Inventors Push Boundaries With Lost Technologies

January 31, 2011 Updated: January 30, 2011

TESLA COIL: The 'Nemesis' Tesla coil launches waves of lightning in Richard Hull's home laboratory in Richmond, Virginia.  (Courtesy of Richard Hull)
TESLA COIL: The 'Nemesis' Tesla coil launches waves of lightning in Richard Hull's home laboratory in Richmond, Virginia. (Courtesy of Richard Hull)
Lightning blasted in all directions of Richard Hull’s home laboratory, jittering louder than a buzz saw as sparks flew from the giant Tesla coil he and his team dubbed “Nemesis.”

The power from the 15,000-watt device set fire to parts of the lab before finding its way into Hull’s home wiring, destroying two computers 100 feet away, blowing out his washing machine, and setting his television ablaze.

Like any true inventor, Hull was ecstatic. From his home in Richmond, Virginia, the electronic systems engineer accomplished what others had attempted for decades—he built an electric magnifier based off notes left by famed inventor Nikola Tesla from the early 20th century.

“[Tesla’s] magnifying transmitter—which was his greatest thing—was probably his best invention, yet his least understood,” Hull said.

Hull is one of thousands who are following the footsteps of past inventors—taking the reins on unfinished technology to realize dreams that are otherwise lost with time.

“The scientific mind is so prolific—and sometimes so devious—that plenty of inventions, curiosities and discoveries lie ‘by the wayside,’ awaiting follow-up researchers who have the requisite curiosity, playfulness or desperation,” Hull wrote in a 1993 report in scientific research magazine, R&D Innovator.

There are many reasons the devices, which Hull refers to as “lost technologies,” were left unfinished. Some may have been abandoned due to indifference, a belief they would serve no use, or simply because people of the time did not believe such things were scientifically possible. “Science often sets a discovery aside until a theory explaining it becomes available,” Hull wrote.

He adds, however, that “the most common cause for these delays, I think, is the lack of materials or technology needed to complete the original work,” which he believes was the stopping point for Tesla coils.

The Tesla magnifiers Hull built add to Tesla’s iconic electric coils by magnifying voltage. Plugged into an ordinary outlet, the magnifiers can take energy from a 20,000-volt transformer and amplify the energy to millions of volts, while keeping an energy current on par with a flashlight.

Unlike Tesla, however, Hull doesn’t see much potential in the technology, aside from experiments that need high voltages. Hull experimented with Tesla coils from 1987 until 2000, before his interest switched to neutrons and fusion energy—picking up on the unfinished work of Philo T. Farnsworth.

He said he moved on after he got the technologies “about as far as I could get them,” yet has heavily documented his research so that others can pick up where he left off.

Next: Great Minds

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