Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory in Colorado Springs

Aug 4, 2020 0 comments

One of Colorado Spring’s most famous visitors was electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla, who in the spring of 1899, set up a laboratory on a small grassy hill in what is now Knob Hill.

Tesla was drawn to Colorado Springs by the same qualities that brought thousands of tuberculosis patients to the mountain city—the city’s thin and dry air. But unlike the city’s many residents, Tesla was not looking for a cure.

Tesla believed that electricity could be transmitted across vast distances through the atmosphere without using wires. To test his theories of wireless transfer of electrical energy, Tesla needed a place that was situated in the mountains where the air was thin and easy to ionize, and therefore more conductive to electricity. Tesla found Colorado Springs’s location at six thousand feet favorable for his research. The land was free and sparsely populated which gave him privacy. Also, the dryness of the air minimized leakage of currents, and as Tesla discovered to his delight, Colorado Springs was ideally suited to study the immense electrical storms that visited the region.

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

A publicity photograph showing Nikola Tesla sitting on a chair taking notes while his “magnifying transmitter” is generating millions of volts. The photograph was actually a double exposure. In reality, nobody could be that close to the transmitter without getting fried.

A multiple exposure picture (one of 68 images created by Century Magazine photographer Dickenson Alley) of Tesla sitting in his Colorado Springs laboratory with his "magnifying transmitter" generating millions of volts. The 7-metre (23 ft) long arcs were not part of the normal operation, but only produced for effect by rapidly cycling the power switch.[1]

Leonard E. Curtis, a lawyer and friend of Nikola Tesla, found him the necessary land and power needed for his research from the El Paso Power Company. With the help of several large donations from Tesla’s numerous wealthy friends, the inventor erected a small but powerful laboratory in the middle of the prairie, just east of Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, which still operates to this day.

The laboratory was a peculiar structure, that looked like a barn but with an eighty-foot tall wooden lattice tower attached to its roof. This tower was surmounted by a 142-foot metal mast. At the top of the metal pole balanced a large copper ball. Hand-written signs hung at the entrance warning any curious onlookers— “Keep Out. Great Danger” it said, along with a quote from Dante's Inferno: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

The ominous signs were not a ruse to deter unwanted visits, although it did keep nosey people away. The laboratory posed genuine risk to anyone who ventured too close. Inside, the wooden building, Tesla built a monstrous coil, 52 feet across, that threw millions of volts of electricity through the air producing intense arcs of energy that threatened the very existence of the building in which it was housed. To prevent fire from consuming the building, Tesla devised a rolling roof that could be thrown back when experiments were on.

Tesla had noticed that distant lightning strikes on the ground produced electrical vibrations that his instruments could pick hundreds of miles away. He theorized that this was possible because the earth was a giant conductor, and by taking advantage of the earth’s conducting properties, one could transmit unlimited amounts of energy to any place on the earth with minimum loss. Tesla wanted to test this theory, and for that he needed to build an instrument that could produce electrical discharges in the scale of lightning.

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

Tesla peeks out the door of the Colorado Springs Laboratory. Early summer, 1899.

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

View of the interior showing the oscillator frame with several coils grouped inside.

Eventually, Tesla built an enormous oscillator several times more powerful than anything that he had built or worked with before. Years later, while accepting the Edison Medal, he described his instrument:

…there was a coil 52 feet in diameter, about nine feet high. When it was adjusted to resonance, the streamers passed from top to bottom and it was a most beautiful sight. You see, that was about fifteen hundred, perhaps two thousand square feet of streamer surface. To save money I had calculated the dimensions as closely as possible, and the streamers came within six or seven inches from the sides of the building. For handling the heavy currents, I had a special switch.

In Lightning In His Hand: The Nikola Tesla Story, author Inez Hunt and Wanetta Draper describes one of his experiments:

The crackling and snap repeated and then came a tremendous upsurge of sound as the power built up. There was a crescendo of vicious snaps above. The noises became machine-gun staccato, then roared to artillery intensity. Ghostly sparks danced a macabre routine all over the laboratory. There was a smell of sulfur that might be coming from hell itself. A weird blue light spread all over the room. Flames began to jump from the ball at the top of the mast- first a few feet long- then longer and brighter- thicker, bluer. More emanations until they reached rod like proportions thick as an arm and with a length of over 130 feet. The heavens reverberated with a terrific thunder that could be heard 15 miles over the ridge to Cripple Creek.

Moments later, the terrifying force suddenly fell silent, and the entire Colorado Springs was engulfed in darkness. Tesla had inadvertently destroyed the power company’s dynamo. He pulled so many amperes from the electric generator that it went up in flames. The power company demanded that Tesla pay for the damage, which he did, and the generator was up in a few days.

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

As Tesla cranked the power up, he began to notice some very unusual phenomenon. A person walking near the building would notice sparks forming between his feet and the ground. Sometimes sparks formed between grains of sand. Small fires would start spontaneously inside his lab. Once, a barrage of electric streamers had him trapped, and Tesla had to crawl out on his belly to avoid the hot flames. Tesla later described his narrow escape:

The nitrous acid was so strong I could hardly breathe. These streamers rapidly oxidize nitrogen because of their enormous surface, which makes up for what they lack in intensity. When I came to the narrow space they closed on my back. I got away and barely managed to open the switch when the building began to burn. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and succeeded in smothering the fire. Then I had enough, I was all in. But now I can operate a plant without any fear of its destruction by fire.

Tesla and his assistant wore rubber soled shoes to prevent electrocution and stuffed their ears with cotton to escape the thunderous sound. Once during an experiment, some horses in a nearby stable received shocks through their hoofs and bolted away. Sometimes butterflies got disoriented and whirled around the laboratory building.

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

Another promotional photograph, and another double exposure fake.

Several hundred feet from the high frequency oscillator, all incandescent lamps glowed by sheer wireless power. On a patch of ground outside the laboratory, Tesla had banks of lamp arranged on the ground, connected to a few turns of wire, and these “lighted to full brilliancy”. At 4 million volts, the power became so intense that a light bulb sixty feet away shattered by the violent fluctuations.

His most astonishing achievement with power broadcast was the lighting of 10,000 watts worth of incandescent bulbs (200 light bulbs of 50 watt each) without using wires at a distance of 26 miles from the laboratory. Despite such promising prospects, wireless distribution of power never became a reality, partly because of the immense amount of energy that was required and the equally immense amount of energy that went to waste making wireless power distribution economically unviable.

Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory

Three ordinary incandescent lamps lighted to full candle-power by currents induced in a local loop consisting of a single wire forming a square of fifty feet each side, located at a distance of one hundred feet from the oscillator.

Tesla stayed in Colorado Springs for nine months, conducting experiments. One night in July 1899, his instruments picked up a series of rhythmic signals which he described as “counting codes.” Tesla concluded that the signals must be from another planet, from an intelligent life-form on either Venus or Mars, an idea for which he was much ridiculed. Some people believe that Tesla may have heard Marconi's wireless telegraphy demonstrations in Europe. A century later, scientist replicating Tesla’s experiments showed that the signal was in fact caused by the moon Io passing through Jupiter’s magnetic field.

Tesla left Colorado Springs in January 1900 with unpaid electricity bills for which he was sued. Four years later, his laboratory was torn down and auctioned off.

3D model of Nikola Tesla’s Experimental Laboratory by Vladimir Jaksic, Marko Novakovic, Milos Novakovic, Nikola Stojanovic.

References:
# Colorado Springs Laboratory, https://teslaresearch.jimdofree.com/colorado-springs-lab-1899-1900/
# Tesla, Life and Legacy-Colorado Springs, https://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_colspr.html

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