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Tesla and Schumann

June 1, 2012

Nikola Tesla was a pioneer in many things electrical at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. His intellectual celebrity was enhanced by his apparent possession of a "photographic memory." He's best known for being on the winning team in the "War of the Currents" in which alternating current (AC) electrical power distribution crushed Edison's direct current (DC) system. The principle advantage of AC is that transformers can be used to distribute power from high voltage-low current sources to lower voltage, higher current, devices.

Tesla has become a cult figure, primarily because he was a futurist. His cult status was elevated, no doubt, by the prominence of electrical sparks in early science fiction films. After all, Tesla's name is attached to his still entertaining Tesla coil.[1] There's a famous photograph of Tesla, an example of "photoshopping" before the digital age, in which he's shown reading a book in a lightning-filled room.[2] This cult status is fueled by his musings on things such as directed-energy weapons, and electrical flying craft that looked like flying saucers.

Cult status aside, Tesla was an eminent electrical engineer, and he was awarded the 1916 Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, presently the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, of which I am a member.
Fig. 1 of US Patent No. 787,412Figure one of US Patent No. 787,412, "Art of Transmitting Electrical Energy through the Natural Mediums," by Nikola Tesla, April 18, 1905.

This is Tesla's patent for the wireless transmission of electric power. The basic Tesla coil design can be seen with a primary winding A, and a secondary winding C. One side of the secondary is connected to ground at point E', and there's the typical dome-shaped electrode E at the top. The primary is driven by a mechanical commutator, B,

(Via Google Patents).[3]
One of Tesla's ideas was the wireless transmission of power, an idea that's been researched again as a way of charging all those mobile devices that we now carry. The modern methods involve resonant transmission of electromagnetic energy from a primary to a secondary of an air-core transformer. Tesla's proposal was to induce a stationary electromagnetic wave that would propagate along the conductive surface of the Earth. For experiments on this, Tesla built a huge magnifying transmitter at Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The Colorado Springs magnifying transmitter was a huge, Tesla coil-type device that was capable of generating many millions of volts. It could generate thirty meter electric discharges (the dielectric strength of dry air is three million volts per meter). Tesla claimed to have detected such a stationary wave in 1899, and he thought that this was his most important discovery.
Figure captionResearch after Tesla's time points to a different mechanism for a standing wave. The wave is actually waveguided between Earth's surface and the ionosphere; specifically the E-layer, also known as the Kennelly–Heaviside layer, that occurs about 90-150 km (56-93 miles) above Earth's surface. Although such waves exist as a natural phenomenon, power transmission in this fashion would not be likely.

What is found, instead, is a spectrum of extremely low frequency stationary waves that occurs through excitation of this waveguide by lightning strikes. These Schumann resonances are named after Winfried Otto Schumann (May 20, 1888 -
September 22, 1974), a German physicist and electrical engineer who predicted the phenomenon. (Schumann image from ref. 3, via the arXiv Preprint Server).[4]

Although these resonances are named after Schumann, a recently posted paper suggests that their likelihood was described quite accurately, even before Tesla's time, by the Irish physicist, George Francis FitzGerald (3 August 1851 – 22 February 1901).[3] FitzGerald is best known for his part in devising the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction, which describes how objects appear to be shorter as they travel near the speed of light.

At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, FitzGerald assumed that the topmost conducting surface was where the aurora existed, and that the resonator formed between that and Earth's surface would be excited by energy from thunderstorms. He even calculated a fundamental resonance at about 10 Hz, quite close to the actual value of 7.86 Hz (harmonics at 14.3, 20.8, 27.3 and 33.8 Hz). This was reported in the September 28, 1893 issue of Nature.[4]

Figure captionArtist's impression of Schumann waves leaking into space.

Such radiation has been detected by an orbiting satellite, opening the possibility that the atmospheres of other planets might be studied using such waves.

(NASA image by Fernando Simoes).

Earth is not unique in having conditions for exciting Schumann resonances, but the idea that such resonances could be detected, even by satellites orbiting those planets, was discounted until recently, since the energy is "trapped" in the resonant layer. That changed in 2011 when Earth's Schumann resonances were detected by NASA's Vector Electric Field Instrument on the U.S. Air Force Communications/Navigation Outage Forecast System (C/NOFS) satellite.[5-6]

A paper, scheduled for publication in The Astrophysical Journal examines the possibility of studying the atmospheres of planets in our Solar System using Schumann resonance. Fernando Simoes, a space scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the paper, had this summary of the proposed method.[6]
"The frequency of Schumann Resonance depends not only on the size of the planet but on what kinds of atoms and molecules exist in the atmosphere because they change the electrical conductivity," "So we could use this technique remotely, say from about 600 miles above a planet's surface, to look at how much water, methane and ammonia is there."
For better resolution, it's proposed that when a satellite is finished with its primary mission, it could be directed to crash into a planet to get Schumann resonance readings deeper in the atmosphere.[6]


  1. Arcattack: Faraday Fun- Imperial March, YouTube Video. Star Wars music played with Tesla Coils. Definitely, don't try this yourself!
  2. Nikola Tesla - Master of Lightning 2000 Full video. Tesla: Master of Lightning (2000), Robert Uth, Director, on the Internet Movie Database.
  3. Nikola Tesla, "Art of Transmitting Electrical Energy through the Natural Mediums," US Patent No. 787,412, April 18, 1905.
  4. J. D. Jackson, "Examples of the Zeroth Theorem of the History of Physics," arXiv Preprint Server, October 11, 2007.
  5. Karen C. Fox, "Lightning-made Waves in Earth's Atmosphere Leak Into Space," NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Press Release, November 28, 2011.
  6. Karen C. Fox, "Lightning Signature Could Help Reveal the Solar System's Origins," NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Press Release, May 3, 2012.

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