Experiments with Alternate Currents of Very High Frequency and their Application to Methods of Artificial Illumination, Part 2 - A Nikola Tesla Lecture

Part 2 of a lecture delivered by Nikola Tesla to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia College, New York.

(Read Part 1 here.)

The Electrical Engineer, A Weekly Journal of Electrical Engineering, Volume VIII, From July 3, 1891 to December 25, 1891.



By preventing completely the exchange of the air molecules, the local heating effect may be so exalted as to bring a body to incandescence. Thus, for instance, if a small button, or preferably a very thin wire or filament, be enclosed in an unexhausted globe and connected with the terminal of the coil, it may be rendered incandescent. The phenomenon is made much more interesting by the rapid spinning round in a circle of the top of the filament, thus presenting the appearance of a luminous funnel, Fig. 16, which widens when the potential is increased. When the potential is small the end of the filament may perform irregular motions, suddenly changing from one to the other, or it may describe an ellipse; but when the potential is very high it always spins in a circle; and so does generally a thin straight wire attached freely to the terminal of the coil. These motions are, of course, due to the impact of the molecules, and the irregularity in the distribution of the potential, owing to the roughness and dissymmetry of the wire or filament. With a perfectly symmetrical and polished wire such motions would probably not occur. That the motion is not likely to be due to other causes is evident from the fact that it is not of a definite direction, and that in a very highly-exhausted globe it ceases altogether. The possibility of bringing a body to incandescence in an exhausted globe, or even when not at all enclosed, would seem to afford a possible way of obtaining light effects, which, in perfecting methods of producing rapidly alternating potentials, might be rendered available for useful purposes.

FIG. 16.

In employing a commercial coil, the production of very powerful brush effects is attended with considerable difficulties, for whom these high frequencies and enormous potentials are used, the best insulation is apt to give way. Usually the coil is insulated well enough to stand the strain from convolution to convolution, since two double silk-covered paraffined wires will withstand a pressure of several thousand volts; the difficulty lies principally in preventing the breaking through from the secondary to the primary, which is greatly facilitated by the streams issuing from the latter. In the coil, of course, the strain is greatest from section to section, but usually in a larger coil there are so many sections that the danger of a sudden giving way is not very great. No difficulty will generally be encountered in that direction, and besides, the liability of injuring the coil internally is very much reduced by the fact that the effect most likely to be produced is simply a gradual heating, which, when far enough advanced, could not fail to be observed. The principal necessity is then to prevent the streams between he primary and the tube, not only on account of the heating and possible injury, but also because the streams may diminish very considerably the potential difference available at the terminals. A few hints as to how this may be accomplished will probably be found useful in most of these experiments with the ordinary induction coil.

One of the ways is to wind a short primary, Fig. 17a, so that the difference of potential is not at that length great enough to cause the breaking forth of the streams through the insulating tube. The length of the primary should be determined by experiment. Both the ends of the coil should be brought out on one end through a plug of insulating material fitting in the tube as illustrated. In such a disposition one terminal of the secondary is attached to a body the surface of which is determined with the greatest care so as to produce the greatest rise in the potential. At the other terminal a powerful brush appears, which may be experimented upon.

FIG. 17a. FIG. 17b.

The above plan necessitates the employment of a primary of comparatively small size, and it is apt to heat when powerful effects are desirable for a certain length of time. In such a case it is better to employ a larger coil, Fig. 17b, and introduce it from one side of the tube, until the streams begin to appear. In this case the nearest terminal of the secondary may be connected to the primary or to the ground, which is practically the same thing, if the primary is connected directly to the machine. In the case of ground connections it is well to determine experimentally the frequency which is best suited under the conditions of the test. Another way of obviating the streams, more or less, is to make the primary in sections and supply it from separate well insulated sources.

In many of these experiments, when powerful effects are wanted for a short time, it is advantageous to use iron cores with the primaries. In such case a very large primary coil may be wound and placed side by side with the secondary, and, the nearest terminal of the latter being connected to the primary, a laminated iron core is introduced through the primary into the secondary as far as the streams will permit. Under these conditions an excessively powerful brush, several inches long, which may be appropriately called "St. Elmo's hot fire," may be caused to appear at the other terminal of the secondary, producing striking effects. It is a most powerful ozonizer, so powerful, indeed, that only a few minutes are sufficient to fill the whole room with the smell of ozone, and it undoubtedly possesses the quality of exciting chemical affinities.

For the production of ozone, alternating currents of very high frequency are eminently suited, not only on account of the advantages they offer in the way of conversion but also because of the fact of the ozonizing action of a discharge is dependent on the frequency as well as on the potential, this being undoubtedly confirmed by observation.

In these experiments if an iron core is used it should be carefully watched, as it is apt to get excessively hot in an incredibly short time. To give an idea of the rapidity of the heating, I will state that by passing a powerful current through a coil with many turns, the inserting within the same of a thin iron wire for no more than one second's time is sufficient to heat the wire to something like 100deg C.

But this rapid heating need not discourage us in the use of iron cores in connection with rapidly alternating currents. I have for a long time been convinced that in the industrial distribution by means of transformers, some such plan as the following might be practicable. We may use a comparatively small iron core, subdivided, or perhaps not even subdivided. We may surround this core with a considerable thickness of material which is fireproof and conducts the heat poorly, and on top of that we may place the primary and secondary windings. By using either higher frequencies or greater magnetizing forces, we may by hysteresis and eddy currents heat the iron core so far as to bring it nearly to its maximum permeability, which, as Hopkinson has shown, may be as much as 16 times greater than that at ordinary temperatures. If the iron core were perfectly enclosed it would not be deteriorated by the heat, and, if the enclosure of fireproof material would be sufficiently thick, only a limited amount of energy could be radiated in spite of the high temperature. Transformers have been constructed by me on that plan, but for lack of time no thorough tests have as yet been made.

Another way of adapting the iron core to rapid alternations, or, generally speaking, reducing the frictional losses, is to produce by continuous magnetization a flow of something like 7,000 or 8,000 lines per square centimetre through the core, and then work with weak magnetizing forces and preferably high frequencies around the point of greatest permeability. A higher efficiency of conversion and greater output are obtainable in this manner. I have also employed this principle in connection with machines in which there is no reversal of polarity. In these types of machines, as long as there are only few pole projections, there is no great gain, as the maxima and minima of magnetization are far from the point of maximum permeability; but when the number of the pole projections is very great, the required rate of change may be obtained, without the magnetization varying so far as to depart greatly from the point of maximum permeability, and the gain is considerable.

FIG. 18.

The above described arrangements refer only to the use of commercial coils as ordinarily constructed. If it is desired to construct a coil for the express purpose of performing with it such experiments as I have described, or, generally, rendering it capable of withstanding the greatest possible difference of potential, then a construction as indicated in Fig. 18 will be found of advantage. The coil in this case is formed of two independent parts which are wound oppositely, the connection between both being made near the primary. The potential in the middle being zero, there is not much tendency to jump to the primary, and not much insulation is required. In some cases the middle point may, however, be connected to the primary or to the ground. In such a coil the places of greatest difference of potential are far apart and the coil is capable of withstanding an enormous strain. The two parts may be movable so as to allow a slight adjustment of the capacity effect.

As to the manner of insulating the coil, it will be found convenient to proceed in the following way: First, the wire should be boiled in paraffin, until all the air is out; then the coil is wound by running the wire through melted paraffin, merely for the purpose of fixing the wire. The coil is then taken off from the spool, immersed in a cylindrical vessel filled with pure melted wax, and boiled for a long time until the bubbles cease to appear. The whole is then left to cool down thoroughly, and then the mass is taken out of the vessel and turned up in a lathe. A coil made in this manner and with care is capable of withstanding enormous potential differences.

It may be found convenient to immerse the coil in paraffin oil or some other kind of oil; it is a most effective way of insulating, principally on account of the perfect exclusion of air, but it may be found that, after all, a vessel filled with oil is not a very convenient thing to handle in a laboratory. If an ordinary coil can be dismounted, the primary may be taken out of the tube and the latter plugged up at one end, filled with oil, and the primary reinserted. This affords an excellent insulation, and prevents the formation of the streams.

Of all the experiments which may be performed with rapidly alternating currents, the most interesting are those which concern the production of a practical illuminant. It cannot be denied that the present methods, though they were brilliant advances, are very wasteful. Some better methods must be invented, some more perfect apparatus devised. Modern research has opened new possibilities for the production of an efficient source of light, and the attention of all has been turned in the direction indicated by able pioneers. Many have been carried away by the enthusiasm and passion to discover, but in their zeal to reach results, many have been misled. Starting with the idea of producing electromagnetic waves, they turned their attention, perhaps, too much to the study of electromagnetic effects, and neglected the study of electrostatic phenomena. Naturally, nearly every investigator availed himself of an apparatus similar to that used in earlier experiments. But in those forms of apparatus, while the electromagnetic inductive effects are enormous, the electrostatic effects are excessively small.

In the Hertz experiments, for instance, a high tension induction coil is short-circuited by an arc, the resistance of which is very small, the smaller the more capacity is attached to the terminals; and the difference of potential at these is enormously diminished. On the other hand, when the discharge is not passing between the terminals, the static effects may be considerable, but only qualitatively so, not quantitatively, since their rise and fall is very sudden, and since their frequency is small. In neither case, therefore, are powerful electrostatic effects perceivable. Similar conditions exist when, as in some interesting experiments of Dr. Lodge, Leyden jars are discharged disruptively. It has been thought--and I believe asserted--that in such cases most of the energy is radiated into space. In the light of the experiments which I have described above, it will now not be thought so. I feel safe in asserting that in such cases most of the energy is partly taken up and converted into heat in the arc of the discharge and in the conducting and insulating material of the jar, some energy being, of course, given off by electrification of the air; but the amount of the directly radiated energy is very small.

When a high tension induction coil, operated by currents alternating only 20,000 times a second, has its terminals closed through even a very small jar, practically all the energy passes through the dielectric of the jar, which is heated, and the electrostatic effects manifest themselves outwardly only to a very weak degree. Now the external circuit of a Leyden jar--that is, the arc and the connections of the coatings--may be looked upon as a circuit generating alternating currents of excessively high frequency and fairly high potential, which is closed through the coatings and the dielectric between them, and from the above it is evident that the external electrostatic effects must be very small, even if a recoil circuit be used. These conditions make it appear that with the apparatus usually at hand the observation of powerful electrostatic effects was impossible, and what experience has been gained in that direction is only due to the great ability of the investigators.

But powerful electrostatic effects are a sine qua non of light production on the lines indicated by theory. Electromagnetic effects are primarily unavailable, for the reason that to produce the required effects we would have to pass current impulses through a conductor which, long before the required frequency of the impulses could be reached, would cease to transmit them. On the other hand, electromagnetic waves many times longer than those of light, and producible by sudden discharge of a condenser, could not be utilized, it would seem, except we avail ourselves of their effect upon conductors as in the present methods, which are wasteful. We could not affect by means of such waves the static molecular or atomic charges of a gas, cause them to vibrate and to emit light. Long transverse waves cannot, apparently, produce such effects, since excessively small electromagnetic disturbances may pass readily through miles of air. Such dark waves, unless they are of the length of true light waves, cannot, it would seem, excite luminous radiation in a Geissler tube, and the luminous effects which are producible by induction in a tube devoid of electrodes, I am inclined to consider as being of an electrostatic nature.

To produce such luminous effects, straight electrostatic thrusts are required; these, whatever be their frequency, may disturb the molecular charges and produce light. Since current impulses of the required frequency cannot pass through a conductor of measurable dimensions, we must work with a gas, and then the production of powerful electrostatic effects becomes an imperative necessity.

It has occurred to me, however, that electrostatic effects are in many ways available for the production of light. For instance, we may place a body of some refractory material in a closed, and preferably more or less exhausted, globe, connect it to a source of high, rapidly alternating, potential causing the molecules of the gas to strike it many times a second at enormous speeds, and in this manner, with trillions of invisible hammers, pound it until it gets incandescent: or we may place a body in a very highly-exhausted globe, in a non-striking vacuum, and by employing very high frequencies and potentials transfer sufficient energy from it to other bodies in the vicinity, or in general to the surroundings, to maintain it at any degree of incandescence, or we may, by means of such rapidly alternating high potentials, disturb the ether carried by the molecules of a gas or their static charges, causing them to vibrate and to emit light. But, electrostatic effects being dependent upon the potential and frequency, to produce the most powerful action it is desirable to increase both as far as practicable. It may be possible to obtain quite fair results by keeping either of these factors small, provided the other is sufficiently great; but we are limited in both directions. My experience demonstrates that we cannot go below a certain frequency, for, first, the potential then becomes so great that it is dangerous; and, secondly, the light production is less efficient.

I have found that, by using the ordinary low frequencies, the physiological effect of the current required to maintain at a certain degree of brightness a tube 4ft. long, provided at the ends with outside and inside condenser coatings, is so powerful that, I think, it might produce serious injury to those not accustomed to such shocks; whereas, with 20,000 alternations per second, the tube may be maintained at the same degree of brightness without any effect being felt. This is due principally to the fact that a much smaller potential is required to produce the same light effect, and also to the higher efficiency in the light production. It is evident that the efficiency in such cases is the greater, the higher the frequency, for the quicker the process of charging and discharging the molecules, the less energy will be lost in the form of dark radiation. But, unfortunately, we cannot go beyond a certain frequency on account of the difficulty of producing and conveying the effects.

FIG. 19. FIG. 20.

I have stated above that a body inclosed in an unexhausted bulb may be intensely heated by simply connecting it with a source of rapidly alternating potential. The heating in such a case is, in all probability, due mostly to the bombardment of the molecules of the gas contained in the bulb. When the bulb is exhausted the heating of the body is much more rapid, and there is no difficulty whatever in bringing a wire or filament to any degree of incandescence by simply connecting it to one terminal of a coil of the proper dimensions. Thus, if the well-known apparatus of Prof. Crookes, consisting of a bent platinum wire with vanes mounted over it, Fig. 19, be connected to one terminal of the coil--either one or both ends of the platinum wire being connected--the wire is rendered almost instantly incandescent, and the mica vanes are rotated as though a current from a battery were used. A thin carbon filament, or preferably a button of some refractory material, Fig. 20, even if it be a comparatively poor conductor, enclosed in an exhausted globe, may be rendered highly incandescent; and in this manner a simple lamp capable of giving any desired candle-power is provided.

The success of lamps of this kind would depend largely on the selection of the light-giving bodies contained within the bulb. Since, under the conditions described, refractory bodies--which are very poor conductors and capable of withstanding for a long time excessively high degrees of temperature--may be used, such illuminating devices may be rendered successful.

It might be thought at first that if the bulb containing the filament or button of refractory material, be perfectly well exhausted--that is, as far as it can be done by the use of the best apparatus--the heating would be much less intense, and that in a perfect vacuum it could not occur at all. This is not confirmed by my experience; quite the contrary, the better the vacuum the more easily the bodies are brought to incandescence. This result is interesting for many reasons. At the outset of this work, the idea presented itself to me whether two bodies of refractory material enclosed in a bulb exhausted to such a degree that the discharge of a large induction coil, operated in the usual manner, cannot pass through, could be rendered incandescent by mere condenser action. Obviously, to reach this result, enormous potential differences and very high frequencies are required, as is evident from a simple calculation.

But such a lamp would possess a vast advantage over an ordinary incandescent lamp in regard to efficiency. It is well known that the efficiency of a lamp is to some extent a function of the degree of incandescence, and that, could we but work a filament at many times higher degrees of incandescence, the efficiency would be much greater. In an ordinary lamp this is impracticable on account of the destruction of the filament, and it has been determined by experience how far it is advisable to push the incandescence. It is impossible to tell how much higher efficiency could be obtained if the filament could withstand indefinitely, as the investigation to this end obviously cannot be carried beyond a certain stage; but there are reasons for believing that it would be very considerably higher. An improvement might be made in the ordinary lamp by employing a short and thick carbon; but then the leading-in wires would have to be thick, and, besides, there are many other considerations which render such a modification entirely impracticable. But in a lamp as above described the leading-in wires may be very small, the incandescent refractory material may be in the shape of blocks offering a very small radiating surface, so that less energy would be required to keep them at the desired incandescence; and, in addition to this, the refractory material need not be carbon, but may be manufactured from mixtures of oxides, for instance, with carbon or other material, or may be selected from bodies which are practically non-conductors, and capable of withstanding enormous degrees of temperature.

All this would point to the possibility of obtaining a much higher efficiency with such a lamp than is obtainable in ordinary lamps. In my experience it has been demonstrated that the blocks are brought to high degrees of incandescence with much lower potentials than those determined by calculation, and the blocks may be set at greater distances from each other. We may freely assume, and it is probable, that the molecular bombardment is an important element in the heating, even if the globe be exhausted with the utmost care as I have done; for although the number of the molecules is, comparatively speaking, insignificant, yet on account of the mean free path being very great, there are fewer collisions, and the molecules may reach much higher speeds, so that the heating effect due to this cause may be considerable, as in the Crookes experiments with radiant matter.

Fig. 21. Fig. 22.

But it is likewise possible that we have to deal here with an increased facility of losing the charge in very high vacuum, when the potential is rapidly alternating, in which case most of the heating would be directly due to the surging of the charges in the heated bodies. Or else the observed fact may be largely attributable to the effect of the points which I have mentioned above, in consequence of which the blocks or filaments contained in the vacuum are equivalent to condensers of many times greater surface than that calculated from their geometrical dimensions. Scientific men still differ in opinion as to whether a charge should, or should not, be lost in a perfect vacuum, or, in other words, whether ether is, or is not, a conductor. If the former were the case, then a thin filament enclosed in a perfectly exhausted globe, and connected to a source of enormous, steady potential, would be brought to incandescence.

Various forms of lamps on the above described principle, with the refractory bodies in the form of filaments, Fig. 21, or blocks, Fig. 22, have been constructed and operated by me, and investigations are being carried on in this line. There is no difficulty in reaching such high degrees of incandescence that ordinary carbon is to all appearance melted and volatilized. If the vacuum could be made absolutely perfect, such a lamp, although inoperative with apparatus ordinarily used, would, if operated with currents of the required character, afford an illuminant which would never be destroyed, and which would be far more efficient than an ordinary incandescent lamp. This perfection can, of course, never be reached, and a very slow destruction and gradual diminution of the size always occurs, as in incandescent lamps; but there is no possibility of a sudden and premature disabling which occurs in the latter by the breaking of the filament, especially when the incandescent bodies are in the shape of blocks.


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