Who was Tesla? Nikola Tesla was a genius so ahead of his time that his contemporaries failed to understand his ground-breaking inventions. 'If ever an inventor satisfied the romantic requirements of a Jules Verne novel it was Tesla', said a New York Times editorial on 9 January 1943, after his death. 'If that abused word "genius" ever was applicable to any man it was to him.'
He was 'a first-class mathematician and physicist whose blueprints were plausible, even though they were far ahead of the technical resources of his day', the Times editorial added. He was so much misunderstood as a great scientist that he became the inspiration for the mad scientist in Max Fletcher's Superman cartoons of the 1940s.
An inventor of dazzling brilliance who belonged to the 20th century's heroic age of invention, of which Edison was the most distinguished exemplar, he invented and developed AC power, induction motors, dynamos, transformers, condensers, bladeless turbines, mechanical rev counters, automobile speedometers, gas-discharge lamps that were the forerunners of fluorescent lights, radio broadcasting, and hundreds of other things (the number of patents in his name exceeds 700).
An eccentric who preferred science to society, he became a virtual recluse for the last quarter century of his life. He never married, never developed any close relationship. 'He made everybody keep at a distance greater than three feet', according to the manager of a New York hotel where he had spent the last years of his life in the company of his pet pigeons.
Tesla, as a recent biography claims, was the man who invented the 20th century, although he was almost forgotten after his death in 1943. But not forever.
On the centenary of his birth in 1956 he was honoured by scientists when they named a unit for measuring magnetism (the SI unit of magnetic flux density, the tesla) after him. This 'nominal immortality' has placed him in the company of Ampère, Volta, Ohm, Gilbert, Henry, Faraday and Hertz, great scientists who have all had electromagnetic units named after them.
Five decades after receiving recognition from his peers, he has now also been given 'cyberspace immortality' from adoring fans in countless web pages of biographies, essays, 'my science hero' projects, online museums, discussion groups, and so on. If the number of web pages can be considered a measure of public popularity, Tesla is now catching up with Marconi but is still a long way away from Edison - two contemporary inventors who have become legends. A surf through Tesla web pages gives the impression that the enigmatic inventor has become a cult hero and has found a place in the hearts of the fans of UFOs, free-energy generators, anti-gravity machines and such other alternative science ideas. Numerous web pages are devoted to his death ray, an invention that links Tesla to Tunguska.
Tesla was born at Smiljan, Croatia (then part of Austria-Hungary) on 10 July 1856. His father was a Greek clergyman and orator, and his mother an inventor of home and farm appliances. After graduating from a high school in Caristadt, Croatia, he studied engineering at the University of Graz. In 1884 he emigrated to America. When the 28-year-old arrived in New York he had four cents in his pocket and a few papers in his suitcase which were scribbled with a drawing and some mathematical calculations for an idea for a flying machine. He lived and worked in New York for almost 60 years. When he died in his hotel room on 7 January 1943 he was penniless, but his room was full of scientific papers and plans so revolutionary that some of them are rumoured to be the blueprints for a missile defence system similar to the US Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as 'Star Wars' missile defence) of the 1980s.
His 'practical inventions' were limited to the short period from 1886 to 1903. It was the Jules Verne future that engrossed him, according to the Times editorial: 'Communicating with Mars, plucking heat units out of the atmosphere to run engines, using the whole earth as an electrical resonator so that a man in China could communicate wirelessly with another in South America, transmitting power through space - it was to such possibilities that he devoted the last forty years of his long life.'
In later years of his life, Tesla was a favourite of newspaper reporters who revelled in recounting his incredible inventions. On his 78th birthday, Tesla told a
New York Times reporter that he had invented a death ray powerful enough to annihilate an army of 10,000 planes and 1 million soldiers instantaneously. The next day, 11 July 1934, the paper ran a story which was headlined in the style of the time:
TESLA, AT 78, BARES NEW 'DEATH-BEAM' Invention Powerful Enough to Destroy 10,000 Planes 250 Miles Away, He Asserts.
DEFENSIVE WEAPON ONLY
Scientist, in Interview, Tells of Apparatus That He Says Will Kill Without Trace.
The story referred to Tesla as 'the father of modern methods of generation and distribution of electrical energy', and quoted him as saying that this latest invention of his would make war impossible: 'It will be invisible and will leave no marks behind it beyond evidence of destruction. This death-beam would surround each country like an invisible Chinese Wall, only a million times more impenetrable. It would make every nation impregnable against attack by airplanes or by large invading armies.'
On his 84th birthday, Tesla declared that he stood ready to divulge to the United States government the secret of his 'teleforce', with which aeroplane motors would be melted at a distance of 400 kilometres, so that an invisible wall of defence would be built around the country. He said that this teleforce was based on an entirely new principle of physics that 'no one has ever dreamed about', and would operate through a beam one-
hundred-millionth of a square centimetre in diameter. The voltage required to produce this beam would be about 50 million volts, and this enormous voltage would catapult microscopic electrical particles of matter on their mission of defensive destruction, he added.
Tesla probably conceived the idea for his death ray at Wardenclyffe, Long Island, New York, where in 1902 he built a 57-metre tower and laboratories to experiment on radio waves and on transmitting electrical power without wires. The tower's steel shaft ran 36 metres underground, and it was topped with a 55-tonne, 20-metre diameter metal dome. This experimental facility had the financial backing of the legendary investor J. Pierpont Morgan. However, Morgan pulled out of the venture even before construction was complete. The tower was abandoned in 1911 and demolished in 1917. The main building still stands today.
The popular story that Tesla tested his death ray one night in 1908 goes something like this. In 1908, Arctic explorer Robert Peary was making the second attempt to reach the North Pole, and Tesla requested him to look out for unusual activity. On the evening of 30 June, accompanied by his associate George Scherff atop the Wardenclyffe tower, Tesla aimed his death ray towards the Arctic, to a spot west of the Peary expedition. Tesla then scanned the newspapers and sent telegrams to Peary to confirm the effects of his death ray, but heard of nothing unusual in the Arctic. When Tesla heard of the Tunguska explosion, he was thankful no one was killed, and dismantled his death ray machine, feeling it was too dangerous to keep it.
In a letter to The New York Times on 21 April 1907, Tesla wrote: 'When I spoke of future warfare I meant that it would be conducted by direct application of electrical waves without the use of aerial engines or other implementation of destruction . This is not a dream. Even now wireless power plants could be constructed by which any region of the globe might be rendered uninhabitable without subjecting the population of other parts to serious danger or inconvenience.' Though he believed that it was 'perfectly practicable to transmit electrical energy without wires and produce destructive effects at a distance', there is no evidence that Tesla used the Wardenclyffe tower for his experiments on the death ray.
In an interview with authors Walter W. Massie and Charles R. Underhill for their book Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony (1908), Tesla explained his vision of the future uses of radio waves:
[My experiments] will make it possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind.
He added that he considered the transmission of power without wires more important than his work on radio waves, and that his experiments would show it 'on a scale large enough to carry conviction'. He never realised his vision for the Wardenclyffe tower, because of the lack of financial backers. On 17 February 1905, he wrote to Morgan pleading again for help: 'Let me tell you once more. I have perfected the greatest invention of all time -the transmission of electrical energy without wires to any distance, a work which has consumed my life.' There is no reference in his Wardenclyffe tower works to how his death ray would work. The only reference is in a highly technical article, 'The New Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media', written in 1937. In this article he described the actual workings of a particle-beam weapon for destroying tanks.
The death ray may have been a plausible dream, but it was not a reality. Tesla never got the opportunity to test his plans. The Tunguska story seems improbable for another reason. Tesla could not have heard about the Tunguska event before 1928, when stories about it appeared in the American newspapers. Also, there is no record of Tesla's request in Peary's accounts of his expedition. The story has simply been conjured up by joining the dots - Tunguska, Tesla, Peary - with 1908. But the dots do not interrelate.
The American writer Oliver Nichelson, whose name pops up in many books and web pages that link Tesla with Tunguska, believes that the idea of a Tesla-directed energy weapon causing the Tunguska explosion was incorporated in a 1994 fictional biography by another writer, and was the subject of a segment on the TV documentary series Sightings. 'Given Tesla's general pacifistic nature it is hard to understand why he would carry out a test harmful to both animals and the people who herded the animals even when he was in the grip of financial desperation', he says. 'The answer is that he probably intended no harm, but was aiming for a publicity coup and, literally, missed his target.'
The evidence is only circumstantial, Nichelson agrees, but he still wants to bet on both heads and tails: 'Maybe the atomic bomb size explosion in Siberia near the turn of the century was the result of a meteorite nobody saw fall. Or, perhaps, Nikola Tesla did shake the world in a way that has been kept secret for over 85 years.' You flip the coin.
Scientists believe that 65 million years ago the dinosaurs were also wiped out by a Tunguska-like, but much larger, fireball. Another similar cosmic impact may lead to the extinction of humans. Thus, the mystery of the Tunguska fireball is inextricably linked to the mystery of the death of the dinosaurs.
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