This past Thursday, scientists, historians, and engineers from MIT, Dartmouth, and the University of Virginia gathered at Dartmouth to celebrate the advances of Nikola Tesla, an engineer who made serious advances in the development of the electrical supply system. The event featured a panel led by two Tesla enthusiasts: David Perreault, a professor in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and W. Bernard Carlson, a history professor from the University of Virginia.
David Perrault began the afternoon by discussing the technical aspects of Tesla’s research and the modern applications of Tesla’s legacy. Tesla’s first major innovation was the creation of a rotating magnetic field that did not require a commutator, a type of electrical switch that causes rotation by reversing the direction of the current.
Using this invention, Tesla was able to directly generate and utilize alternating currents, where the flow of charge reverses direction regularly, a much more efficient approach than the direct currents that were being used at the time. This new motor enabled long distance power transmission and widely replaced the use of direct current motors.
Carlson continued Perrault’s discussion of Tesla’s work, discussing Tesla’s research regarding the use of resonance to achieve high voltages and frequencies at high power. Tesla used resonance to get this desired effect in experiments and generate more power. Carlson explained that Tesla also pursued the idea of wireless power and communication. Tesla went as far as building Wardenclyffe Tower, a transmission tower to be used for wireless communication and power distribution. Ultimately, this tower was a failure, and Tesla was beaten by Marconi, an Italian engineer, in the race for wireless communication.
After the panel, attendees were invited to admire the TechFair at the Thayer School of Engineering, which was filled with Tesla related technology. Three MIT students presented their newest invention called the oneTesla Singing Coil Kit. Using this kit, consumers can pair a Tesla coil, which uses the alternating current discussed above, with a keyboard to create techno music.
Jizheng Qiu, a graduate student at Thayer, created a classic spark gap tesla coil. In this coil, a capacitor and spark gap, which allows an electric spark to flow between conductors, create a voltage high enough to ionize the air so onlookers can see sparks
Two other Thayer students explained the workings of wireless cell phone chargers. These devices use an alternating current to generate a magnetic field between transmitter and receiver coils, and this field induces voltage that then charges the cell phone. The invention can both save power and replace external power adapters.
Tesla’s contributions to physics and engineering continue to be seen in inventions today. All of the participants in the Tesla TechFair and Panel showed an enthusiasm for Tesla’s ideas, which will no doubt continue to inspire new devices in the future.