When I look at the world that creative thinker and inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, I think it is a shame that this man never dabbled in science fiction.
The world Tesla foresaw, along with his inventions and ideas, was so far ahead of his time that they seem to have come from the realm of science fiction. Contemporaries such as sci-fi masters H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs must have taken inspiration from Tesla.
Yet, today, few Americans are aware of this genius and his contributions to our world.
Tesla is the kind of character those of us who write historical fiction love to create and insert into our stories–brilliant, innovative, intractable, mysterious, intriguing, reclusive, eccentric.
What he wasn’t, unlike concurrent inventor Thomas Edison, was wealthy. Even after holding 700 patents, developing the Alternating Current (AC) electrical system, partnering with Westinghouse, and designing the nation’s very first hydroelectric power plant in 1895 at Niagara Falls, N.Y., Tesla often was unable to fund his own research.
Perhaps his boldest project was an idea in 1900 to build a global wireless system for the transmission of electricity using a special tower he constructed at Wardenclyffe, N.Y. It was a system that Tesla said could provide “free electricity” to the whole world–not something profit-minded entrepreneurs like Edison and Westinghouse were in favor of.
Unable to generate funding for his tower project, he eventually abandoned the idea. And that wasn’t the end of his commercial disappointments. Dozens of his valuable inventions were usurped and patented by others. These include radar technology, the induction motor, the dynamo, the rotating magnetic field, and x-ray technology.
Tesla, who was born in 1856 in Smiljan, Serbia (Croatia today), was an optimist who imagined a primarily utopian world where new scientific discoveries, rather than violent conflict, would guide humanity. He was a man less concerned with making money than with innovating for the public good.
“Today the most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education,” he once said. “The twenty-first century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle.”
While that hopeful prediction has failed to materialize, many of his other forecasts were amazingly prescient.
Minds like Tesla’s come along maybe once every few hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind, as does Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.
In addition to Tesla’s native intelligence and creativity, we have his mother, Djuka Mandic, to thank for providing the spark to her son’s powerful intellect. This was a woman who spent her spare time inventing small household appliances. No doubt she was a powerful influence on the young Nikola. She also made sure he obtained a first class education.
He began his studies in the 1870s at the Realschule in Karlstadt, Germany. Then he moved on to the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, and finally studied at the University of Prague.
Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884 and almost immediately began working with famed American inventor Thomas Edison. The two parted ways after a short time because of differing business and scientific philosophies.
|Thomas A. Edison|
Tesla did not have the commercial and marketing instincts that Edison had. He also battled Edison over their competing electrical systems. Tesla developed the AC or alternating current system of generators, motors and transformers still in use in most of the world today, while Edison favored the DC or direct current system.
Tesla held 40 patents on his AC system, all of which he eventually sold to George Westinghouse. In a well-publicized battle of wills and technologies, Tesla and Edison went head to head with their competing electrical systems at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Eventually Tesla and Westinghouse defeated Edison and his General Electric Co. when the exposition opted to use the AC system to light its sprawling array of buildings and attractions.
The two remained bitter enemies the rest of their lives.
Here are some of Tesla’s other ideas and inventions:
· The Wardenclyffe Tower Wireless Energy Transfer System. This aforementioned system was introduced at the 1893 Exposition in Chicago. Tesla demonstrated that you could transmit electricity wirelessly via a series of phosphorous light bulbs in a process he called “electrodynamic induction.” He believed his technology would enable wireless transmission of electricity over long distances through the upper atmosphere, thereby supplying even the most remote locations with the energy needed to live comfortably. Tesla actually succeeded in lighting 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles and shot man-made lightning into the atmosphere using a Tesla coil, a transformer antenna he had patented in 1891. Today, more than a century later, companies such as Intel and Sony are working to apply wireless energy transfer to devices such as cell phone batteries so you can charge them without power cables.
· X-rays. Tesla’s research in the field of electromagnetism helped give radiologists everywhere the ability to peer into a person’s anatomy without cutting them open — a concept that, in the late 1800s, sounded far-fetched. Although German physicist Willhelm Röntgen is widely credited with the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Tesla’s own experiments with the technology eight years before Röntgen demonstrated the dangers of using radiation on the human body.
· Death Ray.In the 1930s Tesla reportedly invented a particle beam weapon (laser). The device was, in theory, capable of generating an intense targeted beam of energy that could be used to dispose of enemy warplanes, foreign armies, “or anything else you’d rather didn’t exist.” The so-called “death ray” was never constructed. Tesla shopped the device around to the military without success.
· Robotics.Tesla predicted a future rife with robots that “would be able to perform labor safely and effectively.” He envisioned a world filled with “intelligent cars, robotic human companions, sensors, and autonomous systems.” In 1898, he invented and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat which many credit as the birth of modern robotics.
· Earthquake Machine. In 1898, Tesla declared that he had constructed and set up a small oscillating apparatus that, when activated in his office, nearly shook down the building and everything around it. The device weighed just a few pounds, but Tesla was able to tune the timing of the oscillator at such a frequency so that each vibration created enough energy to shake apart almost any man-made structure. Realizing the destructive power and the potential disasters his oscillating device could cause, Tesla later said that he smashed the oscillator with a hammer, and told his employees to claim ignorance if anybody asked what had caused tremors.
When you put these five ideas and inventions into the context of the time (the late 19th and early 20th Centuries) you have the ingredients for several extraordinary science fiction novels.
Tesla died impoverished in 1943 in the New York hotel where he lived. Toward the end of his life, Tesla had been working on several ideas for new weapons. It was during World War II and any new weapon was coveted by both the allied and axis powers. That’s why within hours of Tesla’s death, the FBI seized all of his belongings, detailed schematics and notebooks.
Among the items seized were Tesla’s plans for the “Death Ray.” After World War II the U.S. government established a secret project to turn Tesla’s particle beam weapon idea into reality, but the project was shut down and the results of the experiments were never published.
Sounds like the starting point of an intriguing book.