Bakken Library Visiting Research Fellowship

Exploring the Relationship of Electromagnetism, Physics, Medicine and Music in the pioneering work of Nikola Tesla

Research in the collections of the Bakken Library and Museum has contributed toward establishing a historic framework for my film Pictures of Infinity. Development began in the fall of 2005 with a visit to the Nikola Tesla archives at Columbia University in New York and continued with a trip to Serbia in 2006 to conduct in-depth research at the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade, including filming interviews with a philosopher and several engineers and inventors. This prepared me for the final stage of research for the film. During a two-week residency at the Bakken I was able to take further my study of Nikola Tesla’s contribution to medicine, of medical instruments based on one of his inventions known as a ‘Tesla coil’ and of historic writings of 18th and 19th century physicists and natural philosophers.
Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an electrical engineer and physicist whose inventions such as alternating current (AC) electricity and ‘wireless transmission’ (which became radio) form the basis of our modern technological civilization. In the last part of his life he was conducting experiments to further investigate alternating currents of very high frequency, believing they would reveal new properties. My film project is based on the results of this investigation – Tesla’s discovery of a way to tap into what he believed was a new form of energy which he called ‘the aether’, or ‘the wheelwork of nature’.
Tesla had a unique musical understanding of physics and his application of acoustic principles of resonance, vibration and harmonics produced outstanding results in experiments. He imagined the world in musical terms, describing the cosmos as a ‘symphony of alternating currents’ that works on principles of vibration and resonance, with its ‘harmonies being played on a scale of electrical vibrations across a vast range in octaves.’ He wanted to explore these vibrations by experimenting with the full range of frequencies between the 60 Hz. frequency of alternating current and the very high frequencies of visible light.
In my research for the film I was looking for the underlying principles that were informing Tesla’s thought, with the intent first to understand their historical context, and then to interpret them through music, sound and image as an integral part of the film.
From a philosopher in Belgrade I learned that Tesla had rejected most of the physics of the 20th century and instead looked to the past for inspiration. Beginning with the mathematics of the ancient Greeks and informed by the ideas of 18th and 19th century physicists and natural philosophers such as Galvani and Volta, he created his original theory of the world on the basis of the acoustic resonators developed by Helmholtz and a modified version of Lord Kelvin’s theory of the aether.
The ‘aether’ has been acknowledged and understood since antiquity as a philosophic and scientific concept that reveals the existence of a field of energy underlying all of physical reality. It has been described in ancient Greek mythology, in the writings of Pythagoras and Plato, as Aristotle’s ‘quintessence’ or ‘fifth element’, Spinoza’s one substance, Descartes’ vortical occupation of space, to ki, prana, pneuma, life energy, vital energy and ‘orgone’. Now a version of it may also have come back into physics as ‘zero point energy’, ‘dark energy’, or ‘space energy’.
I began research in the collections of the Bakken library by focusing first on the works of Helmholtz, Lord Kelvin, Dominique Arago, Michael Faraday, Luigi Galvani and Allesandro Volta, followed by articles on Nikola Tesla’s experiments and his contributions to medicine, and historical documentation of theories of the aether. Later I also studied several artifacts from the museum’s collections, including the Lakhovsky Multiwave Oscillator (MWO) and some of the violet ray devices.
The principle of acoustic resonators developed by Helmholtz forms the basis of musical instrument design, in which the body of an instrument amplifies sound by producing natural resonance, or ‘standing waves’. Helmholtz showed how different forces could set the aether in motion, based on these same principles of resonance. Lord Kelvin developed an aether vortex model of the electron in an effort to explain some of the properties of electricity. His intuition was that everything in the universe was made up of oscillating electron vortices of aether . Dominique Arago contributed to Tesla’s knowledge with his discovery of the way rotating bodies create magnetism.
Tesla was also influenced by the historic notion of ‘vitalism’ – the predominant concept of life since prehistoric times throughout the world – and the Bakken has a wealth of material related to its role in the history of the life sciences and of medicine. From my reading in the collections I learned that Galvani said the vital spirit was electricity flowing through the nerves, and he proved by experiment it was a detectable, measurable entity. Volta proved that Galvani had discovered a new kind of electricity – a steady current rather than sparks. I also learned that Tesla had experimented on himself with high-frequency currents and discovered they could pass through his body without harm, and that such currents may be of medical use.
Further reading of articles in the collections revealed that Tesla was very interested in the electrical component of life energy, and in both the healthful and harmful effects of electricity on the body. Articles and writings about a medical instrument known as the Lakhovsky Multiwave Oscillator revealed that it is an antenna attached to a Tesla coil which operates on principles of resonance. The antenna emits electromagnetic waves across the whole frequency spectrum, which then combine with secondary waves from the resonator to produce harmonics, or standing waves. Out of this field of frequencies, each cell in the body finds the wavelength it needs and resonates, like an instrument in tune with certain sounds.
Readings of the work of 18th and 19th century physicists and natural philosophers revealed historic precedents for an understanding of aetheric energy based on principles of acoustics. Michael Faraday worked on a theory of sound and developed the principle of acoustic induction, or resonance. He discovered that the interference of two or more lines of force could result in standing waves. From the writings of John Tyndall I learned that he developed principles of vibration and resonance from his study of the movement of sound waves through the air, which he then transposed to describe the movement of light waves through the aether.
So too, research in the collections helped me further understand the year Tesla spent in Colorado Springs (1899) conducting experiments with the wireless transmission of energy through the aether, based on acoustic principles of resonance and vibration. For this purpose he built a huge Tesla coil, known as a magnifying transmitter, capable of sending out millions of volts of electricity. First he discovered the resonant frequency of the earth and then he demonstrated that at the right frequency, the earth would respond resonantly to the transmitter’s vibrations, with outgoing and returning currents clashing and forming standing waves between the earth and the ionosphere, like harmonics on an open vibrating string. This is the discovery of Nikola Tesla’s that convinced him it would be possible to tap into this resonant movement of the aether as a nontoxic and renewable source of energy. It is this musical understanding of energy which connects electromagnetism, physics, medicine and music – knowledge which forms the basis of Pictures of Infinity.
As a result of the support of the Bakken Library, Museum, and staff, I was able to conduct invaluable research into a wide range of topics for my film, which will enable the next phase of film production to begin. Access to historic materials and resources has allowed me to clarify themes that will be used in the work and to also gain further understanding of how the people themselves related to this unique understanding of energy, and to each other’s discoveries. My work seeks to honour those involved in this pursuit and the institutional support I received to this end has been critical. Thank you.
[ Summary of research conducted at the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity in Life, Minneapolis USA in September 2007. The support of the Bakken Library is gratefully acknowledged. ]
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