- 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

THE STRAIGHT DOPE: What's up with broadcast power?
http://www. straightdope.com/ classics/a3_274.html
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.

Academia accused Tesla of crackpotism for, (among other things,) his claim that the whole Earth could resonate electrically at 10Hz, 15Hz, 20Hz, etc., 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 frequencies.

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. It relies on crazy ideas such as radio waves bending around the Earth, crossing oceans, etc. 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" and "corona loss," 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 small 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 experimentally.)

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 conflicts 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. Some of the (Columbia's Pupin) were heavy investors in Marconi, Inc, and were running obvious poison-pen schemes to ridicule Marconi's enemies. But 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 shift tactics and keep up the ridicule. They've made up their minds? So don't confuse them with counterevidence? They're still utterly certain that Tesla was a crackpot, and apparently 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 retract their ridicule and to admit in public 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'd been fighting on the side of "evil" all along.

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 repuatation and public image. People go to great lengths to avoid loss of money, and most will go to far greater lengths to avoid public humiliation.

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 rare 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 desperately keep hoping that everyone somehow forgets their public scoffing.) Sometimes it's silence, but sometimes they break loose from reality entirely, continuing to loudly justify their ridicule in the face of the clear evidence 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 derogatory words.

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 refused to display the Wright Flyer until after director 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.



Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: .
View My Stats