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Honoring the legacy of American physicist and engineer Nikola Tesla

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Part of Rio de Janeiro’s energy distribution grid. (Steve Miller)

Earlier this month the purchase of a long-neglected laboratory of the Croatian-born (son of a Serbian Orthodox minister) American physicist/engineer, Nikola Tesla, received funding. The source was a remarkable web-based grassroots campaign that raised $1.37M within a week.

The average contribution was a mere $47 and gifts came from every part of the US and a total of 100 countries worldwide.

The web-site was run by a comic book writer, Gary Inman, who created The Oatmeal and lives in Seattle, Washington- a long way from the Wardenclyffe lab in Shoreham, Long Island, NY.

In some ways this campaign is reminiscent of the grassroots funding campaign for the election of Barack Obama, which contributed to his election in 2008. On the other hand, unlike President Obama, who could speak eloquently for what he represents, Tesla is no longer with us and there are, no doubt, many different opinions among the donors to the Wardenclyffe purchase about what Tesla represents.

On this 70th anniversary of Tesla's death at the New Yorker Hotel at age 86, capturing what Tesla represents and the best use of his former laboratory seems like a critical next step, now that a 16 year effort to purchase the property has likely concluded.

What should Nikola Tesla represent to a small community on Long Island's north shore, or to any of us for that matter?

Shoreham is perhaps best known to New Yorkers as the site of the ill-fated Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. Ironically, it is probably his role as one of the first significant thinkers about sustainable energy production and distribution. As a physicist and engineer Tesla had the wherewithal, because of his extraordinary inventiveness (he was assigned around 300 patents) and his personal connections to the financiers and artists of the day to affect real change.

The years when Wardenclyffe was built were probably the most significant for Tesla and for a spirit of optimism in America.

At the turn of the last century many things were happening that shaped our world. The Niagara Falls power plant seemed to be the beginning of an era of limitless clean power. It was financed largely by Tesla's friend, John Jacob Astor IV and designed by his friend Stanford White. The internal combustion engine was beginning to look like a solution to the cleanup problem that came from having horse drawn vehicles all over New York.

Wireless communication was developing rapidly and it was immediately clear that it would transform not only communication but also maritime safety. X-rays captured everyone's imagination. Electric power distribution seemed like a clean and safer alternative to natural gas lines and coal delivery for a busy city like New York.

Why would clean sustainable energy seem like such an attractive thing in those early days when the automobile age was only just starting and our energy usage was so much lower than it is today?
At the turn of the century power generation was more concentrated in the cities and less effort was made to limit the more visible émissions. Tesla's friend, Mark Twain, spent some time in Manchester, England, which was probably ground zero for industrial pollution at the time. His American friends asked why he would want to spend time there and he answered "because then the eventual transition to death would seem less abrupt".

Out of control pollution can be a good motivator for looking at sustainable energy options. This explains, in part, the fact that China is out ahead of the curve on solar cell production.

During that time it is inevitable that Tesla would have been involved in many things. In 1895 Roentgen published the first X-ray image, showing the skeleton of his wife's hand and wedding ring. Roentgen never patented this invention, feeling that it should be freely available for medical uses.

Tesla's contemporary, Michael Pupin (born in Serbia about the same time) came up with an improvement of the X-ray images. He had been asked to see if this new technology could be used in a difficult surgery of a NY lawyer after a hunting accident. The first X-ray in North America was taken by Tesla of his friend, Mark Twain.

There were also fights over priority among all of these people- i.e. involving Tesla, Pupin, Edison, Marconi, etc. since there was money to be made. Tesla and George Westinghouse eventually won the battle over hard-wired power distribution and Tesla's patents in radio were eventually upheld by a Supreme Court decision in 1943.

But the more interesting side is the way all of these people interacted outside of the courtroom. In those days it was just as cool to hang around Tesla's lab as it would be today to visit an artist's studio. There was an endless procession of artists, financiers and writers to Tesla's lab as one can read in the recent books on Tesla by Seifer and Krause, for example. Mark Twain had a sideline as an inventor so he had a professional interest. John Jacob Astor wrote a science fiction book based on Tesla's ideas about sustainable energy- so he also had a professional interest.

As with later significant technologies (i.e. nuclear power and the transistor) people shared a great optimism about the enabling impact of the new technologies of Tesla's day.

Wireless communication is obviously an area where the impact is today enormous.

There are many parts of the world where, as on post Hurricane Sandy Long Island, there is limited functioning electrical distribution and only wireless communication. In these areas, however, there has been a lasting impact on boosting the economy. For some time it has been said that there are more smartphones in Asia than there are toilet seats. Smartphones allow farmers in remote areas to make informed decisions about when to bring products to market, etc. This is certainly a great success story.

In thinking about how our world can develop the enabling technologies that are critical to our future it is worth remembering the origins of the smartphone revolution. Where would we be today if it hadn't been for Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla and Ernest Rutherford (see below) among others? Less discussed is the fact that this revolution depended critically on the work of the mathematician, Alan Turing-whose centennial is celebrated this year, Vannevar Bush and Claude Shannon since all of this depends on switching networks, computation and information theory in order for it to work.

Before turning his attention to atomic physics, Ernest Rutherford- sometimes called the father of the atom- spent a lot of his time working on radio and briefly held the world record for the farthest radio transmission.

By 1927 he'd gotten the Nobel Prize, been knighted and was the President of the Royal Society in London. That year he used the opportunity of an annual president's address to The Society to point out that because of work in the US, largely due to Tesla, on high voltage AC power distribution there was an opportunity to revolutionize atomic physics. There were already components to generate higher energy beams of subatomic particles for study of the atom than were available from the beams then being used from radioactive decay of materials like Thorium. He then suggested that his colleagues, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton work on this.

This was the beginning of the age of particle accelerators, which culminated last July with the discovery of a new fundamental particle at CERN in Geneva. A particle accelerator is a kind of wireless ENERGY transmission. It generates very high electric currents in a vacuum. If the beam that is stored in CERN's accelerator were steered up from the underground tunnel, where it circulates, it could transmit an electric current in a pencil-thin beam that carries the energy of a high-speed locomotive (hundreds of MegaJoules).

Unfortunately this wireless form of energy transmission only got public attention when Edward Teller got Ronald Reagan interested in it's potential uses for national defense. It would have been great if Ronald Reagan had also been given inspiration to form a characteristically optimistic vision about the peaceful uses of these technologies. (People may remember, though, that Reagan was a fan of the very ambitious accelerator project (SSC), later sited in Texas and his instructions to the US Department of Energy in 1987 were to "throw deep").

Though there has been work on similar wireless energy transmission- for example, to beam down energy from orbiting solar collecting satellites- these ideas are still not practical (and may never be). They also have nothing to do with what Tesla was trying to do at Wardenclyffe.

Tesla's vision for Wardenclyffe had more to do with the current work-based at MIT- by the Croatian born physicist Marin Soljacic on wireless energy transfer (and a company called “Witricity”). Today's technologies focus on more modest amounts of power transmission- typically enough to recharge your cell phone while it is lying around the house.

Tesla was soon aware that radio signals can propagate beyond the line of sight and had a vision of the earth and (what we now call) the ionosphere forming a giant resonant cavity that could store up transmitted radio frequency energy without too much dissipation. This wasn't just speculation since he actually observed such resonant behavior working in his Colorado Springs lab in 1899. He even made an initial mathematical calculation for the frequency of 8 Hertz, which is in the extreme low frequency band (ELF). The full theory of what later came to be known as the Schumann resonances wasn't worked out until 1952.

There are practical problems with harnessing energy at these low frequencies but Tesla's vision that there is a huge amount of energy to be captured, even in the radio spectrum, may well have benefits for low quantities of wireless power in remote parts of the world. Schumann resonances are naturally excited by lightning at remote places around the world but Tesla went one step farther and wanted to find techniques to deliver power remotely.

Sustainable power generation, distribution and storage must be a national priority if we are to avoid a world fighting for ever-shrinking resources. The topic has certainly not had enough attention in the current political debates from either major party. Today we need the optimistic vision about dealing with this most critical problem that a Kennedy or a Reagan were skillful in promoting.

The Tesla Lab at Wardenclyffe should become a monument to that vision- possibly as a kind of "hands on museum" commemorating the way he brought people from all walks of life into the excitement of science and technology.

Sebastian White is a physicist participating in the LHC experiments at CERN and is currently living in Geneva, Switzerland. He has done much of his research at CERN, starting with his thesis experiment as a Ph.D. student of Leon Lederman (who first came up with the name "The God Particle"). For part of the year he is at The Center for Studies in Physics and Biology at The Rockefeller University. He is a great-grandson of Stanford White.