In the late 19th century, the realization that electricity could be coaxed to light up a bulb prompted a mad dash to determine the best way to distribute it. At the head of the pack was inventor Nikola Tesla, who had a grand scheme to beam electricity around the world. Having difficulty imagining a vast infrastructure of wires extending into every city, building, and room, Tesla figured that wireless was the way to go. He drew up plans for a tower, about 57 meters tall, that he claimed would transmit power to points kilometers away, and even started to build one on Long Island. Though his team did some tests, funding ran out before the tower was completed. The promise of airborne power faded rapidly as the industrial world proved willing to wire up.
Then, a few years ago, Marin Soljačić, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, was dragged out of bed by the insistent beeping of a cell phone. "This one didn't want to stop until you plugged it in for charging," says Soljačić. In his exhausted state, he wished the phone would just begin charging itself as soon as it was brought into the house.
Technology Review: TR10: Wireless Power