The first time I ever heard about a Tesla Coil, was actually while playing the video game Red Alert during my teenage years. In the game, the coil was a powerful weapon which shot massive bolts of lightning at the enemy. Shooting big sparks is actually the main association people have with the Tesla Coil, since that is what modern “coilers” use it for.
However, Nikola Tesla, it’s original inventor, had many practical uses for these high voltage, high frequency coils besides shooting sparks, and it actually came in many shapes and forms, all with their own characteristics and use cases. This article shows how the Tesla Coil evolved over time, and what it was used for.
Where it all began
In 1887, Heinrich Hertz created the first experimental proof of the electromagnetic waves predicted by Maxwell’s theory. This created a lot of buzz around high frequency currents and sparked Tesla’s curiosity as well, who had up till then mainly been working on his AC motors and transmission system, as is evident from his patent history.
Today we are used to hearing “gigahertz” being thrown around, which is equal to 1 BILLION oscillations per second, while in Tesla’s time 20 to 30 THOUSAND oscillations was considered a very high frequency. The reason is that we have transistors now, which switch on an atomic scale, while bulky mechanical oscillators were used in the late 1800’s, and there was just no good way to make them run much faster.
However, Tesla wanted to push beyond the 30 kHz limitation, and in 1891 he patented his Method and Apparatus for Electrical Conversion and Distribution, in which Tesla described how he created rapidly oscillating currents without a mechanical oscillator:
“I have thus succeeded in producing a system or method of conversion radically different from what has been done heretofore—first, with respect to the number of impulses, alternations, or oscillations of current per unit of time, and, second, with respect to the manner in which the impulses are obtained. To express this result, I define the working current as one of an excessively small period or of an excessively large number of impulses or alternation or oscillations per unit of time, by which I mean not a thousand or even twenty or thirty thousand per second, but many times that number, and one which is made intermittent, alternating, or oscillating of itself without the employment of mechanical devices.” 1
So how did Tesla achieve this impressive feat?
“I employ a generator, preferably, of very high tension and capable of yielding either direct or alternating currents. This generator I connect up with a condenser or conductor of some capacity and discharge the accumulated electrical energy disruptively through an air-space or otherwise into a working circuit containing translating devices.” 1
In other words, Tesla found practical use for Lord Kelvin’s condenser discharge – who he regularly credited 2 – and patented it. Tesla now had a way to create high frequency currents.
The first application of this high frequency setup is found in another patent granted to Tesla in 1891, titled System of Electric Lighting 3. In this key patent, we see the first ever diagram and description of a complete Tesla Coil circuit, and the text contains a revealing passage about the reason why this device was invented:
“For a better understanding of the invention it may be stated, first, that heretofore I have produced and employed currents for very high frequency for operating translating devices, such as electric lamps, and, second, that currents of high potential have also been produced and employed for obtaining luminous effects, and this, in a broad sense, may be regarded for purposes of this case as the prior state of the art; but I have discovered that results of the most useful character may be secured under entirely practicable conditions by means of electric currents in which both the above-described conditions of high frequency and great difference of potential are present. In other words, I have made the discovery that an electrical current of an excessively small period and very high potential may be utilized economically and practicably to great advantage for the production of light.” 3
So the very first Tesla Coil ever was used to produce light using not just high frequency currents, not just high voltage currents, but both high frequency and high voltage at the same time! The Tesla Coil essentially expands the high frequency circuit mentioned earlier with a high voltage step up transformer to achieve “enormous frequency and excessively high potential”.
Another telling passage from the patent text mentions how Tesla noticed that a single wire could be used to light a bulb:
“I have discovered that if I connect to either of the terminals of the secondary coil or source of current of high potential the leading-in wires of such a device, for example, as an ordinary incandescent lamp, the carbon may be brought to and maintained at incandescence, or, in general, that any body capable of conducting the high-tension current described and properly enclosed in a rarefied or exhausted receiver may be rendered luminous or incandescent, either when connected directly with one terminal of the secondary source of energy or placed in the vicinity of such terminals so as to be acted upon inductively.” 3
The diagram in the patent shows two bulbs connected by a single wire (the other end of the coil connected to a conducting wall), and Tesla even shows two custom single wire bulbs which he used in these lighting experiments. All very interesting stuff, and no mention of large sparks yet! So what did this first coil look like? And did it have other uses besides lighting?
Bipolar coil (1891)
The first drawing of a Tesla Coil are found in Tesla’s 1891 lecture before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, in which various experiments are shown utilizing the coil, including an extensive study of “discharge phenomena”, or sparks.
Something that stands out immediately is that this coil is placed horizontally, not vertically like “modern” Tesla Coils. Also, there is no “terminal capacitance” on one end, and a ground connection on the other, like you usually see in a Tesla Coil. This setup is what is now known as a “Bipolar” Tesla Coil.
Another interesting fact is that the primary coil is actually placed inside the secondary coil, as can be seen in the image below. Tesla instructed to “introduce it from one side of the tube, until the streams begin to appear.” 4
Modern Tesla Coils have an air core, but these early models had their primary wound on top of an iron core:
“In many of these experiments, when powerful effects are wanted for a short time, it is advantageous to use iron cores with the primaries.” 4
Iron cores increase magnetic fields, resulting in more powerful induction effects. However, these iron cores had a major drawback:
“In these experiments if an iron core is used it should be carefully watched, as it is apt to get excessively hot in an incredibly short time.” 4
And at the end of the lecture Tesla already predicted that using iron cores would become a thing of the past:
“In the present systems of electrical distribution, the employment of the iron with its wonderful magnetic properties allows us to reduce considerably the size of the apparatus; but, in spite of this, it is still very cumbersome. The more we progress in the study of electric and magnetic phenomena, the more we become convinced that the present methods will be short-lived.” 4
In the lecture, Tesla describes how he used his coil to study, amongst other things:
- Discharge phenomena
- Single wire & wireless light
- HF / HV electrical insulation
- Impedance phenomena
It is interesting to read that Tesla did not have any math at hand to calculate the ideal primary length and capacitance, he simply said that “the length of the primary should be determined by experiment.”4 Also, no mention of resonance between the primary and secondary is mentioned in the lecture, so it seems like Tesla’s 1891 coil was still a tightly coupled, “normal” induction coil.
Now, was this bipolar coil used often, or only during the 1891 lecture? Well, years later, in an article in the Electrical Experimenter of July 1919, Tesla shared a whole range of bipolar coils and the things he used them for.
It is clear from the picture above that Tesla used this type of coil extensively, and came up with all sorts of ingenious improvement. Further, it is funny to note that Tesla sometimes calls this device a “Tesla Coil”, and other times a “Tesla Transformer” or even a “Tesla Oscillator”.
Some of the uses of these coils mentioned in the article:
- Gas engine ignition
- Ozone production
- Creation of undamped waves
A very versatile device!
After reading all this info, I wondered how big these coils actually were, since size is hard to gauge from the pictures and drawings above. Luckily I found an image of an original coil displayed in the Tesla museum in Belgrade, powering an original Tesla light tube, and which has someone standing next to it, providing a good estimate of the size.
Conical coil (1894)
After the 1891 lecture, Tesla gave several other lectures on high frequency, high voltage devices, and in 1893 Tesla got involved in developing the world’s first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, together with George Westinghouse. We see that during that period Tesla filed for several generator, motor, and power transmission patents. However, on the side he kept developing his coil, resulting in the massive conical Tesla Coil shown below.
The cone shape was chosen to minimize the potential difference between the turns near the top of the coil, so there was less risk of damaging the insulation of the wires. In his comment, Tesla references two of his most famous wireless energy transmission patents, saying that he first used a conical geometry, and later a spiral one, but that in essence they were one and the same device.
Inspired to “develop electric forces of the order of those in nature”, this conical coil was Tesla’s first to reach 1 million volts:
“The first gratifying result was obtained in the spring of the succeeding year when I reached tensions of about 1,000,000 volts with my conical coil. That was not much in the light of the present art, but it was then considered a feat.” 6
This cone shaped coil was a very significant step in the development of the Tesla Coil, since we now for the first time see an upright coil with one end connected to ground. This is what Tesla had to say about this coil:
“This [Figure 6] shows the first single step I made toward the evolution of an apparatus which, given primary oscillations, will transform them into oscillations capable of penetrating the medium. That experiment, which was marvelous at the time it was performed, was shown for the first time in 1894.” 5
So Tesla was figuring out a way to create waves that could penetrate the surrounding medium, and his setup was as follows:
“The idea was to put the coil, with reference to the primary, in an inductive connection which was not close—we call it now a loose coupling—but free to permit a great resonant rise. That was the first single step, as I say, toward the evolution of an invention which I have called my “magnifying transmitter.” That means, a circuit connected to ground and to the antenna, of a tremendous electromagnetic momentum and small damping factor, with all the conditions so determined that an immense accumulation of electrical energy can take place. It was along this line that I finally arrived at the results described in my article in the Century Magazine of June 1900.” 5
According to Tesla’s words, this coil was the first of his coils to implement a loose coupling between the primary and the secondary, and the reason for this was to allow the secondary to vibrate more freely without being weighed down by the primary, thus allowing for much greater voltages at the top of the coil, resulting in beautiful discharges.
“The discharge there was 5 or 6 feet, comparatively small to what I subsequently obtained.” 5
We encounter this conical coil once more in an 1897 “Electrical Transformer” patent.
Tesla mentions how different shapes can be used for the same purpose:
“Instead of winding the coils in the form of a flat spiral the secondary may be wound on a support in the shape of a frustum of a cone and the primary wound around its base, as shown in Fig. .” 6
In another drawing from the same patent, it becomes clear how Tesla intended to use these coils to transmit energy at extremely high voltages over a single wire, stepping it up at the transmission end, and stepping it down at the receiver end to power loads.
In this drawing we also see that a magnetic core A is still part of the design.
Flat spiral coil (1897)
In the same patent discussed above, Tesla mentions that around 1897 he usually worked with flat spiral coils:
“The type of coil in which the last-named features are present is the flat spiral, and this form I generally employ, winding the primary on the outside of the secondary and taking off the current from the latter at the center or inner end of the spiral. I may depart from or vary this form, however.” 6
So Tesla generally used a flat spiral coil, but said other geometries worked as well.
The main reason Tesla started using flat spiral coils was because they better suppressed the sparks, which were essentially losses in the circuit, allowing him to achieve higher voltages:
“In carrying on tests with a secondary in the form of a flat spiral, as illustrated in my patents, the absence of streamers surprised me, and it was not long before I discovered that this was due to the position of the turns and their mutual action.” 7
Another major benefit of using flat coils is that they are relatively safe, since the highest potential terminal is at the center, out of reach:
“Those portions of the wire or apparatus which are highly charged will be out of reach, while those parts of the same which are liable to be approached, touched, or handled will be at or nearly the same potential as the adjacent portions of the ground, this insuring, both in the transmitting and receiving apparatus and regardless of the magnitude of the electrical pressure used, perfect personal safety, which is best evidenced by the fact that although such extreme pressures of many millions of volts have been for a number of years continuously experimented with no injury has been sustained neither by myself or any of my assistants.” 8
The “transmitting and receiving apparatus” referred to in the quote above are from two patents filed in 1897 for a revolutionary “wireless” energy transmission system, which planned to use the earth as a conductor.
From the patent drawing it is clear that iron cores were not longer being used at this point. We also see a new part being introduced: an “elevated terminal… preferably of large surface”. This terminal acted as a capacitance, and Tesla tweaked his circuit so that the point of highest potential would coincide with these elevated terminals:
“It will be readily understood that when the above-prescribed relations exist the best conditions for resonance between the transmitting and receiving circuits are attained, and owing to the fact that the points of highest potential in the coils or conductors A A‘ are coincident with the elevated terminals the maximum flow of current will take place in the two coils, and this, further, necessarily implies that the capacity and inductance in each of the circuits have such values as to secure the most perfect condition of synchronism with the impressed oscillations.” 9
Here we see clearly that the Tesla Coil has officially evolved from a traditional, magnetically coupled transformer, into a resonant transformer, based on resonant inductive coupling. This is a crucial point in which Tesla Coils differ from regular transformers. It’s all about tuning the primary circuit to the secondary, and the receiver to the transmitter.
Bifilar spiral coil
As early as 1893, Tesla already patented a very unique flat spiral coil design, now commonly known as the “bifilar pancake coil”. This coil was wound using two parallel wires, and then connecting the end of one to the beginning of the other wire. This setup resulted in a larger difference in potential between the turns, and therefore a much larger self-capacitance in the coil, with the goal to do away with expensive capacitors altogether, and let the coil itself contain all the capacitance it needs to oscillate at a certain frequency:
“My present invention has for its object to avoid the employment of condensers which are expensive, cumbersome and difficult to maintain in perfect condition, and to so construct the coils themselves as to accomplish the same ultimate object.” 10
However, Tesla kept using capacitors, mainly Leyden jars, in many of his later experiments. So even though the idea behind the bifilar coil is brilliant, it seems like Tesla did not find it useful enough in practise.
Helical coil (1899)
It’s interesting that we’ve already discussed 3 different coil geometries, none of which resembles the “modern” helical Tesla Coil. So did Tesla himself even use this shape at all? Yes, he sure did, as you can see from the beautifully preserved original below, as displayed in the Tesla museum in Belgrade.
In the picture above we see the familiar thin helical coil shape with a toroid as terminal capacitance, as well as three 10-turn primaries, which could most likely be connected in series to vary the operating frequency of the coil.
While this is the shape that first comes to mind for most people when they think of a Tesla Coil, Tesla did not actually write much or anything about this geometry in particular. However, we do see this coil shape return on multiple occasions in pictures taken around 1899 inside Tesla’s Houston Street and Colorado Springs laboratories. These helical coils are sometimes wide and short instead of thin and tall.
From the pictures above, and especially the Colorado Springs pictures, it seems like Tesla used a wide selection of helical receiver coils for experimentation purposes. Many of them even come without a primary and terminal capacitance, which suggests that this was not the “final form”, but merely a simple-to-put-together version of a coil used for testing purposes. We also see that the Houston Street coils were wide and short, while the Colorado Springs coils were of the thin and tall variety.
Magnifying Transmitter (> 1899)
We have now arrived at the final and most advanced Tesla Coil ever created: the Tesla Magnifying Transmitter (TMT). This coil, developed in Colorado Springs and patented in 1902, was intended to transmit ultra high voltage electrical energy around the globe, by using the earth as a conductor. In his autobiography, Tesla explained the TMT in the following way:
“It is a resonant transformer with a secondary in which the parts, charged to a high potential, are of considerable area and arranged in space along ideal enveloping surfaces of very large radii of curvature, and at proper distances from one another thereby insuring a small electric surface density everywhere so that no leak can occur even if the conductor is bare.
… this wireless transmitter is one in which the Hertz-wave radiation is an entirely negligible quantity as compared with the whole energy, under which condition the damping factor is extremely small and an enormous charge is stored in the elevated capacity. Such a circuit may then be excited with impulses of any kind, even of low frequency and it will yield sinusoidal and continuous oscillations like those of an alternator.
… Taken in the narrowest significance of the term, however, it is a resonant transformer which, besides possessing these qualities, is accurately proportioned to fit the globe and its electrical constants and properties, by virtue of which design it becomes highly efficient and effective in the wireless transmission of energy. Distance is then absolutely eliminated, there being no diminution in the intensity of the transmitted impulses. It is even possible to make the actions increase with the distance from the plant according to an exact mathematical law.” 7
As you can read in the above excerpt, the TMT was created to reach as high of a voltage as possible by spacing the conductors appropriately and in large circles, an insight he gleaned from working with his flat spiral coils 8, whereas on a modern Tesla Coil secondary the conductors are always wound close together. Also, Tesla’s intention was to minimize “Hertz-wave radiation” (electromagnetic radio waves), because he wanted to focus all the energy of the coil into the earth for his “wireless” energy transmission scheme. This massive coil’s dimensions were such that it would oscillate with the earth’s natural electric charge to enable this energy transmission, as Tesla explains in more detail in a short 1908 article:
“When the earth is struck mechanically, as is the case in some powerful terrestrial upheaval, it vibrates like a bell, its period being measured in hours. When it is struck electrically, the charge oscillates, approximately, twelve times a second. By impressing upon it current waves of certain lengths, definitely related to its diameter, the globe is thrown into resonant vibration like a wire, forming stationary waves.” 9
But was the only difference between a “regular” Tesla Coil and a Magnifying Transmitter the fact that the conductors were properly spaced? Not exactly. The biggest difference in fact is the addition of another coil into the circuit. Whereas a Tesla Coil has a primary and a secondary coil, the Magnifying Transmitter has a third, freely oscillating coil, which Tesla simply called the “extra coil” (B in the patent drawing above).
Tesla explains the purpose of the extra coil as follows in his Colorado Spring Notes:
“It is a notable observation that these “extra coils” with one of the terminals free, enable the obtainment of practically any e.m.f. the limits being so far remote, that I would not hesitate in undertaking to produce sparks of thousands of feet in length in this manner.
Owing to this feature I expect that this method of raising the e.m.f. with an open coil will be recognized later as a material and beautiful advance in the art.” 10
So the extra coil is what allowed the TMT to reach such immense voltages, but how? The primary coil and secondary coil oscillate at an identical frequency and are therefore resonantly coupled. While this coupling is key to induce current from the primary into the secondary, it also weighs the oscillations down. It adds a certain damping factor, since the secondary coil is not 100% free to oscillate as it pleases. Tesla’s brilliant insight here was that he would have a resonantly coupled primary and secondary, but then add an extra coil which is not tuned to the same exact frequency and can therefore oscillate more freely, allowing the voltage to rise to even greater heights.
“It is found best to make [the] extra coil 3/4 wave length and the secondary 1/4 for obvious reasons.” 11
Since we’re talking about geometries in this article, it is also crucial to note that the extra coil had a 1:1 length to diameter ratio. The reason is that a coil’s self-capacitance is at its lowest at a 1:1 ratio, as was later determined through research by Medhurst 12
Anyone who has ever experimented with Tesla Coils know how sensitive the circuit is. For example, if you put your hand close to the coil, the frequency immediately drops due to the extra capacitance your body adds to the circuit, without even touching it! So the lower the self-capacitance, the less the circuit is weighed down, and the higher the voltage rise that is attainable.
Once Tesla finished up his research in Colorado Spring, he started working on his first full-scale transmitting tower in Shoreham, New York, called the Wardenclyffe Tower. Construction was never completed, and only scattered notebook drawings remain, so we have no idea if Tesla’s groundbreaking wireless transmission system would have worked in practise.
Many “conspiracies” have popped up over time that big industry and banking powers did not want Tesla to transmit “free” energy all over the globe and therefore shut the project down. You often read that J.P. Morgan, who financed the initial construction of the Wardenclyffe tower, said something along the lines of “you can’t put a meter on that”, and therefore cut the funding. In fact, reading this very statement fueled my quest into the world of Nikola Tesla. However, Tesla himself felt that Morgan lived up to all his promises and was not to blame:
“I would further add, in view of various rumors which have reached me, that Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan did not interest himself with me in a business way but in the same large spirit in which he has assisted many other pioneers. He carried out his generous promise to the letter and it would have been most unreasonable to expect from him anything more. He had the highest regard for my attainments and gave me every evidence of his complete faith in my ability to ultimately achieve what I had set out to do. I am unwilling to accord to some small-minded and jealous individuals the satisfaction of having thwarted my efforts. These men are to me nothing more than microbes of a nasty disease. My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.” 7
However, when one reads the letters between Tesla and J.P. Morgan from that time, it does appear that J.P. Morgan might not have been as helpful as he could have been, and that in the above statement Tesla simply did not wish to speak ill of him in public.
Despite that, Tesla’s energy was not “free”, as some claim. Tesla had to put in thousands of horsepower to kick his transmitter into motion, and even fried the power station near his Colorado lab once because he was using so much energy. However, his system being an open system, like a windmill or solar panel, rather than a traditional closed circuit, it is not impossible to conceive that energy already present in the earth or the ambient medium, which oscillated at the same frequency, could be resonantly coupled in to reinforce his input.
Also, once an oscillating current was established in the earth, a lot less energy would be required to keep it going, just like how you need a lot of power to push someone on a swing, but once they are going you only have to give a tiny push to keep them swinging about.
The TMT is a complex device and therefore harder to replicate than a Tesla Coil, which is why I was ecstatic to find a Colorado Spring Magnifying Transmitter Design Sheet, created by Simon from Tesla Scientific. There are designs for several operating frequencies, and you can even request a custom frequency design. Click here to check it out.
After discussing the Magnifying Transmitter and its bold purpose to transmit power across the globe, it feels like a gigantic step backward to now talk about how modern “Coilers” apply some of Tesla’s ideas, simply to create big sparks and light fluorescent tubes in their hands. However, this is the current state of the Tesla Coil, and the reason why many people are unaware of the original grand purpose of these coils.
On a positive note, thanks to the active coiling community, modern Tesla Coil calculators like TeslaMap have emerged, which make coil calculations a whole lot easier. These coils are almost exclusively helical coils with one terminal grounded and a toroidal terminal capacitance on the top end.
Another very interesting development is that today’s Tesla Coils are not always powered by spark gaps anymore, like in Tesla’s time, but often by electronics. Such coils are called Solid State Tesla Coils (SSTC), or Dual Resonant Solid State Tesla Coils (DRSSTC), and their circuit diagrams are mental, but work very well.
The only thing I find funny is that the community’s general solution to creating larger sparks is to add more turns on the secondary and push more power through the circuit, while a much smaller coil, designed according to the Magnifying Transmitter specifications, would result in way larger discharges.
The goal of this article was to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the use cases for these high frequency, high voltage coils, as well as to show the various stages of development they went through and the different shapes they came in, as each of the geometries had their own pros and cons. Tesla himself called his Magnifying Transmitter his best invention, and solely based on that fact it is worth researching in more detail, which I plan to do in the future.
I hope you enjoyed this little journey through time! In my next article I dive deeper into the various electrical transmission systems Tesla devised over his lifetime.