from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 3
to the Future (How Did Tesla Do It?)
Hull, an electronic systems engineer for the Whitlock Group in
Richmond, Virginia, is author of Tesla Coil Builders' Guide to the Colorado Springs Notes of Nikola Tesla
(Twenty-First Century Books, Breckenridge, CO, 1994).
He is founder of the Tesla Coil Builders of Richmond, which
sells video reports of Tesla coil research progress.
the simplest combinations and permutations of non-complex systems
been thoroughly investigated?
Won't the most significant innovation in the future derive
from “big science” and “advanced technology?”
scientific mind is so prolific--and sometimes so devious--that
plenty of inventions, curiosities and discoveries lie "by the
wayside," awaiting follow-up researchers who have the
requisite curiousity, playfulness or desperation.
number of reasons can conspire to cause an interesting idea or
invention to be forgotten--to become what I call "lost
novelties may have been stillborn, or they may have been
inadequately investigated due to indifference, or to a belief that
they had no use. Sometimes
they are ignored because science tends to ignore discoverers
outside the "mainstream,” or who seem paranoid or deluded.
often sets a discovery aside
until a theory explaining it becomes available.
This is done in an effort to avoid wasting time on blind
alleys or wildly investigating things that are not fully
understood or comprehended by the bulk of workers in a field.
the most common cause for these delays, I think, is the lack of
materials or technology needed to complete the original work. That's the case with the intriguing and mysterious Tesla
coil, which you may recall as the source of gigantic sparks in
some famous photos.
an electronics engineer, and my hobby parallels my vocation.
In researching the area of high voltage, I noted the work
of the great inventor and scientist, Nikola Tesla, who invented,
among many other things, the AC induction motor and polyphase AC
became especially intrigued with work Tesla started in 1899, in
his large lab in Colorado Springs.
He envisioned world-wide communication and even power
transmission through the use of a powerful magnifying transmitter,
a device that consisted of specially constructed coils--a
"Tesla Coil." Later,
funded by J. P. Morgan, he began building a giant world-wide
wireless antenna on
Long Island, but the funding dried up shortly after Marconi
sent the first trans-Atlantic signals.
1988, the five members of the Tesla Coil Builders of Richmond,
Virginia, began systematically investigating the power
amplification of the Tesla magnifier.
Electricity from an ordinary home 60 cycle AC outlet is
stepped up by a common iron core transformer to 20,000 volts.
This voltage is placed in a large coil of wire in rapid,
short-duration pulses. An even higher voltage is magnetically induced into a second
coil and further steps up the voltage which is now oscillating
many tens of thousands of times a second.
Finally, this specially conditioned power is directly fed
into the base of a third coil which, through the artiface of
resonance, causes a tremendous rise in voltage at the other end of
the coil, often many millions of volts.
claimed he had developed magnifiers that could handle very high
power, at low to moderate current, but extremely high voltages. The current (amperage) in his largest systems were similar to
the current in an ordinary flashlight, but the voltages were
equivalent to linking 6 million flashlight batteries in series!
the early years of this century, investigators tried to repeat Tesla's claims. Unfortunately,
Tesla usually worked by, and for, himself.
He was a true loner and thoroughly secretive about his
work; he rarely kept notes, never published scientific papers, and
only aired his views in popular lectures that had a showman's
flair and aroused a good deal of suspicion among his peers (this
despite the fact that his record of contributions to electrical
engineering is second to none).
Existing theory was powerless to account for many of
Tesla’s claims, and his best evidence were a number of
photographs showing huge sparks emanating from room-sized
equipment in Colorado.
magnifier can be a source of inexpensive, compact power for
scientists who need high-power, high-voltage electricity for
application in a number of experiments related to nuclear physics
and other fields.
a hobby, the Tesla Coil Builders of Richmond investigates how to
improve Tesla’s century-old devices using modern materials and
technologies might . Most
of our work is a redesign of the critical spark-gap switch, which
creates oscillations in the heart of Tesla’s magnifier.
This switch must open and close a thousand times a second,
while carrying thousands of amperes!
We found that a suitable device did not exist, even among
the thousands of electronic switches used in science and industry.
Tesla’s original ideas, we devised a switch that divided the
high-voltage arc into many smaller, easier-to-control arcs.
Modern sintered-tungsten electrodes replaced Tesla’s
steel versions. We
used new, improved switch geometries, made possible by such
plastic insulators as Teflon. These measures reduced the bulk and complexity of Tesla’s
original device while increasing its efficiency.
times the spark was so enormous that it ignited parts of the
damaged computers 100 feet away, erased phone message machines,
and set some televisions on fire.
Now we understood why Tesla chose the remote Colorado
plains for his experiments! We
had to learn all about electrostatic shielding and field shaping
to proceed with the development of an efficient magnifier.
built several magnifiers which would have made Tesla proud. Our system, coupled with our ultra-efficient switch, produced
incredible peak-power densities--up to two megawatts in a coil the
size of a kitchen trash can!
Currently, devices of such power density are many times
this size and are costly to maintain.
In short, this device is a way of helping reduce the cost
of “big science” through power maintenance, housing and
Tesla’s claims seem correct.
(This should not be too surprising, in view of his
unparalleled insights into the nature of electricity!)
Due to the poor insulators then available, his equipment
was large, so his efficiencies were relatively low.
Modern materials have helped us reduce his original space
requirements by a full order of magnitude.
our crude, technical work has vindicated much of what Tesla
extremely high impulse power levels can be produced from
relatively low average power inputs by using simple electrical
like to spend a moment explaining how we work.
When one of us creates a device or a modification that
vastly improves the system, soon enough, somebody else shows up
with a further improvement. This
friendly, but spirited competition, coupled with brainstorming
sessions, keeps the work fresh and lively.
There appears to be no end of improvements possible when
innovation and engineering talent is brought to bear.
to our work, the physical problems associated with high-energy,
impulse-excited magnifier construction lay in limbo between good
modern theory and lost technology.
Our experiments were funded from our own pockets, using
scrounged or hand-assembled parts.
We are still learning and pushing the limits of the
devices. As an
after-hours project, we seek no renumeration or praise.
The adventure of bringing all the divergent technology to
bear, uncovering mysteries lost to history, and fashioning the
tools necessary to make a modern embodiment of lost ideas is
of our work on the magnifier device have been published in a
number of journals--one respect in which we diverge from Tesla. We are willing to share our knowledge freely and to work with
others who have questions. In
fact, several laboratories are following up our results to get the
needed high voltage at high power for research and industrial
instance, recent discoveries have noted light emission from porous
silicon. The process
of making silicon porous had involved complicated and tedious
multiple acid baths. The
process can be simplified through the use of a Tesla high-voltage
arc which literally blasts the microscopic pits into the silicon.
is not the only example of an old technology being brought back
from the history books. For
example, the star-wars project elevated Michael Faraday's odd,
seemingly useless, homopolar generator from the status of mere
laboratory curiosity. After
upscaling and modernization, the generator has been transformed
into a mighty power source for railgun experiments.
‘lost’ technologies in your field that should be resurrected?