Wonders of the Future

Collier's Weekly, December 2, 1916

Nikola Tesla is an inventor, electrical wizard, and seer. He is the discoverer of alternating-current power transmission, the system of electrical conversion and distribution by oscillatory discharges, transmission of energy through a single wire without return, a system of wireless transmission of intelligence, transformer, etc. His laboratory is at Shoreham, L.I.

Many a would-be discoverer, failing in his efforts, has felt regret at having been born at a time when, as he thinks, everything has been already accomplished and nothing is left to be done. This erroneous impression that, as we are advancing, the possibilities of invention are being exhausted is not uncommon. In reality it is just the opposite. What has been so far done by electricity is nothing as compared with what the future has in store. Not only this, but there are now innumerable things done in old-fashioned ways which are much inferior in economy, convenience, and many other respects to the new method. So great are the advantages of the latter that whenever an opportunity presents itself the engineer advises his client to “do it electrically.”

Water power offers great opportunities for novel electrical applications, particularly in the department of electrochemistry. The harnessing of waterfalls is the most economical method known for drawing energy from the sun. This is due to the fact that both water and electricity are incompressible. The net efficiency of the hydroelectric process can be as high as 85 per cent. The initial outlay is generally great, but the cost of maintenance is small and the convenience offered ideal. My alternating system is invariably employed, and so far about 7,000,000 horsepower has been developed. As generally used, we do not get more than six-hundredths of a horsepower per ton of coal per year. This water energy is therefore equivalent to that obtainable from an annual supply of 120,000,000 tons of coal, which is from 25 to 50 per cent of the total output of the United States.

Great possibilities also lie in the use of coal. From this valuable mineral we chiefly draw the sun’s stored energy, which is required to meet our industrial and commercial needs. According to statistical records the output in the United States during an average year is 480,000,000 tons. In perfect engines this fuel would be sufficient to develop 500,000,000 horsepower steadily for one year, but the squandering is so reckless that we do not get more than 5 per cent of its heating value on the average. A comprehensive electrical plan for mining, transporting, and using coal could much reduce this appalling waste. What is more, inferior grades, billions of tons of which are being thrown away, might be turned to profitable use.

Similar considerations apply to natural gas and mineral oil, the annual loss of which amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. In the very near future such waste will be looked upon as criminal and the introduction of the new methods will be forced upon the owners of such properties. Here, then, is an immense field for the use of electricity in many ways. The manufacture of iron and steel offers another large opportunity for the effective application of electricity.

In the production of pig iron about one ton of coke is employed for every ton. Thus 31,000,000 tons of coke are used a year. There are 4,000,000 cubic feet of gases from the blast furnaces which may be used for power purposes. It is practicable to obtain 2,500,000 horsepower electrical energy in this way.

In the manufacture of coke some 41,000,000 tons of coal are employed in this country. From the gases produced in this process some 1,500,000 horsepower could be produced in the form of electrical energy.

I have devoted much thought to this industrial proposition, and find that with new, efficient, extremely cheap, and simple thermodynamic transformers not less than 4,000,000 horsepower could be developed in electric generators by utilizing the heat of these gases, which, if not entirely wasted, are only in part and inefficiently employed.

With systematic improvements and refinements much better results could be secured and an annual revenue of $50,000,000 or more derived. The electrical energy could be advantageously used in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen and production of fertilizers, for which there is an unlimited demand and the manufacture of which is restricted here on account of the high cost of power. I expect confidently the practical realization of this project in the very near future, and look to exceptionally rapid electrical development in this direction.

But the time is very near when we shall have the precipitation of the moisture of the atmosphere under complete control, and then it will be possible to draw unlimited quantities of water from the oceans, develop any desired amount of energy, and completely transform the globe by irrigation and intensive farming. A greater achievement of man through the medium of electricity can hardly be imagined.

The present limitations in the transmission of power to distance will be overcome in two ways: through the adoption of underground conductors insulated by power, and through the introduction of the wireless art.

When these advanced ideas are practically realized we shall get the full benefit of water power, and it will become our chief dependence in the supply of electricity for domestic, public, and other uses in the arts of peace and war.

A vast and absolutely untouched field is the use of electricity for the propulsion of ships. The leading electrical company in this country equipped a large vessel with high-speed turbines and electric motors. The new equipment was a signal success. Applications of this kind will multiply at a rapid rate, for the advantages of the electrical drive are now patent to everybody. Gyroscopic apparatus will probably play an important part, as its general adoption on vessels is sure to come. Very little has yet been done in the introduction of electrical drive in the various branches of industry and manufacture, but the prospects here are unlimited.

Books have already been written on the uses of electricity in agriculture, but the fact is that very little has been practically done. The beneficial effects of electricity of high tension have been unmistakably established, so that we are warranted in believing that a revolution will be brought about through the extensive adoption of agricultural electrical apparatus. The safeguarding of forests against fires, the destruction of microbes, insects, and rodents will, in due course, be accomplished by electricity.

In the not far distant future we shall see a great many new uses of electricity that will aim at safety. The safety of vessels at sea will be particularly affected. We shall have electrical instruments which will prevent collisions, and we shall even be able to disperse fogs by electric force and powerful and penetrative rays. I am hopeful that within the next few years wireless plants will be installed for the purpose of illuminating the oceans. The project is perfectly feasible; if carried out it will contribute more than any other provision to the safety of property and human lives at sea. The same plant could also produce stationary electrical waves and enable ships to get any time accurate bearings and other valuable practical data, thus making the present means unnecessary. It could also be used for time signaling and many other such purposes.

In the great departments of electric light and power great opportunities are offered through the introduction of many kinds of novel devices which can be attached to the circuits at convenient hours to equalize the loads and increase the revenues from the plants. I myself have knowledge of a number of new appliances of this kind. The most important of them is probably an electrical ice machine which obviates entirely the use of dangerous and otherwise objectionable chemicals. The new machine will also require no attention and will be very economical in operation. In this way refrigeration will be effected very cheaply and conveniently in every household.

An interesting fountain, electrically operated, has already been brought out. It will very likely be extensively introduced, and will afford an unusual and pleasing sight in squares, parks, and hotels.

Cooking devices for all domestic purposes are now being made, and there is a large demand for practical designs and suggestions in this field, and for electric signs and other attractive means of advertising which can be electrically operated. Some of the effects which it is possible to produce by electric currents are wonderful and lend themselves to exhibitions. There is no doubt that much car be done in this direction. Theaters, public halls, and private dwellings are in need of a great many devices and instruments for convenience, and offer ample opportunities to ingenious and practical inventors.

Great improvements are also still possible in telegraphy and telephony. The use of a new receiving device, the sensitiveness of which can be increased almost without limit, will enable us to telephone through aerial lines or cables of any length by reducing the necessary working current to an infinitesimal value. This invention will enormously extend the wireless transmission of intelligence in all its departments.

The next art to be introduced is that of picture transmission telegraphically. Existing apparatus will be used. This idea of telegraphing or telephoning pictures was arrived at long ago, but practical difficulties have hampered commercial realization. There have been promising experiments, and there is every reason to believe that success will soon be achieved. Another valuable invention will be a typewriter electrically operated by the human voice. This advance will be of the utmost value, as it will do away with the operator and save a great deal of labor and time in business offices.

Many municipal improvements based on the use of electricity are soon to be introduced. There will be smoke annihilators, dust absorbers, ozonizers, sterilizers of water, air, food, and clothing, and accident preventers on streets, elevated roads, and in subways. It will become next to impossible to contract diseases from germs or get hurt in the city. Country folk will go to town to rest and get well.

Electrotherapy is another great field in which there are unlimited possibilities for the application of electricity. High-frequency currents especially have a great future. The time is bound to come when this form of electrical energy will be on tap in every private residence. It is possible that we may be able to do away with the customary bath. The cleaning of the body can be instantaneously effected simply by connecting it to a source of electric energy of very high potential, which will result in the throwing off of dust or any small particles adhering to the skin. Such a bath, besides being dry and time-saving would also be of beneficial therapeutic influence. New electric devices that will be a blessing to the deaf and blind are coming.

Electrical instruments will soon become an important factor in the prevention of crime. In court proceedings electric evidence can be made decisive. It will, no doubt, be possible before very long to flash any image formed in the mind on a screen and make it visible to a spectator at any place desired. The perfection of this sort of reading thought will create a revolution for the better in all our social relations. It is true that cunning lawbreakers will avail themselves of the same means to further their nefarious business.

The present international conflict is a powerful stimulus to invention of destructive devices and implements. An electric gun will soon be brought out. The wonder is that it was not invented long ago. Dirigibles and aeroplanes will be furnished with small electric generators of high tension, from which the deadly currents will be conveyed through thin wires to the ground. Battleships and submarines will be provided with electric and magnetic feelers so delicate that the approach of any body under water or in darkness may be easily detected. Torpedoes and floating mines will direct themselves automatically and without fail get in fatal contact with the object to be destroyed – in fact, these are almost in sight. The art of telautomatics, or wireless control of automatic machines at a distance, will play a very important role in future wars and, possibly, in the later phases of the present one. Such contrivances, which act as if endowed with intelligence, may take the shape of aeroplanes, balloons, automobiles, surface, or underwater boats, or any other form according to the requirement in each special case. They will have far greater ranges and will be much more destructive than the implements now employed. I believe that the telautomatic aerial torpedo will make the large siege gun, on which so much dependence is now placed, utterly obsolete.

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