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Using the Air As a Wire—Was Nikola Tesla Right?

The Action Lab · Youtube · 71 HN points · 0 HN comments
HN Theater has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention The Action Lab's video "Using the Air As a Wire—Was Nikola Tesla Right?".
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Jun 27, 2022 · 71 points, 50 comments · submitted by peter_d_sherman
According to what I understood, Tesla intended for the coil of the tower to resonantly interact with the capacitance between the ionosphere and the Earth. Anywhere else on Earth, he reasoned, the same configuration with the same resonance frequency would effectively capture the energy.
I don't understand how Tesla could be that bad at math. Resistance, distance, and the inverse square law would make the efficiency of such a system absolutely abysmal.
There's a reason why he is "a" Tesla rather than a Feynman, if that makes sense.
He was quite good at math.

AFAIK, the idea was to "charge" and "discharge" the whole planet, treating it as a giant capacitor - under the theory that a resistive layer (air) is sandwiched between two conductors (earth, ionosphere).

Earth's crust is highly resistive and even the much more conductive mantle has a resistivity of a kilohm-meter, which barely even makes it a semiconductor let alone an appropriate material for half a capacitor.
This makes no sense. We use connection to ground as the lowest resistance path for short circuits for safety.
I have no idea if it would work or not, I'm a software nerd and amateur electronics engineer.

Positive charged ionosphere, negative changed earth, air insulator between... Sounds a lot like a giant cap to me.

I imagine if it was a feasible idea folks a lot smarter than I am would be working on it though.

Even renowned scientists who are good at math, theory, and experimentation can go on some wild-ass goose chases. Look up Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and his advocacy of vitamin C woo, the negative effects of which still persist today because millions of Americans believe vitamin C will cure/prevent a cold.
He lived pretty long as a chemist of that era. People in the older days tended to work with stuff like Benzene as if it were water in labs. The fact that he lived so long despite this, maybe he was onto something? I remember reading that chemists in that era tended to die younger than the general population.
>> He was quite good at math.

I started having doubts in his mathematical skills after seeing this

I suspect he had a very good imagination and intuition and was good at experimenting but unfortunately there are also a lot of myths surrounding him.

He didn't use math. He described his method of design. His imagination was so honed that he could design a machine in his mind, run it for thousands of (imaginary) hours, and then measure the wear and tear with (imaginary) instruments, which measurements he claimed would match up with the real world results were he to perform the actual test on a real machine.

Dunno if it's true, but it's fascinating.

I have a copy of his Colorado Springs notes, there's a ton of math.
Fair enough, I stand corrected.
But did he write it, or 'borrow' it?
And is it correct?

“Tesla’s physics requires a quite different understanding of mathematics, in some extent it is sacral in the spirit of Pythagoras. Pythagoras considered that numbers and subjects are interrelated. They correspond to each other in property due to informational and mathematical aspects of matter existing as one of the manifestations of the Divine Logos.”

Not totally sure how to interpret that…

The exact quotes from Nikola Tesla’s own autobiography are:

I started by first picturing in my mind a direct-current machine, running it and following the changing flow of the currents in the armature. Then I would imagine an alternator and investigate the processes taking place in a similar manner. Next I would visualize systems comprising motors and generators and operate them in various ways. The images I saw were to me perfectly real and tangible.


The images I saw were wonderfully sharp and clear and had the solidity of metal and stone, so much so that I told him: “See my motor here; watch me reverse it.”


The pieces of apparatus I conceived were to me absolutely real and tangible in every detail, even to the minute marks and signs of wear. I delighted in imagining the motors constantly running, for in this way they presented to mind’s eye a more fascinating sight.

Now tell us the story about the backflip and the fish
In some respects it almost sounds like a late Victorian account of supposed ectoplasmic phenomena. Also reminiscent of the famous story about two experimentees sharing an imaginary cigarette.
After reading up on Tesla my conclusion that while he was a smart man and had a good understanding of the fundamental physics, he was likely a charlatan who took advantage of the budding electrical industry. Electricity was like the internet, it was a major turning point in human history and a lot of money was going to be made from it. It was new tech and everyone was throwing money at it. And this was the early years, before the physics was well understood. This ignorance was a good cover for charlatans looking to fool investors.

From what I gather, he was able to garner celebrity status among the wealthy businessmen and used this to his advantage. This afforded him the ability to travel and meet with other engineers and talk to them about their projects. He would then take their ideas, work or inspirations as his own and sell them to the industrialists. If the engineer cried fraud, who were they compared to the great Tesla? They were easily silenced or ignored. This is why I think he died penniless: As the industry matured and more people gained knowledge, Tesla's outlandish claims could no longer attract investors. This is why his later inventions were more and more outlandish, he was getting desperate.

Come on, a charlatan who invented the electrical system we are still using today? A charlatans would be looking for an easier grift which doesn't require an engineering degree, year long battles with other inventors etc. Suspect it's more complicated than that.
Indeed. Tesla may have entertained a few kooky ideas -- forgivable in his time because of how little we knew about electricity then compared to now -- but he was an honest man, and AC worked!

Edison was the charlatan.

He did not invent AC. He patented the transformer and a brushless AC motor.
> Come on, a charlatan who invented the electrical system we are still using today?

Did he?

I still stand by my opinion and believe his patents and inventions were based on the ideas of others and his celebrity status afforded him this. I also suspect that the USA at the time was more than happy to side with American inventors in patent disputes.

And there he is, right there in your reference (great reference for an unbiased point of view by the way) as an inventor of the AC system.

All inventions are somehow based on the ideas of others, but you still contend that his studying two engineering disciplines, developing several technologies and fighting the current wars were all part of the long grift of a conman? Seems like the long, risky route to the $$$ no?

(Yes, before I said THE inventor - you got me.)

He was definitely not a charlatan; he could barely enough get people to pay him for his good ideas which other people got rich off of. Charlatan implies that he knew his ideas were bunk and tried to sell them anyway; many (most?) of his ideas were not bunk and Westinghouse among others got filthy rich off of his three phase patent, induction motor/generator patents, etc.

Regarding his wireless power transmission ideas, I think it's clear that he thought it was a good idea, and a workable idea, and an idea that needed just a little more time and investment and would shortly be working very well. He was wrong, of course, but I think he thought it would work.

IMHO Tesla was a genius whose spark was rooted in his intuition rather than a solid fundamental understanding of physics and math. His intuition was "weird" and sometimes wrong, but also sometimes very, very right.

Many geniuses got things seriously wrong sometimes. Lord Kelvin was very wrong about the age of the Sun. Newton had some crazy ideas about alchemy. Einstein was famously wrong about quantum mechanics.
You can read Tesla's seminar notes and some personal logs at Columbia University. The idea of "genius" is fungible, but he clearly had the math skills to solve problems he was interested in. His design for the three phase generator is a good example of this.
His model was more akin to a waveguide or telegrapher's equation rather than purely radiative emissions.
The idea is that you treat the earth's atmosphere as a resonant tank, pumped by the coil at the tower. The inverse square law doesn't apply here.

The real practical problem is that if such a system were scaled up, any metal object anywhere on earth with sharp edges would become a fire hazard due to sparking. Long pieces of wire would become similarly hazardous and radio communications probably would be much noisier and more difficult. Also there are economic challenges as you can't really bill specific customers.

Wouldn’t the charge leak away, like any other capacitor? How much power would be needed to overcome natural losses?
I'm not really sure, this resonant phenomenon already exists ( and is pumped by global lightning activity. However this is not very efficient as most of the energy of lightning strikes falls outside of the resonant band, which is around 7 hz.

Maybe you could figure out the amount of electrical energy being spent by all global lightning strikes within a slice of time, then if you knew the spectrogram of the electromagnetic emissions from a lightning strike you could calculate the percentage of that energy that falls within the resonant band of the system (around 7hz plus the next few harmonics), which won't be much, then compare that number to the actual amount of ambient energy in the system to get a rough idea of how efficient it would be in an equilibrium state.

Yes. This is the large part of it. And it's why his primary investor, J.P.Morgan was not happy about it - the energy CAN NOT be metered and thus charged for. So he pulled the plug on Tesla.

The other aspect: when you resonant between Earth and ionosphere, you do NOT get 1/r^2 losses because you are effectively inside a parallel plate capacitor that nearly is uniform and no r dependence other than the surface area average of the Earth's surface - the power put in is uniformly distributed across the area of the Earth.

The other part: Tesla's system is exactly the same as hydrogen - it's NOT an energy source but a distribution medium of CONVENTIONALLY GENERATED electrical power. So you still need fossil, nuclear, etc. power to source the power and then you pump it into it. It's NOT FREE ENERGY as many claim. Not remotely.

But were these proposed methods ever tested? AFAICT, Tesla only manages to achieve power transmission over a very short distance, and his ideas for extending that distance never proved practical.
> the energy CAN NOT be metered and thus charged for.

> It's NOT FREE ENERGY as many claim. Not remotely.

Make up your mind :)

(/s I understand that some would have to pay to fuel the transmitters.)

Morgan would have to pay for the fuel to transmit but could not be sure of charging everyone who might hook into the system and draw power.

Ie it would be free power for anyone who draw power

Maybe before all the radio frequency population we have now. Now a days this would be a horrific noise monster.
I think there are at least two ways to transfer electricity over air. One is to form a temporary wire, a dynamically stable structure like a small tornado, but made of charged particles. Another is to send electricity in the form of a dynamically stable toroidal vortex made of charged particles.
Other than the obvious safety concerns isn't efficiency the killer here? If we're trying to decarbonize it would help not to switch to a power delivery method that is any less efficient than power grids.
What about inverse square law?
Nikola Tesla was a genius. PERIOD. That is it. He didn't have magical powers, he couldn't disobey natural laws and he wasn't close to inventing a revolutionary way to transmit electric energy or a ray of death. He died crazy and broken.

We have to honor his legacy, but people talking about him like he was in the brisk of changing the world (again) are ignoring significant facts.

I think the fact that he was in love with a pigeon near the end of his life is extremly touching. As for his character, the fact that he was pals with Mark Twain (Clemens) says it all for me.
I think they’re mostly leveraging the fact that their audience doesn’t understand those facts. Which is exactly how Tesla himself operated with the odd success here and there.
He was often right, and often wrong. Most people work on not often being wrong. We need both.
He also wasn't quite as open-minded and forward thinking as some believe:

“I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view.”

Relativity doesn’t say space has to be curved; that’s just an interpretation.

You could interpret relativity only as curved paths in flat space due to gravity, instead of flat paths in curved space. The math is much uglier, though, so in a metaphysical sense, Tesla was wrong.

Einstein famously said “god does not play dice” regarding quantum mechanics, and “not more open-minded than Einstein” isn’t much of an insult.

There's a good yt video debunking all the myths that surround him.

Tesla Fact vs. Fiction: Why the Public Perception is Wrong

I think Debunk is a bit of an overstatment. That is like saying James Watt should get no credit for the steam engine because they had spinning toys powered by steam in ancient egypt. What amazes me is that along with the electrical stuff Tesla also did fluid dynamics: See Tesla valve, Tesla turbine.
Well, electricity moves similarly to a fluid (not really but the simplified version allows one to reason about both the same way).

It hit me in school that these are very similar and once you understand one you can apply many of the learnings, but especially the high level logic on the other.

Nice short, informative video. But on the point of free electricity, Kathy completely misses the point. Granted, Tesla never spoke about free electricity, but wireless electricity, if developed, would necessarily be free because there would be no way to meter it, which would be a good reason for Edison, Morgan and Westinghouse to ignore it. If, on the other hand, for some reason, they did want to provide free electricity to the world, wireless electricity very well may have been developed on a large scale. The reason wireless electricity wasn't developed wasn't that it couldn't work, but that it couldn't turn a profit because it is impossible to meter. Pointing out that Tesla never spoke of it misses the forest for the trees, because this is irrelevant. What is relevant about wireless electricity is that it can't be metered, thus it can't be a profitable service to base a corporate empire upon.
Nikola Tesla is one of those people that is either under appreciated or over appreciated but never simply appreciated.
Well said
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