Nobody Cared Then or Now
Nikola Tesla is one of those crazy sparks of genius. He was born way out of time in the small village of Smiljan, located in current-day Croatia. It is said that he was born during a lightning storm. Perhaps this was the Universe imposing onto the young Nikola Tesla his favored field of study—electricity. He would go on to study engineering and physics in the Austrian Empire, but never received his diploma. Despite this, he could go on to invent alternating current (AC), the modern electrical supply system still in use today. But one of his personally favored projects would never completely come to fruition, and that is wireless transmission of electricity and information.
Wireless information is something we’ve had since the Nikola Tesla’s invention of radio in the 1890s. And something that is ubiquitous in today’s world with smartphones, social media, and satellites. But wireless electricity? That exists today, but in a relatively small way. The most common use is wireless charging for smartphones or smartwatches through one of those power mats, and your device needs a special capability in order to use it, and even if it can use wireless charging it’s common knowledge that it is much slower than just plugging it in the old fashioned way. So wouldn’t it be pretty crazy to hear that Tesla achieved wireless electricity at distances of over a third of a mile in 1905?
Nikola Tesla’s Ventures
After immigrating to the U.S., and a stint working for Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla ventured out on his own to test his own ideas. He received financing from all sorts of individuals, but at the end of 1900 he hit the jackpot: Famous American banker J. P. Morgan personally was Nikola Tesla inventions financier. The project to be funded? A prototype of Tesla’s proposed World Wireless System to be constructed in Shoreham, New York on Long Island. His system would require large towers, not dissimilar from a radio tower or a particularly large set of power lines. After the building of the required structure the site became known as Wardenclyffe Tower, also known as Tesla’s Tower.
Wireless Electricity System
Tesla had a number of patents filed around this time related to his wireless electricity system. Basically, the idea was that he could use the tower like a sort of energy pump. He would force electrons, massive amounts of them, down into the earth. Then you could put a receiver somewhere else, even pretty far away, and all electrons you pumped into the earth would be attracted there.
What’s crazy about this whole idea isn’t the fact that Nikola Tesla actually thought he could somehow pump electricity directly into the earth, it’s that he actually succeeded in doing this on multiple occasions, and pretty much nobody back then really cared and modern science throws up their arms and says “who cares, we have smartphones now anyway”. It’s true.
On multiple occasions Nikola Tesla’s inventions actually transmitted electricity wirelessly, and over fairly big distances. How big, you ask? Well, if modern day charging mats need to literally be plugged into the wall and the device placed on top, even across the room would be a feat. But no! Tesla had documented success in making incandescent light bulbs shine almost 2,000 feet away from the source. That’s over a third of a mile, that’s crazy. Tesla made a claim to an attorney that he had recorded results at a distance of about 10 miles. Later, in a Nikola Tesla biography written less than one year after he died, it is claimed he lit 200 incandescent bulbs at a distance of 26 miles. You can’t charge your phone 26 miles from its mat, can you?
Lack of Funding Equaled Failure
There were plans to build as many as 300 of these towers across the world to create an international system that could transmit electricity as well as information. Yes, information. While Tesla could not produce a result at the time, ignoring the fact he was literally inventing all of the technology himself, he remained convinced for the rest of his life that highly complex information would be able to be transmitted through the earth itself.
Bear in mind this is literally happening before the invention of the airplane, right around the same time Henry Ford was introducing the concept of an assembly line to the production of automobiles, and not soon after the invention of deodorant. I feel that last example really puts into perspective how far we have come in such a short amount of time. So what happened? Why didn’t this magical breakthrough take hold? It didn’t take hold because Tesla ran out of money. After all, this is America, nobody cares about doing something for the love of it, you have to go out and make ends meet. J.P. Morgan wasn’t seeing a return on his investment and stopped funding Nikola Tesla inventions. Without an investor, Wardenclyffe Tower would cease operation in 1906.
Since then, the idea has been viewed through the lens of curiosity, not of serious inquiry. “We’re beyond that now,” the scientists say. But I wish I could have seen it. Seen a lightbulb in the dirt glow from an electricity source miles away.