A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's up with "broadcast power"?

May 4, 1990

Dear Cecil:

Do you know anything about broadcast power? This has nothing to do with radio or TV. As I understand it, broadcast power involves turning electricity into a signal which is transmitted and then converted back into electricity by a special device fitted to any common appliance. I saw a demonstration of this in college about 12 years ago, when a visiting artist was using these devices in his kinetic sculptures. Could broadcast power be used for non-polluting electric vehicles? Do you know of any experts who could speak knowledgeably on this subject who would not be biased in favor of the oil companies?

Cecil replies:

You've been spending too much time reading Popular Science, Flash. Also, I don't know that I'd place much faith in the technological insight of kinetic sculptors — most of those guys barely know how to operate a can opener. It's possible to transmit power through space using a microwave beam, but that's not "broadcast" power in the sense you mean. True broadcast power would involve incredible waste and probably kill everybody besides. Scientists nowadays worry about the possible injurious effects of the electric fields around wires — imagine what might happen if the juice was just poured into the air.

Most likely you heard something about the satellite power system (SPS), one of the wilder ideas to float around the federal bureaucracy in the late 70s. The plan was to build a giant array of solar cells the size of Manhattan in orbit around the earth, beam the collected solar power via microwave to a giant receiving dish on earth, convert it into standard juice, and feed it into the regular power system.

Several government agencies looked into SPS and concluded it was as crazy as it sounded. The complete system would cost three trillion dollars, roughly the size of the gross national product and many times what we spend on conventional power technology. A mere demonstration project might cost 40 to 100 billion dollars. The National Research Council declared that further study was pointless and the project died a quiet death. Proponents haven't totally given up; one brainstorm they had was to build a solar-cell factory in the low-gravity environment of the moon to save on rocket-fuel costs. (Supposedly this would save money over shipping parts from the earth.) Very ingenious, boys. Now go play outside.

Broadcast power, take two

Dear Cecil:

Your reply to Rodney F. concerning broadcast power was, if you'll forgive the pun, "off the beam." I think what Rodney was referring to was not the SPS/microwave downlink system, but rather Nikola Tesla's broadcast power system.

Best known for the insights that put the alternating current system associated with Westinghouse on a working basis, Tesla was a brilliant experimenter in electricity. He devised a system for broadcasting electrical power in the first decade of this century that, among other things, could (and did) light lightbulbs at a distance of 25 miles without their being connected by wires to a source of electricity. His broadcast power system indisputably worked, both in Colorado and Long Island — but only for Tesla. No one has been able to duplicate this effect, even working from Tesla's notes; like many geniuses, he seems not to have bothered to write things down that, while "obvious" to him, were in fact quantum leaps of knowledge

With Tesla's death we lost a man whose brilliance in many ways surpassed that of Edison and Steinmetz. Scientists today are still combing his notes and journals looking for new insights into physics and electricity. But because of his reputation as a crackpot genius, Tesla's proven power transmission system has never been explored. It's a shame when official perceptions get in the way of progress.

Cecil replies:

Cecil is well acquainted with the inventor of the Tesla coil, an artificial-lightning device familiar to anyone who's ever been to a high-school science fair. But he had forgotten about Tesla's global ambitions for his invention. Just as well. Tesla's broadcast power scheme was even wilder than the satellite power system.

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.

You considerably overstate the success of this project. Tesla did build a giant Tesla coil in Colorado Springs in an effort to broadcast power across the globe. The coil could generate extremely high voltages and emit huge lightning-like sparks from a big copper ball atop a tall tower. Tesla's idea was that the earth was aquiver with electrical energy, like a taut violin string. If one plucked the string at any point, the vibrations would be transmitted throughout its length. Same with the globe. The giant coil was to be Tesla's bow.

In his first test of the coil Tesla burned out a generator at the Colorado Springs electric plant. Later there were reports that he managed to light 200 incandescent bulbs at a distance of 26 miles. But this was never confirmed and it is damned hard to believe. (Tesla coils, in my experience, can illuminate fluorescent bulbs, but usually at a distance of only a few feet.) Tesla never published a thorough description of his work and electrical engineers scratch their heads when told of his ideas today. Even if the thing worked it's hard to see how you'd avoid wasting huge amounts of energy.

Tesla later moved his operations to Long Island. With $150,000 from J.P. Morgan, he set about building an even larger coil. But the machine was never completed and in 1905 the project was abandoned. Virtually everything he worked on after this time met with a similar fate. By the 1930s he was reduced to making wild pronouncements about death rays and feeding the pigeons near his hotel room. He died alone in 1943.

Many people excuse Tesla's failures by saying he was too far ahead of his time. I doubt it. His understanding of the medium in which he worked was primitive. He refused to accept the complex nature of the atom and for years denied Einstein's theories. His problems arose largely from the fact that he was an eccentric who was unable to work with (and consequently to learn from) other people, and the increasing unreality of his ideas shows it. Broadcast power is Exhibit A.

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