Tesla – Lecture at Columbia University

When contemplating this singular phenomenon of the hot brush, we cannot help being convinced that a similar process must take place in the ordinary flame, and it seems strange that after all these centuries past of familiarity with the flame, now, in this era of electric lighting and heating; we are finally led to recognize, that since time immemorial we have, after all, always had “electric light and: heat” at our disposal. It is also of no little interest to contemplate, that we have a possible way of producing—by other than chemical means—a veritable flame; which would give light and heat without any material being consumed, without any chemical process taking place, and to accomplish this, we only need to perfect methods of producing enormous frequencies and potentials. I have no doubt that if the potential could be made to alternate with sufficient rapidity and power, the brush formed at the end of a wire would lose its electrical characteristics and would become flamelike. The flame must be due to electrostatic molecular action.
This phenomenon now explains in a manner which can hardly be doubted the frequent accidents occurring in storms. It is well known that objects are often set on fire without the lightning striking them. We shall presently see how this can happen. On a nail in a roof, for instance, or on a projection of any kind, more or less conducting, or rendered so by dampness, a powerful brush may appear. If the lightning strikes somewhere in .the neighborhood the enormous potential may be made to alternate or fluctuate perhaps many million times a second. The air molecules are violently attracted and repelled, and by their impact produce such a powerful heating effect that a fire is started. It is conceivable that a ship at sea may, in this manner, catch fire at many points at once. When we consider, that even with the comparatively low frequencies obtained from a dynamo machine, and with potentials of no more than one or two hundred thousand volts, the heating effects are considerable, we may imagine how much more powerful they must be with frequencies and potentials many times greater: and the above explanation seems, to say the least, very probable. Similar explanations may have been suggested, but I am not aware that, up to the present; the heating effects of a brush produced by a rapidly alternating potential have been experimentally demonstrated, at least not to such a remarkable degree.
By preventing completely the exchange of the air molecules, the local heating effect may be so exalted as to bring a body to incandescence. Thus, for instance, if a small button, or preferably a very thin wire or filament be enclosed in an unexhausted globe and connected with the terminal of the coil, it may be rendered incandescent. The phenomenon is made much more interesting by the rapid spinning round in a circle of the top of the filament, thus presenting the appearance of a luminous funnel, Fig. 15, which widens when the potential is increased. When the potential is small the end of the filament may perform irregular motions, suddenly changing from one to the other, or it may describe an ellipse; but when the potential is very high it always spins in a circle; and so does generally a thin straight wire attached freely to the terminal of the coil. These motions are, of course, due to the impact of the molecules, and the irregularity. in the distribution of the potential, owing to the roughness and dissymmetry of the wire or filament. With a perfectly symmetrical and polished wire such motions would probably not occur. That the motion is not likely to be due to other causes is evident from the fact that it is not of a definite direction, and that in a very highly exhausted globe it ceases altogether. The possibility of bringing a body to incandescence in an exhausted globe, or even when not at all enclosed, would seem to afford a possible way of obtaining light effects, which, in perfecting methods of producing rapidly alternating potentials, might be rendered available for useful purposes.