Amidst the 19th century, the scientific world saw considerable developments within the fields and applications of electricity and its transmission. Although wireless transmission is today omnipresent, back then, scientists like James Clerk Maxwell and before him, Michael Faraday was, concretized the ideas of electromagnetic induction or electromagnetic waves as wireless carriers of electrical energy: concepts that Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla would use to push his innovative ambitions of transferring power inductively even further.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, he went as far as to propose a World Wireless System: an invention that would revolutionize our way of thinking on paper but sadly never came to life. Indeed, on this day, 121 years ago, on March 20th of the year 1900, Nikola Tesla was issued a patent for his System of Transmission of Electrical Energy, Wireless Transmission of electric power.
Early developments and the Tesla Coil
Tesla’s main inspiration for his ingenious and wild inventions in wireless transmission, notably the Tesla Coil – the precursor to his World Wireless System, was none other than Heinrich Hertz’s spark-gap transmitter, a radio transmitter that produced radiotelegraphic pulses by discharging electric sparks but were unable to transmit any form of audio signals. As such, he experimented with power transmission through induction, using similar technology to the spark-gap transmitter, to generate high frequency and voltage alternating electrical current (AC) using large coils and resonant electrical circuits (circuits with an inductor to transmit energy wirelessly, and a capacitor to charge and discharge) to create his notorious Tesla Coil.
Indeed, Tesla was highly interested in the prospect of using this type of wireless transmission to pursue and develop the “wireless lighting” of towns. Therefore, another of his antecedent innovations was the lighting of a bulb from a distance, typically from across a stage. He used near-field inductive and capacitive coupling (the transmission of power by displacing currents in an electric field but without propagating the magnetic field) by using similar circuits as in Tesla coils. However, as spectacular as his demonstrations may have been, they were never commercialized. Nonetheless, these innovations strongly directed his track in theorizing his World Wireless System.
The development of his wireless power distribution system
To achieve his ambitious goal of creating a widespread wireless transmission network, Tesla believed that he had to harness the properties of Earth as a conductive medium to transmit the necessary electrical signals beyond traditional distances. Indeed, he claimed that Earth’s electrical charge “can be distributed” to allow electric waves to use the atmosphere as a propagation medium.
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His scheme consisted of two tethered balloons connected to the ground and positioned 30,000 feet above the ground, communicating together via the Earth’s conductive atmospheric layers. He then scaled up his project with experiments he conducted in Colorado Springs, supposedly confirming the air and atmosphere’s electrical conductivity. He had constructed 16-meter diameter transmitters, which operated to an estimated 4 million volts and producing 30-meter long discharges capable of lighting lamps in his nearby laboratory. Finally, in 1900, that Tesla received the patent for his device and transmission technique.
Wardenclyffe Tower and the “World Wireless System”
After seeking and obtaining funds and sponsors, Tesla finally brought his widespread power delivery system; a project dubbed the Wardencylffe Project. His initial idea was to facilitate wireless communication between the English mainland and boats at sea. However, after some notable competitors mounted similar projects, Tesla extended the range, thus the cost, of his World Wireless System to cover the entire face of the Earth.
This ultimately led his project to its demise as his main funder, J.P. Morgan, refused to continue subsidizing the project, bringing it to a definitive halt in 1906. The Wardencylffe facilities consisted of a 29 by 29-meter building, an almost 60-meter tall tower mounter with a 21-meter diameter sphere, wired deep into the Earth.
Tesla’s Wireless Transmission Technology today
Although a large part of today’s power transmission mechanisms remains wire-based, wireless power transfer has seen its everyday use increase ever since Tesla’s era, especially in near-field usages using inductive and capacitive coupling. For example, laptops and video-game controllers are one common use. The medical field also uses such transmission in the recharging of devices implanted in patients (transcutaneous) such as pacemakers.
On the other, far-field or radiative applications of power transmission have also been proposed in, for example, the development of solar-powered satellites designed to relay the energy back to Earth. The applications of wireless transmission of power transfer thus remain plentiful, and their development promising.