Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tesla's Reading Lamp

Nikola Tesla is easily the most neglected man of the 20th century. Not only did he bring us a list of inventions we couldn't imagine life without - such as alternating current, which powers the internet - but he did it with unsurpassed style. Above, Tesla turns on his reading lamp.

Tesla's good friend Samuel Clemens checking out Tesla's latest light-bulbs - Tesla lurks in the background. 

Tesla holding one of his incandescent light bulbs - note there aren't any wires visible - that's because there aren't any. The  bulb is being powered wirelessly. 

In this engraving Tesla demonstrates his new "fluorescent" lights - notice that they look exactly like the lights used to illuminate buildings, including the G.S.D. today, in 2010. Again,there are no wires because Tesla is using his body as a ground and wirelessly transmitted electricity to light them. 

A major land art installation in 2004 by Richard Box, used both of the Tesla's inventions illustrated in the above engraving - wireless transmission of electricity and fluorescent light tubes. Only, in this case, the electricity isn't being transmitted wirelessly on purpose, but rather as a by-product of the magnetic fields created by the high-tension power lines above.

In this installation, thousands of standard fluorescent light bulbs are simply "planted" into holes in the ground. The charge differential between the ground and the charged air causes them to glow. Even better, they dim and flicker out if a person walks near them - because people conduct the charged electric field to the ground better than the lights.

Here they are glowing at night. You can watch the entire installation and the lights in action on vimeo: http://vimeo.com/7293382

The Guardian G2 26.02.04


How does this field of lights work?

Ian Sample

The 1301 fluorescent tubes are powered only by the electric fields generated by overhead powerlines.

Richard Box, artist-in-residence at Bristol University’s physics department, got the idea for the installation after a chance conversation with a friend. ‘He was telling me he used to play with a fluorescent tube under the pylons by his house,’ says Box. ‘He said it lit up like a light sabre.’

Box decided to see if he could fill a field with tubes lit by powerlines. After a few weeks hunting for a site, he found a field, slipped the local farmer £200 and planted 3,600 square metres with tubes collected from hospitals.

A fluorescent tube glows when an electrical voltage is set up across it. The electric field set up inside the tube excites atoms of mercury gas, making them emit ultraviolet light. This invisible light strikes the phosphor coating on the glass tube, making it glow. Because powerlines are typically 400,000 volts, and Earth is at an electrical potential voltage of zero volts, pylons create electric fields between the cables they carry and the ground.

Box denies that he aimed to draw attention to the potential dangers of powerlines, ‘For me, it was just the amazement of taking something that’s invisible and making it visible,’ he says. ‘When it worked, I thought: ‘This is amazing.’’

Now that you've got the gist of Richard Box's installation, you can understand what Tesla was going for at Wardenclyffe, pictured above. Tesla's plan was to intentionally, rather than accidentally, create charged fields using a giant transmitter.Telsa thought he could transmit charges to the upper atmosphere using his tower.

As reported in the New York Times, Tesla told investors that his new tower would be able to broadcast "news, stock reports and even pictures." "The first tower rose on rural Long Island and, by 1903, stood more than 18 stories tall. One midsummer night, it emitted a dull rumble and proceeded to hurl bolts of electricity into the sky. The blinding flashes, The New York Sun reported, “seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand.”

This where the story gets really interesting.  It's well documented that Tesla's real intention for the tower was to wirelessly broadcast electricity by generating immense electrical fields. Tesla envisioned a global network of such towers, providing free electricity to everyone without wires or powerlines. 

According to legend, when the tower was almost completed, Tesla unveiled its true purpose to his main investor, American Super-Villain John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan was astounded, but not so astounded as to forget his business interests.  Morgan's first question was "where do you put the meter?" 

Tesla had no answer. The fact was that wireless electricity was not compatible with capitalism - Tesla's towers could not be metered and hence would have to be built by government if anything, excluding pirate investors like Morgan from the action. Here's a movie version of how events are thought to have gone down: Watch Orson Welles play JP Morgan

Within a week, Morgan's investment in the tower was pulled, and quickly investment was withdrawn by other investors as well, likely warned off by Morgan. 

There may in fact be a design solution to every problem, but getting any of them implemented is pure politics. 

J. P. Morgan, hitting people with his cane.

What a large Tesla Coil looks like with modern photography. Imagine the impression such a display would have made on a nineteenth century audience.  Equal to Tesla's skills at invention were his skills at showmanship - he understood that nothing is more dazzling than new technology, properly displayed. 

Fun with Tesla coils in Australia - better than a car alarm.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


In the 20th Century, high technology and building architecture have gone hand in hand.  Indeed, it's difficult to imagine a modern building which does not include the major scientific breakthrough of the late 19th century - alternating current, which is designed into the structure of nearly every building. As breakthroughs were made in understanding of electricity, lighting, appliances, and computing, all have been quickly integrated into built structures, to such a degree that its often hardly noticeable to our eyes.

This has not generally been the case, however, with the architecture of the landscape, which often to this day unremarkable technologically. Even when high technology materials or components are used, (such as polymer threads in engineered soils to stabilize steep slopes, or computerized irrigation systems) great efforts are often taken to conceal these elements in an attempt to create a naturalistic impression. 

But this was not always the case. The power of the Roman aqueducts, the high of engineering technology at the time, were displayed through elaborate public fountains. In the Renaissance, designers took this yet further, using mechanical power from such water to create machines, used not for production but for powering musical water organs, or moving automatons or mechanized fountain displays, designed only to delight. It's rare to even find sculpture in the contemporary landscape, outside of dedicated 'sculpture gardens.' The cultures of previous ages seem to have felt that their highest achievements should as much as possible be displayed outdoors and in public, so that many could see and appreciate, where as we have tended to keep them indoors. Is a reversal possible?  Can the landscape become a place which is integrated with the advances in other fields for the purpose of its display and appreciation?