More than half a century after his death, the story of Nikola Tesla continues to fascinate and generate speculation about what-might-have-been had he been understood and dealt with fairly in his own time. Tesla left behind a legacy of inventions that still have the potential to change life as we know it and to alter the technological landscape to a degree that defies imagination.
follow us on Twitter
Emmy Award-winning television journalist and author Tim Swartz has written two books on Tesla and has an easy command of the historical and technical aspects of the great inventor’s work. In Swartz’s “The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla” (Global Communications), Tesla’s belief that he was receiving radio transmissions from a hostile alien race is explored.
Swartz’s second book, “Teleportation: From ‘Star Trek’ To Tesla,” co-authored with Commander X, deals in part with Tesla’s role in the legendary Philadelphia Experiment, an attempt by the US military during World War II to render invisible and teleport a battleship that allegedly resulted in mayhem and madness for the luckless crew.
That the diversity of Tesla’s inventions was exceeded only by his ever-fertile imagination is a fact one quickly grasps when taking even a cursory look into his life and work. Swartz began with some biographical background on Tesla.
“Tesla was born in Yugoslavia,” Swartz began, “in what is now Croatia, at midnight between July 9 and 10 in 1856. He had that spark of genius right from the very beginning. There are a couple of people, I think, throughout our history, that you could classify as a ‘super genius.’ That’s the best word I can think of. Most people would agree that Einstein was one of our greatest geniuses. Maybe Leonardo De Vinci. And Nikola Tesla should fit right up there with those guys. Because he just seemed to have this mind that was open to the universe.
“I suppose that’s a rather esoteric way of looking at it,” Swartz continued. “But he had the ability to visualize his ideas to such a point that he could actually ‘see’ what he was visualizing in three dimensions. As he put it, ‘It seemed to hang in the air right in front of my eyes.'”
While Tesla is often said to have been denied the due credit for a number of important inventions, Swartz talked about some of the revolutionary technology for which Tesla is credited.
“Probably what he’s best known for,” Swartz said, “is inventing the AC motor. Our entire system of electricity works with AC current. In Tesla’s day, Thomas Edison had come up with a system to deliver electricity to houses and buildings based on the DC current, direct currents. DC current works fine, but it can’t be sent over any great distance. Probably every half a mile to a mile, you would have to have a station that would step the power back up again and send it on for another half a mile. A very inefficient system, and really only good for close areas, like New York City. That’s where Edison had originally done some wiring.
“Well, Tesla had this concept of a motor based on alternating current-the difference being that alternating current can travel hundreds of miles before it has to be retransmitted. This was a revolution for its time. Tesla came up with an actual working version of an AC motor and was the first to build, at Niagara Falls, the massive power generating station that supplied electricity to New York City. It was cheap, clean, efficient and it actually worked. That’s probably Tesla’s greatest claim to fame.”
The invention of radio, while Tesla was never credited with it when he was alive, is also officially listed as being his creation.
“He came up with the original concept for it,” Swartz said, “using the AM and short wave frequencies that we know today. Marconi actually used a device that he built based on Tesla’s patent from a couple of years before. And after Tesla died, the Supreme Court awarded Tesla the rights to say that he was the inventor of radio.
“Tesla also came up with the first remote control,” Swartz continued. “He demonstrated it by building a little boat that he had fixed with a motor. He put it out on a lake in front of newspaper reporters, and, with this device that he held in his hand, he made this little battery-driven boat just buzz all over this lake from a distance. He also patented a torpedo for use in warfare that could be guided by remote control. This was in the early 1900s, and the concept was pretty wild then. But everything we have today, from the remote control of your television to your garage door to those little toy cars that drive around, all were based on an original Tesla concept.”
While working with a radio receiver designed to monitor thunderstorms, Tesla stumbled on to something quite extraordinary.
“Tesla thought that possibly he had received a radio signal from outer space,” Swartz said, “that he said could conceivably be from extraterrestrials. Which is a pretty amazing concept for his time. They speculated that there could be life on Mars, but nobody had suggested it too seriously. Tesla was conducting experiments in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1899, with a pretty good-sized radio receiver, because he was fascinated by the way lightning played in thunderstorms. He was trying to come up with a way to harness the power from thunderstorms.
“And one evening he received what he called ‘regular signals,'” Swartz went on, “you know, like beep, beep, beep. Not the usual static you hear from thunderstorms and lightning. He wondered at the time if he wasn’t listening to ‘one planet greeting another,’ as he put it. From that point on, it became somewhat of an obsession of his, to build better and better radio receivers to try to see if he could repeat what he heard. He got to the point where he claimed that he was actually receiving voice transmissions. He said it sounded just like people talking back and forth to each other. He made notes saying that he was actually hearing intelligent beings from another planet talking to each other, but he didn’t say what language they were speaking, so I have no idea. But obviously he said he understood them.”
Tesla used a bit of deception when he attempted to invent a way of broadcasting electricity through thin air like a radio signal.
“Instead of having to wire the entire country,” Swartz said, “Tesla thought it would be a good idea if you had transmitters-maybe just one, or several scattered across the country-that could literally transmit electricity into the air. Then all we would have to do would be to have an antenna at our homes, either up in the air or buried in the ground, that would pick up all the electricity that you ever wanted to power your house with. In fact, one of his last great experiments was building an electrical transmitter on Long Island, New York, near the town of Warden Clyffe. It’s now referred to as the Warden Clyffe Tower because it was this very distinctive tower topped off with a ball on the very top of it. The original concept was that you’d cover the ball with something like copper, and that would be the antenna that would transmit the electricity.”
However, Tesla told his backers at the time, the Westinghouse Corporation, that he was building a radio transmitter that would be so powerful that it would pick up its signals anywhere in the world.
“Before he got it finished, unfortunately, he was found out. Marconi had just sent some Morse Code signals across the Atlantic Ocean, and his backers were coming to Tesla and saying, ‘Marconi did this, and we’ve given you thousands of dollars and haven’t seen any results of it yet.’ So they pulled the backing from him and he lost the property. The tower and transmitting station were razed before he could finish it.
“And to this day, scientists still argue back and forth about whether the concept is feasible or not. Most people think that it is, but there could be problems associated with it. Some people can’t imagine that the atmosphere could hold that amount of electricity without causing your refrigerator to shock you if you touched it or things like that.”
But Tesla’s failure at Warden Clyffe did lead to another idea, one with even more potential for liberating mankind from its dependence on expensive energy-“Free Energy.”
“He believed that it would become possible,” Swartz explained, “to harness energy directly by connecting to the very wheelwork of nature. Tesla worked a lot with ideas dealing with Free Energy-some of it having to do with his transmitter, where he could generate electricity into the air. That’s not quite Free Energy. You’d still have to generate the electricity before you transmit it into the air.
“But Tesla had the idea that you could draw energy from the ‘aether.’ Now it’s rather an archaic term, dealing with the energy that permeates space and the universe. In the 19th Century, the astronomical phenomena that they observed at the time they attributed to this energy that they thought was flowing between the planets and the galaxies. Tesla thought that there would be ways that you could tap into this. And he actually has a patent of a little device that looks an awful lot like a solar collector.
“But instead of collecting solar power, it would collect, as he called it, ‘radiant energy.’ When he referred to radiant energy, he meant this energy that was permeating everything. His concept was that you would set this flat disc up outside of your house and it would absorb this energy, which you could then power your house or business with.”
Obviously, not the kind of thing the suppliers of electricity were anxious to promote.
“Tesla, at a press conference honoring his 77th birthday in 1933, declared that electrical power was everywhere present in unlimited quantities,” Swartz said, “and could drive the world’s machinery without the need of coal, oil, gas or any other fuels. A reporter asked if the sudden introduction of his principle wouldn’t upset the present economic system. Tesla replied, ‘It is badly upset already.'”
Another invention of Tesla’s was also suppressed, this time by the US and other world governments.
“After J.P. Morgan and Westinghouse cut off his support at Warden Clyffe, ” Swartz explained, “Tesla found himself in increasingly dire financial circumstances. Nearly broke, and finding the United States on the brink of war, Tesla dreamed up a new invention that might interest the military: the Death Ray. The mechanism behind Tesla’s Death Ray is not well understood. Tesla said it was an outgrowth of his magnifying transformer, which focused its energy output into a thin beam so concentrated it would not scatter, even over huge distances. He promoted this device as a purely defensive weapon, intended to knock down incoming attacks-making Tesla the grandfather of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
“Tesla also stated that another of his inventions would allow entire cities to be devastated by explosive EM transmissions across intercontinental distances-to anywhere on the planet-with no defense possible-and that ‘Tesla Shields’ produced by the same device could defend an entire country against aircraft and shells. Tesla stated that this device could melt any engine and could travel through interstellar space faster than light. If aimed at the moon, it would turn a spot on the surface into incandescence.”
Swartz said that Tesla appeared to be referring to something vaguely similar to modern concepts of laser or Particle Beam weapons, but possibly utilizing Microwave EM transmissions of enormous power traveling at speeds the velocity of light.
“In fact, Tesla made references to his experiments where he stated that he was producing a thin beam of intense light that could slice through metal. This sounds an awful lot like a laser beam, which wasn’t ‘officially’ invented until many years later.”
Tesla said at the time that if every country were equipped with the Death Ray, there would be no more wars, an idea similar to later beliefs about nuclear weaponry. The US, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan all took an interest in Tesla’s weapon in the late 1930s, though none of them ever actually purchased the device.
However, according to Swartz, there is “substantial evidence that Russia and the United States have been researching Tesla-based technologies that could produce results very similar to the Death Ray that Tesla proposed. This could be the source of the warning given by Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev in 1960. Krushchev referred to ‘the advent of a new class of Soviet super-weapon, so powerful it could wipe out all life on Earth.’ The comment, made at the height of the Cold War, clearly did not refer to nuclear weapons-already an integral component of the feared Soviet arsenal. In fact, the American HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) array could be our response to Russian experiments using Tesla technology.”
Approximately three train boxcars full of Tesla’s notes and diagrams were confiscated by the US government shortly after he died in 1943. Who knows what other technological marvels might be locked away in some government vault, perhaps awaiting some future time to be brought forth as something completely new?
And what if Tesla’s work had never been suppressed by governments and industry bent on controlling the economy and maintaining a comfortable status quo that had no room for the Yugoslavian-born genius?
“I definitely think we would have a better world today,” Swartz said. “We definitely would not be dependent on fossil fuels as our main energy source. If Tesla was allowed to continue his work unhindered, and if he had had the money to continue that work, we would see a lot more things in the way of non-polluting energy. That would be the number one difference in our society, and that’s a pretty major difference.
“Tesla was very hot on the idea of using electricity to power just about anything and everything. We would have electric cars, but we’d have efficient electric cars. We wouldn’t have these cars that require these huge lead cell batteries that go dead every 200 miles. We would probably not be wired into a grid system. We would probably have the ability to generate electricity within our own homes and be able to use that power. But how can anybody make money off of that? That concept right there just strikes terror in most oilmen across the world-the idea that we could generate our own energy within our own homes and not have to be dependent on outside sources. So I think that alone is one good reason why we don’t see a lot of Tesla technology available to us right now.”
But that situation need not last forever.
“Hopefully, that will change,” Swartz said. “More and more people like myself are becoming interested in Tesla, and a lot of these people are scientists, too. They grew up like I did, reading these articles and books about Tesla. And now they’re interested in continuing his experiments. So we could really see some changes in the next twenty or thirty years as these scientists hopefully are able to crack this wall of silence that’s been built around Tesla.”
By Sean Casteel