Sunday, July 25, 2010

Back to the future and blinded by science



Like any self-respecting city of its size, Colorado Springs has its own nutty professor story, and it is a good one.
Born in Croatia and educated as an engineer at Polytechnic School south of Vienna, Nikola Tesla could speak nine languages and had become quite popular in investment circles by the beginning of the 1890s. Having worked for Edison Machine Works, but unable to interest founder Thomas Edison on his ideas about alternating current (AC), Tesla formed his own company, Tesla Electric Light and Manufacturing. George Westinghouse, seeing the promise in that work, bought Tesla’s patents and set him to work as a designer.
His efforts made him a celebrity in the United States and Europe and allowed him to participate in projects such as powering the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, and by demonstrate wireless transmission of power by lighting bulbs with no wires attached. He believed wireless communication would be the wave the future, imagining first, such ideas as the basis for fax machines, cellular transmissions, garage door openers, radio and TV and cable. Unfortunately, though correct with his science, he was about 90 or 100 years premature with some of his ideas.
Here in Colorado however, his technology was successfully deployed with his AC transmission systems powering the mining camps of Cripple Creek and Telluride, as well as a hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls that established his AC current as the dominant transmission mode.
“A friend and patent lawyer, Leonard E. Curtis, on being advised of Tesla's work, offered to find land and provide power for the research from the El Paso Power Company of Colorado Springs. The next supporter to come forward was Colonel John Jacob Astor. With $30,000 from Astor, the inventor prepared at once to move to Colorado and begin building a new experimental station near Pikes Peak. Joining Tesla were several assistants who were not fully informed of the inventor's plans,” according Tesla, Life and Legacy at PBS.org.
“The laboratory that rose from the prairie floor was both wired and weird, a contraption with a roof that rolled back to prevent it from catching fire, and a wooden tower that soared up eighty feet. Above it was a 142-foot metal mast supporting a large copper ball. Inside the strange wooden structure, technicians began to assemble an enormous Tesla coil, specially designed to send powerful electrical impulses into the earth.”
The experiments had their drawbacks however, including burning up the dynamo at El Paso Power Company and knocking out all power in Colorado Springs. Working for about nine months in his Colorado Springs lab, his popularity waned, as his findings were difficult to grasp for investors and others that followed his exploits. Increasingly, he was considered eccentric and perhaps a bit of a ‘nut job.’
Popular reports in the papers didn’t help at all to defuse that idea, as noted in the following account in the Rocky Mountain News in January of 1901 headlined “Tesla will talk with Mars from Pikes Peak.”
“… I have observed electrical actions which have appeared inexplicable, faint and uncertain though they were, and they have given me a deep conviction and foreknowledge that before long all human beings on this globe, as one will turn their eyes on the firmament above, with feelings of love and reverence, thrilled by the glad news:
“Brethren, we have a message from another world, unknown and remote. It reads:
One. One, two, three.” (signed) Nikola Tesla.

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