Part 10

First Efforts To Produce The Self-acting Engine

by Nikola Tesla


The best solution to harness the sun’s energy is through the transmission of electrical energy to any distance through the media.

For a long time, I thought that such a transmission on an industrial scale could never be realized.

But a discovery which I made changed my view.

The atmosphere is normally a high insulator.

Under certain conditions, it becomes a conductor. It can become capable of conveying any amount of electrical energy.

But the difficulties in the way of a practical utilization of this discovery for the purpose of transmitting electrical energy without wires were seemingly insuperable.

Electrical pressures of many millions of volts had to be produced and handled; generating apparatus of a novel kind, capable of withstanding the immense electrical stresses, had to be invented and perfected, and a complete safety against the dangers of the high-tension currents had to be attained in the system before its practical introduction could be even thought of. All this could not be done in a few weeks or months, or even years.

The work required patience and constant application, but the improvements came, though slowly.

Other valuable results were, however, arrived at in the course of this long-continued work, of which I shall endeavor to give a brief account, enumerating the chief advances as they were successively effected.

The discovery of the conducting properties of the air was unexpected. But it was only a natural result of experiments in a special field which I had carried on for some years before.

It was, I believe, during 1889 that certain possibilities offered by extremely rapid electrical oscillations determined me to design a number of special machines adapted for their investigation.

Owing to the peculiar requirements, the construction of these machines was very difficult, and consumed much time and effort.

But my work on them was generously rewarded, for I reached by their means several novel and important results.

One of the earliest observations I made with these new machines was that electrical oscillations of an extremely high rate act in an extraordinary manner upon the human organism.

For instance, I demonstrated that powerful electrical discharges of several hundred thousand volts, which at that time were considered absolutely deadly, could be passed through the body without inconvenience or hurtful consequences.

These oscillations produced other specific physiological effects, which, upon my announcement, were eagerly taken up by skilled physicians and further investigated.

This new field has proved itself fruitful beyond expectation, and in the few years which have passed since, it has been developed to such an extent that it now forms a legitimate and important department of medical science. Many results, thought impossible at that time, are now readily obtainable with these oscillations, and many experiments undreamed of then can now be readily performed by their means.

I still remember with pleasure how, 9 years ago, I passed the discharge of a powerful induction-coil through my body to demonstrate before a scientific society the comparative harmlessness of very rapidly vibrating electric currents.

  • My audience was astonished.

Nowadays, I transmit through my body with such currents the entire electrical energy of the dynamos now working at Niagara—40,000 to 50,000 horsepower.

I have produced electrical oscillations which were of such intensity that when circulating through my arms and chest they have melted wires which joined my hands, and still I felt no inconvenience.

I have energized with such oscillations a loop of heavy copper wire so powerfully that masses of metal, and even objects of an electrical resistance specifically greater than that of human tissue brought close to or placed within the loop, were heated to a high temperature and melted, often with the violence of an explosion, and yet into this very space in which this terribly-destructive turmoil was going on I have repeatedly thrust my head without feeling anything or experiencing injurious after-effects.

Another observation was that by means of such oscillations light could be produced in a novel and more economical manner, which promised to lead to an ideal system of electric illumination by vacuum-tubes, dispensing with the necessity of renewal of lamps or incandescent filaments, and possibly also with the use of wires in the interior of buildings. The efficiency of this light increases in proportion to the rate of the oscillations, and its commercial success is, therefore, dependent on the economical production of electrical vibrations of transcending rates. In this direction I have met with gratifying success of late, and the practical introduction of this new system of illumination is not far off.

The investigations led to many other valuable observations and results, one of the more important of which was the demonstration of the practicability of supplying electrical energy through one wire without return. At first I was able to transmit in this novel manner only very small amounts of electrical energy, but in this line also my efforts have been rewarded with similar success.


An ordinary incandescent lamp, connected with one or both of its terminals to the wire forming the upper free end of the coil shown in the photograph, is lit by electrical vibrations conveyed to it through the coil from an electrical oscillator, which is worked only to 1/5 of 1% of its full capacity.

The photograph shown in Fig. 3 illustrates, as its title explains, an actual transmission of this kind effected with apparatus used in other experiments here described. To what a degree the appliances have been perfected since my first demonstrations early in 1891 before a scientific society, when my apparatus was barely capable of lighting one lamp (which result was considered wonderful), will appear when I state that I have now no difficulty in lighting in this manner four or five hundred lamps, and could light many more. In fact, there is no limit to the amount of energy which may in this way be supplied to operate any kind of electrical device.


The coil shown in the photograph has its lower end or terminal connected to the ground, and is exactly attuned to the vibrations of a distant electrical oscillator. The lamp lighted is in an independent wire loop, energized by induction from the coil excited by the electrical vibrations transmitted to it through the ground from the oscillator, which is worked only to five per cent. of its full capacity.

After demonstrating the practicability of this method of transmission, the thought naturally occurred to me to use the earth as a conductor, thus dispensing with all wires. Whatever electricity may be, it is a fact that it behaves like an incompressible fluid, and the earth may be looked upon as an immense reservoir of electricity, which, I thought, could be disturbed effectively by a properly designed electrical machine.

Accordingly, my next efforts were directed toward perfecting a special apparatus which would be highly effective in creating a disturbance of electricity in the earth.

The progress in this new direction was necessarily very slow and the work discouraging, until I finally succeeded in perfecting a novel kind of transformer or induction-coil, particularly suited for this special purpose. That it is practicable, in this manner, not only to transmit minute amounts of electrical energy for operating delicate electrical devices, as I contemplated at first, but also electrical energy in appreciable quantities, will appear from an inspection of Fig. 4, which illustrates an actual experiment of this kind performed with the same apparatus. The result obtained was all the more remarkable as the top end of the coil was not connected to a wire or plate for magnifying the effect.


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