For this Fun Friday, I introduce the words of one Nicola Tesla. People Tesla because of the car that bears his name. That company actually has no actual connection to the man. Tesla himself is a much more colorful individual than Elon Musk or most any tech billionaire today.
Tesla was a college dropout whose brilliant mind led him to invent arc lights (such as HID headlights and streetlights), the radio tuner, and the speedometer. He invented the kind of motor that is used on almost anything that moves, radio remote control, and wireless charging. He might have also experimented in teleportation, and bringing people back from the dead like Dr. Frankenstein, if you believe some stories. There were also other projects so weird that most normal people would not even conceive of them.
Tesla was brilliant and also severely disturbed. He was one of the great futurists of the early 20th century and actually invented large chunks of that future himself.
Wirelessly powered planes, and the internet
When Tesla made predictions for the 21st century, people tended to listen. This article from Paleofuture talks about Tesla’s predictions of how wireless power would transform everything from radio to airplanes. He was right about the radio part, in a sense: he predicted a level of global connectedness that isn’t so different from the mobile internet. On the other hand his idea for wirelessly powered planes never did come anywhere close.
Why is that? As part of his research on wireless power, Tesla discovered the rule of squares for attenuation. You can broadcast electricity wirelessly, but as you double the distance, you get only 1/4 the power. Quadruple the distance and you get 1/16 the power. Every time you double the distance between the transmitter and the receiver you lose 75% of the power. This is a very important property of electricity. It’s why a radio station needs to broadcast a signal at 100,000 watts when you need less than .1 watt to receive it.
The rule of squares pretty much killed wireless power for about 100 years. Today’s cell phones use inductive charging coils which need to be within millimeters of the charging pad (itself a miniature radio station) in order to receive enough power to charge the battery. Broadcasting enough power to actually make a plane fly… that didn’t happen.
In fact, despite many experiments with wireless electricity, Tesla discovered two things. One was the Tesla coil. You know it as that thing that you find in museums that generates lightning bolts. He also invented an innovative way to cook steaks. All you have to do is put a million watts through a tower. Then let cows graze around them, and your corn-fed beef turns into perfectly cooked steaks pretty easily.