On 7 January, 1943, Serbian inventor and engineer Nikola Tesla was found dead in his room at the Wyndham New Yorker hotel.
Today, the multi-billion-dollar electric vehicle company means the Tesla name is synonymous with success. The firm’s accomplishments have also helped gain posthumous recognition for the inventor, who held around 300 patents and worked on the first motor to run AC current as well as the technology for long-distance wireless communications.
But when Tesla died, 75 years ago this week, he was 86, alone and virtually penniless, after a frustrating career where many of his ideas seemed to have arrived too soon, or took off after he’d given up the patents.
Despite that, his personal possessions were of great interest to the US authorities – because Tesla had been working on a defensive weapon that he believed could bring an end to all war.
“Nothing can resist”
He called the device "Teleforce," but it was usually referred to in the newspapers as either the "peace ray," or the "death ray". It was inspired by the Van de Graaff generator, and would have worked by accelerating slugs of material to a high speed using electrostatic repulsion, and then firing them through nozzles at the target.
Describing the device in 1937, Tesla claimed it could be used to stop a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles. “My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind,” he said. "Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist.”
It would, he said, “stop armies dead in their tracks” and bring an end to war, because no country with such a powerful defensive weapon could be successfully attacked.
In an era of global warfare, when the citizens of cities such as Paris and London were terrified of aerial bombardment from the new generation of fighter planes, it was a tantalising prospect. However, as with many of his inventions, Tesla had difficulty finding anyone interested in funding it.
In 1934, he tried to get money from Jack Morgan, son of dominant American financier JP Morgan. The following year, he sold detailed plans and specifications to the Soviet Union for $25,000. By 1937, the world was on the brink of war, and Tesla offered the device to Britain at a price of $30m, but they’d dropped all interest by the following year.
Someone was interested though. One US diplomat reacted with alarm at the prospect of Tesla hawking a potential superweapon to the highest bidder, and the inventor claimed that a number of efforts to steal the invention had been made – with thieves breaking into his room and going through his papers.
He remained convinced of its potential until the end of his life. “I do not say that there may not be several destructive wars before the world accepts my gift,” he wrote. “I may not live to see its acceptance. But I am convinced that a century from now every nation will render itself immune from attack by my device or by a device based upon a similar principle.”
In 1940, at the annual press conference he held on his birthday, an 84-year-old Tesla offered his superweapon to the United States, but again there was limited interest, and Tesla’s “machine to end all war” never came to fruition.
A quirk of history has only served to add fuel to the fire. When Tesla passed away of a suspected coronary thrombosis, the FBI asked an MIT professor of electrical engineering to go through his papers to see if any secrets, including the Teleforce, could be unlocked.
The scientist found nothing of practical use – he wrote that Tesla’s “thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical and somewhat promotional character,” and “did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realising such results.”
Seventy-five years after his death, Tesla’s name lives on in an increasingly electrified world, where cities are powered by AC current, and vehicles bear his name. Although his "superweapon" was never built, it continues to be a source of fascination, and perhaps fear.
Some conspiracy theorists maintain that the Teleforce does exist, and that it was used by the USSR to sabotage the American space programme by bringing down the space shuttle Columbia.
In a quirk of history, the identity of the scientist who combed through Tesla’s papers only served to add fuel to the fire. His name was John G. Trump – the uncle of the current President of the United States.
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