Tesla – Lecture at Columbia University

Another peculiarity of the rapidly alternating discharge of the induction coil is its radically different behavior with respect to points and rounded surfaces.
If a thick wire, provided with a ball at one end and with a point at the other, be attached to the positive terminal of a static machine, practically all the charge will be lost through the point, on account of the enormously greater tension, dependent on the radius of curvature. But if such a wire is attached to one of the terminals of the induction coil, it, will be observed that with very high frequencies streams issue from the ball almost as copiously as from the point (Fig. 13).
It is hardly conceivable that we could produce such a condition to an equal degree in a static machine, for the simple reason, that the tension increases as the square of the density, which in turn is proportional to the radius of curvature; hence, with a steady potential an enormous charge would be required to make streams issue from a polished ball while it is connected with a point. But with. an induction coil the discharge of which alternates with great rapidity it is different: Here we have to deal with two distinct tendencies. First, there is the tendency to escape which exists in a condition of rest, and which depends on the radius of curvature; second, there is the tendency to dissipate into the surrounding air by condenser action, which depends on the surface. When one of these tendencies is at a maximum, the other is at a minimum. At the point the luminous stream is principally due to the air molecules coming bodily in contact with the point; they are attracted and repelled, charged and discharged, and, their atomic charges being thus disturbed; vibrate and emit light waves. At the ball, on the contrary, there is no doubt that the effect is to a great extent produced inductively, the air molecules not necessarily coming in contact with the ball, though they undoubtedly do so. To convince ourselves of this we only need to exalt the condenser action, for instance, by enveloping the ball, at some distance, by a better conductor than the surrounding medium, the conductor being, of course, insulated; or else by surrounding it with a better dielectric and approaching an insulated conductor; in both cases the streams will break forth more copiously. Also, the larger the ball with a given frequency, or the higher the frequency, the more will the ball have the advantage over the point. But, since a certain intensity of action is required to render the streams visible, it is obvious that in the experiment described the ball should not be taken too large.
In consequence of this two-fold tendency, it is possible to produce by means of points, effects identical to those produced by capacity. Thus, for instance, by attaching to one terminal of the coil a small length of soiled wire, presenting many points and offering great facility to escape, the potential of the coil may be raised to the same value as by attaching to the terminal a polished ball of a surface many times greater than that of the wire.
An interesting experiment, showing the effect of the points, may be performed in the following manner: Attach to one of the terminals of the coil a cotton covered wire about two feet in length, and adjust the conditions so that streams issue from the wire. In this experiment the primary coil should be preferably placed so that it extends only about half way into the secondary coil. Now touch the free terminal of the secondary with a conducting object held in the hand, or else connect it to an insulated body of some size. In this manner the potential on the wire may be enormously raised. The effect of this will be either to increase, or to diminish, the streams: If they increase, the wire is too short; if they diminish, it is too long. By adjusting the length of the wire, a point is found where the touching of the other terminal does not at all affect the streams. In this case the rise of potential is exactly counteracted by the drop through the coil. It will be observed that small lengths of wire produce considerable difference in the magnitude and luminosity of the streams. The primary coil is placed sidewise for two reasons: First, to increase the potential at the wire: and, second, to,increase the drop through the coil. The sensitiveness is thus augmented.
There is still another and far more striking peculiarity of the brush discharge produced by very rapidly alternating currents. To observe this it is best to replace the usual terminals of the coil by two metal columns insulated with a good thickness of ebonite. It is also well to close all fissures and cracks with wax so that the brushes cannot form anywhere except at the tops of the columns. If the conditions are carefully adjusted—which, of course, must be left to the skill of the experimenter—so that the potential rises to an enormous value, one may produce two powerful brushes several inches long, nearly white at their roots, which in the dart: bear a striking resemblance two flames of a gas escaping under pressure (Fig. 14). But they do not only resemble, they are veritable flames, for they are hot. Certainly they are not as hot as a gas burner, but they would be so if the frequency and the potential would be sufficiently high. Produced with, say, twenty thousand alternations per second, the heat is easily perceptible even if the potential is not excessively high. The heat developed is, of course, due to the impact of the air molecules against the terminals and against each other. As, at the ordinary pressures, the mean free path is excessively small, it is possible that in spite of the enormous initial speed imparted to each molecule upon coming in contact with the terminal, its progress—by collision with other molecules—is retarded to such an extent, that it does not get away far from the terminal, but may strike the same many times in succession. The higher the frequency, the less the molecule is able to get away, and this the more so, as for a given effect the potential required is smaller; and a frequency is conceivable—perhaps even obtainable—at which practically the same molecules would strike the terminal. Under such conditions the exchange of the molecules would be very slow, and the heat produced at, and very near, the terminal would be excessive. But if the frequency would go on increasing constantly, the heat produced would begin to diminish for obvious reasons. In the positive brush of a static machine the exchange of the molecules is very rapid, the stream is constantly of one direction, and there are fewer collisions; hence the heating effect must be very small. Anything that impairs the facility of exchange tends to increase the local heat produced. Thus, if a bulb be held over the terminal of the coil so as to enclose the brush, the air contained in the bulb is very quickly brought to a high temperature. If a, glass tube be held over the brush so as to allow the draught to carry the brush upwards, scorching hot air escapes at the top of the tube. Anything held within the brush is, of course, rapidly heated, and the possibility of using such heating effects for some purpose or other suggests itself.