Why Nikola Tesla Was Such a Badass Scientist

Tim Grierson
·9 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

He shows up often in popular culture these days: Nikola Tesla inspired the name of a late-’80s rock band and a role for David Bowie on the big screen (in 2006’s The Prestige), and he’ll forever be associated with Elon Musk’s electric cars. But around the turn of the 20th century, Tesla was famous as a passionate, eccentric scientist and thought leader. He pioneered the induction motor, advocated for alternating current (opposing his bitter rival, Thomas Edison, who championed direct current), and filed hundreds of patents.

🔬 You like badass scientists. We like badass scientists. Let's nerd out over them together.

This month, a new biopic starring Ethan Hawke, Tesla, will add to the inventor’s mythos. Tesla was far ahead of his time and made numerous mind-blowing, tangible contributions to modern society. And where he didn’t have the means to realize his ambitions, he brought plenty of swaggering, fantastical talk—much of which inspired future generations to turn his visions into reality.

1. He invented a precursor to the drone.

In 1898, more than a decade before World War I, Tesla devised the first-ever remote-controlled boat and unveiled it to the public in New York City. The tiny ship, which relied on radio waves traveling between its onboard antennas and a primitive command post, came equipped with a wireless “coherer”—a form of radio signal detector—that transformed the radio signals into mechanical movements. The presentation captured the public’s imagination: Dr. Ljubo Vujovic, president of the Tesla Memorial Society of New York, would later declare the event “the birthplace of robotics.”

Tesla ironically believed that remote-controlled boats could be a force for peace in the world. In his mind, RC boats stationed at international ports would discourage naval forces from attacking other countries. “War will cease to be possible when all the world knows tomorrow that the most feeble of nations can supply itself immediately with a weapon which will render its coast secure and its ports impregnable to the assaults of united armadas of the world,” Tesla argued in the New York Herald. “I prefer to be remembered as the inventor who succeeded in abolishing war.”

Despite his best efforts, Tesla’s dream was never realized; in fact, remote-controlled craft are now common in war. Still, his innovations have seen peaceable applications. For one, personal drones have become ubiquitous in everyday life, and they’re also helping governments identify buried warheads. So in a sense, Tesla’s hope of pioneering a safer world is coming true.

2. He theorized a thought camera.

Kodak cameras became available to the public in 1888, but Tesla was obsessed with pioneering photography that could capture a person’s mind.

In the early 1930s, he proclaimed, “I expect to photograph thoughts.…In 1893...I became convinced that a definite image formed in thought, must by reflex action, produce a corresponding image on the retina which might be read by a certain apparatus.” Tesla conceived of something he called an “artificial retina” that could receive the image of a person’s thoughts—literally the picture in your mind’s eye—and reproduce that image in the physical world.

Widespread use of radio waves in the late 19th century (X-rays were discovered in 1895) inspired Tesla’s ambition for a thought camera. “[A]s sound waves of the human voice are transmitted miles and miles by the present telephone after their impression is made on the telephone transmitter,” Tesla enthused in 1899, “just so my experiments have demonstrated that the light waves of the human body can be transmitted by a different sort of telephone miles and miles away. All we need is a new transmitter.”

Tesla was ultimately proven right, but not in the way he foresaw. We can’t photograph thoughts, but Tesla’s “different sort of telephone” appeared in 1927, when Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented the television.

3. He gave the world a death ray.

On his 78th birthday, Tesla revealed his idea for a powerful weapon he would later call Teleforce. In a 1934 interview with The New York Times, Tesla imagined that this silent weapon would have a range “as far as a telescope could see an object on the ground and as far as the curvature of the earth would permit it,” with the potential to kill a million people instantly.

It was a terrifying notion, but Tesla was less forthcoming about how Teleforce would actually work, only saying it involved “a new method for producing a tremendous electrical repelling force” with an impact of 50,000,000 volts. (Being struck by lightning is about 300,000 volts.)

The idea came to him while he was working on cathode tubes. As reported in the New York Herald Tribune, a stray particle would sometimes break from the cathode and hit Tesla. “He said he could feel a sharp, stinging pain where it entered his body, and again at the place where it passed out.” Tesla wondered if these particles could be used like bullets.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Teleforce never evolved beyond conjecture, but Tesla still had to ask people to stop referring to it as a death ray, a popular phrase at the time (inspired, in part, by the deadly alien blasts in H.G. Wells’s seminal The War of the Worlds). But it wasn’t the “death” part that bothered Tesla. Rather, he nerdishly insisted that his invention didn’t use rays, saying, “Rays are not applicable because they cannot be produced in requisite quantities and diminish rapidly in intensity with distance.”

Tesla hoped that Teleforce, like his remote-controlled boat, would deter nations from global warfare, almost like the Great Wall of China. Even in theory, it didn’t quite work out that way. In May 2020, the U.S. Navy tested a Solid State Laser Weapons System Demonstrator, which operates on some of Teleforce’s principles. Lt. Cale Hughes told CNN that the weapons system throws “massive amounts of photons at an incoming object” without concern for wind or range. “We’re able to engage the targets at the speed of light,” Hughes said. Clearly, Tesla underestimated the appeal of pooh-poohing military foes.

4. He made an earthquake machine...maybe.

In 1893, Tesla came up with “the mechanical oscillator,” a steam- or gas-powered generator that could produce electrical energy via vibrations. In less mechanical terms, he made an earthquake machine. And it could allegedly fit in his pocket.

Photo credit: United States Trademark and Patent Office
Photo credit: United States Trademark and Patent Office

Tesla never demonstrated his oscillator in public; he only said that he did. In 1912, he told The World To-Day magazine that years earlier, he had ventured to Wall Street with the device and attached it to a beam on an unfinished building. “In a few minutes,” Tesla said, “I could feel the beam trembling. Gradually, the trembling increased in intensity and extended throughout the whole great mass of steel.” Tesla claimed the structure began to creak and that panicked steelworkers came rushing out for fear of a deadly earthquake. He predicted, based on those “findings,” that he could “drop Brooklyn Bridge into the East River in less than an hour.”

The tall tales didn’t end there. Tesla speculated that his device could split the entire planet in two. If he synced the oscillator with the “contracting and expanding” of the planet, the earth’s crust “would rise and fall hundreds of feet, throwing rivers out of their beds, wrecking buildings, and practically destroying civilization.” Tesla was right about the vibrations—our planet is constantly vibrating between 2.9 millihertz and 4.5 millihertz (although we still don’t know why). But since he never proved the existence of his mechanical oscillator, our ancestors were spared any catastrophic public experiments.

5. His Tesla coil still shapes modern innovation.

The Tesla coil does more than just add drama to sci-fi movies. Tesla used it to conduct experiments on energy transfer between objects, and these demonstrations wowed his contemporaries. He unveiled wireless electric lamps, motors that ran on only one wire, and something historians refer to as “electrical sheets of flame.”

These were early examples of resonant coupling, in which a magnetic field between antennas transmits energy from one antenna to the other. We see it most in wireless phone charging, but it’s pivotal to other expanding technologies. The wireless power company WiTricity is using resonant coupling to expand “unplugged” electric-vehicle charging, and implement “direct wireless charging for implantable medical devices,” such as pacemakers. These applications are improving on Tesla’s brilliant design; they’re just absent the nifty sparks.

6. He dreamed of a World Wide Web.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Make all the Al Gore jokes you want, but Nikola Tesla had a firm grasp on the concept of an internet decades before it materialized. In 1900, he produced a brochure that promised “the instantaneous and precise wireless transmission of any kind of signals, messages or characters, to all parts of the world.” Soon after, Tesla set out to build what he called a “world system of wireless,” which would use the earth itself to transmit information. His efforts, of course, came to naught.

But wireless transmission continued to fascinate Tesla. In a 1926 interview, he said: “When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain...We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.” These aspirations sound almost exactly like the internet, which allows us to do now what Tesla predicted nearly a century ago. (And in that same interview, Tesla envisioned a future when “man will be able to carry [a telephone] in his vest pocket.” Right again.)

7. He believed he was picking up signals from Mars.

In 1899, Tesla journeyed to Colorado Springs to experiment with wireless power transmission and study electrical storms (as chronicled in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige). Using a series of transmitters and receivers, Tessla charted VLF (very low frequency) radio waves emanating from the storms, hoping to prove that both energy and communication could be transmitted worldwide through the air.

But there was a side effect to these experiments. In Colorado, Tesla became convinced that he was picking up signals from Mars, and he made these claims for decades afterward. In 1922, he said: “I obtained extraordinary experimental evidence of the existence of life on Mars...A wireless receiver of extraordinary sensitiveness, far beyond anything known…I caught signals which I interpreted as meaning 1-2-3-4. I believe the Martians used numbers for communication because numbers are universal.”

Tesla’s proclamations were met with skepticism, but he was never afraid to be bold in his theorizing. “That we can send a message to a planet is certain,” he wrote in his autobiography, “That we can get an answer is probable: Man is not the only being in the Infinite gifted with a mind.” Lord knows he loved showing off his own.

You Might Also Like