“Join me in my lab at midnight, I think I can promise you some good entertainment,” said Nikola Tesla to his friend Mark Twain. Twain arrived on time, he’d been to the warehouse space at 46 East Houston Street, New York, before, and he knew he’d be dazzled. His peculiar, genius of a friend was also a dramatic showman with skills rivaling Barnum. Also present that night was another friend Chauncy Montgomery McGovern, a journalist. The lab was bright, as usual, lit by wireless lights, one of Tesla’s own inventions. He found them most convenient, due to their low energy consumption, bright light, and total transportability; he carried them around and arranged them wherever light was needed. Tesla the wizard did not disappoint; purely for the entertainment of his guests he put on a pyrotechnic display, wielding balls of red flame and making his entire body glow with energy while the meter topped out at a whopping two million volts.
Twain, always the adventurer, hopped onto a square platform, about the size of a small trampoline, over to the side of the room. Tesla flipped a switch, and the platform began to vibrate silently, much to Twain’s enjoyment. He whooped with pleasure and when Tesla suggested he had had enough, responded, with usual Twain vinegar, “You couldn’t get me off this with a derrick.” Tesla didn’t push the point; he didn’t need to. It was not long before Twain himself leaped off suddenly and asked with a panicked voice “Where is it?” then heeded the reply by dashing straight legged to the toilet. Tesla explained that he and his assistants had themselves learned that the very pleasant physical effect of the platform was followed by a sudden, violent bowel movement.
Such displays of his inventions were not uncommon for Tesla, whose 270 or so patents in numerous countries, some of them lost, including the system of alternating current transmission of energy – used to deliver electricity to people throughout the world. The paddle-free turbine, the radio, and the induction motor – the standard technology used to power industry and household machines – are also counted among his innovations. In fact, Tesla is arguably one of the greatest inventors and scientists who ever lived. In addition to the above, he also discovered, described, and demonstrated the fundamental concepts of some major scientific discoveries, including cosmic rays, artificial radioactivity, X-rays, robotics, and the electron microscope. Several of the scientists who later rediscovered these technologies went on to win Nobel Prizes. Many of Tesla’s discoveries and inventions revolve around his understanding of matter and the existence of waves – visible light, sound, cosmic rays, and his “very special radiation” (X-rays). At that time, his ideas were leaps and bounds ahead of accepted explanations of how the world works. He developed a forerunner of fluorescent lights, drove an electric car, and publicly demonstrated a remote control device for a model boat. He had some fairly “green” innovations too, which sound modern even today. He proposed a fertilizer system that converted, via electricity, the inert nitrogen in the air, N2, to form the usable by plants, N3, and he also worked on a system to harness energy from the Sun. He also dabbled in weaponry, inventing death rays (or peace rays as he called them), a form of particle gun that smacks of Star Wars. Extraterrestrial radio, defensive force fields, teleportation, and time travel were more than figments of his imagination.
The laxative platform Mark Twain rode was mechanical oscillator. It produced vibrations by means of a relatively simple, by Tesla’s standards, engine, consisting of a spring-operated piston encased in an iron shell and powered by compressed air or water steam (Tesla built engines of both types). The vibrations were transferred directly to the platform but isolated from the floor via thick cork and rubber insulating mats. Tesla was well aware of the effects of his machine on the human body, both positive and negative, and believed it held promise in the improvement of general health and well-being.
The platform vibrator was one of a series of inventions that made use of a mechanical oscillator. With this machine, Tesla thought he could generate waves that traveled through the Earth as sound waves travel through air. He saw many potential applications for this technology, which he named “telegeodynamics,” including transmitting energy to anywhere on the globe and detecting the location of submarines, ore deposits, and other items of interest underground. He also thought that the patterns of waves transmitted through the globe could be read by a receiver on the other side of the world, thus forming the basis for sending messages anywhere on the Earth’s surface. He imagined, then, a kind of wireless subterranean communication system.
Small, portable, and energy efficient, Tesla patented a version of the device in 1894. In this patent, he mentions the powering of gears, such as that in a clock, as one application. He did not mention another possible use for the technology, that of producing earthquakes. There is no record of Tesla elaborating on the purpose that creating such earthquakes could serve; he seemed fascinated simply by the fact that he had the power to do it.
Tesla’s earthquake machine was a smaller variant of the platform oscillator that “you could put in your overcoat pocket.” It was about 7 inches long and weighed less than 2 pounds. The small iron box contained a pneumatic piston that produced the vibrations. Tesla tested this machine in 1898 by clamping it to a steel girder in the middle of his Houston Street laboratory and starting it vibrating, and he watched the consequences. In his words: “I was experimenting with vibrations. I had one of my machines going and I wanted to see if I could get in tune with the vibration of the building. I put it up notch after notch. There was peculiar cracking sound and I asked my assistants where did the sound come from. They did not know. I put the machine up a few more notches. There was a louder cracking sound. I knew I was approaching the vibration of the steel building. I pushed the machine a little higher. Suddenly all the heavy machinery in the place was flying around.”
According to biographer John O’Neill, what happened was pandemonium on the streets in the surrounding area, as furniture shook, glass shattered, and panicked people flocked into the streets in response to the local earthquake. Police at the Mulberry Street station around the corner were alerted to the fact that something was afoot when their desks shook and their floor rumbled. Aware of Tesla and his antics, they naturally assumed he was the cause of any supernatural phenomena and rushed to his laboratory. Running up the stairs amid the sounds of smashing glass, they crashed through the door just in time to witness the tall, thin, and stately Tesla swing a large mallet at a small black box attached to a girder in the middle of the room. The box smashed with this first swing, and a calm Tesla politely asked the police to leave as he had more work to do. In another version of the story, the police went to Tesla’s lab, but they did not witness the smashing of the oscillator. Instead, Tesla and his assistants played dumb, shrugged their shoulders, saying it must be an earthquake, and moved on with their day. Not only did Tesla later repeat this story to several newspapers, but he also went on to claim that he could use this technology to level the Empire State Building, given 5 pounds of air pressure and 10 minutes, or split the Earth in two like an apple, given a couple of weeks.
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The earthquake machine was based on the principle that all materials vibrate particularly well at their own particular frequency. Apply vibrations to an object at its natural resonant frequency increases the amplitude of this vibration. This is the same effect as pushing a swing. When the force is applied to the swing at the same frequency as the swing’s resonant frequency, the swing swings higher and higher with little effort. If the force is applied to the swing at a frequency that does not match, much more work is needed to increase its height. Pendulum clocks work the same way. When Tesla tried his machine out in his lab, he sent resonance frequencies out into the neighborhood that had an effect on the various buildings in his surroundings, other than his own. His own building was less sensitive, so by the time he heard the ache of protesting girders under intense stress and decided to end the experiment, plenty of neighbors were aware of the results.
Just how much damage could Tesla’s earthquake machine accomplish? Engineer Isabel Deslauriers explains that the Earth does have a resonance frequency, of about 7 to 15 Hertz. However, the heavier the mass, the greater the force required to produce oscillation. Whether an oscillating device could be built with enough power to be “Earth splitting” is highly questionable. Mechanical resonance, however, can certainly be destructive. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in 1940 is an example, though this was caused by wind, rather than resonance through the ground or any attached machine. The Earth itself is not a good conductor of small waves over long distances. In fact, it was quite a dampening effect. In 2006, the Discovery Channel aired an episode of Mythbusters that put Nikola Tesla’s earthquake machine to the test. They built several variations of the machine then experimented with metal bars to see if they could get vibrations of increasing amplitude. They had mixed results. A scale laboratory model had no effect, so a larger version of the machine was tested on a real bridge. Vibrations that were detectable 100 feet away were produced, but nothing like what Tesla predicted. Jaimie and Adam declared the earthquake machine a myth. You can try it for yourself if you like; a book entitled Nikola Tesla’s Earthquake Machine: With Tesla’s Original patents Plus New Blueprints to Build Your Own Working Model is available for purchase at Amazon.com.
How is it that one of history’s shining stars could expend energy on an idea of such destruction, and almost be right? The answer may have something to do wit the scope of Tesla’s approach to investigating the world. Tesla did not think big, he thought colossal; his imagination was stratospheres above his peers. For example, Tesla not only developed a means to provide the entire globe with free electricity by making use of energy in the atmosphere, but he single-handedly went about testing, without regard for safety, whether he was able to produce immense voltages, in the millions of volts.
Imagine the scene – he and his assistant are alone in a hanger-like laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has built a tower with massive Tesla coils to magnify voltage. Imagine the assistant, who is told to close the circuit with Tesla standing there, inviting lightning to strike. Imagine being ordered to flip the switch then leave the circuit closed until Tesla, who is watching from outside the hanger, out of sight, gives the signal. Imagine standing there, with the fear that the connection could short or the whole building blow, while massive tongues of ire arch through the air above you. Then all goes silent and dark. During this experiment, not only did Tesla succeed in producing lightning and the “controlled” transfer of massive amounts of energy through the air, but the power also went out. He blew a generator at the local power station and plunged the entire surrounding community into darkness.
Months later, Tesla returned to New York, with these experiments under his belt, in order to begin construction on a power station that would supply wireless electricity, through antennae on cars and buildings, to power the world at minimal cost. The lab and Wardencliffe Tower were constructed but never completed. His financial backer, J. Piermont Morgan, pulled out before further experiments could get underway. Morgan had only agreed to finance Tesla under the condition that Tesla sold the patent rights to Morgan. Tesla had complied. Thus, he could not go to anyone else to ask for financial backing, and the scheme was dead in the water. It is speculated that Morgan acted intentionally to protect his considerable investments in already existing electrical technology and its associated industry. It was not the first time that Tesla felt he’d been “swindled.” It is reported that Edison promised to pay him $50,000 for his part in new developments to Edison’s dynamos. Tesla delivered; Edison did not. Later, Edison claimed the offer was a joke that his recently immigrated employee did not quite understand. George Westinghouse, founder of the Westinghouse Electric Company, wrangled Tesla out of a royalty agreement in association with the AC patent that is estimated to have cost the inventor (and earned Westinghouse) over $17 million turn-of-the-century dollars, equivalent to a conservative estimate of about $425 million today.
Today, wireless, or “wave,” energy transfer is well-known technology, with applications in radio, radar, cell phones, and Bluetooth as examples. A 21st century company called Powercast is using radio frequencies to transmit low voltages through the air, in their words “wireless power.” The range of transmission is in the realm of a dozen feet or so. So far, wireless lit-up Christmas trees and battery-free chargers for small devices that require low voltages (such as remote controls, MP3 players, cell phones, toys, hearing aids, and impact devices) are among its consumer applications. Tesla would be pleased. He said of his work, “The greatest good will come from the technical improvements tending to unification and harmony, and my wireless transmitter is preeminently such.”
Tesla certainly was right about a lot of things. He was also wrong about a lot of things. His vision for wireless transmitters went well beyond modern applications. He envisioned his wireless transfer of energy would not only power households but “aerial machines . . . propelled around the earth without a stop and the sun’s energy controlled to create lakes and rivers for motive purposes and transformation of arid deserts into fertile land.” Chathan Cooke, principal research engineer at MIT, explains why this will never happen: “Wave transfer of information functions well with tiny energy levels of even micro watts. But a typical light bulb of 100 Watts needs 100 million times greater energy transfer. This is physically possible, but there are side effects when that much energy is going in all directions. Broad area distributed, wireless electromagnetic power at levels used by a modern home will not happen. Furthermore, because of inefficiencies of traveling wave production and conversion, and our collective need for the world to be more efficient, not less, wireless power is a very local solution to specialized specific problems and will not replace wiring.”
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Cooke suggests one convincing reason why Tesla’s idea of transmitted energy through the air is impractical: it could kill us. Life has evolved at atmospheric levels of energy in the range of 1 kilowatt per meter squared, transmitted at the wave frequencies of light. Sunlight does not kill us; however, high levels of energy at frequencies other than that of sunlight just might.
However, while Tesla’s wireless energy ideas are faulty, there are plenty of other Tesla misjudgments to mull over. For example, he passionately rejected the idea that atoms were composed of subparticles, preferring the “billiard ball” model. His idea to ship mail through a tunnel under the Atlantic using water pressure turned out to be impossible, but at least he recognized his miscalculation of water dynamics. There is no such excuse when it comes to his idea to ship people around the world by means of a metal girdle surrounding the equator, built with scaffolding that is later removed. The ring would have allowed people to travel 1,000 miles per hour, the speed which the Earth spins on its axis. Somehow, the gigantic ring would have resisted the spin and stood still. Tesla’s proposal for getting people on and off the ring has not survived. Neither has his description of the transporter’s usefulness to the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants, who do not live along the equator.
A lot of Tesla can be explained by a closer examination of how his brain worked. From a very early age, he suffered from extreme visions. In his autobiography, Tesla described their impact: “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 thoughts and action. They were pictures of things and scenes which I had really seen, never of those 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.”
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Oliver Sacks has written about such altered, remarkable perceptions in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. Tesla also complained of “flashes of light”; “they were perhaps, my strangest and [most] inexplicable experience. They usually occurred when I found myself in a dangerous or distressing situation or when I was greatly exhilarated. In some instances I have seen the all the air around me filled with tongues of living flame. Their intensity, instead of diminishing, increased with time and seemingly attained a maximum when I was about twenty-five years old . . . . When I close my eyes I invariably observe first, a background of very dark and uniform blue, not unlike the sky on a clear but starless night. In a few seconds this field becomes animated with innumerable scintillating flakes of green, arranged in several layers and advancing toward me. Then there appears, to the right, a beautiful pattern of two systems of parallel and closely spaced lines, at right angles to one another, in all sorts of colors with yellow, green, and gold predominating. Immediately thereafter, the lines grow brighter and the whole is thickly sprinkled with dots of twinkling light. This picture moves slowly across the field of vision and in about ten seconds vanishes on the left, leaving behind a ground of rather unpleasant and inert grey until the second phase is reached. Every time, before falling asleep, images of persons or objects flit before my view. When I see them I know I am about to lose consciousness. If they are absent and refuse to come, it means a sleepless night.”
Throughout his life, Tesla had periods of complete mental and physical breakdown. He described one of these bouts, which occurred when he was 25: “In Budapest I could hear the ticking of a watch with three rooms between me and the timepiece. A fly alighting on a table in the room would cause a dull thud in my ear. A carriage passing at a distance 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. I had to support my bed on rubber cushions to get any rest at all. The roaring noises from near and far often produced the effect of spoken words which would have frightened me had I not been able to resolve them into their accumulated components. The sun rays, when periodically intercepted, would cause blows of such force on my brain that they would stun me. I had to summon all my will power to pass under a bridge or other structure, as I experienced the crushing pressure on the skull. In the dark I had the sense of a bat, and could detect the presence of an object at a distance of twelve feet by a peculiar creepy sensation on the forehead. My pulse varied from a few to two hundred and sixty beats and all the tissues of my body with twitching and tremors, which was perhaps hardest to bear.”
Tesla had a few close relationships and led quite an isolated life in many respects. He was obsessive compulsive. He was terrified of germs, and while dining at the Waldorf Hotel restaurant night after night, his set routine included the use of a pile of precisely 24 linen napkins, placed to the left of his place setting, used one by one to polish and re-polish each piece of silverware. He went to extremes to avoid shaking hands. At odds with this germ phobia was his love of pigeons; he kept them in baskets in his hotel rooms. He found round, smooth objects repulsive, particularly pearls, and could not eat at a dinner party should a woman with such adornment be present. He calculated the cubic volume of each bite of food and did everything possible in threes. He held the unshakable belief that he would live to be 150, though he did alter that figure to 130 after quitting whiskey in the Prohibition.
It is not uncommon in people suffering from abnormal brain function to exhibit extreme mental capacities in particular areas. Such is the case with Tesla. His visions led him to believe that all his reactions, indeed all human reactions, are hardwired responses to past experiences. He called us “meat machines” and claimed it was this realization that led to his work on teleautomatons – known to us as robots. For if we are machines, Tesla reasoned, it was also perfectly feasible that machines could be built to be like us. He had a photographic memory and an extreme talent for mathematics. His ability to think in three dimensions was legendary; Tesla did not tinker with his inventions. He built them in his mind, worked out the bugs, and then, once things were perfected among the little gray cells, brought his machines to life.
Creative genius is known to be associated with a higher incidence of mental illness. Tesla’s brain was wired very differently from most, and while the results of that wiring have been of enormous benefit to the world, it was an anomaly, an anomaly that was accompanied by negative pathological elements. Though this is a subjective opinion, Tesla seemed to be lacking normal checks and balances when it came to making use of technology for the good of humanity, recognizing the limitations of his own mental powers, and demonstrating natural cautiousness to ensure the safety of others. Tesla tried to harness the “forces of the universe” with only a partial understanding of those forces. His words reek of delusions of grandeur: “There manifests itself in the fully developed being – Man – a desire mysterious, inscrutable and irresistible: to imitate nature, to create, to work himself the wonders he perceives . . . . he tames the thunderbolt of Jove and annihilates time and space. He makes the great Sun itself his obedient toiling slave. Such is his power and might that the heavens reverberate and the whole earth trembles by the mere sound of his voice.
“what has the future in store for this strange being, born of breath, of perishable tissue, yet immortal, with his powers fearful and divine? . . .
“Long ago he recognized that all perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or a tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the Akasa or luminiferous either, which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never ending cycles, all things and phenomena. The primary substance, thrown into infinitesimal whirls of prodigious velocity, becomes gross matter; the force subsiding, the motion ceases and matter disappears, reverting to the primary substance.
“Can Man control this grandest, most awe-inspiring of all processes in nature? . . .
“If he could do this, he would have powers almost unlimited and supernatural at his command, with but a slight effort on his part, old worlds would disappear and new ones of his planning would spring into being. He could fix, solidify and preserve the ethereal shapes of his imagining, the fleeting visions of his dreams. He could express all the creations of his mind on any scale, in forms concrete and imperishable. He could alter the size of this planet, control its seasons, guide it along any path he might choose through the depths of the Universe. He could cause planets to collide and produce his suns and stars, his heat and light. He could originate and develop life in all its infinite forms.
“To create and annihilate material substance, cause it to aggregate in forms according to his desire, would be the supreme manifestation of the power of Man’s mind, his most complete triumph over the physical world, his crowning achievement, which would place him beside his Creator, make him fulfill his ultimate destiny.”
A sad result of Tesla’s bizarreness has manifested itself in his adoption of the New Age crowd, who dress up their spirituality with pseudo-science, like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Tesla biographer Margaret Storm explained (in green “alien” ink no less) his “advanced state” as a natural consequence of his birthplace: the planet Venus. Ruth Norman, noted extraterrestrial channeler, has posited that Tesla is an alien who has come to Earth several times; one previous guise being Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, the organization Unarius, which Norman helped found, has published eight volumes of messages from the Alien Formerly Known as Tesla. These words from beyond are for sale on its website, in the “educational materials” section, with the apt title Tesla Speaks. In a way, it is difficult to blame Norman for adopting Tesla, as he himself spent 50 years of his life trying to communicate with Martians.
Life Technology, one company pandering to the New Age market, is selling large numbers of Tesla Shields, otherwise known as “purple plates.” These companies, to varying, carefully worded degrees, attribute the invention of this technological marvel to Tesla. Purple plates, it is said, are Tesla’s “personal mechanical oscillators” — his earthquake machine/platform oscillator – repackaged for the modern age. To most of us, the plates are aluminum coated in flat purple paint. To the consumers who buy them, however, they are scientific devices that “emit vast quantities of energy . . . thus the human organism can bring itself back into equilibrium on several levels and increase its vibration frequency,” bringing great health benefits. Purple plates are said to transmit positive energy to anything they touch – food, water, or furniture – cleansing any impurity. What’s more, the purple paint deflects tachyons, those pesky subatomic particles that travel faster than light. These sub-particles are not only a well-known phenomenon among purple plate circles but also a definite threat to your welfare. Interesting claims indeed, considering that the physics research community is still quite tentative about their very existence. At the time of writing, purple plates line the pockets of these companies with about 4100 for each 8-by-10-inch model sold, though a new “Hyperspace Radionics” version has been developed that sells for $179, if you wish to pay more for your purple anodized aluminum. Tesla, the unselfish humanist he was, would roll over in his grave.
While some of today’s “better-informed” consumers are snatching up purple plates by the truckload, Tesla’s contemporaries did not want his earthquake machine, perhaps understandably. But why they didn’t jump at the chance to have wireless lights, electric cars, robots, remote control machines, or fertilizer made from air we don’t know. The story of Tesla is proof that human technology is much farther ahead in the theoretical than it is in the practical. This is just as true today as it was in Tesla’s day, even though some of what we could do but don’t do is of obvious benefit to the globe (climate change and alternative energy comes to mind). Why we are so far behind the times at all times rests on part of the whims of big business and the powerful individuals governing what technologies receive investment – a decision that is based fundamentally on the capacity to generate cash. However, there is more to it than that. It is not just wireless lights that are resisted. We, collectively, resist anything we do not understand. We are superstitious and frightened of things that we are not born into. Without a doubt, progress is stunted by a near-universal lack of imagination. Then again, if Nikola Tesla is any example, this may not be such a bad way to be, if the alternative is fiddling with potential mass destruction and living in near insanity. There is such a thing as too much imagination.
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