TESLA'S SUPPOSED CRACKPOTISM - Bill B.
The peak of Tesla's career came in his early 30s, when he sold his
alternating-current patents to George Westinghouse for big bucks. (He
later got cuffed out of part of it.) He also did pioneering work in radio
and other fields. But thereafter he frittered away his genius and hundreds
of thousands of dollars of other people's money on one hairbrained scheme
after another. Broadcast power was one such idea. - Cecil Adams
Nikola Tesla essentially invented the modern AC power grid. The success
of Westinghouse Inc. was based on their ownership of Tesla's patents.
Tesla invented the brushless AC motor, the step-up/down power
distribution system, as well as the Spark Transmitter; the kilowatt radio
transmitter that Marconi used in order to communicate across the Atlantic.
But then in Tesla's later years he supposedly descended into crackpotism.
Let's look at the details.
THE STRAIGHT DOPE: What's up with broadcast power?
Academia accused Tesla of crackpotism for, (among other things,) his claim
that the whole Earth could resonate electrically at 10Hz, 15Hz, 20Hz,
all the way up into the tens of kilohertz. He claimed to have discovered
this phenomenon during his radio observations of lightning strikes.
Balderdash! Obvious lunacy! (grin!) The physicists of the time would
have none of it. But then decades later, in the 1950s after Tesla was
safely dead, during investigations of the VLF radio signals produced by
lightning, it was discovered that... the whole Earth can resonate
electrically at 7Hz, 14Hz, etc.
The phenomenon is today known as the Schumann resonances. Named after its
discoverer. But this changes nothing, eh? Tesla is still a crackpot!
Tesla also claimed that he could broadcast usable energy worldwide from a
single radio transmitter. Garbage! The physicists of 1910 know that
radio *can't bend around the Earth.* Also, Tesla was using low frequencies
(below 10KHz), and today everyone knows that your receiving antenna must
be immensely long to intercept significant power at those
Too bad an engineer in the 1980s [Ohio State's James F. Corum] actually
bothered to sit down and calculate how well Tesla's scheme would have
worked... and found that it was borderline feasible after all. It uses
the Earth-ionosphere waveguide unrecognized during Tesla's time.
Certainly there would be a few megawatts of constant loss to ionospheric
and Earth heating. Similar losses appear in any continent-wide power
grid. But above that, Corum found that the system would only need to
supply extra power whenever distant antennas were tuned correctly, and
were actively pulling in energy. The sky would behave like a huge
electrical grid, where a certain amount of power is lost to wire-heating,
but where customers only draw energy as needed. Only during an increased
customer-demand do the transmitting generators need to run faster.
Oh, also it turns out that we DON'T necessarily need an immense antenna
to receive longwave power. Instead we need a small, high-Q antenna coil.
The Electrical Aperture EA, or "virtual diameter" of any small receiving
antenna can be greatly enlarged by adding a high-Q resonator to the
antenna. Particle physicists are familiar with this effect, since it's
the origin of the enhanced virtual cross section of particle collisions at
certain frequencies(energies.) And radio amateurs use this trick in order
to operate on 160 meters using antennas mounted on cars; antennas which
would otherwise be far too short to function. Even pocket-sized AM radio
receivers are based on the same effect.
So Tesla's broadcast power scheme would have worked, the only question
is... HOW WELL? He very probably could have run clocks, radios, small
motors, and light bulbs worldwide. But Tesla himself claimed that testing
showed that "industrial" amounts of power could be transferred. So he
wasn't a crackpot regarding the power-transmission idea itself. Maybe he
was correct about the high power levels too. Nobody knows, since the
actual numbers would have to be determined by experiment (there's still
too many open questions about the theory to make solid predictions.)
But that doesn't matter, Tesla is STILL A CRACKPOT!
During WWII, Tesla proposed to build a national defense system of "death
ray" towers which could supposedly shoot down aircraft many miles away.
Utter tripe! Experts need not even listen the details, since the claim is
garbage on the face of it! Right? Too bad that modern researchers later
rediscovered Tesla's ideas independently, and put them to heavy use in the
last ten years: the 2002 Nobel prize for chemistry was based on the very
thing Tesla used as his death ray, a narrow beam of atomic clusters
generated by the "electrospray" effect, and then accelerated and deflected
electrically in a vacuum. Tesla's death ray was essentially a water-jet
cutter, but rather than using tiny water drops, it was a cutter using tiny
mercury droplets or tungsten particles, and he sped them up with a linear
accelerator rather than using high pressure pumps. It certainly was a
"death ray." The only question is, what was its lethal range? Modern
water-jet cutters are only lethal over a couple feet at most. Tesla
claimed that he had built and tested a death-ray device, and insisted that
they could take out aircraft over many hundred kilometers range. He put
this down to the extremely colinear trajectories of the charged metal
droplets, an effect not present with water sprays in water jet cutters.
Also, turbulence is proportionally reduced for narrow fluid jets, and
Tesla's particle beam was far more narrow than a water jet. OK, so if
Tesla wasn't insane when making claims about the other stuff, possibly he
was correct about this too (or possibly not, since someone would still
have to replicate Tesla's devices to verify the lethal range
But that doesn't matter, TESLA IS STILL A CRACKPOT. All experts know
this! But maybe we should start to become suspicious about experts who
display a conflict of interest while attacking someone like N. Tesla.
Perhaps it's simply professional jealousy.
In much of Tesla's later work there is a repeating pattern: first the
experts of the time declare that Tesla's claimed breakthroughs are utter
crackpot. Tesla is supposedly a failure. Nobody will invest in his
scheme. Then decades pass, and it turns out that Tesla's claims were at
least partly right (and possibly completely right.) Then it turns out
that the people accusing Tesla of crackpotism hadn't even studied Tesla's
claims. They were indulging in knee-jerk ridicule, simply judging a
"book" that they hadn't bothered to read. But then something strange
happens. Tesla's vindication HAS NO EFFECT. Opinions about him remain
just as low, and the scoffers don't change their tune. They've made up
their minds? Don't confuse them with counterevidence? They're still
utterly certain that Tesla was a crackpot, and nothing sways this. They
fall back and regroup, never admitting their own blunders. They still
insist that Tesla was crazy, even though more and more of their evidence
for this crackpotism is struck down.
Sociologists are familiar with this effect. We're all human, and once a
person publicly uses ridicule against another, the scoffer finds it's
nearly impossible to publicly retract their ridicule and to admit that
they were wrong. I suspect his happens because scoffers are convinced
that they're fighting on the side of good. When it turns out that their
victim was right after all, this demonstrates that the scoffers were not
only wrong, but also were arrogant bullies whose case was based on
ignorance. Their victim was the good one, and if the scoffer admits this,
it means they were fighting on the side of "evil."
How many people could face this about themselves? Many choose mild
insanity instead, and dive into a system of distortion and denial. It's a
classic example of "conflicts of interest" unconsciously distorting their
behavior. But rather than being a money conflict, this involves the
scoffer's public reputation. People go to great lengths to avoid loss of
money, and most will go to even greater lengths to avoid public
I think Cecil of 'Straight Dope' should be extremely cautious about
running down apparent crackpots. *Usually* a crackpot is just what they
seem, but in some cases not. If those crackpots should later turn out to
be legit, then the amount of crow he'd need to swallow becomes stunningly
huge. Those who ridicule innocent victims sometimes gain widespread
infamy once their victim is vindicated. Such things are known to send
lesser men into fitful silence (while they frantically hope that everyone
somehow forgets their public scoffing.) Sometimes it's silence, but
sometimes they break loose from reality entirely, continuing to justify
their ridicule in the face of the clear fact that they were wrong. The
scoffer loses the ability to see the simple fact of their own blunder.
But everyone else sees.
I don't think we're to this point with Tesla yet. Many of his ridiculed
ideas have turned out to be perfectly real, but much is still open to
question, and could be genuinely crackpot. On the other hand, we should
be careful with such issues. Maintain an unbiased scientific stance. In
other words, carefully avoid emotionally loaded descriptions and
We should take a lesson from Langley, the head of the Smithsonian, who
repeatedly and publicly ridiculed the Wright Brothers' claimed flying
machine, and then found himself trapped when their claims later proved to
be real. Langley opted for mild insanity rather than owning up to his
gigantic mistake. He still insisted until his death that the Wright
Brothers were liars and frauds (and as a result, the Smithsonian displayed
no Wright Flyer until after Langley had died. Instead the Wrights donated
the last surviving Flyer to a museum in Britain.) Such is the insanity
triggered by public ridicule of "obviously crazy" discoveries which later
turn out to be real.
Max Planck, speaking on this sort of insanity: "A new scientific truth
does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the
light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new
generation grows up that is familiar with it." Or, "science advances,
funeral by funeral." Researchers call this "Planck's Other Law."
In my opinion, Planck's law owes its existence to the extreme difficulty
we humans have in recanting a public stance of confident ridicule. On one
hand, rational opponents of an idea are REQUIRED find it easy to change
their minds when the evidence shows a need for it. But if an idea's
opponents have indulged in sneering, they now have a major conflict of
interest going on. An immense emotional bias is involved, and their
position is no longer rational. They can't just say that they were wrong,
they must also face the fact that they were stupid, arrogant, and perhaps
even helped stand in the way of human progress. People in this position
tend to opt for delusion rather than eat so much crow.
The way to avoid such things is to ...INSPECT THE EVIDENCE. Investigate
issues thoroughly before daring to use namecalling such as the "crackpot"
label. Even better, don't get personal in the first place: be like a
scientist and stick to emotionally neutral descriptions. Maybe Cecil has
gained expertise in Tesla's history, and his conclusions are based on
careful study. I suspect the opposite. I suspect that he acquired a
negative view of Tesla from biased descriptions by other scoffers, and now
he's selecting evidence in order to maintain that view. I hope I'm wrong.
Conflict of interest can be an immensely powerful force in the sciences,
and it is greatly amplified by ignorance:
"It's a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one
begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit
facts." - Sherlock Holmes (A C Doyle)
It's perfectly possible that Tesla was wrong about broadcast power, etc.
It hasn't been investigated by contemporary researchers, only by Tesla
hobbyists, so it's still open to debate. But if we insist that he wasn't
just wrong, but was also a big flaming crackpot, then we put ourselves
into a serious bind if those "crackpot" discoveries we've been ridiculing
in public should ever prove to be sound.