World Wireless System

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The Wardenclyffe Power Plant intended by Nikola Tesla to be a "World Wireless" telecommunications facility.

The World Wireless System was a turn of the 19th century proposed telecommunications and electrical power delivery system designed by inventor Nikola Tesla based on his theories of using Earth and its atmosphere as electrical conductors. Tesla claimed this system would allow for "the transmission of electric energy without wires" on a global scale[1] as well as point-to-point wireless telecommunications and broadcasting. He made public statements citing two related methods to accomplish this from the mid-1890s on. By the end of 1900 Tesla had convinced banker J. P. Morgan to finance construction of a wireless station (eventually sited at Wardenclyffe) based on his ideas intended to transmit messages across the Atlantic to England and to ships at sea. Almost as soon as the contract was signed Tesla decided to scale up the facility to include his ideas of terrestrial wireless power transmission to better compete with Guglielmo Marconi's radio based telegraph system.[2] Morgan refused to fund the changes and, when no additional investment capital became available, the project at Wardenclyffe was abandoned in 1906, never to become operational.

During this period Tesla filed numerous patents associated with the basic functions of his system, including transformer design, transmission methods, tuning circuits, and methods of signaling. He also described a plan to have some thirty Wardenclyffe-style telecommunications stations positioned around the world to be tied into existing telephone and telegraph systems. Tesla would continue to elaborate to the press and in his writings for the next few decades on the system's capabilities and how it was superior to radio-based systems.

Despite Tesla's claims that he had "carried on practical experiments in wireless transmission"[3] there is no documentation he ever transmitted power beyond relatively short distances, and modern scientific opinion is generally that his wireless power scheme would not have worked.


Illustration of Tesla in 1891 showing two exhausted tubes illuminated by a rapidly alternating electrostatic field created between two metallic sheets.[4][5][6]
Nikola Tesla sits in front of a spiral coil from a high-voltage transformer at his East Houston St., New York laboratory in 1896


Tesla's idea's for a world wireless system grew out of experiments beginning in the early 1890s after learning of Hertz's experiments with electromagnetic waves using induction coil transformers and spark gaps.[7][8] He duplicated those experiments and then went on to improve Hertz's wireless transmitter, developing various alternator apparatus and his own high tension transformer, known as the Tesla coil.[9][10] Tesla's primary interest in wireless phenomenon was as a power distribution system, early on pursuing wireless lighting.[11] From 1891 on Tesla was delivering lectures including "Experiments with Alternate Currents of High Potential and High Frequency" in 1892 in London and in Paris and went on to demonstrate "wireless lighting"[12] in 1893[13] including lighting Geissler tubes wirelessly.

One-wire transmission[edit]

The first experiment was the operation of light and motive devices connected by a single wire to one terminal of a high frequency induction coil, performed during the 1891 New York City lecture at Columbia College. While a single terminal incandescent lamp connected to one of an induction coil’s secondary terminals does not form a closed circuit "in the ordinary acceptance of the term"[14] the circuit is closed in the sense that a return path is established back to the secondary by capacitive coupling or 'displacement current'. This is due to the lamp’s filament or refractory button capacitance relative to the coil’s free terminal and environment; the free terminal also has capacitance relative to the lamp and environment.

Wireless transmission[edit]

The second result demonstrated how energy can be made to go through space without any connecting wires. The wireless energy transmission effect involves the creation of an electric field between two metal plates, each being connected to one terminal of an induction coil’s secondary winding. A gas discharge tube was used as a means of detecting the presence of the transmitted energy. Some demonstrations involved lighting of two partially evacuated tubes in an alternating electrostatic field while held in the hand of the experimenter.[15]


Drawing from the 1897 U.S. Patent 649,621, "Apparatus for Transmission of Electrical Energy" showing Tesla's idea of transmitting electrical energy through the upper atmosphere via balloons tethered at 30,000 feet.

At the time Tesla was formulating his theories in the early 1890s he discarded the idea of using radio waves.[16] Not only did he not believe they existed as theorized, he agreed with what most physicists were saying at the time: that they would travel in a straight line propagation similar to light, making them useful for only short range communication.[17] (This was many years before the discovery that there was an ionosphere that would reflect radio waves making long range communication possible.)

Tesla theorized that transmitting electrical signals any distance would have to use the planet Earth or some other medium to overcome this limitation.[16] By the end of 1895 he was making statements to the press on the possibility that "earth's electrical charge can be disturbed, and thereby electrical waves can be efficiently transmitted to any distance without the use of cables or wires" to transmit "intelligible signals" and "motive power".[18] In April 11, 1896 Tesla made another statement that he believed, "messages might be conducted to all parts of the globe simultaneously" using electric waves "propagated through the atmosphere and even the ether beyond".[19] In September 1897 he applied for a patent[20] on a wireless power transmission scheme consisting of transmitting power between two tethered balloons maintained at 30,000 feet, an altitude where he thought a conductive layer should exist.[21]

Between 1895 - 1898 Tesla constructed a large resonance transformer in his New York City lab called a magnifying transmitter to test his earth conduction theories.[22] In 1899 he conducted large scale experiments at Colorado Springs, Colorado. From his measurements there he concluded the Earth was "literally alive with electrical vibrations." He noted that lightning strikes seemed to show the Earth was indeed a big conductor with the waves of energy from each strike going from one side of the Earth to the other. At Colorado Springs he also constructed a large magnifying transmitter measuring fifty-one feet (15.5 m) in diameter which could develop a working potential estimated at 3.5 million to 4 million volts and was capable of producing electrical discharges exceeding one hundred feet (30 m) in length.[23] With it he tested earth conduction and lit un-connected electric lights outside his lab in demonstrations of wireless power transmission at relatively short ranges.

In Colorado Springs, a Tesla coil receiver tuned in resonance with a Tesla coil transmitter illuminates a 10-watt incandescent lamp.[24] The distance from the transmitter's ground plate to the point of reception is 1,938 feet (591 m).[25]

After Tesla returned to New York City from Colorado Springs in 1900 he sought venture capitalists to fund what he thought was revolutionary wireless communication and electric power delivery system using the Earth as the conductor. At the end of 1900 he gained the attention of financier J. P. Morgan who agreed to fund a pilot project (later to become the Wardenclyffe project) which, based on Tesla's theories, would be capable of transmitting messages, telephony, and even facsimile images across the Atlantic to England and to ships at sea. Morgan was to receive a controlling share in the company as well as half of all the patent income. Tesla's decision in July 1901 to include his ideas of wireless power transmission to better compete with Guglielmo Marconi's new radio based telegraph system was met with Morgan's refusal to fund the changes.

Construction of the Wardenclyffe "wireless plant" in Shoreham started towards the end of 1901 and continued for the next 3 years. The plant included a Stanford White designed 94 by 94 ft (29 by 29 m) brick building, a wood-framed tower 186 feet (57 m) tall with a 68 feet (21 m) in diameter "cupola" on top, and a 120 feet (37 m) shaft sunk into the ground with sixteen iron pipes driven "one length after another" 300 feet (94.4 m) below the shaft in order for the machine, in Tesla's words, "to have a grip on the earth so the whole of this globe can quiver."[26][27] Funding problems continued to plague Wardenclyffe and by 1905-1906 most of the site's activity had to be shut down.


Tesla basic patent drawing for the grounded resonant transformer used at Wardenclyffe
U.S. Patent 1,119,732

Through the latter part of the 1890s and during the construction of Wardenclyffe, Tesla applied for patents covering the many elements that would make up his wireless system. The system Tesla came up with was based on electrical conduction with an electrical charge being conducted through the ground and as well as through a theorized conducting layer in the atmosphere.[28][29] The design consisted of a grounded Tesla coil as a resonance transformer transmitter that he thought would be able to create a displacement of Earth's electric charge by alternately charging and discharging the oscillator's elevated terminal. This would work in conjunction with a second Tesla coil used in receive mode at a distant location, also with a grounded helical resonator and an elevated terminal.[30][31][32] Tesla believed that the placement of a grounded resonance transformer at another point on the Earths surface in the roll of a receiver tuned to the same frequency as the transmitter would allow electric current flowing through the Earth between the two. He also believed waves of electric current from the sending tower would reflect back from the far side of the globe, resulting in amplified stationary waves of electric current that he could direct to any point on the globe, localizing power delivery directly to the receiving station. The other part of his system was electricity returned via "an equivalent electric displacement""[33] in the atmosphere via a charged conductive upper layer that Tesla thought existed,[21][28] a theory dating back to an 1872 idea for a proposed wireless power system by Mahlon Loomis.[34] The current could be used at the receiver to drive electrical devices.[31]

Tesla told a friend his plans included the building of more than thirty transmission-reception stations constructed near major population centers around the world[35] with Wardenclyffe being the first. If plans had moved forward without interruption the Long Island prototype would have been followed by a second plant built in the British Isles, perhaps on the west coast of Scotland near Glasgow. Each of these facilities was to include a large magnifying transmitter of a design loosely based upon the apparatus assembled at the Colorado Springs experimental station in 1899.[36]

Claimed applications[edit]

1925 artist's conception of what Nikola Tesla's wireless power transmission system might look like in the future, powering aircraft and lighting the city in the background.

Tesla description of his wireless transmission ideas in 1895 include its humanitarian uses in bringing abundant electrical energy to remote underdeveloped parts of the world and fostering closer communications amongst nations.[37] His June, 1900 Century Magazine article "The Problem of Increasing Human Energy" includes photographs of his Colorado Springs experiments and his thoughts on how Hertz experiments were not "an experimental verification of the poetical conceptions of Maxwell." He elaborated on his system of using Earth as the medium for communication and power delivery. He wrote how he could set up communications at any distance. He noted his system could localize electrical delivery to a point on the globe via stationary waves. He also noted this same process could be used to locate maritime objects such as icebergs or ships at sea.

In 1909 Tesla stated:

"It will soon be possible, for instance, for a business man in New York to dictate instructions and have them appear instantly in type in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up from his desk and talk with any telephone subscriber in the world. It will only be necessary to carry an inexpensive instrument not bigger than a watch, which will enable its bearer to hear anywhere on sea or land for distances of thousands of miles. One may listen or transmit speech or song to the uttermost parts of the world."[38][39]

Tesla also believed that high potential electric current flowing through the upper atmosphere could make it glow, providing night time lighting for transoceanic shipping lanes.[34]

Tesla elaborated on his world wireless system in his 1919 Electrical Experimenter article titled "The True Wireless," detailing its ability for long range telecommunications and putting forward his view that the prevailing theory of radio wave propagation was inaccurate.[16][40]

"The Hertz wave theory of wireless transmission may be kept up for a while, but I do not hesitate to say that in a short time it will be recognized as one of the most remarkable and inexplicable aberrations of the scientific mind which has ever been recorded in history."


Tesla demonstrated wireless power transmission at Colorado Springs, lighting incandescent electric lamps positioned relatively close to the structure housing his large experimental magnifying transmitter[41] and claimed afterwards that he had, "carried on practical experiments in wireless transmission."[3] He believed that he had achieved Earth electrical resonance at Colorado Springs that, according to his theory, would produce electrical effects at any terrestrial distance.[42]

There is no documented evidence Tesla ever transmitted significant power beyond those short-range demonstrations[43][44][45][46][47][48][49][50][51][52] adjacent to the transmitter, perhaps 300 feet (91 m). The writer Marc Seifer noted opinion amongst Tesla proponents that ranged from the idea not being practicable to claims some of Tesla's observations were valid.[53] Other investigators note that Tesla over estimated the conductivity of the Earth and the atmosphere and vastly underestimated the loss of power over distance.[44][45][49][51][54][55][56][57][58] There is also little evidence that Tesla achieved wireless communication over significant distances. The only report of long distance communication by Tesla, from a legal statement he made in 1916, is that in 1899 he transmitted a signals over a distance of about 10 miles (16 km).[59]

Related patents[edit]

  • SYSTEM OF ELECTRIC LIGHTING, April 25, 1891, U.S. Patent 454,622, June 23, 1891.
  • MEANS FOR GENERATING ELECTRIC CURRENTS, August 2, 1893, U.S. Patent 514,168, February 6, 1894.
  • ELECTRICAL TRANSFORMER, March 20, 1897, U.S. Patent 593,138, November 2, 1897.
  • SYSTEM OF TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY, September 2, 1897, U.S. Patent 645,576, March 20, 1900.
  • APPARATUS FOR TRANSMISSION OF ELECTRICAL ENERGY, September 2, 1897, U.S. Patent 649,621, May 15, 1900.
  • METHOD OF UTILIZING EFFECTS TRANSMITTED THROUGH NATURAL MEDIA, August 1, 1899, U.S. Patent 685,954, November 5, 1901.
  • METHOD OF SIGNALING, July 16, 1900, U.S. Patent 723,188, March 17, 1903.
  • SYSTEM OF SIGNALING, July 16, 1900, U.S. Patent 725,605, April 14, 1903.
  • ART OF TRANSMITTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY THROUGH THE NATURAL MEDIUMS, April 17, 1906, Canadian Patent 142,352, August 13, 1912.
  • APPARATUS FOR TRANSMITTING ELECTRICAL ENERGY, January 18, 1902, U.S. Patent 1,119,732, December 1, 1914.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "The Transmission of Electric Energy Without Wires," Electrical World, March 5, 1904". 21st Century Books. 5 March 1904. Retrieved 4 June 2009. ."
  2. ^ Marc J. Seifer, Nikola Tesla: The Lost Wizard, from: ExtraOrdinary Technology (Volume 4, Issue 1; Jan/Feb/Mar 2006)
  3. ^ a b Electrocraft - Volume 6 - 1910, Page 389
  4. ^ Electrical Experimenter, January 1919. pg. 615
  5. ^ Cheney, Margaret, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981, p. 174.
  6. ^ Norrie, H. S., Induction Coils: How to make, use, and repair them. Norman H. Schneider, 1907, New York. 4th edition.
  7. ^ James O'Neill, Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, page 86
  8. ^ Marc Seifer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla - page 1721
  9. ^ "Nikola Tesla".
  10. ^ U.S. Patent 447,921, Tesla, Nikola, "Alternating Electric Current Generator".
  11. ^ Radio: Brian Regal, The Life Story of a Technology, page 22
  12. ^ W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press - 2013, page 132
  13. ^ note: at St. Louis, Missouri, Tesla public demonstration called, "On Light and Other High Frequency Phenomena", Journal of the Franklin Institute, Volume 136 By Persifor Frazer, Franklin Institute (Philadelphia, Pa)
  14. ^ Martin, Thomas Commerford, "The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla", The Electrical Engineer, New York, 1894; "On Light and Other High Frequency Phenomena," February 24, 1893, before the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, March 1893, before the National Electric Light Association, St. Louis.
  15. ^ Martin, Thomas Commerford, "The Inventions, Researches and Writings of Nikola Tesla", The Electrical Engineer, New York, 1894; "Experiments With Alternating Currents of Very High Frequency, and Their Application to Methods of Artificial Illumination," AIEE, Columbia College, N.Y., May 20, 1891.
  16. ^ a b c, Thomas H. White, Nikola Tesla: The Guy Who DIDN'T "Invent Radio", November 1, 2012
  17. ^ Brian Regal, Radio: The Life Story of a Technology, page 22
  18. ^ "Tesla on Electricity Without Wires," Electrical Engineer - N. Y., Jan 8, 1896, p 52. (Refers to letter by Tesla in the NEW YORK HERALD, 12/31/1895.)
  19. ^ MINING & SCIENTIFIC PRESS, "Electrical Progress" Nikola Tesla Is Credited With Statement", April 11, 1896
  20. ^ U.S. Patents number 645,576 and 649,621
  21. ^ a b Carol Dommermuth-Costa, Nikola Tesla: A Spark of Genius, Twenty-First Century Books, 1994, page 85-86
  22. ^ My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, Hart Brothers, 1982, Ch. 5, ISBN 0-910077-00-2
  23. ^ Nikola Tesla: Guided Weapons & Computer Technology, Leland I. Anderson, 21st Century Books, 1998, pp. 12-13, ISBN 0-9636012-9-6.
  24. ^ Tesla, Nikola (2002). Nikola Tesla on His Work with Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony, and Transmission of Power: An Extended Interview. 21st Century Books. pp. 96–97. ISBN 1893817016. 
  25. ^ Tesla, Nikola; Marincic, Aleksandar; Popovic, Vojin; Ciric, Milan (2008). From Colorado Springs to Long Island : research notes : Colorado Springs 1899-1900, New York 1900-1901. Belgrade: Nikola Tesla Museum. p. 449. ISBN 9788681243442. Retrieved 28 February 2016. 
  26. ^ Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony, and Transmission of Power, ISBN 1-893817-01-6, p. 203
  27. ^ Margaret Cheney, Robert Uth, Jim Glenn, Tesla, Master of Lightning, Barnes & Noble Publishing - 1999, page 100
  28. ^ a b W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press - 2013, page 210
  29. ^ Margaret Cheney, Robert Uth, Jim Glenn, Tesla, Master of Lightning, Barnes & Noble Publishing - 1999, page 106
  30. ^ Seifer, Marc J., Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. p. 228.
  31. ^ a b Ratzlaff, John T., Dr. Nikola Tesla  Complete Patents; System of Transmission of Electrical Energy, September 2, 1897, U.S. Patent 645,576, March 20, 1900.
  32. ^ Tesla, Nikola, "The True Wireless". Electrical Experimenter, May 1919. (Available at
  33. ^ Ratzlaff, John T., Tesla Said, Tesla Book Company, 1984; "The Disturbing Influence of Solar Radiation On the Wireless Transmission of Energy," Electrical Review and Western Electrician, July 6, 1912
  34. ^ a b Thomas H. White, Nikola Tesla: The Guy Who DIDN'T "Invent Radio",, November 2012
  35. ^ Seifer, Marc J., Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla. p. 472. (cf. "Each tower could act as a sender or a receiver.  In a letter to Katherine Johnson, Tesla explains the need for well over thirty such towers".)
  36. ^ Nikola Tesla On His Work with Alternating Currents and Their Application to wireless Telegraphy, Telephony, and Transmission of Power, 21st Century Books, 2002, p. 170.
  37. ^ Nikola Tesla, Letter: Electricity Without Wires, NEW YORK HERALD,01/01/1896
  38. ^ Gilbert King, The Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla and his Tower,, February 4, 2013
  39. ^ Wireless of the Future, Popular Mechanics Oct 1909
  40. ^ Gregory Malanowski, The Race for Wireless, AuthorHouse - 2011, page 36
  41. ^ recorded in the "The Problem of Increasing Human Energy" article published in Century Magazine, June 1900
  42. ^ W. Bernard Carlson, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Princeton University Press - 2013, page 301
  43. ^ Carlson, W. Bernard (2013). Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. Princeton University Press. pp. 294–301. ISBN 1400846552. 
  44. ^ a b Coe, Lewis (2006). Wireless Radio: A History. McFarland. p. 112. ISBN 0786426624. 
  45. ^ a b Wheeler, L. P. (August 1943). "Tesla's contribution to high frequency". Electrical Engineering. IEEE. 62 (8): 355–357. doi:10.1109/EE.1943.6435874. ISSN 0095-9197. 
  46. ^ Cheney, Margaret; Uth, Robert; Glenn, Jim (1999). Tesla, Master of Lightning. Barnes & Noble Publishing. pp. 90–92. ISBN 0760710058. 
  47. ^ Brown, William C. (1984). "The history of power transmission by radio waves". MTT-Trans. on Microwave Theory and Technique. Inst. of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. 32 (9): 1230–1234. Retrieved November 20, 2014. 
  48. ^ Dunning, Brian (January 15, 2013). "Did Tesla plan to transmit power world-wide through the sky?". The Cult of Nikola Tesla. Retrieved November 4, 2014. 
  49. ^ a b Tomar, Anuradha; Gupta, Sunil (July 2012). "Wireless power Transmission: Applications and Components". International Journal of Engineering Research & Technology. 1 (5). ISSN 2278-0181. Retrieved November 9, 2014. 
  50. ^ "Life and Legacy: Colorado Springs". Tesla: Master of Lightning - companion site for 2000 PBS television documentary., US Public Broadcasting Service website. 2000. Retrieved November 19, 2014.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  51. ^ a b Shinohara, Naoki (2014). Wireless Power Transfer via Radiowaves. John Wiley & Sons. p. 11. ISBN 1118862961. 
  52. ^ 2 Jan, 1899, ‘‘Nikola Tesla  Colorado Springs Notes  1899–1900’’, Nolit, 1978, p. 353.
  53. ^ Marc Seifer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla - page 471-472
  54. ^ Broad, William J. (May 4, 2009). "A Battle to Preserve a Visionary's Bold Failure". New York Times. New York: The New York Times Co. pp. D1. Retrieved November 19, 2014. 
  55. ^ Wearing, Judy (2009). Edison's Concrete Piano: Flying Tanks, Six-Nippled Sheep, Walk-On-Water Shoes, and 12 Other Flops From Great Inventors. ECW Press. p. 98. ISBN 1554905516. 
  56. ^ Curty, Jari-Pascal; Declercq, Michel; Dehollain, Catherine; Joehl, Norbert (2006). Design and Optimization of Passive UHF RFID Systems. Springer. p. 4. ISBN 0387447105. 
  57. ^ Belohlavek, Peter; Wagner, John W (2008). Innovation: The Lessons of Nikola Tesla. Blue Eagle Group. pp. 78–79. ISBN 9876510096. 
  58. ^ "Dennis Papadopoulos interview". Tesla: Master of Lightning - companion site for 2000 PBS television documentary., US Public Broadcasting Service website. 2000. Retrieved November 19, 2014.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  59. ^ Legal statement by Tesla to attorney Drury W. Cooper, from 1916 internal document of the law firm Kerr, Page & Cooper, New York City, cited in Anderson, Leland (1992). Nikola Tesla on His Work with Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony, and Transmission of Power: An Extended Interview. Sun Publishing. p. 173. ISBN 1893817016. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]