The Problem of Increasing Human Energy – Nikola Tesla


The most valuable observation made in the course of these investigations was the extraordinary behavior of the atmosphere toward electric impulses of excessive electromotive force. The experiments showed that the air at the ordinary pressure became distinctly conducting, and this opened up the wonderful prospect of transmitting large amounts of electrical energy for industrial purposes to great distances without wires, a possibility which, up to that time, was thought of only as a scientific dream. Further investigation revealed the important fact that the conductivity imparted to the air by these electrical impulses of many millions of volts increased very rapidly with the degree of rarefaction, so that air strata at very moderate altitudes, which are easily accessible, offer, to all experimental evidence, a perfect conducting path, better than a copper wire, for currents of this character.

Thus the discovery of these new properties of the atmosphere not only opened up the possibility of transmitting, without wires, energy in large amounts, but, what was still more significant, it afforded the certitude that energy could be transmitted in this manner economically. In this new system it matters little—in fact, almost nothing—whether the transmission is effected at a distance of a few miles or of a few thousand miles.

While I have not, as yet, actually effected a transmission of a considerable amount of energy, such as would be of industrial importance, to a great distance by this new method, I have operated several model plants under exactly the same conditions which will exist in a large plant of this kind, and the practicability of the system is thoroughly demonstrated. The experiments have shown conclusively that, with two terminals maintained at an elevation of not more than thirty thousand to thirty-five thousand feet above sea-level, and with an electrical pressure of fifteen to twenty million volts, the energy of thousands of horse-power can be transmitted over distances which may be hundreds and, if necessary, thousands of miles. I am hopeful, however, that I may be able to reduce very considerably the elevation of the terminals now required, and with this object I am following up an idea which promises such a realization. There is, of course, a popular prejudice against using an electrical pressure of millions of volts, which may cause sparks to fly at distances of hundreds of feet, but, paradoxical as it may seem, the system, as I have described it in a technical publication, offers greater personal safety than most of the ordinary distribution circuits now used in the cities. This is, in a measure, borne out by the fact that, although I have carried on such experiments for a number of years, no injury has been sustained either by me or any of my assistants.

But to enable a practical introduction of the system, a number of essential requirements are still to be fulfilled. It is not enough to develop appliances by means of which such a transmission can be effected. The machinery must be such as to allow the transformation and transmission, of electrical energy under highly economic and practical conditions. Furthermore, an inducement must be offered to those who are engaged in the industrial exploitation of natural sources of power, as waterfalls, by guaranteeing greater returns on the capital invested than they can secure by local development of the property.

From that moment when it was observed that, contrary to the established opinion, low and easily accessible strata of the atmosphere are capable of conducting electricity, the transmission of electrical energy without wires has become a rational task of the engineer, and one surpassing all others in importance. Its practical consummation would mean that energy would be available for the uses of man at any point of the globe, not in small amounts such as might be derived from the ambient medium by suitable machinery, but in quantities virtually unlimited, from waterfalls. Export of power would then become the chief source of income for many happily situated countries, as the United States, Canada, Central and South America, Switzerland, and Sweden. Men could settle down everywhere, fertilize and irrigate the soil with little effort, and convert barren deserts into gardens, and thus the entire globe could be transformed and made a fitter abode for mankind. It is highly probable that if there are intelligent beings on Mars they have long ago realized this very idea, which would explain the changes on its surface noted by astronomers. The atmosphere on that planet, being of considerably smaller density than that of the earth, would make the task much more easy.

It is probable that we shall soon have a self-acting heat-engine capable of deriving moderate amounts of energy from the ambient medium. There is also a possibility—though a small one—that we may obtain electrical energy direct from the sun. This might be the case if the Maxwellian theory is true, according to which electrical vibrations of all rates should emanate from the sun. I am still investigating this subject. Sir William Crookes has shown in his beautiful invention known as the”radiometer” that rays may produce by impact a mechanical effect, and this may lead to some important revelation as to the utilization of the sun’s rays in novel ways. Other sources of energy may be opened up, and new methods of deriving energy from the sun discovered, but none of these or similar achievements would equal in importance the transmission of power to any distance through the medium. I can conceive of no technical advance which would tend to unite the various elements of humanity more effectively than this one, or of one which would more add to and more economize human energy. It would be the best means of increasing the force accelerating the human mass. The mere moral influence of such a radical departure would be incalculable. On the other hand if at any point of the globe energy can be obtained in limited quantities from the ambient medium by means of a self-acting heat-engine or otherwise, the conditions will remain the same as before. Human performance will be increased, but men will remain strangers as they were.

I anticipate that any, unprepared for these results, which, through long familiarity, appear to me simple and obvious, will consider them still far from practical application. Such reserve, and even opposition, of some is as useful a quality and as necessary an element in human progress as the quick receptivity and enthusiasm of others. Thus, a mass which resists the force at first, once set in movement, adds to the energy. The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter—for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way. He lives and labors and hopes with the poet who says:

Schaff’ das Tagwerk meiner H—nde, Hohes Gl—ck, dass ich’s vollende!
Lass, o lass mich nicht ermatten!
Nein, es sind nicht leere Tr—ume:
Jetzt nur Stangen, diese B—ume
Geben einst noch Frucht und Schatten. [1]

1 Daily work—my hands’ employment, To complete is pure enjoyment!
Let, oh, let me never falter!
No! there is no empty dreaming:

Lo! these trees, but bare poles seeming, Yet will yield both food and shelter!

Goethe’s “Hope”
Translated by William Gibson, Com. U. S. N.