In 1891 a young Serbian immigrant scientist created one of our worlds most recognizable pieces of Geek Technology. Nicola Tesla arrived in New York City in 1884 having had his ticket, money, and luggage stolen during a mutiny on his cross-Atlantic ship. The young man was nearly thrown overboard by the ship’s mutineers and arrived in NYC with four cents, a few handfuls of poems, and a letter of recommendation to Mr. Thomas Edison. The contents of that letter allowed young Tesla to secure a job with the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, and paved the way towards the young scientist shaping our world into the technological paradise we view it as today.
While dozens of articles extolling Tesla’s geekiness could be penned about Tesla, the first and foremost must be written about his most visually pleasing, and yet practically useless device: The Tesla Coil. So you may not know exactly what it is, and you may not know exactly how it works, but without a doubt you’ve seen a Tesla Coil before. It’s distinctive domed toroid has graced dozens of movies, including Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory (1931) and The Terminator (1984). The technology used in building a Tesla Coil reshaped modern sci-fi in the form of LuminGlass, the strange green lightning disc perched over the head of each and every hibernating Borg drone!
But the most amazing and interesting point about the Tesla coil is that it’s complete and total uselessness as a device! It doesn’t actually DO anything (aside from throw bolts of purple lightning, which I happen to think is plenty!). From the center of its buzzing little spark gap, to the tip of its arcing discharge toroid, the Tesla Coil is really just proof of a theory. The original hypothesis involved the inducing of voltage from one side of a transformer to another. In a normal “low-voltage” transformer this is done with wound wire coils intertwined with each other. But in the case of massively higher voltages (+10,000 volts and greater) the intertwined wires would breakdown, heat, burn, and cause a catastrophic failure of the circuit. Tesla’s hypothesis was that with a finely tuned circuit, at high voltage, and high frequency, he could induce energy from one coil to the next across a gap of air. The results? Viola! A discharge of electricity from the toroid atop the secondary coil! Tesla’s long term goal was to use this device to transmit huge amounts of electricity wireless across the globe!
Alas, now without Tesla’s steady hand at the tiller we find ourselves adrift in a world of purple arcing current. But at least we can all breath the ozone from our awesome electrical monstrosities!