Wireless Power Transfer – Circa 1927

From the July 1927 issue of Popular Science, the ‘latest’ thinking on “Wireless Power Transfer.”

The article quotes contemporary expert opinion from such luminaries as Steinmetz, Tesla, and Marconi. As Marconi noted: “the transmission of power by electrical waves awaited only the perfection of devices for projecting the waves in parallel beams in such a manner as to minimize dispersion and diffusion of energy into space.” Sorry Guglielmo, but we’re still waiting today for that particular perfection.

Another remarkable development documented in this article was the pioneering use of what appears to be induction heating by Harvey Rentschler. Rentschler is credited with having developed a means to refine uranium as an off-shoot of his lamp filament research. Westinghouse bragged that he advanced the bombing of Hiroshima by at least a year.

Overall, this article does a remarkable job of presenting technical concepts clearly and credibly based on the then understood principles of RF science – a fascinating time capsule of what engineers and scientists were thinking would be soon be possible. A few kernels of the technology described in the article were on the verge of practical application and came to fruition (induction heating). The bulk of the systems described remained unrealized because of unforeseen difficulties in implementation.

On yet another level, the article shows the danger of technological extrapolation. How many contemporary extrapolations on the potential of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, or metamaterials will appear similarly quaint and ridiculous eighty years hence?  What kernels of truth might lie in contemporary extrapolations?

Many of the concepts in this 1927 Popular Science examination of wireless power transfer found their way into science fiction. One of my favorite books in junior high school was Phillip Francis Nowlan’s Armegeddon 2419 A.D.This “Buck Rogers” adventure from 1928 tells the story of an engineer (Rogers) from 1919 who is preserved underground in a freak accident only to emerge in 2419 to a radically changed world. In Nowlan’s future tale, Asians have conquered the globe and Americans are hunted fugitive bands waging a desperate struggle for survival. The Asian overlords exploit wireless power technology much like that described in the Popular Science article. Buck Rogers provides his twentieth century insights to aid the besieged Americans in their fight. Armegeddon 2419 A.D. is worthwhile not only for its insights to 1920’s technical thinking (and racial attitudes), but also as an excellent, action-packed drama. Here are a few different versions:

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