Nikola Tesla’s Ether Theory

By J. J. J.

The ether is considered a universal medium consisting of a primary substance, attenuated beyond conception, which fills all space and connects all matter. This medium, or field of force, is responsible for action at a distance—a concept where an object can interact with other objects even though they are separated in space. This idea still baffles today’s physicists, but was understood by Nikola Tesla long before Albert Einstein coined his “spooky action at a distance”.

Before I get into Tesla’s explanation of the ether, I must first recall the famous 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment, because I know some readers will immediately bring it up. The experiment was intended to detect the ether using light beams and mirrors to record the speed of light through the ether relative to the Earth’s movement around the Sun; however, the two scientists failed to detect the ether and it became one of the most famous failed experiments in history. Surprisingly though, the experimenters did not account for the fact that the speed of light was relative to the observer moving with the apparatus, which led to the null effect. What it did, rather, was prove that the average velocity of light for a round trip between a beam splitter and a mirror was independent of motion through space. Either way, physicists agreed that by its nature, the ether cannot be detected and it is unnecessary for explaining how light travels through space.  

It was Heinrich Hertz, who during the same time as the Michelson-Morley experiment, demonstrated the notion of action at a distance proving the existence of electromagnetic waves first predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864. Since these waves travel across space, there must be a medium carrying the waves. Like Maxwell, Hertz postulated that ether was structureless beyond conception, and yet solid and possessed a rigidity incomparably greater than the hardest steel. Electromagnetic waves were then believed to be transverse waves (waves that vibrate at ninety degrees angles).

In the early 1890s, Nikola Tesla repeated Hertz’s experiments with a much improved and a far more powerful apparatus, coming to the conclusion that what Hertz observed were longitudinal waves in a gaseous medium propagated by alternate compression and expansion. After discovering these results, Tesla declared that light, and other electromagnetic waves, are not transverse waves (a theory still believed today in conventional physics), but instead are a longitudinal disturbance in the ether involving alternate compressions and rarefactions. In his own words, “light can be nothing else than a sound wave in the ether.  Since light has such a constancy of velocity, light can only be explained by assuming that it is dependent solely on the physical properties of the medium, especially density and elastic force.” It wasn’t until after Nikola Tesla met with Hertz and explained his results that Hertz then changed his views on the ether and accepted that it was a gaseous medium rather than a stationary one.

Believing that the ether was one of the most important results of modern scientific research, Tesla refused to abandon it because in his mind the ether was an important key to understanding how electrical energy could travel through space without wires. He displayed this phenomenon in numerous experiments and lectures throughout the 1890s.

It wasn’t until 1896 when Tesla finally obtained experimental proof of the ether. He invented a new form of vacuum tube which could be charged to any high potential and operated with pressures up to 4,000,000 volts. In 1929, Tesla spoke of these vacuum tubes saying, “One of the first striking observations made with my tubes was that a purplish glow for several feet around the end of the tube was formed, and I readily ascertained that it was due to the escape of the charges of the particles as soon as they passed out into the air; for it was only in a nearly perfect vacuum that these charges could be confined to them. The coronal discharge proved that there must be a medium besides air in the space, composed of particles immeasurably smaller than those of air, as otherwise such a discharge would not be possible. On further investigation I found that this gas was so light that a volume equal to that of the earth would weigh only about one-twentieth of a pound.”

To explain the density of the ether, Tesla referred to William Thomson’s equations. In 1932, Tesla said, “Its density has been first estimated by Lord Kelvin and conformably to his finding a column of one square centimeter cross section and of a length such that light, traveling at a rate of three hundred thousand kilometers per second, would require one year to transverse it, should weigh 4.8 grams. This is just about the weight of a prism of ordinary glass of the same cross section and two centimeters length which, therefore, may be assumed as the equivalent of the ether column in absorption. A column of the ether one thousand times longer would thus absorb as much light as twenty meters of glass. However, there are suns at distances of many thousands of light years and it is evident that virtually no light from them can reach the earth. But if these suns emit rays immensely more penetrative than those of light they will be slightly dimmed and so the aggregate amount of radiations pouring upon the earth from all sides will be overwhelmingly greater than that supplied to it by our luminary. If light and heat rays would be as penetrative as the cosmic, so fierce would be the perpetual glare and so scorching the heat that life on this and other planets could not exist.”

According to Nikola Tesla’s ether theory, all matter in the universe is metamorphous from the ether. When the ether is set in motion, it becomes gross matter. All matter, then, is merely ether in motion. In 1900, Tesla said, “By being set in movement, ether becomes matter perceptible to our senses; the movement arrested, the primary substance reverts to its normal state and becomes imperceptible. If this theory of the constitution of matter is not merely a beautiful conception, which in its essence is contained in the old philosophy of the Vedas, but a physical truth, then if the ether whirl or atom be shattered by impact or slowed down and arrested by cold, any material, whatever it be, would vanish into seeming nothingness, and, conversely, if the ether be set in movement by some force, matter would again form. Thus, by the help of a refrigerating machine or other means for arresting ether movement and an electrical or other force of great intensity for forming ether whirls, it appears possible for man to annihilate or to create at his will all we are able to perceive by our tactile sense.”

In summary, Tesla experimented, and proved his theories using the scientific method. His methods were far more superior to other physicists of his time, because he had the motors and transformers invented by himself to help with his experiments. These include the induction motor, his Telsa coil, and many more apparatuses. In the future the ether may be referred to as dark matter, the force etc., but Nikola Tesla’s ether theory will be proven true in years to come.