Experiments with Alternate Currents of Very High Frequency and their Application to Methods of Artificial Illumination, Part 3 - A Nikola Tesla Lecture

Part 3 of a lecture delivered by Nikola Tesla to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers at Columbia College, New York.

(Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here.)

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



FIG. 19. FIG. 20.

With these rapidly alternating potentials there is, however, no necessity of enclosing two blocks in a globe, but a single block, as in Fig. 20, or filament, Fig. 23, may be used. The potential in this case must of course be higher, but is easily obtainable, and besides it is not necessarily dangerous.

FIG. 23.

The facility with which the button or filament in such a lamp is brought to incandescence, other things being equal, depends on the size of the globe. If a perfect vacuum could be obtained, the size of the globe would not be of importance, for then the heating would be wholly due to the surging of the charges, and all the energy would be given off to the surroundings by radiation. But this can never occur in practice. There is always some gas left in the globe, and although the exhaustion may be carried to the highest degree, still the space inside of the bulb must be considered as conducting when such high potentials are used, and I assume that in estimating the energy that may be given off from the filament to the surroundings we may consider the inside surface of the bulb as one coating of a condenser, the air and other objects surrounding the bulb forming the other coating. When the alternations are very low there is no doubt that a considerable portion of the energy is given off by the electrification of the surrounding air.

In order to study this subject better, I carried on some experiments with excessively high potentials and low frequencies. I then observed that when the hand is approached to the bulb--the filament being connected with one terminal of the coil--a powerful vibration is felt, being due to the attraction and repulsion of the molecules of the air which are electrified by induction through the glass. In some cases where the action is very intense I have been able to hear a sound, which must be due to the same cause.

FIG. 24.

When the alternations are low, one is apt to get an excessively powerful shock from the bulb. In general, when one attaches bulbs or objects of some size to the terminals of the coil, one should look out for the rise of potential, for it may happen that by merely connecting a bulb or plate to the terminal, the potential may rise to many times its original value. When lamps are attached to the terminals, as illustrated in Fig. 24, then the capacity of the bulbs should be such as to give the maximum rise of potential under the existing conditions. In this manner one may obtain the required potential with fewer turns of wire.

The life of such lamps as described above depends, of course, largely on the degree of exhaustion, but to some extent also on the shape of the block of refractory material. Theoretically it would seem that a small sphere of carbon enclosed in a sphere of glass would not suffer deterioration from molecular bombardment, for, the matter in the globe being radiant, the molecules would move in straight lines, and would seldom strike the sphere obliquely. An interesting thought in connection with such a lamp is, that in it "electricity" and electrical energy apparently must move in the same lines.

The use of alternating currents of very high frequency makes it possible to transfer, by electrostatic or electromagnetic induction through the glass of a lamp, sufficient energy to keep a filament at incandescence and so do away with the leading-in wires. Such lamps have been proposed, but for want of proper apparatus they have not been successfully operated. Many forms of lamps on this principle, with continuous and broken filaments, have been constructed by me and experimented upon. When using a secondary enclosed within the lamp, a condenser is advantageously combined with the secondary. When the transference is effected by electrostatic induction, the potentials used are, of course, very high with frequencies obtainable from a machine. For instance, with a condenser surface of 40 centimetres square, which is not impracticably large, and with glass of good quality 1 mm. thick, using currents alternating 20,000 times a second, the potential required is approximately 9,000 volts. This may seem large, but since each lamp may be included in the secondary of a transformer of very small dimensions, it would not be inconvenient, and, moreover, it would not produce fatal injury. The transformers would all be preferably in series. The regulation would offer no difficulties, as with currents of such frequencies it is very easy to maintain a constant current.

In the accompanying engravings some of the types of lamps of this kind are shown. Fig. 25 is such a lamp with a broken filament, and Fig. 26a and Fig. 26b one with a single outside and inside coating and a single filament. I have also made lamps with two outside and inside coatings, and a continuous loop connecting the latter. Such lamps have been operated by me with current impulses of the enormous frequencies obtainable by the disruptive discharge of condensers.

FIG. 25. FIG. 26a. FIG. 26b.

The disruptive discharge of a condenser is especially suited for operating such lamps--with no outward electrical connections--by means of electromagnetic induction, the electromagnetic inductive effects being excessively high; and I have been able to produce the desired incandescence with only a few short turns of wire. Incandescence may also be produced in this manner in a simple closed filament.

Leaving, now, out of consideration the practicability of such lamps, I would only say that they possess a beautiful and desirable feature--namely, that they can be rendered at will more or less brilliant, simply by altering the relative position of the outside and inside condenser coatings, or inducing and induced circuits.

FIG. 27.

FIG. 28.

When a lamp is lighted by connecting it to one terminal only of the source, this may be facilitated by providing the globe with an outside condenser coating, which serves at the same time as a reflector, and connecting this to an insulated body of some size. Lamps of this kind are illustrated in Fig. 27 and Fig. 28. Fig. 29 shows the plan of connections. The brilliancy of the lamp may in this case be regulated within wide limits by varying the size of the insulated metal plate to which the coating is connected.

FIG. 29.

It is likewise practicable to light, with one leading wire lamps, such as illustrated in Fig. 21 and Fig. 22, by connecting one terminal of the lamp to one terminal of the source, and the other to an insulated body of the required size. In all cases the insulated body serves to give off the energy into the surrounding space, and is equivalent to a return wire. Obviously, in the two last-named cases, instead of connecting the wires to an insulated body, connections may be made to the ground.

The experiments which will prove most suggestive and of most interest to the investigator are probably those performed with exhausted tubes. As might be anticipated, a source of such rapidly alternating potentials is capable of exciting the tubes at a considerable distance, and the light effects produced are remarkable.

FIG. 21. FIG. 22.

During my investigations in this line I endeavored to excite tubes, devoid of any electrodes, by electromagnetic induction, making the tube the secondary of the induction device, and passing through the primary the discharges of a Leyden jar. These tubes were made of many shapes, and I was able to obtain luminous effects which I then thought were due wholly to electromagnetic induction. But on carefully investigating the phenomena I found that the effects produced were more of an electrostatic nature. It may be attributed to this circumstance that this mode of exciting tubes is very wasteful--namely, the primary circuit being closed, the potential, and consequently the electrostatic inductive effect is much diminished.

When an induction coil, operated as above described, is used, there is no doubt that the tubes are excited by electrostatic induction, and that electromagnetic induction has little, if anything, to do with the phenomena.

This is evident from many experiments. For instance, if a tube be taken in one hand, the observer being near the coil, it is brilliantly lighted and remains so in no matter what position it is held relatively to the observer's body. Were the action electromagnetic, the tube could not be lighted when the observer's body is interposed between it and the coil, or at least its luminosity should be considerably diminished. When the tube is held exactly over the centre of the coil--the latter being wound in sections and the primary placed symmetrically to the secondary--it may remain completely dark, whereas it is rendered intensely luminous by moving it slightly to the right or left from the centre of the coil. It does not light because in the middle both halves of the coil neutralizes each other, and the electric potential is zero. If the action were electromagnetic, the tube should light best in the plane through the centre of the coil, since the electromagnetic effect there should be a maximum. When an arc is established between the terminals, the tubes and lamps in the vicinity of the coil go out, but light up again when the arc is broken, on account of the rise of potential. Yet the electromagnetic effect should be practically the same in both cases.

By placing a tube at some distance from the coil, and nearer to one terminal--preferably at a point on the axis of the coil--one may light it by touching the remote terminal with an insulated body of some size or with the hand, thereby raising the potential at that terminal nearer to the tube. If the tube is shifted nearer to the coil so that it is lighted by the action of the nearer terminal, it may be made to go out by holding, on an insulated support, the end of a wire connected to the remote terminal, in the vicinity of the nearer terminal, by this means counteracting the action of the latter upon the tube. These effects are evidently electrostatic. Likewise, when a tube is placed it a considerable distance from the coil, the observer may, standing upon an insulated support, between coil and tube, light the latter by approaching the hand to it; or he may even render it luminous by simply stepping between it and the coil. This would be impossible with electromagnetic induction, for the body of the observer would act as a screen.

When the coil is energized by excessively weak currents, the experimenter may, by touching one terminal of the coil with the tube, extinguish the latter, and may again light it by bringing it out of contact with the terminal and allowing a small arc to form. This is clearly due to the respective lowering and raising of the potential at that terminal. In the above experiment, when the tube is lighted through a small arc, it may go out when the arc is broken, because the electrostatic inductive effect alone is too weak, though the potential may be much higher; but when the arc is established, the electrification of the end of the tube is much greater, and it consequently lights.

If a tube is lighted by holding it near to the coil, and in the hand which is remote, by grasping the tube anywhere with the other hand, the part between the hands is rendered dark, and the singular effect of wiping out the light of the tube may he produced by passing the hand quickly along the tube and at the same time withdrawing it gently from the coil, judging properly the distance so that the tube remains dark afterwards.

FIG 17a. FIG 17b.

If the primary coil is placed sidewise as in Fig. 17a for instance, and an exhausted tube be introduced from the other side in the hollow space, the tube is lighted most intensely because of the increased condenser action, and in this position the striae are most sharply defined. In all these experiments described, and in many others, the action is clearly electrostatic.

The effects of screening also indicate the electrostatic nature of the phenomena and show something of the nature of electrification through the air. For instance, if a tube be placed in the direction of the axis of the coil, and an insulated metal plate be interposed, the tube will generally increase in brilliancy, or if it be too far from the coil to light, it may even be rendered luminous by interposing an insulated metal plate. The magnitude of the effects depends to some extent on the size of the plate. But if the metal plate be connected by a wire to the ground, its interposition will always make the tube go out, even if it be very near the coil. In general, the interposition of a body between the coil and tube, increases or diminishes the brilliancy of the tube, or its facility to light up, according to whether it increases or diminishes the electrification. When experimenting with an insulated plate, the plate should not be taken too large, else it will generally produce a weakening effect by reason of its great facility for giving off energy to the surroundings.

If a tube be lighted at some distance from the coil, and a plate of hard rubber or other insulating substance be interposed, the tube may be made to go out. The interposition of the dielectric in this case only slightly increases the inductive effect, but diminishes considerably the electrification through the air.

In all cases, then, when we excite luminosity in exhausted tubes by means of such a coil, the effect is due to the rapidly alternating electrostatic potential; and, furthermore, it must be attributed to the harmonic alternation produced directly by the machine, and not to any superimposed vibration which might be thought to exist. Such superimposed vibrations are impossible when we work with an alternate-current machine. If a spring be gradually tightened and released, it does not perform independent vibrations; for this a sudden release is necessary. So with the alternate currents from a dynamo machine; the medium is harmonically strained and released, this giving rise to only one kind of waves; a sudden contact or break, or a sudden giving way of the dielectric, as in the disruptive discharge of a Leyden jar, are essential for the production of superimposed waves.

In all the last described experiments, tubes devoid of any electrodes may be used, and there is no difficulty in producing by their means sufficient light to read by. The light effect is, however, considerably increased by the use of phosphorescent bodies such as yttria, uranium, glass, etc. A difficulty will be found when the phosphorescent material is used, for with these powerful effects it is carried gradually away, and it is preferable to use material in the form of a solid.

Instead of depending on induction at a distance to light the tube, the same may be provided with an external--and, if desired, also with an internal--condenser coating, and it may then be suspended anywhere in the room from a conductor connected to one terminal of the coil, and in this manner a soft illumination may be provided.

The ideal way of lighting a hall or room, would, however, be to produce such a condition in it that an illuminating device could be moved and put anywhere, and that it is lighted, no matter where it is put, and without being electrically connected to anything. I have been able to produce such a condition by creating in the room a powerful, rapidly alternating electrostatic field. For this purpose I suspend a sheet of metal a distance from the ceiling on insulating cords and connect it to one terminal of the induction coil, the other terminal being preferably connected to the ground. Or else I suspend two sheets as illustrated in Fig. 30, each sheet being connected with one of the terminals of the coil, and their size being carefully determined. An exhausted tube may then be carried in the hand anywhere between the sheets or placed anywhere, even a certain distance beyond them; it remains always luminous.

FIG. 30.

In such an electrostatic field interesting phenomena may be observed, especially if the alternations are kept low and the potentials excessively high. In addition to the luminous phenomena mentioned, one may observe that any insulated conductor gives sparks when the hand or another object is approached to it, and the sparks may often be powerful. When a large conducting object is fastened on an insulating support, and the hand approached to it, a vibration, due to the rhythmical motion of the air molecules, is felt, and luminous streams may be perceived when the hand is held near a pointed projection. When a telephone receiver is made to touch with one or both of its terminals an insulated conductor of some size, the telephone emits a loud sound; it also emits a sound when a length of wire is attached to one or both terminals, and with very powerful fields a sound may be perceived even without any wire.

How far this principle is capable of practical application the future will tell. It might be thought that electrostatic effects are unsuited for such action at a distance. Electromagnetic inductive effects, if available for the production of light, might be thought better suited. It is true the electrostatic effects diminish nearly with the cube of the distance from the coil, whereas the electromagnetic inductive effects diminish simply with the distance. But when we establish an electrostatic field of force, the condition is very different, for then, instead of the differential effect of both the terminals, we get their cojoint effect. Besides, I would call attention to the fact, that in an alternating electrostatic field, a conductor, such as an exhausted tube for instance, tends to take up most of the energy, whereas, in an electromagnetic alternating field the conductor tends to take up the least energy, the waves being reflected with but little loss. This is one reason why it is difficult to excite an exhausted tube, at a distance, by electromagnetic induction. I have wound coils of very large diameter and of many turns of wire, and connected a Geissler tube to the ends of the coil with the object of exciting the tube at a distance; but even with the powerful inductive effects producible by Leyden jar discharges, the tube could not be excited unless at a very small distance, although some judgment was used as to the dimensions of the coil. I have also found that even the most powerful Leyden jar discharges are capable of exciting only feeble luminous effects in a closed exhausted tube, and even these effects upon thorough examination I have been forced to consider of an electrostatic nature. How, then, can we hope to produce the required effects at a distance by means of electromagnetic action, when even in the closest proximity to the source of disturbance, under the most advantageous conditions, we can excite but faint luminosity? It is true that when acting at a distance we have the resonance to help us out. We can connect an exhausted tube, or whatever the illuminating device may be, with an insulated system of the proper capacity, and so it may be possible to increase the effect qualitatively, and only qualitatively, for we would not get more energy through the device. So we may by resonance effect obtain the required E.M.F. in an exhausted tube, and excite faint luminous effects, but we cannot get enough energy to render the light practically available, and a simple calculation, based on experimental results, shows that even if all the energy which a tube would receive at a certain distance from the source should be wholly converted into light, it would hardly satisfy the practical requirements. Hence the necessity of directing, by means of a conducting circuit, the energy to the place of transformation. But in so doing we cannot very sensibly depart from present methods, and all we could do would be to improve the apparatus.

From these considerations it would seem that if this ideal way of lighting is to rendered practicable it will be only by the use of electrostatic effects. In such a case the most powerful electrostatic inductive effects are needed; the apparatus employed must, therefore, be capable of producing high electrostatic potentials changing in value with extreme rapidity. High frequencies are especially wanted, for practical considerations make it desirable to keep down the potential. By the employment of machines, or, generally speaking, of any mechanical apparatus, but low frequencies can be reached; recourse must, therefore, be had to some other means. The discharge of a condenser affords us a means of obtaining frequencies by far higher than are obtainable mechanically, and I have accordingly employed condensers in the experiments to the above end.

FIG. 31.

When the terminals of a high tension induction coil, Fig. 31, are connected to a Leyden jar, and the latter is discharging disruptively into a circuit, we may look upon the arc playing between the knobs as being a source of alternating, or generally speaking, undulating currents, and then we have to deal with the familiar system of a generator of such currents, a circuit connected to it, and a condenser bridging the circuit. The condenser in such case is a veritable transformer, and since the frequency is excessive, almost any ratio in the strength of the currents in both the branches may be obtained. In reality, the analogy is not quite complete, for in the disruptive discharge we have most generally a fundamental instantaneous variation of comparatively low frequency, and a superimposed harmonic vibration, and the laws governing the flow of currents are not the same for both.

In converting in this manner, the ratio of conversion should not be too great, for the loss in the arc between the knobs increases with the square of the current, and if the jar be discharged through very thick and short conductors, with the view of obtaining a very rapid oscillation, a very considerable portion of the energy stored is lost. On the other hand, too small ratios are not practicable for many obvious reasons.

As the converted currents flow in a practically closed circuit, the electrostatic effects are necessarily small, and I therefore convert them into currents or effects of the required character. I have effected such conversions in several ways. The preferred plan of connections is illustrated in Fig. 32. The manner of operating renders it easy to obtain by means of a small and inexpensive apparatus enormous differences of potential which have been usually obtained by means of large and expensive coils. For this it is only necessary to take an ordinary small coil, adjust to it a condenser and discharging circuit, forming the primary of an auxiliary small coil, and convert upward. As the inductive effect of the primary currents is excessively great, the second coil need have comparatively but very few turns. By properly adjusting the elements remarkable results may be secured.

FIG. 32.

In endeavoring to obtain the required electrostatic effects in this manner, I have, as might be expected, encountered many difficulties which I have been gradually overcoming, but I am not as yet prepared to dwell upon my experiences in this direction.

I believe that the disruptive discharge of a condenser will play an important part in the future, for it offers vast possibilities, not only in the way of producing light in a more efficient manner and in the line indicated by theory, but also in many other respects.

For years the efforts of inventors have been directed towards obtaining electrical energy from heat by means of the thermopile. It might seem invidious to remark that but few know what is the real trouble with the thermopile. It is not the inefficiency or small output--though these are great drawbacks--but the fact that the thermopile has its phylloxera--that is, that by constant use it is deteriorated, which has thus far prevented its introduction on an industrial scale. Now that all modern research seems to point with certainty to the use of electricity of excessively high tension, the question must present itself to many whether it is not possible to obtain in a practicable manner this form of energy from heat. We have been used to look upon an electrostatic machine as a plaything, and somehow we couple with it the idea of the inefficient and impractical. But now we must think differently, for now we know that everywhere we have to deal with the same forces, and that it is a mere question of inventing proper methods or apparatus for rendering them available.

In the present systems of electrical distribution, the employment of the iron with its wonderful magnetic properties allows us to reduce considerably the size of the apparatus; but, in spite of this, it is still very cumbersome. The more we progress in the study of electric and magnetic phenomena, the more we become convinced that the present methods will be short-lived. For the production of light, at least, such heavy machinery would seem to be unnecessary. The energy required is very small, and if light can be obtained as efficiently as, theoretically, it appears possible, the apparatus need have but a very small output. There being a strong probability that the illuminating methods of the future will involve the use of very high potentials, it seems very desirable to perfect a contrivance capable of converting the energy of heat into energy of the requisite form. Nothing to speak of has been done towards this end, for the thought that electricity of some 50,000 or 100,000 volts pressure or more, even if obtained, would be unavailable for practical purposes, has deterred inventors from working in this direction.

In Fig. 31 a plan of connections is shown for converting currents of high, into currents of low, tension by means of the disruptive discharge of a condenser. This plan has been used by me frequently for operating a few incandescent lamps required in the laboratory. Some difficulties have been encountered in the arc of the discharge which I have been able to overcome to a great extent; besides this, and the adjustment necessary for the proper working, no other difficulties have been met with, and it was easy to operate ordinary lamps, and even motors, in this manner. The line being connected to the ground, all the wires could be handled with perfect impunity, no matter how high the potential at the terminals of the condenser. In these experiments a high-tension induction coil, operated from a battery or from an alternate-current machine, was employed to charge the condenser; but the induction coil might be replaced by an apparatus of a different kind, capable of giving electricity of such high tension. In this manner, direct or alternating currents may be converted, and in both cases the current-impulses may be of any desired frequency. When the currents charging the condenser are of the same direction, and it is desired that the converted currents should also be of one direction, the resistance of the discharging circuit should, of course, be so chosen that there are no oscillations.

In operating devices on the above plan, I have observed curious phenomena of impedance which are of interest. For instance, if a thick copper bar be bent, as indicated in Fig. 33, and shunted by ordinary incandescent lamps, then, by passing the discharge between the knobs, the lamps may be brought to incandescence although they are short-circuited. When a large induction coil is employed it is easy to obtain nodes on the bar, which are rendered evident by the different degree of brilliancy of the lamps, as shown roughly in Fig. 33. The nodes are never clearly defined, but there are simply maxima and minima of potentials along the bar. This is probably due to the irregularity of the arc between the knobs. In general when the above described plan of conversion from high to low tension is used, the behavior of the disruptive discharge may be closely studied. The nodes may also be investigated by means of an ordinary Cardew voltmeter which should be well insulated. Geissler tubes may also be lighted across the points of the bent bar; in this case, of course, it is better to employ smaller capacities. I have found it practicable to light up in this manner a lamp, and even a Geissler tube, shunted by a short, heavy block of metal, and this result seems at first very curious. In fact, the thicker the copper bar in Fig. 33, the better it is for the success of the experiments, as they appear more striking. When lamps with long slender filaments are used it will be often noted that the filaments are from time to time violently vibrated, the vibration being smallest at the nodal points. This vibration seems to be due to an electrostatic action between the filament and the glass of the bulb.

In some of the above experiments it is preferable to use special lamps having a straight filament as shown in Fig. 34. When such a lamp is used a still more curious phenomenon than those described may be observed. The lamp may be placed across the copper bar and lighted, and by using somewhat larger capacities, or, in other words, smaller frequencies, or smaller impulsive impedancies, the filament may be brought to any desired degree of incandescence. But when the impedance is increased a point is reached when comparatively little current passes through the carbon, and most of it through the rarefied gas; or perhaps it may be more correct to state that the current divides nearly evenly through both, in spite of the enormous difference in the resistance, and this would be true unless the gas and the filament behave differently. It is then noted that the whole bulb is brilliantly illuminated, and the ends of the leading-in wires become incandescent and often throw off sparks in consequence of the violent bombardment, but the carbon filament remains dark. This is illustrated in Fig. 34. Instead of the filament a single wire extending through the whole bulb may be used, and in this case the phenomenon would seem to be still more interesting.

FIG. 34. FIG. 33.

From the above experiment it will be evident that when ordinary lamps are operated by the converted currents, those should be preferably taken in which the platinum wires are far apart, and the frequencies used should not be too great, else the discharge will occur at the ends of the filament or in the base of the lamp between the leading-in wires, and the lamp might then be damaged.

In presenting to you these results of my investigation on the subject under consideration, I have paid only a passing notice to facts upon which I could have dwelt at length, and among many observations I have selected only those which I thought most likely to interest you. The field is wide and completely unexplored, and at every step a new truth is gleaned, a novel fact observed.

How far the results here borne out are capable of practical applications will be decided in the future. As regards the production of light, some results already reached are encouraging and make me confident in asserting that the practical solution of the problem lies in the direction I have endeavored to indicate. Still, whatever may be the immediate outcome of these experiments, I am hopeful that they will only prove a step to further development towards the ideal and final perfection. The possibilities which are opened by modern research are so vast that even the most reserved must feel sanguine of the future. Eminent scientists consider the problem of utilizing one kind of radiation without the others a rational one. In an apparatus designed for the production of light by conversion from any form of energy into that of light, such a result can never be reached, for no matter what the process of producing the required vibrations, be it electrical, chemical or any other, it will not be possible to obtain the higher light vibrations without going through the lower heat vibrations. It is the problem of imparting to a body a certain velocity without passing through all lower velocities. But there is a possibility of obtaining energy not only in the form of light, but motive power, and energy of any other form, in some more direct way from the medium. The time will be when this will be accomplished, and the time has come when one may utter such words before an enlightened audience without being considered a visionary. We are whirling through endless space with an inconceivable speed, all around us everything is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere is energy. There must be some way of availing ourselves of this energy more directly. Then, with the light obtained from the medium, with the power derived from it, with every form of energy obtained without effort, from the store forever inexhaustible, humanity will advance with giant strides. The mere contemplation of these magnificent possibilities expands our minds, strengthen our hopes, and fills our hearts with supreme delight.


Padma Narayanan said…
Very impressive! Great posts! Readers might also enjoy Steve Mackay’s engineering blog at www.idc-online.com/Engineering-Blog and the free technical resources available there.

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