There’s no doubt that inventor Nikola Tesla was one of the most brilliant minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He was known for being a showman, too. In early 20th century popular culture, Tesla came across as a “mad scientist.”
But he was far from mad. Over a century ago, he laid out an ambitious plan to transmit electrical power without wires. In 1899, he managed to wirelessly transmit enough energy to power 200 light bulbs that were nearly 26 miles away!
Yet it took until today for Tesla’s “mad” dream to finally become reality.
Back in 1898, Tesla proposed a global system of massive towers. These towers would form a worldwide communications network as well as provide a means to deliver electricity over vast areas – all without wires.
Today, that dream of a global wireless communications network is here, albeit in a different form.
Construction on the first tower – the Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island – began in 1901. J.P. Morgan, who was one of Tesla’s backers, invested $150,000. But before the tower could be completed, Morgan convinced all of the financial backers to pull their funding.
The reason? Tesla’s financial backers worried that electricity transmitted through the air couldn’t be metered, and thus they couldn’t profit from it.
The Evolution of Tesla’s Dream
Sometime in 2016, the ability to transmit power through the air – without wires – is expected to become a commercially viable technology.
There have already been several breakthroughs in 2015.
In March, Japanese scientists managed to transmit 1.8 kilowatts of power via microwaves over a distance of 170 feet.
This summer, a team of scientists at the University of Washington powered a wireless system and sensors 15 to 20 feet away using the juice transmitted by Wi-Fi. Real-world tests were also conducted in an urban setting.
Their solution – called PoWi-Fi – was accomplished using existing technology and Wi-Fi chip sets.
But why are these seemingly incremental advances important?
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It all relates to the Internet of Things (IoT).
Coined by British entrepreneur Kevin Ashton in 1999, the IoT is the network of things embedded with electronics, sensors, software, and network connectivity that allows them to collect and exchange data.
The biggest hurdle keeping the Internet of Things from becoming a widespread reality is a lack of power. Wired power is limited in range, and I don’t even need to tell smartphone users how unreliable batteries can be.
But wireless power solves these problems.
Fighting for Tesla’s Legacy
There are several companies, each with their own unique technologies, pursuing Tesla’s legacy.
The first is being pioneered by WiTricity, using what’s called wireless “resonance” technology.
Basically, a coil of electrical wire generates a magnetic field when powered. Once you bring another electrical coil close, an electric charge is generated.
This technology should appear next year in Intel-powered laptops.
But the true heirs to Tesla’s legacy may be startup companies Energous Corp. (WATT), Ossia, and uBeam. Unlike WiTricity and the other technologies I previously mentioned, these companies are working on transmitting electricity over long distances.
Energous and Ossia are using radio waves, much as Tesla envisioned, while uBeam is using sound waves. According to The Wall Street Journal, experts are skeptical of uBeam’s technology, simply based on its physics.
Of course, physics may get in the way of using radio waves, too. But that certainly isn’t stopping Energous from making progress. The company has already received a patent for WattUp, its wire-free charging technology for mobile devices, which is effective up to 15 feet.
I can’t wait to see when the technology from these companies progresses to the point where electricity can be transmitted over long distances. And I can only imagine the very different reactions of Nikola Tesla and J.P. Morgan if they could see the changes taking place today.