Tesla – Lecture at Columbia University

In endeavoring to obtain the required electrostatic effects in this manner, I have, as might be expected, encountered many difficulties which I have been gradually overcoming, but I am not as yet prepared to dwell upon my experiences in this direction.
I believe that the disruptive discharge of a condenser will play an important part in the future, for it offers vast possibilities, not only in the way of producing light in a more efficient manner and in the line indicated by theory, but also in many other respects.
For years the efforts of inventors have been directed towards obtaining electrical energy from heat by means of the thermopile. It might seem invidious to remark that but few know what is the real trouble with the thermopile. It is not the inefficiency or small output—though these are great drawbacks—but the fact that the thermopile has its phylloxera, that is, that by constant use it is deteriorated, which has thus far prevented its introduction on an industrial scale. Now that all modern research seems to point with certainty to the use of electricity of excessively high tension, the question must present itself to many whether it is not possible to obtain in a practicable manner this form of energy from heat. We have been used to look upon an electrostatic machine as a plaything, and somehow we couple with it the idea of the inefficient and impractical. But now we must think differently, for now we know that everywhere we have to deal with the same forces, and that it is a mere question of inventing proper methods or apparatus for rendering them available.
In the present systems of electrical distribution, the employment of the iron with its wonderful magnetic properties allows us to reduce considerably the size of the apparatus; but, in spite of this, it is still very cumbersome. The more we progress in the study of electric and magnetic phenomena, the more we become convinced that the present methods will be short-lived. For the production of light, at least, such heavy machinery would seem to be unnecessary. The energy required is very small, and if light can be obtained as efficiently as, theoretically, it appears possible, the apparatus need have but a very small output. There being a strong probability that the illuminating methods of the future will involve the use of very high potentials, it seems very desirable to perfect a contrivance capable of converting the energy of heat into energy of the requisite form. Nothing to speak of has been done towards this end, for the thought that electricity of some 50,000 or 100,000 volts pressure or more, even if obtained, would be unavailable for practical purposes, has deterred inventors from working in this direction.
In Fig. 30 a plan of connections is shown for converting currents of high, into currents of low, tension by means of the disruptive discharge of a condenser. This plan has been used by me frequently for operating a few incandescent lamps required in the laboratory. Some difficulties have been encountered in the arc of the discharge which I have been able to overcome to a great extent; besides this, and the adjustment necessary for the proper working, no other difficulties have been met with, and it was easy to operate ordinary lamps; and even motors, in this manner. The line being connected to the ground, all the wires could be handled with perfect impunity, no matter how high the potential at the terminals of the condenser. In these experiments a high tension induction coil, operated from a battery or from an alternate current machine, was employed to charge the condenser; but the induction coil might be replaced by an apparatus of a different kind, capable of giving electricity of such high tension. In this manner, direct or alternating currents may be converted, and in both cases the current-impulses may be of any desired frequency. When the currents charging the condenser are of the same direction, and it is desired that the converted currents should also be of one direction, the resistance of the discharging circuit should, of course, be so chosen that there are no oscillations.