space with inconceivable speed, all around us everything is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere is energy. There must be some way of availing ourselves of this energy more directly. Then, with the light obtained from the medium, with the power derived from it, with every form of energy obtained without effort, from the store forever inexhaustible, humanity will advance with giant strides.”
I have thought and worked with this object in view unremittingly and am glad to say that I have sufficient theoretical and experimental evidence to fill me with hope, not to say confidence, that my efforts of years will be rewarded and that we shall have at our disposal a new source of power, superior even to the hydro-electric, which may be obtained by means of simple apparatus everywhere and in almost constant and unlimited amount.
This [magnifying transmitter] invention was one of a number comprised in my “World-System” of wireless transmission which I undertook to commercialize on my return to New York in 1900. As to the immediate purposes of my enterprise, they were clearly outlined in a technical statement of that period from which I quote:
“The ‘World-System’ has resulted from a combination of several original discoveries made by the inventor in the course of long continued research and experimentation. It makes possible not only the instantaneous and precise wireless transmission of any kind of signals, messages or characters, to all parts of the world, but also the inter-connection of the existing telegraph, telephone, and other signal stations without any change in their present equipment. By its means, for instance, a telephone subscriber here may call up and talk to any other subscriber on the Globe. An inexpensive receiver, not bigger than a watch, will enable him to listen anywhere, on land or sea, to a speech delivered or music played in some other place, however distant. These examples are cited merely to give an idea of the possibilities of this great scientific advance, which annihilates distance and makes that perfect natural conductor, the Earth, available for all the innumerable purposes which human ingenuity has found for a line-wire. One far-reaching result of this is that any device capable of being operated thru one or more wires (at a distance obviously restricted) can likewise be actuated, without artificial conductors and with the same facility and accuracy, at distances to which there are no limits other than those imposed by the physical dimensions of the Globe. Thus, not only will entirely new fields for commercial exploitation be opened up by this ideal method of transmission but the old ones vastly extended.
The ‘World-System’ is based on the application of the following important inventions and discoveries:
1. The ‘Tesla Transformer.’ This apparatus is in the production of electrical vibrations as revolutionary as gunpowder was in warfare. Currents many times stronger than any ever generated in the usual ways, and sparks over one hundred feet long, have been produced by the inventor with an instrument of this kind.
2. The ‘Magnifying Transmitter.’ This is Tesla’s best invention, a peculiar transformer specially adapted to excite the Earth, which is in the transmission of electrical energy what the telescope is in astronomical observation. By the use of this marvelous device he has already set up electrical movements of greater intensity than those of lightning and passed a current, sufficient to light more than two hundred incandescent lamps, around the Globe.
3. The ‘Tesla Wireless System.’ This system comprises a number of improvements and is the only means known for transmitting economically electrical energy to a distance without wires. Careful tests and measurements in connection with an experimental station of great activity, erected by the inventor in Colorado, have demonstrated that power in any desired amount can be conveyed, clear across the Globe if necessary, with a loss not exceeding a few per cent.
4. The ‘Art of Individualization.’ This invention of Tesla’s is to primitive ‘tuning’ what refined language is to unarticulated expression. It makes possible the transmission of signals or messages absolutely secret and exclusive both in the active and passive aspect, that is, non-interfering as well as non-interferable. Each signal is like an individual of unmistakable identity and there is virtually no limit to the number of stations or instruments which can be simultaneously operated without the slightest mutual disturbance.
5. ‘The Terrestrial Stationary Waves.’ This wonderful discovery, popularly explained, means that the Earth is responsive to electrical vibrations of definite pitch just as a tuning fork to certain waves of sound. These particular electrical vibrations, capable of powerfully exciting the Globe, lend themselves to innumerable uses of great importance commercially and in many other respects.
The first ‘World-System’ power plant can be put in operation in nine months. With this power plant it will be practicable to attain electrical activities up to ten million horsepower and it is designed to serve for as many technical achievements as are possible without due expense. Among these the following may be mentioned:
(1) The inter-connection of the existing telegraph exchanges or offices all over the world;
(2) The establishment of a secret and non-interferable government telegraph service;
(3) The inter-connection of all the present telephone exchanges or offices on the Globe;
(4) The universal distribution of general news, by telegraph or telephone, in connection with the Press;
(5) The establishment of such a ‘World-System’ of intelligence transmission for exclusive private use;
(6) The inter-connection and operation of all stock tickers of the world;
(7) The establishment of a ‘World-System’ of musical distribution, etc.;
(8) The universal registration of time by cheap clocks indicating the hour with astronomical precision and requiring no attention whatever;
(9) The world transmission of typed or handwritten characters, letters, checks, etc.;
(10) The establishment of a universal marine service enabling the navigators of all ships to steer perfectly without compass, to determine the exact location, hour and speed, to prevent collisions and disasters, etc.;
(11) The inauguration of a system of world-printing on land and sea;
(12) The world reproduction of photographic pictures and all kinds of drawings or records.”